Reverb Q&A: Justin Townes Earle

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Justin Townes Earle plays Northshore Performing Arts Center in Bothell, 8 p.m. Sun., May 17, and Silver Platters in Northgate, 3 p.m. Sun., May 17.

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Reverb Q&A: Justin Townes Earle

  • Reverb Q&A: Justin Townes Earle

  • ">

    earlejr.jpg

    Justin Townes Earle plays Northshore Performing Arts Center in Bothell, 8 p.m. Sun., May 17, and Silver Platters in Northgate, 3 p.m. Sun., May 17.

    Oh his albums, Justin Townes Earle bears almost no resemblance to his father, outlaw troubadour Steve Earle. In conversation, however, it's impossible not to notice the similarities. Not only do father and son both curl their vowels in that dry Texas twang, they also make their opinions known via punchy, definitive language that seem tailored to get them into trouble. Young Earle is aware of this. In the song "Mama's Eyes" from his new album Midnight At The Movies, he sings, "I'm my father's son/I've never know when to shut up."

    But the similarities pretty much end there.

    Currently on tour in support of Midnight At The Movies, Justin Townes spoke with Seattle Weekly about his thoughts on songwriting, Americana music, and why SXSW is a big pain in the ass.

    Before we get to your new album, I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with your father on his new album, Townes, which is a tribute to his songwriting mentor Townes Van Zandt, the man who's name you were given. You trade verses with your father on "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold". A lot of people know about your dad's history with that song. I was hoping you could tell me a little about your history with that song.

    Well, being a Townes Van Zandt fan and growing up in a town full of Townes Van Zandt fans (Nashville--ed.), you hear his songs played a lot. But a song like "Mr. Mudd & Gold" is the one you could play to make everybody shut up. I mean, that's one of the toughest songs to learn, that one and "Silver Ships of Andular". Nobody could put words together like that. It's just so poetic and complex but he's not trying to bullshit you. It still tells a story. I think I've been playing that song since I was 15, something like that.

    You really take a no-bullshit, "say-what-you-mean, mean-what-you-say" approach to your lyrics. In other words, they won't be misunderstood. What influenced you to do this, as opposed to a more poetic, metaphor-driven approach?

    I think metaphors are for pussies. People use metaphors when they don't know what they're talking about. Everything that I write about is something that I've lived or experienced. The way I write is blunt and it's to the point because...look, there's a big difference between poetry and writing songs. Y'know what I'm saying? The line between the two is huge. You take Tom Petty...Tom Petty writes great songs. They're simple, they're to-the-point, but they got a great melody. They're just really good songs.

    And everybody can understand them.

    Right. Exactly.

    Midnight At The Movies has a sort of classiness to it. In addition to the twang, there's also a fair amount of jazzy chord progressions. I hesitate to call it countrypolitan, but it's certainly splits the difference between "uptown" and "backwoods". What would you call it?

    Well...I don't know. I make American music, Southern American music. I like to combine sounds like that. With this record we really just wanted it to sound like an entire region whether it be Eastern Kentucky or Muscle Shoals, Alabama, y'know? So, with this record, we got to experiment with different sounds a little more and when we were doing "Poor Fool" Skylar Wilson was like "Let's try adding vibes to this." And I was, like, I've never heard that before, y'know, vibes on a country song. But we did it and it sounded really cool, adding this Muscle Shoals element to this classic honky-tonk song. So, y'know, that's what I wanted to do with this record...just take all these different sounds and combine them. I mean, no matter what region it is, all Southern music comes from the church. Whether it's bluegrass, or gospel, or blues, or whatever, all of it is based in the music of the church.

    I believe the last time you toured, it was just you and your banjoist (Cory Fuller) in a Ford F150 pick-up. Is that your set-up this time around?

    No. No, I got a big van now. And it's just me in it some of the time. It's just the state of the economy, y'know.

    Banjoists are expensive, eh?

    Well, the last time around it was like that too. Y'know, Cory would do some shows and take a little time off here and there. He volunteered to do that this time around, as well. We tour hard and Cory gets paid on a show-by-show basis, so if he wants to take a few days off, he deserves to.

    Since there's a good amount of instrumentation fleshing out these songs and different arrangements, how do you make your songs hold up in a live setting if you're going solo?

    I'm a singer-songwriter. All of my songs are acoustic based. When we go into the studio, I make sure that however they get recorded I can still go out and represent them properly in a live setting. And at my shows...people at my shows are fans of songs, they're fans of lyrics. So, y'know, they're there because they like the lyrics and they want to hear the words. Plus, I always hated it when I'd buy a record and then go see the band live and they'd sound just the same as the record. I mean, if I'd known they were gonna be like that, I woulda just saved my money and stayed home and listened to the record. So, it's not only economical for me to go out and play solo or with just Cory, it also gives the fans a chance to hear them a little differently.

    And it keeps you sane, not playing the same thing night after night and wrangling all those musicians.

    Totally.

    I have to ask...earlier this year I read an interview in which you said you'd "rather go to the dentist than to SXSW." You've since played SXSW, so I'm curious...how did it go?

    What'd I say? (Laughs) Oh, that I'd rather go to the dentist than...well, look, SXSW always does good things for me. I have a real love/hate relationship with it. For one, I don't drink anymore. I don't lead a rock n' roll lifestyle, y'know. Mostly I read a lot of books and spend a lot of time at home when I'm not touring. So, when I played SXSW, I rented a room at a motel about a half hour outside of Austin. I get someone to drive me to the shows and pick me up and drive me back from the shows. I mean, if you're not drinking it's a whole lot easier to do everything you wanna do down there. I do about four shows a day when I'm there. I've always said that getting to a show in Austin during SXSW is ten times harder than getting to a show any day of the week in Manhattan. It's crazy. I mean...SXSW has been good to me, but it's a pain in the ass.

     
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