By making notable breaks from aspects of his professional life (via a new label) and his personal life (by getting married), the young songwriter with the famous last name has finally grown up and settled down.
BY SCOTT RECKER
Justin Townes Earle has been on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride lately. He had a falling out with Communion Records, which is partially ran by Mumford and Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett and was initially scheduled to release his forthcoming record. He found a new home at Vagrant Records, which released his fifth studio record, Single Mothers, on September 9th. And he was recently married, after which he spent half a year in his wife’s hometown, Park City, Utah. Now he’s back in Nashville, where he grew up, with what is another excellent piece of his never-ending search for “the sound” by bringing a more sparse, country-blues feel to the smooth, rhythmic Memphis soul he adopted so effortlessly on his previous record, 2012’s Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. We caught up with Earle to talk about Single Mothers, how getting married has affected his songwriting, why he hates the show Nashville, and eavesdropping on strangers in restaurants.
BLURT: With each album you seem to be slightly tweaking and exploring your sound, as well as adding new ones. How do you think Single Mothers breaks new ground, has helped you evolve and/or differentiates itself from your other records?
JUSTIN EARLE: This record is very stripped down compared to my other records. It’s much more spare and exposing. There’s very little room to hide behind the four-piece band. But it delves further into the blues. When I first started playing guitar it was all about Texas and Delta blues. So, I think it’s kind of shifting back toward that, blending it with the Memphis sound of the last two records. Ya know, I get bored really easily. So far, I haven’t had to try to make each record different, because I’ve existed in a different place, listening to different music.
It was released later than expected because of label troubles. Could you talk a little bit about that?
The short and simple answer, without getting into details, which there’s no need for, is that we had some clashes as to what we thought was promised. Ya know, I don’t get along with blow-dried college boys anyway. And we actually made a mutual agreement to fuck off. After coming from Bloodshot — who, they love what they do, they are very good at it, when they say the check’s coming, the check’s coming — and then to a know-it-all, start-up bunch of bullshit. And that fell through and I found my way to Vagrant, which has the same feel as Bloodshot, just a little higher level.
How did you get hooked up with Vagrant Records?
After the deal fell through with Communion, several record labels came knocking. It didn’t take terribly long to sign on Vagrant.
Has your songwriting process changed at all? Or has it remained pretty consistent, from writing and recording 2007’s Yumato now?
Most of my records were written in vans going down the road and things like that. This record was much more of a desk record, I think. I got married and didn’t feel the need to run constantly. So, I had to adapt my writing style to that. That’s what being an artist is: the day that you become stagnant, the day that you have nothing else more, that’s your time to crash and burn.
It seems like you use fictional characters a lot when you write, but how much do real-life experiences slip into those stories, as well?
With my personal experiences and along with keeping my ears open and keeping my eyes open, it has blended together, for sure. Composite characters of all kinds of people I’ve met through my life. I do have a really bad habit of listening to people’s conversations in restaurants. When I wrote “Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” [which appeared on 2008’s The Good Life] it’s because I heard a guy in a restaurant say, ‘You’ll be glad that I’m leaving, woman.’ And I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I wrote “White Gardenias” after I heard a quote from Billie Holiday: ‘Every night I had the white dress and the white shoes and they brought me the white gardenias and the white junk.’ So, I just took the junk off the end, because that’s become a part of my life that is far enough in the past and I’ve changed enough from that point that I’ve said everything to be known about that. I can’t even explain how much my life has changed in the past year.
You briefly touched on this, but circling back to it for a second: You were recently married. Did that have an impact on this record?
The record was pretty much written by that point, but there were a few songs that were added and, yes, it did affect those songs and it did affect the way that I went through and edited my songs. So, there were definitely some new ideas and new thinking added in.
Are you guys living in Nashville?
Yeah, we’re in Nashville right now. We spent the first six or seven month in Park City, Utah, where my wife is from. It was a strange experience. It’s definitely different people in a different city. It was amazing to be out west in the mountains and the desert. I’ve been out there before and spent a day or so in the desert or something like that, but living out there was pretty amazing. I was introduced to a whole new way of life and a whole new way of looking at the country. There are too many horrid images of us as Americans. It restored a little faith.
On Twitter, sometimes you seem frustrated by the way Nashville has changed. What are the pros and cons of being a songwriter in Nashville right now?
The city that I grew up in, the Nashville that I knew for the first 28 years of my life — I’m 32 now — is gone. It’s completely gone. It’s buried under the ugliest condos I’ve ever seen and disrespected from the start of our history. I’ve heard so many people say, ‘Well, now Nashville has a new, great reputation.’ And it’s like, What the fuck was wrong with our reputation before? What was wrong with the history of the Grand Ole Opry and country music? I don’t see anything that was in the attic with that. What, we need a stupid TV show that makes us all look like douchebags? That really improved the image of our city. It’s like we all wear rhinestone pants and fucking ugly cowboy boots.
You produced Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business in 2012. It was your first time producing, if I’m not mistaken. What was it like to produce someone that renowned during your first time producing?
I co-produced with Skylar Wilson on my first five records. Well, not counting Yuma. All my full lengths. So I had experience producing myself, but you’re talking about having to please yourself and your audience and you know that a little better. Trying to please a 78-year-old woman who has made records for almost 50 years; it’s like, what do you do there? I listened and just found her sounding uncomfortable on the last several records. Stuff that I just didn’t feel represented Wanda Jackson as Wanda Jackson. Before I had my first meeting with her, I went through her Decca [Records] years. I picked some songs, she picked some songs and I helped make a record that was a little more of a throwback to her Decca years, but she was really excited about it.
After you release a record, how long is it before you start working on the next one? Does it vary?
I write when I get the feel to write. When I have something to write about. My records are written to be records, there are never any extra songs. When I feel like they’re finished, they’re finished. And I’m very careful about that. I want to know, by the time I’m done writing, to know the order that the songs go in? I wrote Nothings Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now in sequence. And I don’t think that record could have had the integrity that it did and told the story right without that.
I would imagine since you approach things with that sort of meticulousness that it has probably helped you keep things fresh without having to force anything.
I look at it carefully, but you do have to know that line where you are going to overwrite it. I suggest to everybody to listen to the masters like Bob Dylan and people like that, who can string an amazing line of words together, but I take an example from Tom Petty, too: as few words as possible, the most important information, leaving room for your fans’ imagination, who want to feel a part of what you do.