Justin Townes Earle: Won't be the last time

By Marty Duda

Like his father before him, Justin Townes Earle seems determined to make life difficult for himself - JTE, as his fans know him, has spent a good portion of his adult life under the influence and occasionally incarcerated. On the back of a new album and ahead of shows in New Zealand next week, Volume talked to the talented and troubled songwriter and performer.
Justn Townes Earle.  Photo / Supplied
Justn Townes Earle. Photo / Supplied


Hopefully 13 is Justin Townes Earle's lucky number. That's how many times Earle has been to rehab. Life as a touring musician seemed too much for the man and there were rumours that he was thinking of giving up music. Yet here he is with a new album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, and another tour that brings him to New Zealand.

Speaking from his home in Nashville on a cold, gloomy winter's day, JTE confesses there was some truth in those rumours.

"I definitely thought about it for a minute. This life, it offers a lot of great things, but unfortunately there are a lot of other things that are kind of hidden, that are offered to you. It's a very difficult way of life. You're making record after record and there's the pressure to make a step up a little more every time. On top of that, in between records, you're just touring constantly, so you're rag-tired. And everybody's got opinions.

"I did ask myself whether I thought I could continue living like this and still survive and still live the life that I think that I should lead, which has nothing to do with any kind of religious point - it's just not in jail."

Instead Earle did what all good singer-songwriters do - he poured his trials and tribulations into his songs.

"Last year I had a fairly rough start and things weren't looking too up. I learned that there are very few holes that you can fall into that you can't climb out of. I think this record definitely reflects that, reflects my rough passage into this year."

Musically, the new album proves to be a departure as well.

"There are two kinds of music that come from my immediate vicinity in middle Tennessee. From the west you have Memphis and to the east you have the hills of Eastern Tennessee, and so two very different sounding musics come from both of those areas that I see a connection in. I see the connection between The Carter Family and The Staple Singers being the church. I decided to go more the soul direction this time. I think on Harlem River Blues, what I was trying to do was show the connection between The Staple Singers and The Carter Family, and then I just decided to keep following this Staple Singers kind of vibe. I'd kind of done the Carter Family thing for a while."

So how did a skinny white kid from South Nashville, Tennessee, get exposed to rhythm'n'blues?

"I grew up in a very mixed neighbourhood so my black friends, when I'd go over to their house, their parents would be listening to Al Green. I received a whole other music education other than what my parents taught me. It's always kind of stuck with me. The first time I ever heard Al Green sing So Tired of Being Alone I thought it was about the coolest thing I'd ever heard."

A close listen to the new album will reveal a more relaxed singing style as well. That's the result of another change in approach.

"This past year I got tired of straining to sing. So I stepped back and retaught myself to sing a little bit softer and use the dynamics of the microphone more than the dynamics of my voice. I just tried to sing where my veins weren't sticking out of my throat. I definitely have become a better singer with every record and I think it's always a work in progress."

Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now is notable for another major change for JTE - the entire record was recorded live in the studio. So what exactly does that mean in 2012?

"It means the same thing it meant when Buddy Holly did it. It means that anything you hear on the record was done in a single take. Everything was cut at once. It was something that I'd wanted to do for a very long time. I'd finally gotten to a point in my career where a record label would not freak out. Of course they did freak out. When I told them of my intention, everybody did. I got a whole lot of, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' kind of questions. I'd been working with the same group of musicians for several years so I thought we were all ready."

Is this the way he plans to record from now on?

"I'll decide that on a record-by-record basis. I think sometimes you write a group of songs that are gonna work like that and sometimes you write a group of songs that you want to play with a little bit more. Now that I know that I can do it, you're damn right that I'll be doing it again. I don't think anything can make you feel better as far as being a musician than sitting down and listening to 35 minutes worth of music that was all single takes."

See Justin Townes Earle live:

Thursday 19 April, Dux Live, Christchurch
Friday 20 April, Bodega, Wellington
Saturday 21 April, Kings Arms, Auckland
Sunday 22 April, Sawmill Café, Leigh


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