We’re Getting Candid in our interview with Judah Akers from Judah & the Lion.
The band formed in 2011 when the members were attending Belmont University in Nashville, and have released 4 studio albums in the past decade. Currently, they’re on tour with NEEDTOBREATHE.
We talk to Judah about how heartbreak and personal struggles nearly ended the band, how Judah finds a personal sense of responsibility to be vulnerable in his songwriting, and how the band stays grounded in the chaos of touring 200+ days out of the year.
Excerpt from Getting Candid, and interview with Judah & the Lion
Live music is such a core part of your journey as musicians. But with the pandemic, what was your experience adjusting to life without live music?
Yeah, the limbo was a lot. We had an arena tour of our own that we had to cancel in 2020 that was a bummer. We were kind of on a trajectory and it felt like we lost a little bit of momentum. It feels like we’ve just now recovered from it.
I didn’t realize how therapeutic shows were. I actually started really suffering from high anxiety and panic attacks. My therapist at the time said, “well, you’re kind of used to screaming and dancing for 150 nights a week.” I had all this pent up energy that I wasn’t really releasing. And so that ended up being such a growth year for me and the guys in the band.
Again, we were doing 250 shows a year, it was probably too much. And I, in a very classic Southern jock way, tended to bottle things. I had a lot going on just in my personal life with my family and didn’t realize that I hadn’t really faced those demons. So the pandemic without the cathartic part of the shows made me face those. Now I can look back and say it’s really beautiful, but it was really, really hard at the time.
Now that you’re back on the road, there’s a lot of emotional highs and lows with performing in front of fans. What has that give and take been like?
It’s a wave of emotions. It’s really wild. One of our first festivals back was Firefly and Dover, Delaware. And I bawled my eyes out after the set. It was one of those, “What the hell is happening? Now I’m crying and it can’t stop.”
I even realized the energy that you’re giving away in a given night. And so to kind of respect that, we have a pre-show grounding session. And then after the show, it’s the same thing, because it’s not really normal to be on stage and to have people yelling your songs. In some ways it’s very weird and inhuman.
You had a founding member, Nate, leave in 2021 in the midst of all of this. What was the process of figuring out how to continue as Jude & the Lion? Especially when you’re separated from each other, not only because of the pandemic but because Brian moved to another country for a little bit.
Yeah, it was very wild. It was a forced break, but I can look back on it and say that I think the pandemic probably saved our band. Because we were probably on the verge of burnout.
Nate was vulnerable about his mental health and what he was going through. And me and Brian both really saw him and commended him for it. So he took off a couple of years and he’s actually back playing with us now, which has been very kind of redeeming and sweet.
Those are the moments of like, “Alright, Brian, do we wanna keep doing this?” And I think that for everybody it’s really cool to have those moments where you get back to the why. Like, why did y’all start this podcast? Like, why did we start this band? And do we still feel like we have something to say? And once we got to the root of that, we knew why we started this band. And we still have a lot to say.
It sounds like you have a really strong backbone as a band. I also love how open and comfortable you are talking about mental health. For a lot of millennials, you didn’t talk about therapy at the dinner table, and in the past 10 years, that’s shifted. What has been your experience dealing with the stigma around mental health to be so comfortable talking about it?
I probably run both sides of that. I’m the classic stereotype of a Southern dude jock. My dad was pretty tough on me, he was the coach of my school team. It was very much “don’t cry, be tough.” But my mom was such a powerful woman in my life and she was also a therapist. She was the one that encouraged me to get into music and say, “Hey, instead of punching the locker room with your fist, why don’t you get a guitar and start writing?” And Brian’s mom is actually a therapist as well. So I would attest it to the powerful women in our life, to be honest.
But there was this moment [during the pandemic] where stress was manifesting itself in my body. Especially through my divorce and I had an aunt on one side commit suicide and uncle on the other side commit suicide. My mom was in and out of jail and it was like one of those things where my body was [giving out on me.] I really had to pursue my own therapist. I have to practice what I preach here.
To go inward is a really tough thing and some guys are not as good at processing emotions. It is a scary thing because you don’t really know what’s going to come up. But I will say that now going to therapy, I could say that it saved my life. Now I’m not suffering as badly in my body. I know what to do when anger comes up. I know what to do and not to fight the tears, you know?
I would encourage anyone listening. Sometimes so backward how life works. There’s so much strength in admitting where you’re weak. There’s so much freedom when you say something that’s true, like “I really am struggling here.” But it’s so backward to American culture, where we’re just taught to be the best. I feel like I was living some version of toxic positivity.
Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us, because obviously a lot of this is really personal for you. I saw this interview you did, where you said to be a creative person, you need to operate from a place of love rather than a place of fear. A lot of this comes into play with the pandemic and not knowing what’s gonna happen with a band and personal life. And then you have to go into the studio and write. So having all of this in mind, do you feel like you have a responsibility to be vulnerable in your songwriting?
That’s a poignant question because the record that we just worked on came from a place where I had just gone through this really painful divorce. It’s the biggest heartbreak of my life. And honestly didn’t want to write about it because I don’t want the world to know about my biggest failure. Brain and I came to the conclusion “well, this is kind of our DNA and the why of who we are.” Even though my story is vulnerable and really tough at times, our goal is to do that – to operate out of love instead of fear. So fear would say, “don’t do that because that’s gonna be really hard.” And love would say, “know that it’s gonna be really, really hard. It’s gonna be even worse, but we’re going anyway.” I’m operating out of love as an artist, then I’m able to speak freely without judgment.