A few says ago, singer-songwriter Dennis J. Leise released the music video for “Nobody’s Comin’,” a song from his debut full-length solo album, entitled State of Fairs.
As far as anyone knows, “Nobody’s Comin’” is probably the world’s first and only gospel song for atheists. The music video premiered on DittyTV, which described Leise with these words: “Dennis J. Leise, originally from Western Pennsylvania and now of Gary, Ind., is a rabid consumer of music. He’s also a thinker. Perhaps that stems from the fact that he is next to the youngest in a family of 10 children, and his dad worked for a coal mining company.”
Leise grew up playing trombone, but put music on the back burner after college, when he moved to Chicago, where he worked as Program Director for a radio station and doorman a Fitzgerald’s Nightclub. Somewhere in there a friend gave him a dilapidated guitar. After teaching himself to play it, Leise eventually became one-half of The Possum Hollow Boys, along with a band called Tiny Horse.
Later, he left Chicago for Gary, Indiana, where he bought a farm and began raising pigs, goats, chickens, and other four-footed animals. While listening to gospel music one Sunday, he had an epiphany: it’s possible to love gospel music without being a believer. Inspired, he wrote a straight-up tongue-in-cheek gospel song about “being good just because it feels so darn good to be good.”
“Nobody’s Comin’” opens on an oozing Southern-gospel-flavored piano topped by Leise’s evocative voice, as a simmering tones emerge from the organ. When the Foursquare Gospel Church melody kicks in, the song rockets off on rousing, bouncy spiritual relishes, chock-full of percolating religious energy.
Delicious choir-like harmonies rife with ‘60’s doo-wop aromas fill in the background, infusing the lyrics with pungent sacred intonations and glossy textures.
The video, directed by Rob Fitzgerald, depicts Leise dressed in black with a clerical collar, as well as a funky fedora, sitting in a chair. Nearby is a revival tent, awaiting wayward souls to convert. When no one arrives, like the Pied Piper, Leise walks into town, playing his guitar, singing his hymn.
“Nobody’s comin’ don’t you see / Ain’t no heaven / Ain’t no hell / Nobody’s comin’ for you and me.”
Because of the song’s infectious gospel zest and its paradoxical message, I interviewed Dennis J. Leise to find out more about his background, his influences, and the song’s genesis.
How did you get started in music? What’s the backstory there?
I actually started playing music as a kid. I played trombone from elementary school up through college, but when I moved to Chicago after college, I mostly stopped due to a loss of connections and places to practice. Growing up, we had kind of a family guitar, but I never really took to it.
After making my first round of new friends in the big city, one of them learned that I was musically inclined and gave me a guitar that they had found in a dumpster. I cleaned it up and with a poster of various guitar chords, taught myself how to play, pre-access to the internet. My interests were focused on the old self-accompanied fingerstyle country bluesmen from one side of the tracks like Blind Blake and Blind Willie McTell, and Merle Travis and Chet Atkins from the other.
From there, getting out socially to see some acts that I enjoyed, I met my friend Casey McDonough (now of NRBQ fame) and we started playing all variety of traditional music at a coffee shop gig. This led to a band called the Possum Hollow Boys, an album for the band entitled Introducing, the album charting for a time in Europe, as well as some light domestic touring. Eventually, when everyone in the band got busy, I started playing out solo and ended up putting together my own band, Tiny Horse. Solo and beyond, I’ve had some great opportunities to get out around for small tours in the US and through friends abroad, Australia.
What inspired your latest single/music video “Nobody’s Comin’?”
My last trip to Australia really forced my hand as a musician. Previously, I’d taken breaks from playing music, and I was just as well ready to hang it up for good, but this ended up being a somewhat unexpected full-on tour that made me reflect on living the role of a full-time musician as many of my friends do. It begged questions like, what do full time musicians do when they are idle, suffering from jet-lag insomnia and buzzing from amazing shows to fans, who gave an unknown artist the benefit of the doubt and came out and supported him to beat hell? Apart from practice, the best I could come up with is that they write/compose. With this in mind, I dug up a bunch of ideas that I’d previously saved on my tablet and developed them into the songs that eventually became the record, “State of Fairs.” Among these was “Nobody’s Comin.’”
I’m a thinker. All of the songs on “State of Fairs” come from ideas, observations and annoyances of society, music and life, AKA the Woody Guthrie approach. “Nobody’s Comin’” is a culmination of a few things. I’ve had a few interesting friends that have given me pause over the years — one who knew the bible front to back but scoffed at every word of it. Another who really enjoys gospel quartet music from the ‘30’s-‘50’s, but doesn’t buy into the message of any of it. On the other side of it, I’ve also known quite a few people who claim to be devout, but who leave a long trail of words and behavior to the contrary. It’s really each person’s business, but the juxtapositions can be pretty hilarious or profoundly sad to think about if you give it any study.
“Nobody’s Comin’” doesn’t so much bash religion as it promotes a message of self-reliance. If you are waiting for a deity to come along and fix all the ills of the world and/or save you, I’ve got news for you — if you look up the list of dates predicted for apocalyptic events, you’ll find hundreds of results of people who thought this same thought for millennia (and these are just the ones that were documented.), who were all wrong. Instead of buying into this, work with what you have to make the world better. Don’t rely on your higher powers, spiritually or otherwise, be a fixer or an umbrella — learn to enjoy and work with the rain, because nobody’s comin’.
Atheist-gospel music seems like the ultimate oxymoron. Why would an atheist listen to gospel music?
One of the beautiful things about music is that melody and harmony can transcend the lyrics and/or “Message” of a song. There is a lot of melodically beautiful music that has been and is being made that can be lyrically lacking or contrived, and vice versa, which can land it in the mediocre to bad camp.
I lay no claims on being an expert on Atheism, but there seems to be an open-mindedness, at least with the Atheists that I know, that would allow them to be receptive and, potentially even moved a little by gospel music. Give any up-tempo gospel song a spin and just see if you can sit still. My idea with “Nobody’s Comin’” is this: if Atheists aren’t keen on the lyrics that pair with this great music, change the message to something a little more in the wheelhouse of interests and they may enjoy it.
What do you want viewers to take away from the video?
I want the viewers to enjoy the music and the visual aspects of it and to come away from it thinking. I’m very pro-thought/anti-stupid. You may not be able to “fix” the stupid and willfully ignorant, but if you can make them think — well, you’re onto something. Question the answers. The whole State of Fairs album is full of thought-provoking stuff that is both funny and true and is pretty flexibly timeless. The overarching theme of it is “Everyone is trying so hard to make it, that they lose track of the fact that what they are trying to make it at, is shit.” Think about what you do and/or do not like about it and then think some more about WHY you do or do not like it. Get into the feelings and motives from all angles. I’m of the belief that there is something on the record for everyone, though.
What’s next for you?
I’m a pretty busy guy. Besides music, I have a full-time job and a hobby farm (all of the animals you see in the video are mine.). That said, I’d love to do some touring in support of the record, either solo or with the band, if anyone is interested in having me. If not, I can just as easily move on to other things — I also have some short stories in various states of composition that I’d like to potentially get out into the world in some fashion. More wildly, if people are THAT interested in my output, I have some ideas for a TV show that I can’t seem to shake, also.