Saturday, 5 March 2011

Justin Townes Earl

Published in Inpress (Melb), September 2010

Justin Townes Earle

Earlier this year up at Bluesfest just outside of Byron Bay, I sat down and spoke to Justin Townes Earle – son of Steve, Godson of Van Zandt, stratospherically talented solo musician in his own right.  Ex-Drive By Trucker, Jason Isbell, was there too, the pair having just performed a duo set together in front of thousands of punters, and the three of us smoked cigarettes, drank coffee and talked about music.  Over the course of half an hour we covered much, with Townes Earle in particular in good form, revelling in the scene, happy to talk, the perfect Southern gentleman.

Townes Earle has, however, a dark past, and one which isn’t particularly secret – it’s quite well known that he was thrown out of his father’s band, The Dukes, due to his penchant for drugs and drink, something which re-manifested itself in quite ugly fashion a couple of weeks ago when Townes Earle was arrested outside an Indianapolis club after a show, for allegedly assaulting the club owner’s daughter, as well as resisting arrest.  The incident followed a surly show by the Nashvillian troubadour by all accounts (he reportedly finished his set with ‘Walk Out’, from his 2009 record, Midnight At The Movies, which he then did, eschewing an encore) – it seemed these were tough times indeed for this master purveyor of song.

Then last week, just before time of writing, a press release landed in my inbox saying Townes Earle had postponed the remainder of his current US tour to return to rehab, which isn’t really a surprise given his alleged behaviour earlier in the month.  To some degree then, this announcement also puts into perspective my second interview with Townes Earle, a couple of weeks ago via phone, where he was short, had little to say, and was generally not the perfect Southern Gentleman.  Not to say he was rude, just not as chatty and forthcoming as he was when I first met him, up in the convivial surrounds of Bluesfest. 

The reason we were having this second conversation, was due to the recent release of his third full-length record, Harlem River Blues.  For however dark the man’s past may be and however deeply he’s re-embracing it, it’s his music which shines forth, a burning beacon and a monument to the talent this man possesses, the real reason why he, and his name, come to the fore so very often.  “I think I’ve arrived at a place where I’m still hungry and I’m still seeking, but I’m at a place where I understand where I actually am, what I am and who I am as a writer,” he muses when I put it to him that with this new record, Harlem River Blues, he finally seems fully comfortable with who he is and where he’s going as a musician.

“I’ve come to understand that now, I’m no longer struggling through adolescence,” the 28 year old then almost smiles.  I ask whether or not this realisation was a slow build, or if it just occurred with the writing of this record.  “I just woke up one day and was just comfortable with where I stood, which I think is very important as it makes it much easier for your art when you’re not struggling for your identity,” he says.  I for one am glad that Townes Earle is no longer struggling with who he is, as when you think of the stock this man comes from, you’d think his identity would have been something he’d have been struggling with for some time.  Harlem River Blues though, as I mentioned, shows Justin Townes Earle as a man of his own making, a man who knows where he’s going and what he wants.

It reeks with poise and precision (or as much precision as you need on a record of country tinged juke jives and balladering), and evokes images of Woody Guthrie through it’s ‘at the coalface’ songwriting, that true folk tradition of story telling through song rising to the surface like so much cream, ready to be scooped and enjoyed, time and time again.  “Yeah, I think you have to insert little amounts of imagination when you write like that, otherwise it comes out as kinda like a diary entry,” he says when I ask where these songs are coming from, and also the importance of living what you write about, all whilst adding your own flavour to the mix.

“But I think it’s very, very, very much important to write about what you know, about what you’re going through and things that you understand – if you’re gonna write a story song, make sure you understand the story that you’re trying to tell,” he says.  Harlem River Blues takes you on a journey, through New York with ‘One More Night In Brooklyn’, to rail yards around the country on ‘Working For The MTA’.  It evokes images seemingly familiar, and yet as far removed from anyone who’s lived them as is physically possible.  As well, this is a record of sonic growth – electric guitar and gospel choirs, honky tonk rags and hillbilly stomps, it’s Justin Townes Earle being comfortable enough in his own musicianship to roam freely across a sonic landscape of his own making.

“I was listening to a lot of gospel whilst making this record, from the Carter Family to the Staple Singers and I tried to put my finger in the middle of it to make different styles,” he tells.  “I think it was kinda time to step out, I mean, the last thing I ever, ever want to do, is make the same record twice, that’s not art, you’ve gotta move on in order to keep yourself busy and keep yourself happy.”  He’s done that, and is indeed keeping himself busy, although at this point, and perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, he doesn’t seem to be keeping himself happy, but that I guess, comes with being an artist of the calibre of Townes Earle.  I’m interested to know then, what he was looking to come out with when he went in to make Harlem River Blues?

“I wanted to make a gospel based, big room sound record,” he says thoughtfully, and this is basically all he has to offer on the subject, and truthfully, it’s what he’s done, it’s what he set out to do, and so Justin Townes Earle is happy, in his own way.  Whilst on a personal level he may not be in total control, when it comes to this music he’s making, it’s all in place, every ragged note where it should be, hence the appeal, of Justin Townes Earle.

Samuel J. Fell

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