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He sings Billie Holiday songs to his wife when she has trouble sleeping, and he plans on writing his soon-to-be-born baby daughter Etta her own lullaby. Could this possibly be the same man that has been known to say that when he hears “Walking on Sunshine,” he gets “fighting fucking mad” because it’s such a happy song? The same man that, at 35, has suffered and battled a severe drug addiction which he finally kicked after numerous trips to rehab? It is. Justin Townes Earle, former addict but now happily married and expecting his first child this summer, has just released the best album of 2017, Kids In The Street.
His new life, while it carries more bliss and less pessimism than his past, is still turbulent. “Nobody says that just because you’re happily married that everything is going to go right after that.” But he has a different perspective on life now, which is reflected in his new album. “[I have] a more positive outlook on things – not as gloomy of an outlook, and [I look] more outward.” The new LP reflects that Earle “can relate a little more to humanity than [he] ever did.” The album shows his maturity as both a person and as a songwriter. “We have to advance songwriting in some way. And over the years, we learn to get better at this thing called life,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “I definitely couldn’t have made this album five years ago. It was just the right time to do this kind of record, and it’s a record I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but I think I just knew better to do it, till I could do it right.”
Even his voice on Twitter has changed in reflection of impending fatherhood. “I’m like my dad [rock and country legend Steve Earle] – I’m a fucking loudmouth. But if you want to hear something stupid my dad said, you gotta dig through print. And some of it didn’t even survive!” He compares this to the ability of technology to capture and record our real-time thoughts on the internet. “I’ve already got enough things that my daughter is going to read and be like ‘Dad. What the fuck?’ when she gets older. So, the idea of that just chilled me out on Twitter,” he laughs. “No more going ‘Whatever douchebag’ to somebody that says something I don’t like.”
Make no mistake, Earle is still ornery and shows a jaded streak that lies deep within him. Happy songs still make him angry. “I don’t think songs should feel better than we do.” While his new music, including the album’s first single “Maybe a Moment,” conveys a bit more hope than some of his past work, he still says, “I wouldn’t call my songs ‘feel-good.’ I’d just call them…realistic.”
This realism is conveyed in the song “Same Old Stagolee,” which Earle wrote in terms of “the all-too-common conflicts that take place in our inner-city neighborhoods.” Ever a musical historian, Earle notes that the legend of Stagolee “was advanced throughout the years and changed,” with versions appearing from as early as 1910 through the 1970s. He resurrected the song, because he believed “this was a song that could be directly related to this day and age . . . I felt the whole thing could be completely relatable to a neighborhood rivalry stirred by crack dealing, basically.”
As a former addict, Earle is no stranger to the harder side of life. “I got into hard drugs from very early on, and I got as involved and as deep as I could into the shit.” He ruminates: “You know, you hang around in the barbershop long enough, you’re gonna get a haircut.” He notes that while his upbringing was “rough” but “not that bad of a situation,” he put himself into harm’s way with his use of drugs.
Surprisingly – or refreshingly, depending on how one looks at it – Earle doesn’t regret his involvement in that scene. “You learn a side of life that most people have no idea of the truth of. And you get this unique perspective on life,” he says. To his credit, Earle cops to being a bad actor himself, and holds himself responsible. “I did some very bad things . . . But if you want to do some gangster shit, don’t be surprised when some gangster shit happens to you.”
However, Earle has no concerns that his songwriting ability will suffer as a result of his new life choices. “I’ve spent longer of my life either addicted to drugs or in a bad mental state – a bad state of heart – so there’s plenty of backlog,” he laughs. “I’m just now getting to ‘kids in the street,’ so I’m still clearly dealing with childhood.”
The album is the first Earle has done outside of Nashville and the first he did with an “outside” producer, Mike Mogis. He says it took some convincing to get him to work with someone other than “his people,” noting that people “who grew up in Nashville consider ourselves right [about music]. We are surrounded by the best musicians in the world. That’s where the biggest concentration of them are. So, you get this idea – if you want to gamble, and you want a hooker, you go to Vegas. You don’t fly them in or go anywhere else!” But ultimately, he’s glad he relented to the label’s pressures to work with an outside producer and notes that he learned a lot about instrumentation and production by working with Mogis.
“Getting out of Nashville, [I realized] there are other ways to approach it, there are other ways to do things.” For example, while he says the album’s inclusion of the clarinet was his idea, Mogis taught him “that there’s a lot of instruments that can be involved in what I do that I didn’t necessarily think of,” including the glockenspiel, the Mellotron and the bajo sexto.
But, even when allowing for new approaches and influences in the production of the album, he took his normal approach of making the record: with his first focus being songwriting. “I always go in with the songs ready to go . . . I’m not willing to show up and let somebody help work on my songs, as far as my melodies and things like that are concerned,” he says. Ever one to stick firmly to his guns, Earle says matter-of-factly, “And so people gotta be prepared for that – you’re not picking my songs.”
*Photos by Joshua Black Wilkins
Standout Track: “Champagne Corolla”
Follow on Twitter @JustinTEarle