Justin Townes Earle: The When You Awake Interview
Filed under: Interviewin' | Posted by: jody
Interview by Sinden Lee. Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.
Justin Townes Earle. Being the natural skeptic and usual hater of most things, I was fully prepared to sneer and silently judge this musical offspring of a very remarkable and renowned country singer (I’ve made a clipped choice not to mention his father’s name in this piece.) While it’s an honor to be compared to his Daddy, I’m certain JTE is over the comparison and name-dropping. And JTE is due his own respect as he’s earned his right with me to stand alone. The very thought of a kid of some famous musician tinkering with notes makes me bristle—Lennon, Dylan—don’t know, don’t care. This one’s the exception.
I got my grubby paws on his two solo albums, The Good Life and Midnight At The Movies. I say solo, because he also fronted two bands: The Swindlers and The Distributors before venturing out onto his own simply as Justin Townes Earle. What bludgeoned my auditory senses were the incredible depth and his capacity to tell a story as if he were an old man. The guy is only 27 years old! The sound is stripped-down, no bullshit resplendence. Then I became an all-out YouTube lurker, checking out his live performances. He’s tall, rail-thin but has a commanding presence and owns the mike and stage like a seasoned pro. Accompanied by his multi-finger pickin’ sidekick Cory Younts, who plays a mean mandolin, Earle’s a capella delivery is an Ali-like smooth punch right into your gut. It’s simple and restrained, but the sound is excessively absolute.
I had the great pleasure of getting Earle on the phone for a quick interview. He was on his tour bus riding through downtown Seattle. The phone connection sucked, but he was ever so patient and gracious. Our conversation went from the sublime to the rather silly:
When You Awake: You pay tribute to the great American folk hero in your song “They Killed John Henry.” What is it about his legend and persona do you identify with?
Justin Townes Earle: I think that it all relates to my grandfather. He told better stories than anyone. One was the story of John Henry. The other was Joe Hill. Those were big ones. He spoke about these men that were bigger than life. And that’s what Papa was. He could solve everything and he really was untouchable. He died a lot earlier that I thought he should. Papa was just like those guys: one mythic and one very real.
Continue reading the interview after the jump….
WYA: Why the choice to do without a full band in your live performance?
JTE: Mainly, that’s just a pure economic decision. If I were a member of a band, everyone in the band would starve together. But when you’re a singer/ songwriter—the band, they get paid first. They are independent contractors and I have to pay them no matter how much I make. In the last few years, this current set up has become the show and it’s what people have come to expect at my shows. Most people that come to the shows are about the songs anyway. It’s not about the band.
WYA: The Replacements are one of your favorite bands and you cover one of their songs “Can’t Hardly Wait” on your sophomore album Midnight At The Movies. Why?
JTE: It’s just one of those things that comes down to…if you’re my age, born in ’82—that’s about the time—1986 -1990—when they were really at the height of their fame. And if you had parents that were remotely hip, they had Replacements records in the house. My mom even had Metallica records. She just liked what she liked. I was just listening to what my mom was playing around the house. Without a doubt, “Can’t Hardly Wait” is the closest thing to a hit that they ever had. In 1990 that song was everywhere. Hell, it could’ve been on a tampon commercial, it was so-everywhere!
WYA: You mentioned your musical influences to name but a few, Woody Guthrie, Charlie Pool and even hip hop and Motorhead, as well as the obvious Townes Van Zandt whom you are named after. What is the commonality for you of all these varied sources?
JTE: I’m a songwriter. Most of what I go for is just good songs, good lyrics and good structure. Proper instrumentations that represent the song, most people have difficulty with. Often you hear a record with a great song, but the record sucks. Like Motorhead: I would never say they are great musicians, but Lemmy is the living embodiment of metal and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Motorhead does Motorhead better than anyone, you know? The Roots or Outkast…hell…Anybody, any musician that can listen to that and say it’s not good music can kiss my ass. The last Outkast record was the best I’ve ever heard. That stuff holds the same quality that Woody had back in the day—it’s just very urban music to a different beat.
WYA: Was it a conscious choice to not be on your father’s record label, E-Squared, and to go your own way with Bloodshot instead?
JTE: I feel that’s one of the most important decisions I’ve made as an artist, and how involved I got in my career with my dad’s. I’ve found over the years that in order for us to maintain whatever father-son relationship, we have to keep the business world very separate. Because it’s money and people fight over that. We don’t need that. We’ve always had a rocky relationship—it’s been great over the past several years, but it still gets pushed to the edge.
WYA: You sang a song as guest artist on your father’s recently released tribute album to Townes Van Zandt. I know you’ve performed with your father previously, how was working on this album different?
JTE: It was actually something where I was in town for a few hours. I had to run into the studio real quick—literally for two hours—while I was in the city to do that. When we go on the road, it’s really, really stressful as it is. It’s just not a good idea to work with my dad. I’m not saying we’ll never perform together again. His career is very established and we stand where we stand individually, as individuals. And as artists, we have our particulars and we both have things that are very deep set. We live and tour very differently. I mean look, two bands that aren’t related, but with co-billing—one of them in that group dynamic is going to be an asshole at some point. There’s so much ego tied up in this business. I’ve never had a problem with treating people different, but it’s a stressful way of life. You just get down-right sick of shaking people’s hands and just want to lock yourself up in the hotel room and be able to…no, you have to say, “No, not today.”
WYA: You mentioned your paternal grandfather as being “the model of a man,” as well as believing that he’s an exceptional storyteller. What character attributes make him a model man? And do you see any of him in yourself?
JTE: I sure hope that there are some of my grandfather’s qualities in me, but I’m no way near anywhere he was as a man. He raised five children on an air traffic controller’s pay in the 50’s and 60’s. My dad was raised by a really great man, but he made specific moves to really fuck up and unfortunately, I inherited that. My Papa took his children to state parks, ate apple pie with them. My point being that he was a true family man…I hope somewhere in there, I think that I’m carrying some of his attributes. He was a great man. But I don’t think I am near what he was. I haven’t even lived enough for that, not real life.
WYA: What hip hop artist’s persona speaks to your style of storytelling and song writing? Would you agree that hip hop is storytelling at some of its best?
JTE: I would say it’s those guys that are really, really good writers. I think hip hop is absolutely full of imagery. Some guys—the way that they lay out that imagery through their lyrics is truly a unique style of writing.
WYA: Having performed at the oldest continuous radio program in the U.S. –The Grand Ole Opry –what was that experience like? How many times have you performed there?
JTE: I performed at the Grand Ole Opry just one time. I was really surprised we were invited even once. I mean, my dad’s never even been invited to the Grand Ole Opry. Yeah, he’s performed there, but that’s cause Emmylou Harris said, “____[his dad’s name] is performing with me.” It was just one of those moments in my life where it was everything that I thought it would be. When I was a kid…I mean, it’s absolutely one of those most thrilling moments in your life that you won’t forget.
WYA: With due respect, at age 27, you’re really in the spring of your life. How does someone so relatively young, manage to write lyrics that speak of more mature experiences of desolation, anguish, and dispiritedness? It’s as if you’ve lived many lives to give you the depth and understanding of someone who’s at the winter of his years?
JTE: One thing is that I really screwed up. I was in a position where my mom worked a lot and left me alone a lot of the time. I grew up really fast. I had friends that were much older than me. I know how to be an adult and a junkie, but one thing I don’t know how to be is a kid. When I was 13, I was shooting heroin, selling weed—that ain’t much of a childhood. And you lose those years. So I write what I write. I could never write a lullaby. Maybe I could, but I’d have to get a lullaby manual or somethin’.
WYA: Now some silly, fun questions, if you’ll humor us:
• What hair product do you use to slick your hair?
JTE: It’s called “Olive Oil.” It’s a lotion, but it’s made for Black women’s hair. And it’s made with pure olive oil.
• Gram Parsons or Neil Young?
(It took him a minute to answer this, he had to think about it long and hard)
JTE: I’m gonna have to say Neil Young, because he’s just got more work. I think Gram Parsons was great, but his great stuff isn’t as good as Neil Young’s great stuff.
• Nina Simone or Billie Holiday?
JTE: Billie Holiday! I love my Nina Simone, but nobody sings like Billie.
• Have you ever hopped a freight train?
JTE: I have one time in my life hopped a freight train. It was at a rail yard in south Nashville. I ended up in Lebanon, Tennessee. My mom had to come and get me. I was 10 years old.
• What’s your biggest pet peeve of the minutia of being on the road?
JTE: It’s probably when I show up at a venue and often, nothing is what it’s suppose to be. You’ll show up and there won’t be no bottled water. And you have to ask, “Um, excuse me, but can we get water?” And they look at you like you’re the jerk, “You want water?” I mean, it’s Austin, in the middle of the dead summer’s heat…they act like we‘re animals where we run around doing nothing.
• What’s the most disgusting thing you’ve ever eaten?
JTE: Hmmm…Some stuff from England. Because they have some of the most favor-less food I’ve ever encountered in my life. But, I guess it’d have to be haggis. That was really bad. It’s a Scottish delicacy.
Forget all the damn hipsters who front like musicians and who can barely play a chord. Come down to McCabe’s in Santa Monica on Sunday, May 24 and see for yourself why I’ve decided that Justin Townes Earl is The Real Deal. Show starts at 7 pm with Charlie Wadhams and Frank Fairfield supporting. You can buy tix by clicking here. And don’t forget to pick up Justin Townes Earle’s latest record, Midnight at the Movies (out now via Bloodshoot Records.)
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