An interview with Justin Townes Earle
Interviewed by Kate Hatch
Last weekend I spoke to American singer Justin Townes Earle about his soon to be released fourth album, Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and his Australian tour in April.
Congratulations on your new album. I’ve been listening to it a lot over the last couple of days and it’s a beautiful record.
Thank you very much. I’m still very proud of it. I’ve been waiting to make a record like this for a long while and I’m so glad I finally got to do it.
The new album’s not as up-tempo or rollicking as fans might be used to. Can you tell us a bit about why you gravitated towards a slower, soul sound on this album?
I think that soul played as much a role in my music education as country did. I grew up in a very racially mixed neighborhood, a lot of my friends are black and their parents would be listening to Al Green and Sam and Dave when I went over to their houses for dinner and things. I discovered very early on that the two musics are very similar in terms of chord progressions and in their mind frame. I’ve always been versed in soul, especially early to mid-sixties soul. The stuff that came out of Memphis has always been my favourite.
A lot of your lyrics seem inspired by personal experience, but your songs are quite structured and aligned to traditional conventions as well. They seem like stylistic statements as much as personal statements. Is this the basis of a good song for you?
There are kind of some unspoken rules about songwriting. I try to keep songs in kind of a thesis form, where they have a heart, beginning, middle and end. And then if you get into it, if you decide to do what I do and be very personal with the arrangement, you’ve got to be careful about what you do and how you say things, because you start getting into dangerous territory, you start getting into life. If you go along with it, it could end up reading like a diary entry and you don’t want that.
Allusions to other songs crop up in your lyrics a fair bit. I’m thinking of ‘Slipping and Sliding’ and ‘Won’t be the last time’. Is it important for you to know, in-depth, the language of the great country and popular songwriters, to have that on hand?
Yeah, I kind of do that. I think it’s important to show where your bodies are buried, basically. Springsteen did it a lot and I do it a whole lot more than people know, but it’s just because I’m doing it with Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and people just don’t recognize it. I mean that’s what Springsteen’s done for years. You know, we’ve kind of realized that all the songs have been written and all we can do, you know the difference, what made Woody Guthry songs so great, is writing songs for a particular place and time and that’s what you do – it’s all relative, basically, is what is the point.
Can you talk about the recording process for this album? You’re something of a revivalist, I know. Does this approach suit you and your music particularly?
We had three days of rehearsals to get everything in place and to get everyone’s parts sorted out. And then we drove to North Carolina up to a church that had been converted about six years ago into a recording facility and it’s a really amazing large room. The point of making this record was to make a live recording as they did when, say, they made records at Stax. So there were no overdubs on these tracks, the singers just sing and that’s what you get. I selected the studio because it was going to give us enough room for when we had nine people up at once, you know, horns and background singers and strings all playing at once. It was a very gratifying process, it was pretty amazing to do. You’re concentrating on your part so much, but once you listen to it, it all comes together and you realise you don’t have to do anything else to it, you just put it away for mixing – that’s pretty awesome.
Is it going to be important for you to try to recreate the album’s sound on tour? Are you bringing any musicians from the recording with you, or are you playing mostly solo?
When I come to Australia and New Zealand I’ll be touring as a three-piece: I’ll be bringing my bass player and a guitar player with me. But very shortly after that, when we get back to the States, we’ll start touring as a four-piece, with drums for the first time. We are trying to get to a point where we’re recreating the album sound a little bit closer. You know, I’ve been touring either solo or as a duo or trio for the last five years, so this will be the first time I’m going out with a full band. It’s going to be new challenge for me because for years I’ve been the time-keeper onstage and now I have to turn it over to the drummer. That’ll be interesting.
Is it sometimes hard to perform some of your more emotional songs on stage? ‘Someday I’ll be forgiven for this’ is quite a lovely, delicate song on record, but the last few times I’ve seen you perform it, it seemed more tongue-in-cheek, you performed it with a bit of a swagger.
Yeah. Although the characters in my songs are always composite characters –– I’d never hang someone out to dry like that, including myself – you know, I sometimes look at situations and have to represent some kind of humour in them. I’ve done some kind of stupid things and then written songs about them and so I try to have a bit of smile about it, but sometimes that comes across as me being a … a joke [laughs]. But that’s okay.
When you tour Australia you often play regional areas as well as city venues. I saw you play a couple of years ago in Melbourne and then in Geelong and they were pretty different gigs in terms of audience and atmosphere. Do most country artists have a diverse following like that? What do you like about performing to the different crowds that you get?
I’m actually glad: I’m lucky to be able to play at some more outlying places when possible. My father even has a hard time doing that in a lot of places. They’re very different shows. With a Melbourne crowd, say at the Corner or something like that, I can be a little rougher with that crowd. I can be a little more vile, a little more dirty, a little more blue. But if I’m out in a little outlying country area and you’ve got a few blue hairs in there … you know, I have a grandmother so I’m not disrespectful of older audiences and I definitely tone my act down. But for the bigger cities, I get a little crazy – a little crazier – because it’s more appropriate in that setting.
When you’re touring you seem to take an interest in introducing your supporting acts to a wider audience. Would you recommend anyone in particular you’ve been playing with in the States?
Well, I haven’t been touring in a while, but Tristen was opening for me on the last tour and she’s really great. She’s not only a really good person, she’s a great singer and a really great songwriter and I would definitely suggest people give her a listen. I actually booked her to open for me on our first big run we’re doing in the US. I booked her because I like her songs.
You’re playing more shows in Victoria than anywhere else in Australia this time around. Do you have a bigger fan base here?
I don’t know. I’m always surprised by [the guy] who organises a lot of the places. He says: you’re gonna go here and it’s going to be awesome. That’s what he always says: it’s going to be great. So I never know what to expect, but I always have a good time. And sometimes I get a little regional show somewhere and, you know, twenty people show up.
Your dad once said he’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and say that Townes Van Zandt is the greatest songwriter in the world. Do you agree?
Yeah, you agree? Why?!
Yeah, I agree. I mean I wouldn’t necessarily say that either one of them was better than the other, because I think that they do very different things, but I do think that what Townes does holds a little bit more water for me. I mean Bob Dylan, has a few songs – has several songs – that are just … they’re really great line schemes, but I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about. I always know what the hell Townes is talking about.
Thanks a lot for talking to me. We’re really looking forward to seeing you when you come to Melbourne.
Yeah, thank you. I’m looking forward to coming down. It’s going to be a good show. We’ll see you soon.