Red Deer indie musician Levi Cuss is gearing up to showcase his latest CD – Night Thief – to local audiences on March 21st at The Vat.
The project was recorded last May. “We were actually done the record in December,” he explains. “Not as fast as I would have liked to have done it – I’m one of those guys who likes to get it and go,” he laughs.
Cuss, who was born and raised in Red Deer, certainly comes by the blues honestly.
His dad died when he was five, which left his mom having to work very hard to support her young family.
Cuss credits her with his remarkable work ethic – he’s only taken about four days off since last September, as he juggles a hectic construction career with creating, producing and performing his music. “I’ve been going hard to make this happen.”
Looking back, Cuss was off to a relatively rough start in his youth, spending some of his teens and early 20s drinking, doing drugs and doing crime.
That’s all behind the 39-year-old father of two now, and these days Cuss consistently taps into his life experiences as inspiration for his music.
He also credits music with helping him walk the proverbial straight and narrow.
“The writing is always from my soul. What’s on my mind, what I’m struggling with in my heart, in my head or in my soul – I process that by writing,” he explained. “When I write something it gets it out of my head and onto paper. Then it’s real, and I don’t have to worry about it anymore.
“This is my life’s purpose, and the closer you get to being your true self, the better you feel and the more connected you are with people and your community.”
Growing up, he heard plenty of old-school country around the house which certainly had an influence. He also grew to like the outlaw country that was surfacing more at that time.
As a teen, he explored gangster rap, “Because that was outlaw. And then punk rock, because that was outlaw. And then I kind of went to the blues, which to me is kind of like the original outlaw music.”
As he has honed his craft over the years, more and more folks have been taking note of his undeniable talent. He eventually began performing – although it wasn’t a cakewalk right off the bat.
“I remember the first time I went on stage and sang and played the guitar at The Vat, I completely froze. I had to walk off,” he recalls. “But I had to get back on that horse – this process has been about coming unglued and then putting it back together. How much will do you have, and how much are you willing to do?”
Just over a year ago, the Banff Centre was sufficiently impressed to give him a residency.
And it was there that he persuaded the producer of his dreams, Steve Dawson, to make a record with him.
The results are compelling, from Cut My Teeth which has been described as a “stirring song about not fitting in that’s part outlaw country, part country rock” and packed with harmonies and jangly electric guitars.
For Cuss, time in jail had the intended deterrent effect.
He quit selling drugs and robbing people. Then he met a woman and moved to Cost Rica with her.
He gave up the hard living, started doing yoga, eating paleo and doing Jungian therapy for anger. A poet, and a guitarist since age 18, he also generated a modest income by busking.
When the marriage ended and Cuss returned to Canada, it was to music – rather than to booze and drugs – that he turned to deal with the pain.
In 2010, he saw Dawson at the Edmonton Folk Fest and knew this was the guy he wanted to work with.
And Cuss won him over in Banff.
“He is a dream to work with,” he said, recalling the recording process in Nashville.
He was also struck by the kindness and generosity of the studio guys he worked with as the project took shape. “Those guys were the epitome of professional musicians. It was the most beautiful thing for me to see that. They were so humble, and so real and so ego-free.”
Ultimately, it’s hard to think of a harder working musician. Cuss is utterly dedicated to his craft and is grateful no matter what lies ahead. “No matter what happens with this record, the process has been so beautiful – it’s a win no matter what.
“Don’t get me wrong – I really want to do something with it and I hope it takes off, but even if nothing came of it, the process of learning and seeing what real musicians and people who are so dedicated to something that can be such a tough living – it’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”