INTERVIEW: Justin Townes Earle (2009)

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“If I want to connect to the crowd I’ve got to connect with the fucking business too.”

Justin Townes Earle is right in the middle of promotional duties for his new album Midnight At The Movies and it is clear he understands what needs to be done in order to get his music out to as many people as possible. “Anybody who wants to write songs and thinks that they are going to be able to make any kind of living without the business is wrong,” he goes onto say, and as he makes his way across the Tennessee border to Nashville and then onto the SXSW showcase in Austin he talks openly about his troubled past and where he finds himself today.

Earle is in many ways a journalist’s dream in that he is the son of singer songwriter Steve Earle, he carries the name of the revered Townes Van Zandt (a close friend of Steve) and at the age of 27 he has already lived through drug and alcohol abuse and come out the other side. His debut album The Good Life was an impressive blend of Americana, folk, blues and hillbilly, backed up by with live shows featuring himself and sidekick Cory Younts displaying dextrous musicianship and a healthy respect for the musical footsteps in which they follow.

Though Earle jokes that he would rather go to the dentist than SXSW, it is his live shows that are rapidly gaining attention. He places great value in connecting with his audience and realises that touring is essential to his income in the digital age. “I know very distinctly that the reason I’m able to pay my rent every month is because people buy tickets to my shows,” he says. It is at his concerts where Earle builds a relationship with his audience, prowling the stage and looking them in the eye as he performs. “It helps connect to the crowd and people believe me too,” he says, “There’s a certain amount of fiction added into any song because most of the time you need fiction to write but a lot of it is based around truths and i think everybody knows I’m a very personal, confessional style songwriter and it makes it just that much more personal when you look somebody in the eyes and talk to them.”

Looking back to his early 20s when he succumbed to booze and smack, Earle in no way looks to glorify the lifestyle and in particular doesn’t buy into the myth of drugs as creative stimulants. “I think that’s bullshit. If you need some kind of mind altering substance to write a song then you’re not a songwriter, because you need help,” he replies strongly, “I wrote a lot when I was fucked up, a whole lot, but you know what, most of the songs I don’t even remember and don’t care to.” His new found sobriety has also helped to hone his songwriting and a particular talent for remembering lyrics. “I have a really strange kind of memory. I can remember words really well and sequences, how lyrics go together. I can can generally get away with not writing them down until we need them for the studio so people can do backup vocals,” adding, “Generally with my songwriting process there isn’t going to be a hard copy of the song.”

Though Midnight At The Movies is a definite step up from The Good Life in sound and subject matter, there were many similarities in the creation of both albums. “It was pretty much recorded the same way. Same people, same studio, same everything. I think we ordered food from the same restaurant,” Earle recalls before explaining how the record allowed him to face up to some things. “The last year or two of my life have been a very changing time, I’ve grown up a lot and I think I made a lot of rash decision in the past few years that got me into some situations that I didn’t want to be in. This record was a moving on kind of thing.”

Two of the standout songs on Midnight At The Movies are the contrasting ‘Mama’s Eyes’ and ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. The former is an achingly bold song that explains the relationship he has with both his parents. “Anybody that knows anything about Steve Earle  or knows anything about me and my mothers relationship understands that aspect of it but I think it needed to be stated and stated from my mouth in those words and brought down to the fact that even though I am my father’s son I will always be my mommas boy. That’s what the song is all about, setting my record straight.” When Earle sang the song in Sydney last November he quipped that his father hadn’t heard it yet. Four months on he is happy to report that Steve loves the song.

The sole cover on the album is The Replacements song ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, an upbeat country rock song that is carried by a beautiful floating melody and treated in such a way that it sits alongside Calexico in the contemporary Americana field. “It has a kind of broad sweeping special meaning to me,” explains Earle, “I was born in 1982 so it was probably around ’85 /86 when i started shaking my ass around the house to different records my Mom was playing and started getting interested in music. If you had parents who were even remotely hip in the mid 80s they had Replacements records.”

Touring will take up the bulk of 2009 with a return to Australia looking likely at some point. Earle is also teasingly optimistic that a third album may be recorded later in the year “I might take a little more time with this next one but i don’t know, I might be ready to release one in two weeks.”

Christopher Familton

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