If you were to write a screenplay about the orphan child of rock ‘n’ roll, you might come up with something like Langhorne Slim.
Slim, whose real name is Sean Scolnick, launched his musical journey from the small town of Langhorne, Pa., as a would-be folkie with an insatiable appetite for blues, soul, and gypsy-era Bob Dylan matched only by his fondness for drugs and booze. From the very beginning, Slim had an innate knack for writing heartfelt songs and performing them in a frenzy — two habits that, combined with his hardscrabble lifestyle, lent him an air of a ragmuffin rock hero in an age that didn’t seem to make them anymore. He toured hard, in every meaning of that word, for over a decade, with rarely a place to call home.
“I’m a man of extremes, always have been,” Slim admits. “That serves me well in some situations and not so well in others.”
It did in fact serve him well during his performances, as Slim has been praised for his passionate commitment to his audience and genuine soul-singer affectations. It’s led to critics’ praise, like when The Guardian‘s Laura Barton called him “one of the greatest live acts I’ve ever seen.” Slim also has written and recorded incessantly, releasing five full-lengths and an EP, gradually building a following that ultimately led to some key soundtrack placements, a licensing deal on an omnipresent Windows 8 ad, and performances on late night T.V.
On the other hand, the easy access to his other addictions on the road ultimately became too much to bear. “I started drinking and taking drugs at 15 years old and never stopped,” Slim recalls. “I knew from the very beginning that, at some point, I was going to have to quit.”
So on the day he turned 33, Slim stopped. “Sobriety saved my soul,” he says, calling his abstinence “deeply liberating.”
“I really felt like my head was hitting a ceiling, for my career, my band, and my relationships,” Slim muses. “All of that seemed real, but now I feel like I’m experiencing love — romantic love, creative love — for the first time. I was actually only getting a sliver of that before.”
The lifestyle shift coincided with the singer-songwriter truly settling down more seriously for the first time — he now owns a small pink house in East Nashville — and slowing his frenetic pace ever so slightly. Over the course of the past year, he’s recorded his latest effort, due out later this summer, at Bombshell Studios (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), just a few blocks down the street. “People always told me that [East Nashville] was where I would fit in,” Slim says, “and they were right. I really fell in love with living in Nashville. I’ve never felt as at home as I do here.”
While he says his approach to writing and recording hasn’t changed much from his last album, 2012’s The Way We Move, Slim admits it was difficult starting again in the wake of his recovery.
“It was just about sitting down to write without a bottle of wine,” he says ruefully. “A friend pointed out that I’d had always been a quote ‘crazy motherfucker,’ and that wasn’t gonna change. You’re always still who you are.”
Today, framing Slim as more even-tempered and measured than he was during his rambling days is tempting, but he says that just isn’t true.
“None of it really fazes me like that,” he says. “I’m either delusional or just a very optimistic dude. It’s not up-and-down to me, it’s just part of the adventure.”
Slim still lights up when he talks about songwriting and reminisces about his youthful journey through The Kinks and The Doors, Nirvana and punk, all the way to Dylan and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
“That was the real punk rock to me. It was real, all about stripping away the bullshit. It really blew my mind,” he recalls. “And I hear that [same thing] in soul music, in Otis Redding, in Aretha Franklin. Even in something like [The Troggs] ‘Wild Thing.’ It’s simple, but it makes me feel alive.”
It’s that joyful earnestness that has marked Slim’s writing from the beginning, urgent tunes that elegantly capture the small truths and big uncertainties of life voiced with the fire of a traveling preacher.
“This is going to sound like a line,” Slim confesses. “But I just look for something that is soulful, that feels good.”
Sometimes, it really is that simple.