By Brian Wise.
Justin Townes Earle returns to Australia for the Out On The Weekend Festival and his own headline shows. By now, he could probably apply for residency but it has been a long and interesting journey that brings him back.
It’s not easy to step out of the shadow of a highly successful parent. Certain newspapers and websites are littered with stories of errant children and, for a while, Justin Townes Earle could have gone the same way. Father Steve was already regarded as a great songwriter and a multi-married tear away when young Justin was saddled with the added moniker Townes, after that famous Texas songwriter. No pressure there!
But Earle has established his own reputation with eight albums in the past nine years, an Americana Award for song of the year (‘Harlem River Blues’), a spot on the Grand Ole Opry and production credit for Wanda Jackson’s 2012 album Unfinished Business. Earle’s most recent albums – Single Mothers, Absent Fathers and Kids In The Street – form somewhat of a trilogy in that they define easy categorisation. Earle’s penchant for genre-hopping and his love of soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll have helped him make some of his most interesting work to date.
Kids In The Street, Earle’s latest, was produced by Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes etc) and recorded a long way from Nashville in Omaha. It explores a bit of rockabilly, (‘Champagne Corolla’), classic country ‘(Faded Valentine’), soul (‘There Goes A Fool’) and even blues (‘Same Old Stagolee’).
The new album arrived in what had been a significant year for Earle. Born in Nashville, he moved to New York for a few years before moving back to his hometown. But this year found him moving with his wife to Portland, Oregon, where they have greeted the arrival of their first child.
“Yes, it’s been very eventful,” says Earle when I mention the year just gone and ask him why the move up north.
“Well, it was more in desperation,” he laughs. “My wife and I were living on the coast in Northern California, several hours north of San Francisco. When we found out we were having a child we had a decision and we needed to move to a place that was better in reach to hospitals and things like that. Actually, because the choices were either San Francisco or Portland, and nobody can afford to live in San Francisco, so we came to Portland.”
The two things I recall about my visit to Portland were the weather – in which even on a sunny day a cloudless sky looks like it is about to rain – and Powell’s Books which takes up a whole block and is one of the great bookstores of the world.
“It’s pretty amazing,” says Earle. “I mean, even though we’re under drought right now we had like 123 straight days of rain and then we’ve had 110 days now with no rain. So, one or the other, I guess. I lived a few blocks from the Strand Bookstore in New York City, too, which I found even more enveloping than Powell’s. It was just multiple stories of just every book you could think of.”
For his forthcoming Australian tour, Earle is bringing a special band with him – The Sadies, who will also be opening some of the shows.
“They’re a Canadian band but have been around for a long time,” explains Earle. “The Sadies have been making records for 30 years now … 25 or 30 years, and they’re incredible. So, it’s like having a band but … they make it very easy to be a front man. Very easy.
“They’ve been Jon Langford’s band and John Doe’s band, also. They’ve backed a lot: they were Nico Case’s band for quite a while. That’s ’cause they’re one of the best bands that there’s ever been. I can say that without a question in my mind.
“We met years ago, primarily for our mutual love of marijuana that we were brought together at a festival. So we kind of right from the start we had the idea of working together in some capacity. About 10 years later it all just kind of fell into place where they had a record coming out at the same time that I did, and everything just lined up.”
“I mean, things seem to be going pretty good with it,” says Earle when I mention the great reviews for his latest album. “Shows have been going great. One of the first bits of advice my father gave me was to never read my press, and especially never read my reviews. So, I’ve stuck with that, but everything seems to be going pretty good.”
One of the interesting tracks on the new album is Earle’s cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland.’ He says he was listening to the album itself a lot before the recording of Kids In The Street and he asked producer Mogis to listen to it as well.
“I grew up with that,” explains Earle. “Being 35 years old, I’m about as old as that song. It’s been there my entire life and it was just massive throughout my childhood. It was everywhere. Growing up with it and knowing the track my whole life, it’s a very complicated-sounding track with a whole lot going on … this amazing production going on around it. It struck me one day that, really, when I stripped it all down and played it on acoustic guitar that it was … it related more to, say, Mississippi John Hurt than it did to world music in any way. So, it kind of opened up a whole new idea of that record for me … that record in particular, that record as a whole, and the song in particular.”
One of the features of Graceland, apart from the great music and production are the lyrics which are some of the best Simon has ever penned.
“Some absolutely strange lyrics that are amazing,” agrees Earle. “Paul Simon was always good at that. He was always good at trying to make lyrics that kind of hit you kind of square between the eyes. The way he’s talking about a girl that’s a human trampoline, or if they go out dancing and end up sleeping in a doorway. It’s like it’s all poetic.”
“One of the first things that drew me in about working with Mike,” he continues, “was that everything that he touches, he works with, has a sonic quality that you can count on that’s incredible. It’s an incredible sonic quality, especially with acoustic instruments.”
Recording in Omaha in the dead of winter meant that there were few distractions for Earle.
“His studio is kind of a little compound that’s on his property,” he says. “So there’s a house and since all the musicians were local it was just me in the house and so I didn’t leave. I spent two weeks there and didn’t leave the little compound at all, so … definitely focused.”
I ask Earle if the diversity of styles on the album reflects the sorts of things he has been listening to over the past two years.
“It definitely does,” he says. “If you catch me sitting around the house I’m liable to be listening to things like Carla Thomas and Candy Staton but I will also listen to George Jones, and Johnny Paycheck, and things like that. Then I listen to a ton of Billie Holiday. So all these things kind of all come together, and I couldn’t imagine ever being like a “country artist,” or a “blues artist” … having just one mode to work with.
“I think that really that’s where the designation ‘Americana’ began, was as a place to put … a way to pigeonhole artists that you couldn’t pigeonhole. It gave people a term to pigeonhole us, and so …People want to have a deeper understanding of everything and it’s a completely innocent urge. They want to feel like they understand it.”
Earle has spoken in the past about how his interest in the was spurred by seeing Nirvana perform ‘In the Pines’ rather than discovering it through other channels.
“I talked to at least a handful of people of my age and a little bit older that came to the blues and ultimately folk music and just more acoustic brands of music through that Nirvana Unplugged record,” says Earle. “Not only does Kurt play ‘In the Pines’ or ‘My Girl’ or ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?’ … whatever you want to call it … he talks about Leadbelly. He informs the audience of who Leadbelly is and that definitely was where the brakes went on for me as far as learning about music. I began to go in reverse, seeking things from further back when I found that connection. That was really important for me. I didn’t know any new music for like five years after that. You know, getting through the old stuff.
“I always hope that music keeps returning to us just trying to recycle the blues and stuff, and country from before, because that’s always what’s made the best music is … it’s rare that anybody does anything truly new and original and good.”
Songs on the new album such as ‘Same Old Stagolee’ and the song ‘If I Was the Devil’ can be traced to that blues inspiration.
“You know, I did the same thing with “They Killed John Henry’,” admits Earle. “I see myself as coming from that tradition of music where the same story lines were visited by different generations and recreated by different generations, updated musically and content-wise. Because I learned so much from that tradition I think that I owe something to that tradition, too, to pay it back and help … I hope that somehow, some way down the line, but one more kid looks into it and discovers that I didn’t come up with the idea of “Stagolee,” and that it has a long history.”