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Interview: Justin Townes Earle Talks Murder and Parenthood

Interview: Justin Townes Earle Talks Murder and Parenthood

Danielle Street / Wednesday 4th October, 2017 12:38PM
Justin Townes Earle is returning to our shores a changed man. Since his last trip here in 2014, the Nashville native has become a father, which is probably most significant life change in a string of events that has also seen Earle quit his hard partying, overcome substance abuse and settle down to get married. Now living in Portland, a city chosen for its suitability to raise a family, Earle has been reflecting on his Tennessee youth and the changing face of Nashville due to creeping gentrification - a theme which is strongly reflected in his seventh studio album Kids In The Street

Despite the strong Nashville influence rippling through the record, it is the first album Earle hasn’t recorded in his home state, choosing instead to fly to Nebraska and work with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, First Aid Kit, She and Him) who Earle says brought a “hedge of sound” style to the new album. Ahead of his upcoming trip to New Zealand for the fourth iteration of the Southern Fork Americana Fest, we caught up with Earle to chat about both of his new babies… 

Hi Justin, how are you?

I. am. good.

Where are you at the moment?

I'm at home in Portland.

I understand you've just welcomed a new addition to your family? 

Thank you so much, yes.

Can you tell me a little bit about your new baby?

Yes, her name is Etta St James… Earle, of course. And she's now about a hefty 10 pounds. She came two and a half weeks early, so she was a tiny little thing. But no health problems whatsoever. She went straight home and she's great. She's a long legged thing because both me and mom are over six feet tall. 

Oh wow. That's very exciting. This is your first baby, right?


Was it a big shock to the system?

Um, the doctors and things seemed amazed by how me and my wife handled it, and we were just kind of looking at them like "well, we're 35 fucking years old”. And we've been married for years, so I think we should probably be okay with where we are at. And we are. Maybe we are taking it well and adjusting to it fine, but other than crazy sleep patterns it's just amazing. If I was in my 20s I would be panicked, where I was in my life at that point I would definitely be a little off-kilter. Um, and lucky for Etta that did not happen. She came now.

I love that you called her Etta. I'm assuming it's a homage to Etta James, and also carrying on that family tradition of paying tribute to a favourite musician?

Yeah definitely a push towards Etta James and just the fact it's one of those old names... I've only known one Etta in my life and she was an old black woman who lived in my neighbourhood growing up and I just always loved the name. I've always said that I wanted a daughter and that I wanted to name her Etta, since I was in my 20s. 

It's a beautiful name. So just going on to talk about your new record, it seems like there's a certain amount of reflection on your own childhood. Can you tell me a little bit about what growing up in Nashville was like?

Um, well it was definitely an experience that would be hard to fathom these days if you went and looked at Nashville now. It was a very different city, with very little happening it. And you could live in Nashville very very cheaply when I was a kid so a lot of the neighbourhoods where houses now sell for a million dollars, you could rent for $400 when I was a kid, and things like that. So it's looking back on that, and it's something a lot of people my age are doing these days. And people have done for generations, but I do think that our generation is getting hit with it faster than any other generation and it's going to keep getting faster and faster. And so it's kinda looking at that, the sweet - and the bittersweet - about the past. Because it's not like it was some beautiful beacon that people would want to live in necessarily, hahaha, most people that lived there considered it a pretty shit little burg when I was a kid.

Yeah, it sounds very similar to what’s happened where we here in Auckland. So it's definitely something I can relate to. Now that you live in Portland what would you say you missed about Nashville, if anything?

Well I think most of the things I miss about Nashville are either gone or too crowded now. That's kinda one of the things that is stunning about Nashville. It's not about a neighbourhood, it's about the whole town that has just completely changed. I just don't recognise a lot that's there anymore. I don't recognise the people in the neighbourhood or the restaurants and things like that. 

So for Kids on the Street you went to Nebraska, I believe, where you worked with Mike Mogis. What was behind the decision to do that?

Well, first off it was just working with Mike Mogis, and the studio out there is actually his studio and he's a producer that prefers to work in his own space. And with that, with working with Mike Mogus, you get away from whatever formula there is to working with anybody in Nashville. And, I think for me artistically, trusting and reaching out as an artist was important at this point. 

So how would you describe what Mike brought to the table for this record?

Um, he has a very full sound. It's not quite what you would call a Phil Spector "wall of sound" but I think you could call what Mogis does like a "hedge of sound". He likes to sneak a lot of things in there, to harmonise instruments with other things and create a bigger sound. But he has this super warm sensibility about how he records everything. Very very warm. One of the things that's alway impressed me about his recordings is his ability to capture acoustic guitar sounds, in everything he's ever recorded. 

I really liked your take on 'Stagger Lee'. I actually only recently read about the background to that song, which is a bit of a folk song standard, and thought it was interesting how it emanated from this story of a guy who was a pimp that murdered someone for taking his hat. What made you tackle that song for this record?

I think that in the same fashion that I approached 'They Killed John Henry', I feel like I owe something to the history of soul music. The idea of Stagger Lee and John Henry has been rewritten 100 times and updated to a specific time and place, and so I was thinking about that song. And today in America there are not too many people that are shot over somebody stepping on their Stetson hat, but there's a good few people shot because somebody stepped on their fucken Air Jordans. And so my guy's not a pimp, he's a crack dealer, he's a territorial crack dealer and a kid gets killed because he likes a girl from the wrong side of the street. So it's just updating it to a more modern storyline. 

I really enjoyed it, and I also really enjoyed really enjoyed reading a recent interview with you where you talked about Nirvana's Unplugged album being a turning point for you and the way you absorbed music. I really related to that. Do you still go back and revisit those albums of your teens?

I do now and then. And especially the songs on that the Unplugged record directly lead me to, which was the first Lead Belly recordings that I got my hands on, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, people like that which I found in the first six months after I discovered who Lead Belly was through that Unplugged feature.

That little gateway. 

Oh absolutely. And it did it really fast. It kind of put the brakes on everything that I was doing musically. All of a sudden my electric guitar went underneath the bed. I actually traded it for a better acoustic guitar. I had no more need for the guitar amp and the pedals and all that stuff. I started working my way backwards. I got into that thing starting at around 14 years old where I stopped paying attention to what was current in music and was really immersed in a lot of this older music.

We are really looking forward to your return to New Zealand... it is exciting for us and hopefully it won't be too hard to leave little Etta behind? I imagine touring is something that has to have a little more thought now?

It's definitely harder now. But there is still this burning sense in me that I need to make money, hahaha, you know. More now than ever. There's something that I am working for. So at the same time it makes me want to stay at home, it makes me want to tour, because it's what I do and it's how I make my money.

Well, we are looking forward to seeing you and thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you so much.

Justin Townes Earle will be performing at the Southern Fork Americana Fest on Wednesday 11th October and Thursday 12th October at the Tuning Fork, Auckland. 'Kids In The Street' is out now via New West records.


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