Justin Townes Earle
Since launching his recording career a decade ago, Justin Townes Earle has established a reputation as a singular leading light in the Americana music community. With fearless, personally charged lyrical insight and infectious melodic craftsmanship, the young veteran singer-songwriter has built a rich, personally charged body of work.
Now, on his seventh album (and New West debut) Kids in the Street, Justin Townes Earle raises the creative and personal stakes to deliver a deeply soulful set that's both emotionally riveting and effortlessly uplifting. Taking himself out of his creative comfort zone and assembling a new set of collaborators, Earle has created one of his most potent efforts to date, reflecting all manner of new influences upon his life and his art.
"Life has changed a lot for me in the last few years," Earle reflects. "I got married and am getting ready to become a father, and this is the first record that I've written since I've been married. There's definitely an uplifting aspect to this record in a lot of ways, because I'm feeling pretty positive.
"When I wrote songs in the past," he continues, "I was looking in on what I was feeling, but this record's more about looking outward on what's happening, and writing about subjects like gentrification and inner city strife. This record also has more of a soul influence to it, and it's got a deeper connection to the blues than anything I've done before."
Earle's current level of inspiration is apparent throughout Kids in the Street, on which such tunes as "Champagne Corolla," "Maybe A Moment," "Faded Valentine" and the haunting title track paint vivid, vital portraits of characters at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Elsewhere, Earle's personalized update of the trad blues number "Stagalee" recasts that outlaw classic in modern terms, and his reading of Paul Simon's "Graceland" (included here as a bonus track) locates the gospel/blues number that's always been at the song's heart.
Several of Kids in the Street's songs reference the lower-middle-class Nashville neighborhoods of Earle's youth, which in recent years have lost their character to the creeping scourge of gentrification.
"Nashville has really changed for the worse, and it's not the same place it was," Earle notes. "The song 'Kids in the Street' is about that, and uses the names of streets in the neighborhood I grew up in. So does 'Stagalee.' My mom left the neighborhood long ago because of gentrification. And where she lives now is now the new site of gentrification; her property taxes have gone up to where she can't afford. I don't know where the hell she'll move to next, because there's no more working-class neighborhoods in Nashville."
Kids in the Street is, significantly, the first Justin Townes Earle album not recorded in Nashville. Instead, he cut the songs at TK in Omaha, Nebraska with producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Rilo Kiley), who helps to lend the album a distinctive sonic sensibility that's well suited to the songs' lyrical immediacy, and which brings out the best in Earle's heartfelt performances.
"It's the first time that I've worked outside of my usual umbrella of people to make a record," Earle explains, adding, "In Nashville, if you have the right connections, it'll spoil the shit out of you, because you've got access to the best musicians in the world and the best studios in the world. If you had told me when I started making records, that I wasn't gonna make every record in Nashville, I would have told you you were crazy. And if you'd told me that I'd end up making a record in Omaha, I'd tell you you were out of your freaking mind.
"I brought Paul Niehaus, who's been my guitar and steel player for about seven years, with me, but otherwise I used all local players," Earle says of the Kids in the Street sessions. "There was a part of me that was not completely comfortable with using musicians I'd never heard of, but overall it was a positive thing to get out of my comfort zone. Normally I like to stick with my people; I've had the same engineer on every record, and the same photographer for every publicity picture. So it was a bit of a challenge to put my trust in someone who captures sound in a different way. But it worked out really well.
"Mike has a great sensibility about him, and there's something really serious about the way he does it, but at the same time there's a lightheartedness in the way that he crafts music. It required some sitting back on my part, which took some effort, but it turned out to be great. We did all of the vocals and basic tracks live, which almost nobody does these days, but that's the way I like to work because it keeps it organic."
Mogis echoes Earle's sentiments. "I really didn't know what to expect heading into the session with Justin," he says. "I had heard that he could be a little difficult and unpredictable, but what I found was just the opposite. He kept the mood light, and always had something witty to say. He was curious and open to almost any suggestion. The band gelled quickly with him, so that led to a relaxed creative environment. The process of making this record was a lot of fun, and it was refreshing to work with an artist who wants to get the performance right. Neither Justin nor the band did a single punch or overdub. Justin is a guy who is deeply passionate and knowledgeable about music and its lineage, and his brain is like a musical encyclopedia. I learned a good deal of music history from him.”
Kids in the Street's songs are the product of an extended break from recording, during which Earle spent time living in New York City and northern California, before moving to his current home base of Portland, Oregon.
"It ended up taking a lot longer than I thought it would," he says. "About halfway through that, I decided to just go with it and to believe that's just what these songs needed. It was definitely more of an intensive writing process, getting everything just how I wanted it to be. For the last year of that process, I was living in northern Mendocino County, right on the water, and there's nothing to do around there but write. So I had the time to take to do that. But after a year there, it was a little too slow, so Portland here we come."
Earle's fierce fidelity to his creative muse has been a consistent thread throughout his young life. Born in Nashville on January 4, 1982, he grew up as the son of country-rock iconoclast Steve Earle, who gave him his middle name in honor of the great Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt.
Justin quickly came into his own as a songwriter and performer, displaying a natural talent for deeply revealing lyrics that reflected his often-harsh life experiences, and a musical approach that effortlessly integrated elements of blues, folk and country. His 2007 debut EP Yuma set the stage for a steady stream of acclaimed albums: The Good Life (2008), Midnight at the Movies (2009), Harlem River Blues (2010)), Nothing's Going to Change the Way You Feel About Me Now (2012), Single Mothers (2014) and Absent Fathers (2015). In the process, he built a large and devoted fan base that continues to support his work.
Now embracing marriage, sobriety and impending fatherhood, Justin Townes Earle is enthusiastically looking to the future. "I can't say if I'm getting better, but I'm definitely evolving as a songwriter," he states. "That's my goal, to soak up new things and be aware of seeing life from a different point of view. The only thing I hope is that, in some shape, form or fashion, each record I make is better than the one before."
Since their formation in 1994, Toronto's Sadies have developed, even perfected, a style of music that is uniquely their own. Possessing a deep fondness and reverence for the best of country, bluegrass and blues (CBGB!), they are equally informed and influenced by everything from 60s garage and psychedelic rock (Pebbles, Nuggets, et al) to surf instrumentals and punk rock. You're as likely to find an enthusiastic fan of Negative Approach or Crime as one of Santo & Johnny or Merle Travis within their ranks. It's all relevant and it all fits and that sort of depth goes a long way in helping to understand how they came to develop such a broad platform from which to launch their own musical explorations.
Through a trio of brilliant albums that began with 2002's "Stories Often Told", 2004's "Favourite Colours" and 2007's Juno Award nominated, "New Seasons" – they finally topped themselves with 2010's "Darker Circles" an accomplished album that received a Juno Award for Best Video and was short-listed for the 2011 Polaris Prize. "Darker Circles" was a departure from their previous releases, which despite having some fairly, er, dark themes and subject matter, resonated strongly with fans and critics alike. It stands out as the most fully-realized song cycle from the group – until now.
September 17th, 2013 will see the release of "Internal Sounds" an album that heralds a new level of achievement for The Sadies. This was largely due to refusing to be pressured by any deadlines but their own, taking their time over a period of nearly a year to get everything "just right" and using up every resource they had and every favour they could call in. "Internal Sounds" marks the first time Dallas Good has assumed the producer's role and this helped craft a record that is the closest the band has yet come to capturing their sound on an album. Vocals are clear and prominent, guitars are positioned high in the mix and the album has a tone that is overall fuller and richer. Some key assistance was provided by Peter J. Moore (mixing/mastering) and Gary Louris (who has produced much of the bands past work) with some vocal coaching and control room refereeing. The resulting album greatly benefits from all of these considerations and is by far the most confident and assured of their career. The final track features an amazing vocal performance from Buffy Sainte-Marie that is a thrill to hear and a fantastic way to finish off the record.
The numerous collaborations that the band has been involved with over the years have resulted in some of the most surprising and fun work they've done. These feature a tremendous range of artists from expat British punk rockers (Mekons' Jon Langford – "Mayors of The Moon" Album), L.A. troubadours (John Doe, formerly of X – "Country Club"), old timey R&B masters (Andre Williams – more on him later), to up and coming alt-country starlets (Neko Case "The Tigers Have Spoken" many tours and contributions to many of her solo albums). They've also worked extensively with ex- Pussy Galore founder and current Jon Spencer Blues Explosion frontman Jon Spencer's "Heavy Trash" project with NYC guitarist Matt Verta-Ray – they've backed Matt and Jon extensively on tour and played on much of their "Going Way Out With Heavy Trash" album as well. There's hardly ever been a band as versatile and adventurous as The Sadies which is why they don't have too many peers with that kind of track record.
When Garth Hudson, organist with the Canadian rock institution, The Band, put together an all-Canadian collaboration album recently he leaned heavily on The Sadies, who, in addition to contributing their version of "The Shape I'm In", backed the much-loved Mary Margaret O'Hara on her contribution "Out Of The Blue". They also played with Neil Young on his rendition of "This Wheel's On Fire". This ultimately led to being invited to open for Neil Young and Crazy Horse all across Canada in late 2012.
The Sadies have also recently performed live on several occasions with former Guess Who founder and Canuck songwriting legend Randy Bachman where they were thrilled to get a chance to perform some of their own favourite super-obscure Guess Who songs with the man himself. Of The Sadies, Bachman has this to say; "It's quite different when I play with The Sadies than when I play with anyone else. I love the stand-up bass, it gives an incredible gigantic bottom end sound. I think the two brothers Dallas and Travis are just amazing guitar players. They've got their own cool identity".
The band continues to enjoy a long and fruitful relationship with 50s R&B legend Andre Williams. In 2012 the excellent "Night and Day" album was released to much acclaim. Previously they'd put together a country album with
him, "Red Dirt" which was a blast for all involved and saw the band do several memorable gigs with Mr. Rhythm throughout the US & Canada before heading off to Europe for a well-received month-long tour playing the classic hits as well as a lot of the new material. Andre once said "You cannot find a better bunch of characters, men or musicians than The Sadies".
Growing up in a musical family served the Good siblings well. Being the sons of noted Canadian country music icon Bruce Good and their singer / schoolteacher mom, Margaret and hanging out around their "Good Brothers" extended family, they learned a thing or ten about music. This helped them foster the broad appreciation and respect for the best of bluegrass, country and gospel that has continued to serve them well from an early age. Just this year saw the release of the Good Family Album via the Cowboy Junkies' Latent Recordings label. The album features Dallas, older brother Travis, Cousin D'Arcy on fiddle and vocals, Mom, Dad & Uncle Larry (2/3 of the Good Brothers) as well as the rest of The Sadies. Everybody sings, everybody plays and it's a diverse and entertaining collection of songs. No Depression raves "I almost defy you to listen to this album and not find yourself continutally gawping at the quality on display. A high-water mark for North American (not just Canadian) music."
The Sadies have consistently pushed themselves forward into new areas while refining their approach to what they do – creating a constantly evolving catalogue of work and picking up legions of new converts with each successive tour. Their concerts, legendary since their earliest days have only gotten better over the years. Though the three-hour marathons of yore may happen less frequently, The Sadies have always prided themselves on a well-paced live show, starting off strong and gradually building things up to fever pitch then bringing it back home (often with a nice surprise or two along the way), before sending everyone home with a smile on their face. The live experience has it all, blistering instrumentals, country rave-ups, super-human guitar interplay and mind blowing psychedelic expeditions that can end up anywhere. There are not many bands that have been together nearly two decades that are truly making the best music of their careers, but The Sadies have definitely established themselves as one of the leaders in that very uncrowded field.
These fellows thrive by a simple rule, if you make a mistake in the studio, you do it over – but you don't make mistakes onstage. The live show has to do everything the records do (just a little faster and a little drunker). They're ready to hit your town in support of the release of the remarkable new album "Internal Sounds" this fall. If you've never seen them live, the time to change that is now – if you've seen them before, it's time to take another look. And buy yourself a copy of "Internal Sounds" it might end up being the best record you'll hear this year!