Justin Townes Earle on shitpop, marriage, revenge songs, Elliott Smith and that thing where people thrust their demo at you on tour
Single Mothers is a bandy-legged collection of immoral hucksters, deadbeat dads and worn women, but there’s a beauty to it all right.
The fifth album from Justin Townes Earle reverberates with pedal steel and horns, so it’s a real treat that he’s bringing his whole band to Australia with him this time, both for his own dates and a headline slot at Out on the Weekend – a new Americana festival in Melbourne.
Earle is a hard-touring, hard-living artist in the style of country greats like George Jones and hiccuping Hank Williams. He takes the baton of a tradition that largely died out in the 1970s, but can criss-cross genres: album opener ‘Worried Bout the Weather’ is Otis Redding-style soul, while his love of rockabilly is such that he’s even produced an album for Wanda Jackson – the undisputed queen of it. His idea of these genres may be different to yours, however.
“If I say I love rock’n’roll, that means 20 different things these days,” the 32-year-old notes with disapproval. (On Twitter he usually sounds like he’s yelling at kids to get off his lawn.) “All across the board the lines are being blurred. Country is something that Hank Williams, people like that, created, but now it’s been taken to a place where I guarantee that Hank Williams would shoot one of these son-of-a-bitches. Because they don’t care. I guarantee you there’s a bunch of people making ‘country’ records right now that have never even heard a Hank Williams record. And so it should have another name. They should call it ‘shitpop’ or something.”
Not only is Earle’s fingerpicking style authentically old-country, but his songs are steeped in the right measure of remorse. His down-at-heel, down-on-luck observations about sick romances are as skilfully lean as a Raymond Carver story, but they can also be entertainingly mean. In the past he’s written ‘Who Am I to Say’ and ‘Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now’ as the last, spiteful word to an ex. This time around there’s ‘Time Shows Fools’ in that vein, but the barbs aren’t as sharp.
“There are jabs at people,” he asserts, “but they’re a little more thought out; not so much anger. Before, I felt like life was mean to me, so I was mean to life.”
There are repercussions to lambasting other people, of course. In the States, in his hometown of Nashville or his current home of New York, Earle might find himself playing a song to the very person it was written about.
“It’s funny that people are arrogant enough to think that it’s about them,” he counters. “It’s an amazing thing. But yeah, it does happen. One of the harder ones is playing ‘Mama’s Eyes’ in front of my mother. If you can do that you can play anything in front of anybody.”
Earle enjoys a chuckle over family anecdotes, be they about his straight-talking grandpop, or his fretting mother (incidentally, it’s best to remember that “mama” in a JTE song can refer to either his mother or someone he’s barely acquainted with). Then there’s Dad. The spectre of Steve Earle – who abandoned the young family, though Justin did a stint in his band the Dukes – haunts much of Earle Jr’s back catalogue. He’s not above taking a swipe at him between songs, either. But what does his mother – Steve Earle’s third wife out of six – think of a paean like ‘Single Mothers’?
“Oh, she loves them,” he assures us. “She has said before, ‘Why do you have to be so personal?’ but that was the only comment she made. These songs do have to do with my mother, but they also have a lot to do with single mothers that I know, because Nashville is full of single mothers.”
And one might make the link that Nashville is full of musicians. But Earle has become besottedly married since his last trip over. So what happens when a songwriter, who is known for Bukowski-like vignettes of remorse, finds contentment? Does that make songwriting harder?
“I don’t feel like it makes it harder, but it brings new challenges,” he reflects. “But I have plenty to write about from my past that will definitely keep my records from being happy-go-lucky, that’s for sure. This record was written before [I got married], so there’s a little bit of a darker feel to it, but anyway, you can’t change 20 years or 30 years of life, I mean you’ve got plenty of stuff to write about.”
Last time he was in Australia, Earle introduced the song ‘Ain’t Waitin’’ – about watching his woman make fried chicken – with a tetchy rant about indie bands trying to be Elliott Smith. There’s nothing wrong with writing the odd feel-good song, was his point, just like ‘My Baby Drives’ on Single Mothers.
“I think he’s widely misunderstood,” he says of Smith. “There was a beauty to what he did and there will never be another one like him, ever. A lot of people think that it’s just about writing sad lyrics, but the reason Elliott Smith was so good is because he was who he was. He spent his life in a lot of pain and no matter how much some kid thinks that he can be Elliott Smith, he can’t. And if he was, it would kill him.”
In addition to Smith and the old-country stalwarts, Earle counts some unlikely influences. He’s said that it was Kurt Cobain who made him want to play, and Woody Guthrie who made him realise that his honking, nasally timbre could find an audience. And there’s more.
“When I was a kid I listened to Rage Against the Machine and White Zombie and Dr. Dre,” he says. “I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac. I own the last couple of Jay-Z records because lyrically, he’s amazing. I just care about good music; I don’t care where it comes from.”
Like any artist of his stature, Earle has demo CDs pressed upon him at every town he stops at, but he’s rarely got time to mine for gold.
“It’s not necessarily because I don’t want to listen to things,” he explains, “it’s because I literally get a hundred of them every other day when I’m on tour. Sometimes I go through them and listen to the ones with the more interesting record covers and song names, but if a band’s good they’ll break out on their own. I can’t really help them. Well, I can pick my opening acts for the most part, but I can’t just say, ‘This band’s unknown but they should open for me.’ I’d love to be able to do it, but the promoters need somebody who’s known, if only a little bit. The best thing you can do is share your music with the people whose music you love, but don’t count on anything. Just get out there and work your ass off – that’s the only way it’s gonna work.”
Live, you’ll witness a physical manifestation of Earle’s gnarly repertoire. He sings like a musical saw, unpredictable and loopy, finding the space to reflect between each vowel, as though he’s chewing the fat with himself. He swivels, folds at the waist and kicks out like a six-foot-four wind-up toy as he fingerpicks his guitar – although to call it fingerpicking doesn’t do justice to his technique. He uses every part of his right hand, and in the split seconds that his left isn’t in use, he flings it away from himself as though he’s got no time for it anymore. Rail thin and endearingly awkward, he’ll suggest he might try out some half-conceived song and hope for the best… but for all the bumbling, gasping and wobbling, this machine may be better oiled than he’s letting on.
“I definitely agonise over a song when I’m writing it,” he admits, “but live, I’m a big fan of happy little accidents – like when something goes where it’s not supposed to go but lands on its feet. In that sense I do not want to hear my guys play the exact same thing every night, so they might use a different pickup here and there, something like that. Perfection can be a dangerous thing. Calling yourself a perfectionist is very egotistical; to say that nothing but perfect will do, and you’re the judge of perfect.”
Over the years, Earle has written about Memphis, Arkansas, Texas, Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Brooklyn, Jackson and Christchurch, so with this being his seventh visit to Australia, are we due a song?
“I’m sure it’s going to come around,” he says politely, “but I don’t force something that’s not ready to come out. I’ve seen a lot of Australia – a lot more than most American musicians will ever see. You go from the Blue Mountains to Perth, I mean, the country’s as big as the damn United States. There’s a lot to process and I can’t even begin to understand all of it.”
Single Mothers is out Sep 5 (WMA)