For the sake of the song
A conversation with Justin Townes Earle
by Tom Johnson
Interviews can be an odd beast. A twenty-ish minute dip in to the life of someone who often has so much more to say than yourself. You want it to matter, to have some sense of validity or relevance. You soon come to realise, however, that the result very rarely has anything to do with your own manner. Musicians, as people, have good days and bad. Some like to talk, others don’t. Some repeat a script, others ramble on, unprepared and happy to divulge all and anything/everything.
Despite all of this knowledge, you still crave for it to be lasting, to some degree. Even more so when that person has lived the kind of life that Justin Townes Earle already has.
Born in 1982, he holds Steve Earle as his father and Townes Van Zandt as his godfather. Impressive, on paper, but disruptive, crippling almost, in reality. Earle Senior would abandon his role a couple of years in to Justin’s life, leaving Jnr to grow up with his Mother, and she alone. The ensuing years would be a mixture of the sad and mad. Addiction at the age of twelve, a record contract by sixteen, a disruptive and soon-to-be-ended stint in his father’s band and numerous trips to rehab – the last of which would finally breed success, following a particularly abrasive relapse in 2010. He’s been sober and clean ever since and married in 2013.
All of which would be enough for most of us, but JTE continues on. Touring the world and making records, hailed by press and fans alike. Late last year he would release ‘Single Mothers’, a particularly poignant recollection of his early days and troubled relationships. Along with it came the announcement of a companion piece – ‘Troubled Fathers’ – released this month and which, despite the title, would offer something else; a glimpse of hope and salvation amongst the confusion.
And it’s at this point I catch up with Justin Townes Earle. A few hours before his European tour starts, in Glasgow, as part of this year’s Celtic Connections event. When I enter he’s attempting to deal with some “weird as shit bag of weed” he’s been given and admits to having not quite gotten over the jet-lag just yet.
He’s immediately compelling though; attentive and enthusiastic. I precede the interview by telling him that the piece will be written as prose and, as such, the questions will be somewhat loose so he should feel free to ramble on as much as he likes. What followed was the kind of conversation that stays with you. Resonant, intense, erratic; justification for throwing oneself in to these odd little situations in the hope they mean something to me, to someone else.
In the end it felt wrong to cut anything from it so here’s the chat in full, unedited and indispensable.
What are your early memories from the start of these two projects?
When I was writing this record I wrote ‘Single Mothers‘ first and things got so screwed up with Communion Records that I had to tell them to go fuck themselves. So Single Mothers should’ve been out over a year ago, now, but I had so much time in between that I wrote another part of the record. So much changed, I got married…people keep saying I got sober, but I’ve been sober nine out of the last ten years.
And so I combined these records and originally they were to be a double record but then I found out that Lucinda Williams was releasing a double record and you don’t want to bump chests with Lucinda Williams. We also had very little time in order to get it out, we’d already announced it was coming out in September, and it was literally like July when we finally got it figured out. So it was like boom, boom! We had to record it, master it and get it out…twenty-four or twenty-five songs like that.
How did that work out?
I’m never worried about my boys in the studio; I’ve never taken over ten days to make a record. So finally I decided that two records would be a better thing to do. Mainly because even though they’re brother and sister, they don’t have to be.
I like to write records like Bruce Springsteen – he writes records to be records. I never have extra songs lying around, ever. I write ten to, maybe, fourteen songs in a year and they become the record. Mostly because I’m scared of running out! I was also told that by many great songwriters, my dad included: Never write a song because you have an idea, think about the idea before you sit down and write it.
I’m influenced by life, you know? So these records represent my whole life leading up to my wife, and then it changes a good bit but there’s no kind of happiness, no walking on sunshine. Happy records make me angry, nobody has to worry about me making a happy record.
Where do the differences occur between the two records?
I think the difference between the two is that Single Mothers is still in the dark but, on Absent Fathers, the character can see the light. It’s a pin-hole way the fuck off in the distance but that is a hell of a lot better than being in the dark. We approach the light when we die, I guess – that’s what they always say! I prefer the Jewish terminology that it’s all just done… I can’t see that by the time I die wanting to do all of this again!
And do the lyrical themes of the two diverge much?
Yeah, mainly just because Single Mothers was already fully worked-out and realised…
Look, if you come in to the studio with me, I don’t want to hear your ideas until you’ve heard my ideas. My songs are always fully realised when I go in to the studio. I do listen to my players because, obviously, a drummer can tell me what works better in the drumming than I can, but the writing process I’m very stiff about. I can be a painfully slow songwriter. I never say “I have to finish this song!” it’s more like I don’t touch that son-of-a-bitch until I have something more to add to it. I’ve written very few songs in one day, very few. I think these days there’s a lot less simplicity in the lyrics but I keep everything else simple. There’s rarely a need for more than three or four chords, just keep it simple and let the lyrics speak for themselves.
Were you a wary of calling the album ‘Absent Fathers‘ given the notoriety of your Father and your relationship with him?
I’ve never been too wary about it. I’ve been mentioned unfavourably in my dad’s songs too! Some people say ‘The Boy That Never Cried’, on one of his records, was about me because I’ve been told that I never cried as a child, they thought something was wrong with me, that I had some kind of illness, because I just didn’t cry, about anything.
Look, it’s never bothered me; I’m not a bashful person. With songs like Momma’s Eyes my dad told me that he thought I was writing great songs and that I should never hold back on a song, if that’s where it’s going. And, you know, he’s taken it like a big boy and my mom absolutely loves all of those songs!
I think my Father understands that I have a different kind of respect for him than I do for my Mother. I do respect my Father but not in the same aspect. I mean, my Mother’s the one that threatened to beat up my teachers when they paddled me! I remember when she literally waited for a teacher to pull up in the parking lot and when she got out of the car she walked me over to her, leading me by the hand, and said: “This is my boy. If you ever lay a hand on him again, I’ll fucking kill you!”
Dad was just never around. But I understand that from this aspect, today. I had to text him this morning to say Happy Birthday to him. I understand that part, that distance, and I understand the drug situation too. I don’t want to see anybody that I loved when I was strung out, either. So I do understand it, but that doesn’t mean I’m never going to be touched or affected by it, even now. Absolutely I’m going to be.
My Dad and everybody’s learned to live with it, just as I’ve had to learn to live with it – and that’s just about the best you can do in this business. I know a lot of sons and daughters who think they’re owed something but…I’m fine with it. My dad came before me.
Do you ever feel like stepping-out of it all?
I don’t think that I ever could stop doing this. I do a lot of other things; I’m writing a book of short stories right now, I’ve always written poetry, I try to write ten haiku a day! Maybe I will get disillusioned with playing, but I’ll never stop writing, because it’s literally something I’ve done since I was eight years old. Started out writing short stories and poems, then moved on to songs when I was thirteen…went pro at fifteen! And it was totally a fake it until you make it sort of thing, completely.
What are the short stories you’re writing?
It’s hard to explain. It’s one situation told through the point-of-view of five people, but that situation takes place within a twenty-minute period in each story. The underlying story is how little we think of people who are in a lesser position than we are, and how we mistreat each other.
I’m a little stuck on this one particular story just now. I’m looking for that one little spark to start it at all, and I’m looking at it from the point-of-view of a sixteen year old prostitute who has no issue with being a prostitute, so, it’s tricky!
But she dies in the end.
Haha, oh yeah! Shit.
Do you find that process similar to writing songs?
No, not at all. Just because you can write prose…especially if you write prose, most of the time you’re going to be a shit songwriter. Short stories are a little different because you focus on the most important information and leave the rest out and leave a little for the imagination. Prose is completely different, poetry is completely different, because there is no set formula for it, where I say listen to the greatest songs of all time and none of them are five-minutes long. There’s this simplicity to them because people need to relate to them.
‘Absent Fathers’ feels like a simple document of how tough life is – the good bits as much as the bad. Do you still find life particularly difficult?
I just think that you need to work out what you can get mad about and what not to. I definitely walked around thinking everybody owed me something, especially my Father, which took a while to get over. But, you know, you can’t be like that.
You have to know who you are and you have to write from your point-of-view and that does take faking it for a long time. You’re going to write songs that sound just like your heroes and there’s not going to be a bit of originality about it! I’m not as personal a songwriter as people think I am, there’s a lot of composite there but if I didn’t do that I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was talking about because that’s what it’s been my entire life.
Honesty is a very big part of art and if you fake it people will know it – and by your mid-twenties, if you’re still faking it, then I would probably think about another occupation! I did not make a record until I was twenty-five years old. I had a record deal at eighteen but I thank everything that is out there that that didn’t happen because there was no way I could have put out a record like the ones I now have. There are a few songs leftover from that time; I wrote ‘Halfway To Jackson’ when I was fifteen years old, ‘Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving’ at sixteen, so there’s about seven songs that made it on to my earlier records that were from my teenage years, so a few made it out but everything else was shit. Everything! Complete shit.
You talk about reaching a point where the honesty comes through. Is that just something you suddenly realise?
I think that life is full of little corners that we’re supposed to take but I was on a straight-way for a long time! Never veering from the course that I was on. I still smoke a lot of dope but I didn’t realize, for a long time, that I didn’t need to be completely numb to navigate life. There are those people who say that you write better high and drunk, but there’s just no fucking way you write better impaired. How does that make sense?! It does not make sense. So I smoke a little when I write nowadays, but it’s not that debilitating…not when you’ve been doing it since you were ten years old.
But, yeah, I think everybody is offered… (Long pause) I think I was fucked from the beginning for certain things. I really don’t know of anybody, including my friends that I grew up with, dirt poor, gang bangers… (Long pause) They all did have chances to get the fuck out, but they did not take them. Luckily, eventually, I did.
My little brother is an electrician. He works, he goes home everyday and has a couple of drinks, plays with his daughter, watches the football on the weekend and that’s all he wants, that makes him happy. There’s no way that was going to make me happy. There’s no way I could have been a regular working-person for the rest of my life. I was going to have to do something ridiculous if I wasn’t going to make it doing this.
My wife is a Super G in downhill skiing, so maybe I might have flung myself down mountains at eighty or ninety mils per hour. It would have to be dangerous. I almost went to Alaska to work on fishing boars one time, I almost went to work on the oil rigs at Baton Rouge; there were all these different things which thankfully my music stopped me from doing – and I’ve been very pleased with the results, haha.
Are you at a point where you look forward now. Do you see yourself in ten, twenty years from now?
I do. Life has become something that is…I wouldn’t call it beautiful because there’s too much ugliness going on – and I don’t think it’ll ever be beautiful – but I think I have a capacity to deal with it now. This goes for most people: most of the time you need to have someone to help you carry the load and I will say that my wife has helped me to be a much calmer person. She still wants me to attack, but only when it’s necessary – and I used to think it was always necessary before I met her.
You’ve got to give it a chance sometimes, you’ve got to try different directions, and this is by far the most I’ve changed my direction in my life but I know that if I hadn’t have done it I would’ve regretted it more than anything else.
‘Single Mothers‘ and ‘Absent Fathers‘ are both out now.
Justin tours the UK/Europe from today, see the full set of dates here.