Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle about how moving to New York hasn’t made him lose track of his southern roots, why he doesn’t own a cell phone and his love of video games.
CP: Since the last time we spoke in 2008, you have really blown up. Your records are getting four- and five-star reviews, you've played Bonnaroo, GQ named you one of the world's best-dressed men and you've received AMA awards. Does it feel like you've come into your own at this point?
JTE: No, I think I've definitely, for whatever it means, come into my own. It just means all the pressure is on my shoulder instead of my family's now. I've found myself standing a little firmer in my writing and a little firmer in my sound. I think I've come up with the proper blend of all the music I love that makes it whatever it's turned into. (Laughs.)
CP: But are you happy with where your sound is? Is there still room for it to develop?
JTE: Well, I mean there's always room to develop. Just because I've come to firm stance doesn't mean one foot doesn't move in front of the other. You've got to keep moving forward. I'm one of those people who believes that your output is a direct result of your input. You've got to keep feeding yourself, or you won't continue to make good music - at least not write good music.
CP: So how do you feed yourself?
JTE: I live in New York. It's kind of like being force-fed, if you keep your eyes open in New York. I travel a lot, and I try to do my best to keep myself as close as possible to the people I come from, which is my mom's people, who were poor moonshiners from Eastern Kentucky. You just can't ever forget where you come from. I have to remember that I'm always going to be white trash from Middle Tennessee and always one generation removed from growing up in Hazard County, Ky.
CP: You seem to have adapted well to the New York environment. You're dressing better, for one. Is the kid from Hazard still under all the designer clothes?
JTE: Well, I think that white trash kind of likes nice things, if they can get their hands on it. My thing I have for nice clothing is a direct result of wearing my cousin's hand me down shoes growing up. My girlfriend gets mad at me about it all the time. She says, “It's not about money,” and I say, “It's not about money; it's about quality. If it's good; it's expensive.” It's like, if you want good clothes, you'll pay a lot of money for it. If you want good dope, you'll pay a lot of money for it.
CP: When did you move up to New York?
JTE: I've been here for a little over three years. It was chasing Woody Guthrie's ghost up the New Jersey turnpike. There was a reason Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams and half the population of Harlem made their way from the South to this magical city. If you can make it in New York, it's like the song says, “You can make it anywhere.” If you crack New York, you can crack the world. Period. There's no city on Earth that's as influential as New York City.
CP: Have you cracked it?
JTE: It's one of those things where I'm in a comfortable position in New York. I'm a very well known figure in the East Village. Most people know who I am there - mainly because I've been banging around there for about 15 years.
When I walk around the streets of New York, people these days recognize me, which is a really strange thing. It's one of those things where it's that really cool gesture where they tip their hat to you and walk away, instead of wanting a picture and 45 minutes of your time.
I wouldn't say that I've necessarily cracked it, but New York knows who I am, and that's saying something. It's kind of a freaky proposition, because you're in a city that grants most people total, secure anonymity. Nobody cares in New York what you're doing because they're too absorbed in what they're doing. It's not a city for people who take Sundays off. It's not a church-going people. (Laughs.)
CP: It sounds like the city resonates with you, you resonate with it or some combination of the two.
JTE: When I first moved up, I lived way the hell out in Brooklyn, I didn't like it very much. Once I moved in Manhattan, I'm very content to be in New York. I'm leaving New York for a year to spend time in Europe, which is very important to me also, but when I come back to the states, I'll be going back to New York City.
CP: How is all the attention you're receiving - whether the guy on the street tipping his hat to you or playing on David Letterman - resting on your shoulders?
JTE: I admittedly live a very insulated life these days. I don't even own a cell phone anymore. I'm very private with my affairs these days, for the most part. I don't like to be out in public. It's not that I don't like seeing people, but I've found that the more shows I do, the more time I spend in the public, that when I get home, I don't want to do anything. I just want to sit on my ass and eat cold cereal and play video games.
CP: What video games do you play?
JTE: I'm one of those kids who grew up with video games, so I have an Xbox and a PSP. I'm actually going to check out the Nintendo 3DS in the next couple of days. I had an Atari, and I got a Nintendo when it came out, so I'm totally of the video game generation, much to my girlfriend's chagrin.
CP: Do you play online? Care to share your Xbox Live user name?
JTE: I don't have one. I've never actually hooked my Xbox up live. I just play it on my own. My origins were as a kid who liked to smoke pot and play video games. I think that's one of those things that will always be with me, for the same reason that my grandfather sat around and played solitaire and did crossword puzzles.
CP: Is that desire to be more private and insulated affecting what you're writing these days?
JTE: When I say insulated, I mean that my life revolves around a certain group of people, who intentionally, for many reasons, are not musicians. One of my best friends is a photographer, so they are other artists and people who work in the industry, but a bunch of my friends in New York are MTA workers and firemen.
Me and Jason Isbell are really good friends, and we hang out whenever we can, but I don't like sitting around. When I get together with those guys, we talk about anything but music. That's why we're getting together, to talk on our own terms, instead of having the business rule our every movement.
That's how I keep myself connected. The industry is the industry. You work in the industry, and then you get the hell out of it. I don't spend my personal life in the industry like some people do with the parties and things like that. I just don't get into that.
CP: It's probably healthier for you, in the long run.
JTE: Yeah, well, you've just got to be conscious of what you want to be and how you want to represent yourself and what kind of artist you want to be. Where I come from, the school I come from is Woody Guthrie's school. I see what I do as a semi-service.
That's why I don't write about politics and things like that. I like to deal with real people and everyday, average problems in my songs - girls and drugs and all the things I've dealt with.
You've just got to know what kind of artist you want to be and remember that's the most important part of you, the artist. You always must nurture the artist.
CP: Some critics have said that they saw a maturation of your songwriting after “Yuma” and “The Good Life” when you released “Midnight at the Movies” and “Harlem River Blues.” Did that feel like a turning point for you, when “Midnight” came out?
JTE: Yeah, I think it is. “Yuma” and “The Good Life” were literally me. Almost all the songs on both of those records I wrote before I was 18 years old. They were very immature songs. They were very mature for a 16-year-old, but not for a 25-year-old. They were also valid songs, though, and I was going to be damned if they were going to go to waste.
I also did a very intentional progression from the solo, acoustic, Woody Guthrie thing up through my honky tonk things. With “Midnight at the Movies,” I leaned more towards the Gram Parsons, “Astral (Weeks” kind of thing. Now, I'm going to gospel and blues with “Harlem River Blues.”
It was just me ramping up. I needed to go through the motions and take these steps, in order to just nurture the artist side of me. I'd hope that, in any artist's career, you see maturity grow in your music or else you're not progressing. That is the whole point, to progress. How far you progress is up to you, I guess. (Laughs.)
CP: What's up next? Where are you taking your sound on the next project?
JTE: I think one of the big reasons I was going through genres like that and using different artists as my backdrop, was because I wasn't quit sure what I wanted.
I knew after I made “Yuma” and toured for it that I didn't want to tour on the folk circuit. I knew after “The Good Life” that I didn't want to write country songs for the rest of my life. With “Midnight at the Movies,” I think we made a bit of a progression. We updated old-timey music a little bit but also stayed true to the old form, which I think is very important.
With “Harlem River Blues,” I've arrived at this gospel thing. I see that as the beginnings of all popular music, which is church music. I think I'm kind of sitting in the same mindset that Ray Charles was when he started recording things like “I've Got A Woman,” which was, “Let's take these old gospel standards, pick a format and turn them into something down and dirty. Let's write a gospel song about sex or about shooting up.”
I think the next record is going to be more of that twangy, R&B kind of thing like I did on “Slippin' and Slidin'.” I had a lot of fun with horns on this record. I used them on two songs, so I'll use them more. It's not going to be a big sounding record; it'll be stripped down. I'm not planning to do any overdubs on the next record. It'll all be live, cut big-room style. I have every intention of cutting a full live record like they used to.
CP: Do you see yourself as standing in opposition to the mainstream super-produced music?
JTE: It's not that I'm not a fan of that. I love some stuff that's over-produced. I love ELO, and ELO is always over produced to God, but the difference is it's good and over-produced. (Jeff) Lynne knew what he was doing.
These days, you have a bunch of guys just trying to make money, and the reason it sucks is because everything sounds like the last thing that came out. Nothing is fresh. Nothing is new. Nothing is exciting.
I think the only way to excite people is to reach back a little bit.
CP: When I spoke to you last, “The Good Life” hadn't come out and “Yuma” didn't sell very well. When it finally came out, “The Good Life” didn't sell stupendously well. What were you doing that Bloodshot Records was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt to produce another record?
JTE: I think there was a progression. I put out “Yuma” on my own. It came out on my label first, and Bloodshot just bought the rights to it two years after it came out. I sold 5,000 copies of “Yuma” out of the back of my truck. That's what impressed them, and that I was willing to tour and willing to work.
“The Good Life” sold 24,000, “Midnight at the Movies” did 32,000 and we're already at 40,000 with “Harlem River Blues.” They are hanging on to me because I consistently make records that sell at least 10,000 more than the one before it. There's a projection of 72,000 copies of “Harlem River Blues” sold by year's end. It's just light years difference in sales where I am actually making money now.
CP: So many artists would have been dropped before you got to that point. Bloodshot seemed willing to stick it out.
JTE: You also have to remember that Bloodshot has always had a love for the music. They put out a lot of records that don't sell at all. That's been one of the things they're known for. They'll take a chance on something that's cool that's not necessarily going to be a success right out of the bag.
With the case of people like Ryan Adams and Neko Case, they've also been known to be a launching board. They build these artists up, their contract ends, they sign a new deal, and the next thing you know, they're big as hell. They just work well for getting an artist from the street level up and out, I think. That's their deal.
I don't know that it would be a good place for someone to stay for a terribly long time. I don't think staying with one business for a long time is a good idea anyway, because you have to progress. You have to keep that whole ugly business part away from the songs while managing it at the same time. That is frightening, which is why I pay people to do it.
CP: Is it weird for you to go from four years ago when you were selling CDs out of your truck to having your own “people” who handle that side of the business?
JTE: Yeah, it is. It's kind of weird. When you do it all, like I did, it takes you a little while to trust people. I drive my tour manager and my manager a little bit crazy, because I don't want to hear about it, but I still want to ask questions. I don't want to know about it, but I will ask a million questions. (Laughs.) I'm sure it's a bit of a pain.
CP: Do you have a release date in mind for your next project?
JTE: I'm not sure about a release date, but I have time blocked out in late October to go in the studio and make the new record.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...