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INTERVIEW: Justin Townes Earle (2017)

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Now seven albums deep into his career, Justin Townes Earle has worked different variations of his country/folk/blues template to a consistently high quality over the last decade. Kids In The Street is different for a number of reasons but primarily in the way it was written and recorded.

“I love this record,” says Earle, speaking from Bloomington, Illinois during a break before taking the stage with his backing band The Sadies and pedal steel player Paul Niehaus,. He goes on to explain the different approach he took when it came to writing the new album. “I took a whole year and a half off, moved way up the north coast of California and wrote the album. I wrote near the ocean at a desk for the first time which played into the process. It allowed a lot of reflection. My wife was travelling a lot for work so I was along for a few weeks at a time,” Earle recalls. “It allowed for more thought and reflection instead of these fleeting moments in-between shows, interviews and touring.“

JTE_smlThe other change in the way in which Kids In The Street was created came about in the recording studio. Previously Earle had nearly always recorded in Nashville and self-produced his albums. This time round he brought in producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, Jenny Lewis) and they decamped to Omaha, Nebraska to lay down the songs.

“I enjoyed the recording experience with Mike, who is an established producer with clear cut ideas and made good additions to what I already do. That was what I was looking for, I wasn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. He made strong suggestions, I always hold final veto but it was great having suggestions from a different kind of mind. Even the great musicians of Nashville tend to do things the old way and it’s important to keep that going but it also doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways,” says Earle.

One thing that Earle did do on the new album was record his take on the blues myth/legend Stagger Lee (‘Same Old Stagolee’), a songwriting technique he’s used on past albums. “It was the same reason I wanted to dive into the John Henry thing with ‘They Killed John Henry’. I think it’s very important those traditions get carried on because if I hadn’t heard modern artists like Nirvana doing Leadbelly songs I wouldn’t have gone back,” he stresses. “It makes a huge difference in the evolution of artists. I think the main issue is that young people who are into pop country flat out don’t understand the history of the form. I think if you understand it’s very difficult to be a glossy, pop country musician. There are great examples of pop, I just wish it wasn’t in country,” laments Earle. “You can’t tell me that Michael Jackson’s Thriller wasn’t great, it’s a great record. The idea that great music is only limited to blues, rock ’n’ roll and jazz is ridiculous to me but I do like them to be pure. There’s no pop music that I like anymore. There’s very little rock ’n’ roll that I like anymore and there’s very little country that I like anymore,” Earle admits. “That’s what happens over time, things get watered down and eventually it is homogenised and all the fat is skimmed off and it’s put on the shelves as milky, white water.”

Touring has always been Earle’s bread and butter, his live shows as renowned for his engagement and performance as much as the music. Life events are reshaping the way he approaches life on the road but at the end of the day it’s in his blood.

“It was the only thing that kept me going for quite a long time. Now, with the addition of my wife and my coming daughter, things are going to change a bit but there’s no way I’m going to stop doing that, it’s what I do. I don’t ever want to stagnate and make the same record again. That horrifies me, even more than quitting. I’d rather quit than stagnate.”

Chris Familton

tie off

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