Singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle: ‘I was very lucky to survive my teen years’

Kate Robertson talks to Americana singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, who plays in Auckland this week, about music and survival.

Justin Townes Earle is a complex character to unpack. Son of Steve Earle (who was singing about a Galway Girl long before Ed Sheeran), Townes Earle’s somewhat turbulent childhood has long served as a launch pad for his music. Drugs, alcohol, an estranged parent, and a youth he admits he was lucky to have survived.

His most well-known song, the Americana Award-winning ‘Harlem River Blues’, might be one of the genre’s greatest, but again, came amidst a period of alcoholism that became synonymous with his name. This time around things are different. The troubled 20-something of the early albums is all grown up, happily married, and has recently welcomed his first child, and there’s a contentment to his music that just wasn’t there before.

If you’ve not dabbled much in the Americana genre, a coming together of blues, roots, folk and country, Townes Earle’s latest release Kids In The Street is a pretty nice place to start. Why? Because it makes for incredibly pleasant listening and requires a bare minimum emotional buy-in. It’s finger-tappin’, road-trippin’, easy like Sunday morning music that makes your soul feel good, and that could sheath your surroundings in a warm golden haze if you let it.  

You worked on Kids In The Street with entirely new people to your previous albums. Was that a strange experience, walking into a studio with all those strangers?

It was weird. I had one person who was familiar, but every other player, the producer, the studio and even the town was new. I’d never spent any time with any of those people, and I questioned it every day until we got a track down.

It sounds like the first day of school, but the proper first day when everyone’s new.

I think it’s exactly that. Only what if someone did actually go in on the first day of school and record everything that happened, then put it out for the world to listen to. It adds this whole other edge to it. It wasn’t a feeling of dread, but a worry I hadn’t felt going into the studio in a long time. I was uncomfortable, but that’s the thing, you can’t always be comfortable.

You have a history of churning albums out pretty frequently but this one took longer. New band aside, was it a tough album to make?

It was a longer writing process for this record, I definitely went through these songs a lot. I’ve reached a point when I write where there’s no fat left, so I write the record to be a record. There are no extra songs, no extra verses, no alternate versions. I’ve gotten it to a point where it’s so lean that it takes me a little bit longer to write, but when I finish it’s a complete, ready to go, figured out album.

That sounds like the dream. Can you imagine writing 30 songs for an album then having to cut it down to 10?

I just couldn’t do that, but I guess it depends on how you want to make records. I want my records to have somewhat of a concept, they’re written to be a group of songs as opposed to being chosen from a pool of songs.

One of the singles ‘Maybe A Moment’ has a real teenage invincibility about it. Were you that fearless kid the song follows?

Most of my songs are compiled of characters, but that song is more autobiographical than any other. I’m not saying I was the one driving the car, but we definitely used to go the Memphis a lot as kids for punk rock shows. My neighbourhood growing up was mostly hard-working people and single parents, so we had a lot of time to run wild. I was very lucky to survive my teen years, my twenties, and I was definitely lucky to survive from nine years old to 13.

Kids in The Street is a pretty laid back record, is that reflective of where your life’s at now?

I’m at a place where I should be. If I was still displaying the same angst now as I was on Harlem River Blues, which I made when I was 28, I’d be worried. I’m proud of myself that I’ve settled down. I’m more thoughtful now in life and in music, the brakes have gone on.

Nashville, where you grew up and have spent a lot of your adult years, seems to be undergoing rapid gentrification, yet it’s so far remained this melting pot of talent. Are young artists still going there with that same wide-eyed ambition they used to?

I think more people are showing up with that ambition than ever. Y’know, there’s this transformation that’s happened with Nashville that I don’t think a lot of people grasp. In the late ’90s when I started touring I’d be talking to a girl and I’d say I was from Nashville, and she’d say ‘where’s that?’, I’d say ‘Tennessee’ and she’d say ‘where’s that?’, then I’d say mention country music and they’d finally register it. Nashville was this very obscure place where before, you only came if you specialised in a specific kind of music. Now it’s got this whole other dimension where the music being made has expanded in a massive way. There were only 400,000 people living there when I was a kid and now there’s near on two million. It’s changed a lot and is a very different ballgame.

You’re bringing The Sadies over with you. Could you give a quick rundown on them for us Kiwis who haven’t come across them before?

The Sadies are a Canadian band who I’m very lucky to be able to work with. They’ve been around for 25 years and have worked with all kinds of people. They’re one of the best live bands around, so the one thing I can say about the show is everybody better get their tickets because they ain’t seen nothing like it.  

After selling out his first show on 11 October, Justin Townes Earle and The Sadies will play a second show on October 12 as part of the Southern Fork Fest at the Tuning Fork in Auckland. Tickets can be found here.

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