Justin Townes Earle talks to Lydia Jenkin about the inspiration behind his dramatic new album
It almost seems surprising that lanky, dapper 28-year-old Justin Townes Earle, son of alt-country legend Steve Earle (who was touring New Zealand last week), with an easy way of baring his soul, didn't release his first album until 2007. But having just released his fifth solo album in six years this March, he's more than making up for any perceived lost time - including several years recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, which began at age 12.
Having found himself a comfortable little grey area where folk, rock 'n' roll, and soul meet while writing his last album Harlem River Blues, he's decided to continue in that vein, digging into the connections between the divergent music of black and white communities in the south during the 50s and 60s.
"It's not by any means a soul record, but it's a singer-songwriter record and instead of using country as its base, I'm using kind of 60s soul as a base".
Earle likes to describe his approach with the phrase "come down from the mountain to the river banks".
"I've found that whether it's country music, which is usually sung by white people, or the soul music and gospel that rose out of the black churches, it's all essentially the same music, it's just the atmosphere that made it what it was.
"The Carter Family were singing songs that were mostly based on religion, and on hard times and on everyday life, which is the same thing the Staple Singers were doing, and they were even doing it in the same fashion almost. They were using about three or four chords, and doing it as simply as they could, and it was a real raw music that rose out of these places. With Harlem River Blues I was kind of showing the connection [between the two strands of music]. And for this record I decided to lean more towards the Staple Singers' side."
He describes it as a dramatic record, a little on the darker side, which reflects a few rough times he had while writing it, including a brief return to rehab towards the end of 2010. But it's also about moving forward and taking control. The last track of the album is, in fact, entitled Moving On.
Much like the Staple Singers, or the Carter Family, music has always been a way of life for Earle, and a helpful cathartic process in many senses, so he's grateful to earn a living from it.
"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't do this. I'm a good house painter and things like that, and there's nothing wrong with that work, but I don't want to do it full-time. I'm just grateful to be here today, for a lot of reasons, but especially because it's not a good time in the business, and you're guaranteed nothing unless you're willing to go out and just grate your ass over it."
In keeping with his old-school inspirations and roots, the latest album, Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now was recorded entirely live - all the vocals, all the horns, all the instrumentation was done at once, over four days in an old converted church recording studio in Asheville, North Carolina, with most of the tracks coming together in three or four takes.
"I'd wanted to record like that since the beginning, you know I wanted to record The Good Life like that, but no record label in their right mind gives a 24-year-old on his first record the right to do whatever the hell he wants and record live. And it is expensive to record live, because it takes a lot of set-up and rehearsal, and we recorded to tape also.
"So we recorded analogue, and you've gotta get it right. And that's basically what I told everybody, it's just time to get it right."
It seems Earle is getting it right indeed - five albums in six years, and many tours under his belt sounds like success. And though he's had his private demons, fortunately writing songs, and finding his characters always comes naturally.
"My characters in my songs are almost always composite characters, even the character that sings Mama's Eyes is a composite character, it's not just me. I have this kind of sickness where if say I'm in a restaurant, I can be sitting at a table talking, but also listening to three other conversations going on around me, so my ears are always open. I use bits and pieces that I gather from other people and from my friends. It's vital to get outside yourself as an artist, 'cos you don't always have the best ideas, and sometimes you've gotta wait for other people to come help you out or inspire you."
Who: Justin Townes Earle, American troubadour
Where and when: performs at The Dux in Christchurch tonight, at Bodega Bar in Wellington on Friday, at the Kings Arms in Auckland on Saturday and at Leigh Sawmill in Leigh on Sunday.
Latest album: Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now out now.
Also listen to: Yuma (2007), The Good Life (2008), Midnight At The Movies (2009), Harlem River Blues (2010)