By Poppy Tohill
Despite all the hardships Justin Townes Earle has been through over the past few years of his life, he's come out clean on the other side and is a wealth of knowledge and advice, proving a really down to earth, relaxed guy to chat to, early on a Tuesday morning. After admiring his choice of date for the release of his upcoming 5th studio album, ‘Single Mothers', due for release on (my birthday) September 5, we settled down for a great chat about all things, ‘Single Mothers,' growing up in Nashville and life in general.
"I've just moved into a new place, so I'm currently unpacking everything at the moment," he began. "I'm based in Nashville right now because I had to come back for some family things. It is only temporary though as this town has changed very much since when I was a kid and I'm trying my best not to be angry about some of the stuff that's not working around here," he continued, letting out a little laugh at the end.
Growing up in Nashville which of course is known as the centre of the music industry, earning the nickname ‘Music City,' also famous for initially being the home of country music, Earle went on to tell me what it was like growing up there and just how big a part music played in his childhood. "The music industry for sure has always been a part of my life," he remarked. "I was kind of in and out of my father (Steve Earle)'s life and his side of the family's life for most of my childhood. My mum however was a roadie, so I was always around music, people working music and people playing music, but I didn't grow up going over to famous people's houses or anything like that," he laughed. "I really did not get serious about wanting to play music until I was about 15 years old and when I decided that I literally left home really shortly after that," he explained.
"For people my age its usually Kurt Cobain or Pearl Jam that got them into music and got them playing," Earle exclaimed when asked who some of his early influences were. "That was the case for me too," he admits. "I discovered blues music when I was about 14 or 15 years old, as I was figuring out how to play that stuff it definitely became my favourite form of music. Once I got started learning that music i just couldn't see myself doing anything else. Then after the first time I performed in front of people, there was really just no going back," he confessed.
With that response in mind, I went on to ask him what he thinks he'd be doing if he wasn't a musician. "Growing up I was a really rough kid, I was a criminal and graduating to do worse and worse crimes every year and I think that if I wasn't a musician I would probably be either a serious criminal, dead or in jail, without question," he honestly replied.
Following on from this, Earle went on to explain how music has helped him pull through the various tough situations he has been faced with throughout his life. "Music definitely helped me," he truthfully admits. "It's just like we can say somethings are easier said than done and the same thing with my music. I'm one to sit back and think about my songs a lot, where as in real life I'm quite hasty and very quick to react, i don't really stop and think," he chuckled.
Remaining on the topic of the more earlier times of Earle's life, he went on to explain what it was like growing up as Steve Earle's son and always being compared to him. "These days it doesn't happen a lot," Earle declared. "People ask me questions about my dad but I've had a career luckily that has distinguished me from him, as my father and I are pretty different. But also too, you have to remember that if I say my dad didn't have any influence over me then I would be lying, because that would be like saying what he does had no influence on what I do. You do no matter what your problems are with your family, and god knows my father and I have had our fair share of problems, have to realise that he did come before me and he was one of the people that blazed the trail that I'm on. So it's never bothered me, because I've watched a lot of sons and daughters in this town get in bands and they just hated it when people said anything, but it's like what did you think was going to happen?" he stated. "Do you really think if you're a plumber and your father is also a plumber that no one is going to talk about it? Then if you do something public, well yeah they're definitely going to talk about it," he laughed. "There's this one guy who has a little blog and every time I put out a record he writes the very first review to hit the stands and just destroys and tears my records to pieces and says that I sound just like my dad. People can call me whatever they want though, and probably by the end they're going to know that I just don't give a stuff," Earle exclaimed.
Enough about the past, we then moved on to talk about Earle's new upcoming record, ‘Single Mothers,' which is due for release next month. Being two years between this album and his last, ‘Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now,' Earle went on to fill me in on what he's been up to during that time. "It's been insane!" he reflected. "I got married a year ago which has changed my life in every way possible, which has been amazing. But before that, I was questionable," he added. "I was in a state that was not very good. I had been alienated from a lot of people. I was very shut in and didn't go out really at all, I just stayed at home and wrote, read books and stuff like that. So I was definitely in a very dark place, which I didn't feel like explaining to people at the time. Due to a lot of things," he explained. "I've always found that when we think things are at there worst, either you die or it's going to be just fine. So either way, you're just always fine," he laughed.
"Everything that was dramatic in my life, you can look back on at laugh at them now, even terrible situations, people will laugh about them later on. I mean there are some exceptions for sure, but after 32 years, I've finally realised that my life was hard because I was making it hard on myself by putting myself in situations to be hurt and hurt other people, and I was just blindly or maybe unknowingly walking into these situations that I knew were not good," Earle continued. "I didn't have any problems with drugs over the last two years at all, but the last two years, I was definitely getting pretty close to it," he admits. "But now, just like always, life is good and I have somebody who now, for the first time, I can count on and know they depend on me and I depend on them. That changes everything," he exclaimed. "I feel if you get married and it doesn't change anything in your life than you've definitely married the wrong person, which I'm afraid most people do," he concluded.
Knowing he grew up mostly with his mother as a child, I asked Earle if this had influenced the name behind his forthcoming album, ‘Single Mothers,' or if it intact had no reference to that fact at all. "It's definitely that," Earle declared. "I have very high respect for women and especially for very strong women," he exclaimed. "Single mothers absolutely have to be strong, because when they fail it's really bad. There's just so much at stake. But at the same time, I can still see how it crushes some of them, and it does, they have no way out" he added. "I had a good example of a very strong mother. She went to limits to raise me that she's paying for today. Physically with her knees and all that, because she worked really hard labour in order to raise me," he explained.
Next Earle went on to explain how the stories he tells throughout this album differ from that of his pervious releases. "I think that just like in every record, I'm always in a different place because that's how I've learnt," he began. "I do my best to be conscious of that, and try to do my best to represent not only myself but the situations and feelings that I'm going through, and I'm very lucky to have that outlet to do that. I have a real strong belief in that you should never write about anything that you don't know anything about. So a certain amount of songs are obviously going to be past tense, I have a lot of past tense stories to draw from," he admits. "I want to be a different writer every time I make a record. I don't ever want to make a record that is in any way just like the last one," he remarked.
"So I would definitely say this album is very different to the last one," he stated. "My band on the last one was ten pieces and the band on this record is four, including me, so that was definitely a new experience in making a record, for me. So it's a very stripped down record and definitely the most stripped down record that I've ever made," Earle continued. "I don't know where it is going to go next, and I don't like deciding where it's going to go next," he laughed. "I'll know when it gets there."
"It was a very different experience for sure," Earle replied when asked what the experience of going from recording with a ten piece band to a four piece group was like. "I'd never worked in a band with those kind of dynamics. I couldn't be prouder of the guys that I have in my band though," he exclaimed. "I have musicians that are older than me and have worked a lot longer than me, and that I've looked up to my whole career, for sure. I saw Paul Newhouse play for the first time when I was about seventeen. I remember saying, 'oh god I wish I could have him in my band', and the same thing with Mark & Matt. The first time I heard them I was like ‘wow' I want to work with them, and now here we are, they helped me record my album," he exclaimed. "You know, as an artist where you are performing your songs over and over again, night after night you get sick of them, but performing with my band is one thing I will never get tired of. They're always there adding extra bits to make it more awesome and I just love it," he concluded.
In terms of his favourite song from the upcoming album, Earle responded explaining, "I think the song that I am most proud of is ‘White Gardenias.'Billie Holiday played such a big role in influencing the way that I sing throughout that song and just the way that I write a lot of my music, and so many people have tired to write songs about her, and most of them are terrible," he remarked. "Once again, there's just something simple about it, and I'm not saying it's about Billie Holiday, it's just about some woman, but it's based on that kind of conviction," he added.
Moving on to chat about touring, I asked if we could expect to see him on New Zealand shores for a tour or performance any time in the near future (this interview took place a few days before the announcement of Justin's NZ tour, see the bottom of the page for details!). "Yeah for sure," he chimed. "I'm sure we will," he added. "I'm hoping that in the near future we will definitely be able to get over there and have a little more time, because it's usually just Auckland and Wellington, you know. Although I fortunately did get a chance to play and see Christchurch before the earthquake, and my god it was incredible. It was such a beautiful city, it still baffles my mind when I think about that earthquake. But it's just such an amazing country with amazing people and is a place that is unlike any other place," he added. "Australia has that and so does New Zealand and I love coming to those places for that very reason."
"I like to go to baseball games," Earle replied, when asked what his favourite aspect of touring was. Out on the road I carry a bucket full of baseballs and a box full of baseball mitts and I'll get anybody I can involved in a game of catch," he laughed. "I played baseball when I was really young, up until about 12 years old," he admits. "Soccer was the sport that I excelled at and liked playing the most back then," he went on.
"When not recording in the studio or on tour, performing though, if the weather permits, my wife and I like to go outside of Nashville to Cumberland and go swimming for the day," Earle explained when asked what we're most likely to find him doing in his spare time. "I'm an avid writer also," he says. "I don't just write songs, I write poetry and I'm writing a novel right now," he declared. "I can always occupy myself at my best. I'm a big antique collector also, I heart antique stores," he chuckled.
When asked who he'd love to work or collaborate with some day, Earle truthfully responded, "I don't like to write with anybody. I haven't done it in a long time and I've only done it once before," he laughed. "But I would like to work with Matt Ward," he quickly added. "He's definitely one of the people of my generation of artists that I think is the most creative. He has a very large respect for the people and the music that have come before us, and I would just really like to see how his mind would work when brought up against my songs, I think it'd be a lot of fun," he exclaimed.
As the interview drew to an end, Earle left me with some wise words of wisdom for other artists wanting to become successful in the music industry. "First off, don't get down-hearted, because it's going to be a long, hard drive," he began. "But I'll tell you the best thing that I can tell anybody about this business, is that before you talk to anybody about any kind of record deal or anything, make sure that you have a lawyer that you can trust. Because this business is full of loop holes and full of criminals," he stated. "Because if you don't do that, you can forget about the rest. You may get to the point of writing a song but you won't end up making the record. That's the business side of it you know," he laughed. "The artistic side of it is, don't ever think you've arrived, there's a long way to go no matter where you are in your status or whatever, in the music business. Just always grow and always ask questions," he concluded.
Justin Townes Earle is touring NZ this October!
Thurs October 23rd: CPIT, The Bedford, Christchurch - Ticket info via MuchMore Music
Friday October 24th: Bodega, Wellington - Ticket info via MuchMore Music
Saturday October 25th: Tuning Fork, Auckland - Featuring at the Southern Fork Americana Fest, tickets via Ticketmaster
Single Mothers can be pre-ordered at iTunes now!