Seeking both a creative rejuvenation and a more friendly environment for his growing family, Layus departed his native California and settled in the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee.
“The music is in the bloodstream all across Tennessee and for a music lifer like me, it was really refreshing to be around that type of atmosphere, especially coming from Los Angeles where things are very disjointed,” he said.
In addition to providing a creative boon, central Tennessee also makes practical tasks, such as the last-minute Christmas shopping that he and his children were doing during our phone conversation, much more palatable.
“Getting anywhere in L.A. is such a nightmare,” he said. “Crisscrossing the town on a day like today would be a logistical nightmare. Things here have tended to be a bit simpler, so far.”
While it’s safe to say the relocation has been a positive one for the Layus family, the road to Nashville is usually crowded with younger, more unproven songwriters and guitar pickers. Layus has made his way there a bit later into the journey than most. For well over a decade he has fronted Augustana, a Southern California based band, which developed a loyal stable of fans and achieved some modest success with the 2005 breakout single, “Boston.”
The band continued recording and touring, and their poppy, FM-radio friendly tunes always seemed to be favorites of film and television music supervisors. But as members slowly began peeling away to work on other projects, Layus began to shift his focus toward the direction of both classic traditional country music and its more nuanced offshoot, alt-country. His move to Nashville only pushed him further in that direction.
“I fell in love with artists like Don Gibson and Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Gram Parsons,” he said. “I’d already been a fan of theirs for a long time, but as I listened closer I dug back into what those artists were listening to and took note of the lyrical focus, using what I found as a basis for my songwriting.”
This activity is reflected on his latest release Dangerous Things, an 11-track collection that encourages listeners to appreciate life’s simple pleasures. Throughout, Layus untangles his songs from any unnecessary embellishments. With hushed guitars framing his vulnerable vocals, each song is designed to hone in on the stories being told and the resulting emotions they entail.
The stripped down nature of the process was intentional and came not only from listening to songwriting masters, but also from lessons learned over the years.
“From a professional standpoint, I wanted to essentially burn the house down and start from scratch,” he said. “The reception to my music always seemed stronger in regards to our live performances rather than the recordings. That made me decide to not over-produce. I was going to just record live and include the mistakes to make sure the characters of these songs came across in the most enjoyable and meaningful way possible.”
Calling Nashville home has afforded him the opportunity to see some of his heroes perform on stage and record in the studio, as well access to new collaborators. He’s recently started working with harmony duo Secret Sisters, who provide an essential vocal punch to several tracks on Dangerous Things.
When Layus described how that partnership materialized, his enthusiasm was evident.
“I had been a big fan of theirs for a while and thought that what they were doing was so unique,” he said. “I felt their style would be a great addition to what we were doing on this album so I emailed to see if they would be interested in singing. They said ‘absolutely,’ flew into Nashville and we set them up right behind the mics in our studio. They sang live together like they always do and two tracks turned into three and then it turned into about five songs. It was wonderful and we’ve developed a really cool relationship.”
With an appreciation for musical history and a penchant for seeking out like-minded individuals, it’s certain that Layus will continue to find new avenues to explore. In the meantime, the road keeps calling. The Jan. 14 stop in Dallas is one of the first on a monthlong tour that will send him winding his way through a good portion of the U.S.
And, while these impending dates take place in cozy, mid-sized venues, Layus’ recent experiences opening a string of amphitheater shows for artists as widely disparate as The Dixie Chicks and One Direction undoubtedly provided an avenue for his music to reach some of its largest audiences yet.
With that experience in his pocket, it seems a good bet that Layus will be booked onto the itineraries of several of this summer’s upcoming music festivals. The depth of his songwriting and versatility of his arrangements could make him a prime match for promoters’ varying tastes.
“We’ve got a really great mix of demographics at our show. I never feel judged and I always experience such great warmth from such a great gathering of people,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have such an appreciative audience and I certainly appreciate them, as well.”