|Justin Townes Earle|
When we last spoke to Justin Townes Earle in June last year, he had just begun making his own mark as a songwriter with his stunning debut album The Good Life. Sounding more like Hank Williams or Lefty Frizell, Justin didnít share much more than his reckless nature and surname with his father, Steve Earle. Less than a year later, Justin is back with his fine new album, Midnight At The Movies, proving that talent sure does run deep in the Earle-family. In this exclusive interview, we caught up with Justin about hillbilly music, taking americana in new directions, being proud of his old man and, erm, "Poison and all that shit".
Interview by Soren McGuire
Hi Justin. We last spoke to you about a year ago right after The Good Life came out. That must have been one hell of a year?
When I look back at it Iím thinking it went by pretty fast. At other times, it seems as if it went by really slow. But it was a long year with a lot of touring and a lot of shows. I was really surprised how The Good Life was received by the press and the audiences. In the tradition of second generation artists putting out their own records, I was sure people would find some way of destroying me, but we didnít run in to anything but good press. That surprised me.
Did you reach a point where you just got tired of answering questions about your relationship with your father?
Iíve never really worried about that. I am conscious of the fact that people think like that, but I just donít see the point of worrying about that. Like my dad, Iíve always been the type of person who does whatever I want to do, and nobodyís ever had much luck in stopping me from doing the things I wanna do.
And besides thereís not really anything you can do about the fact that youíre Steve Earleís son, is there?
A lot of people get hammered for being somebodyís son, but thereís absolutely nothing in the world you can do about that. But with the history of father-son, mother-daughter relationships in the record industry, thereís kind of a weird history. Kids have this wild need to separate themselves from their own blond and I understand that. I get it. But I think itís because they think they hate their parents, but they probably donít. They just think they do for whatever reason.
So why do you think some people tread so careful when it comes to the famous father/famous son thing?
I think the deal is, the reason a lot of people get hammered for being somebodyís son is because they wonít talk about it. Iím proud of my father and Iím proud of my mother and Iím happy to talk about them. I usually get a few questions about my dad and Iíll just give people what they want. Thereís no taboo.
Anyway. Your new album, Midnight At The Movies, is real out relatively soon after The Good Life? Are you doing this the ďCreedence Ė three albums in one yearĒ way?
I was just ready to go. I took the time out to write some more songs and it was just time to make another record. You know, Iím 27 years old and Iím very conscious of the fact that I donít live as fast as I did when I was 18, and even though I donít worry about that, I still want to get my shit flying. And besides, I get bored out here, playing the same songs night after night. I want new songs to play. So you just gotta keep the ball rolling.
Did you have more confidence going into the studio this time?
Iíll tell you this. About the only consistently smart thing Iíve done throughout my career is to surround myself with the right people. Skylar Wilson, Cory Younts, Iíve worked with those people for a long time. So far weíve had the ability to get exactly what weíve set out to get. I donít know music very well. Iím not trained. But with Skylar and Cory, if I say ďI want it big and I want it orange!Ē, they know what I mean. I donít have to translate my Chinese directions into English and thatís something thatís really valuable.
I mean, I think a lot of people end up making records they hate. Itís that deal where you have your whole life to make your first record but a very short time to make your second. It goes like that for the rest of your career. With my first record, I had been writing those songs for years and then finally someone pays attention to them and put you in a studio with a producer and a bunch of musicians, and you end up making a record that you didnít really want to make. With every record Iíve made, Iíve had the final word. I donít even play my records to the record company before itís done. Thereís a lot of freedom in that. Iíve just got some really good people to work with, people who let me write the songs and arrange the songs and back me up when I need it.
But where would you be if you werenít able to work with these people?
Thereís no way I could have made these records without the people who worked on them. Yeah, I write the songs and the music, but thereís a whole lot more to it. I had an interviewer the other day who said this really weird thing. He mentioned me and the word genius in the same sentence and I had to ask him to stop. He was basing that on the records I have made, but thereís a lot more to it. Iím very hands-on when I work, but come on, all I do is write lyrics and put the music in order. Without my boys it would be veryÖI need those boys. They understand the music much better than I do.
Did anyone ever suggest that you try working with your father on a record?
People did suggest that, but nobody who knows me or my father would ever suggest that. They would never suggest me and my father spend any time together in the studio for more than two or three hours. I did do some recordings with him when I was younger, but I never used them because of the fact that my father has sound. Thereís a sound that comes along with Steve Earle. It comes with every Steve Earle record. Every record he makes with somebody else sounds like that. That would have been the absolute first nail in my coffin. That was one of my first wakeup calls in the industry. I have to separate myself from my father, but thereís a difference between separating and shunning.
Thereís a cover of The Replacementís ĎCanít Hardly Waití on the album. Why that song? I mean, The ĎMats rule, but itís not exactly country material, is it?
My producer R.S Field suggested that I picked a song that would be a no pressure song. You know, the worst thing people can say about that song is thatís itís a bad version of a Replacements song. When he asked me to put a cover song on the album, he was thinking more along the lines of something rare, but I just didnít feel like playing that game. You know, the rare cover game. I wanted something that was obvious to me but it obviously wasnít obvious to everyone else. I was born in 82 and when I first started pointing my ears towards music and once we got through Poison and all that shit, bands like Guns NíRoses, The Replacements and AC/DC came out all at the same time. Well, the came out in my head at the same time.
You give thanks to bands and artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucero and Jason Isbell in the liner notes. Do you see yourself and these artists as a part of a new movement pushing americana and alt.country in new directions?
Man, I really donít know. I like to keep my feet reeled in traditional hillbilly music, but at the same time thereís all kinds of fun places you can go with that. Lucero, Old Crow and me are just people trying to remind people that once something great happened south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Missisippi. It happened nowhere else but it changed the world. Every single bit of music that came from this region Ė bluegrass, country, mountain music, rock níroll, blues and jazz Ė† changed the fuckin world. We all take a lot pride in being from the area weíre from and the musical traditions that came from these places. Thereís a lot of kids in New York who go crazy over hillbilly music but theyíll never understand it. Theyíll never get it. Itís not in their blood. They donít talk right to do it and they donít live right to do it. Not that they live wrong, they just donít live the right way for this music to work for them. But in the South, we inherent that. 200 miles east of Nashville thereís a place in the mountains where you can still go sit on someoneís porch and listen to true bluegrass music.
But will we still be able to see these people and listen to their music 50 years from now?
I know itís a myth but if you go to certain places in the Appalachian Mountains, you still get people who do not know whatís going on in the outside world. And thatís the reason this music will survive. You still get people in these places who do not know what goes on outside the Appalachian Mountains. And youíll still get those 50 years from now. I have actually followed the tradition of many young artists and I now live in New York City. But those years I spent travelling around the South, playing music, meeting songwriters and learning how this music works, is one of the most valuable times of my life. That will always stick with me. Once that music comes natural to you, it will ruin your life.
Justin Townes Earleís Midnight At The Movies is out now on Bloodshot Records