Interview: Justin Townes Earle

Muzzle of Bees: Let’s just talk about the record a little bit, Harlem River Blues. You’ve consistently put out records, this is basically the 3rd year in a row that you’ve put out a release. As far as what you’ve learned with recording this record, is there anything that you did differently from previous times and anything that you’ve learned that you will apply towards future work?

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, we used the same methods that we’ve done the last few records and we’ve kind of gathered the best musicians for the job and let them work their magic. But I think the one thing I learned is that on the last few records I’ve made, they went really well, but there were kind of too many cooks in the kitchen. And, so, we had to kind of cut back on, (laugh) I cut back on people in the control room this time around and it made everything move very easily, very rapidly. And not as many people climbing all over each other and not as many people with fucking ideas.

Muzzle of Bees: That’s a good though, right? It allows you to guide that ship a little bit better.

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, I think so. I think it cuts down on the chaos, when you are producing a record, I think it is important that you make sure that the artist has the loudest voice in the room. And, in this case I was the artist and the producer. I use the same musicians all the time, because they know what I’m talking about. They’ve proven it over and over again. I don’t have any intention of changing the core of my studio band for any reason. I think it just doesn’t make any sense.

Muzzle of Bees: I did want to talk to you about your Letterman performance, which was one of those performances that I stayed up to watch on TV and found it again on YouTube the next day. It was really, really special. I’ve seen you live a bunch of times and I got that same feeling sitting in my living room, which I rarely do sitting in front of my computer watching one of those shows. I thought it came off really well. Not only was it you, but I think Paul Schaffer added a lot to it and I was curious how something like that comes about – was it just you asking if he was interested, or does he assert himself and express interest in playing on your song? How does a collaboration like that come together?

Justin Townes Earle: Well, we actually asked, and it was kind of right up to the wire. We didn’t know if we were going to have him or not until the morning of, when we were checking in, we actually found out. I guess if he’s there and he digs it, he likes jumping on with people. He digs it when people ask him to play. That’s one thing about Paul, he loves to fucking play more than almost anybody I’ve ever met.

Muzzle of Bees: That’s definitely true. I don’t know if you’ve had the opportunity to read his book that he released, I believe last year, but, the trajectory of his career and how he got started and the people that he played with way back in the beginning and up through now created a great story and a great read. So if you need any books out there on the road, that’s one that I could definitely recommend.

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, I imagine that would be a great book.

Muzzle of Bees: I wanted to talk a little bit about Twitter. You are one of the more active musicians that I follow and wanted to ask you about the tweet you did about starting your own clothing line and how serious you are about that. One of the things that is obvious, not only with your shows, but you definitely have a sense for fashion. How serious are you about going into that realm?

Justin Townes Earle: I’m very serious about it. I’ve always got a thing for clothing and I’m also very particular about it. I’m also kind of an odd shape – I’m really tall and I’m pretty damn thin and so it’s hard for me to find clothes exactly how I like them. And, materials that I like. So I think it’s something that I think if I can find some backing for it, if gangster rappers can do it, why can’t I?

Muzzle of Bees: Are there any individuals you look at style-wise and say that’s somebody that really has like the same understanding of it, or that you look up to as far as that realm?

Justin Townes Earle: Well, I think Billy Reid. I have a lot of friends in fashion. Billy Reed and I have some friends, Martin Carey, who owns a store in Nashville called Imogene + Willie. They make salvaged denim and that would be what I’m shooting for in what would be good. Salvaged denim jeans, and good fit chinos and adult clothing.

Muzzle of Bees: That sounds great. If it gets off the ground, you can count on me, and you can count on the other Ryan, who’s listening to this, to be some of your customers.

Justin Townes Earle: Alright.

Muzzle of Bees: We do this feature on our web-site called Sad Songs and Waltzes where artists share their favorite sad songs that resonate with them. I’ve gotten some from you, in songs that have been special to me that you’ve written. Are there any songs that have kind of a sad lean to them that stand out for you that other artists have done?

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah well, speaking of, the late Charlie LouvinWhen I Stop Dreaming.” The Louvin Brothers, that track blows my mind.

Muzzle of Bees: Did you ever get a chance to meet Charlie?

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, I did several shows with him. He was a fucking character.

Muzzle of Bees: I can remember listening to his Daytrotter session; that was a fantastic capture of him late in his career. He was always as vital late in his career as he was way back in the beginning. So I think history will serve him well and I hope that new generations come to love his music as much as I have and obviously you have as well.

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, I think people will. I think that Charlie was a very interesting man. I’m sure a book about Charlie Louvin would be probably a pretty fucking entertaining read.

Muzzle of Bees: I imagine so.

Justin Townes Earle: Especially with stories about Ira early on. Ira was supposed to be something else too.

Muzzle of Bees: Let’s talk about the upcoming tour. What’s the line-up going to be like? Are you going out with similar musicians that we’ve seen you with in the past or what can we expect?

Justin Townes Earle: It’s going to be Bryn Davies on bass and Josh Hedley on fiddle and we are going to out this summer with that line-up and then I’m looking at probably adding a drummer at some point, in the fairly new future.

Muzzle of Bees: I also noticed that you are going to in New Zealand. That’s got to be exciting.

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, I’ve spent a little time there. This is going to be the long trip. I’ve usually only been there for a couple days and just done Wellington and Auckland and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia, but a lot of people don’t realize New Zealand is not that close to Australia and it’s a completely different world, especially the South Island. The South Island is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

Muzzle of Bees: What are some of the major differences that you’ve seen between the two?

Justin Townes Earle: New Zealanders are, I don’t know, they are kind of… There’s such a, I can’t even remember what the population of the island is, there’s only something like 3 million people split between the two islands, mainly on the North Island and so, it’s a very isolated people. Not a lot of outside influence is getting in there. In the big, big cities of course. Wellington is one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s kind of got the music scene. In New Zealand all the cool bands will congregate in Wellington, but it’s a really great little city, that’s beautiful and pretty girls and all the recipes to write songs yeah.

Muzzle of Bees: Do you write on the road in places like that or is it something you usually come back home after you’ve been away for a long time and then start to put those things down?

Justin Townes Earle: No, I mean, I write on the road. I think that I write pretty consistently. I don’t have blocks of writing time. I do tend to be more productive during the cold months but I do write all year round, fairly constantly.

Muzzle of Bees: Speaking of writing, each one of your records to me has kind of two different style of songs and one of the styles is what I would say harkens back to all the music that came before you and influenced you. Is that something that you consciously do to sort of keep older country and older bluegrass sounds alive?

Justin Townes Earle: Well, yeah, I think there’s that and then the fact is I take tried and tested forms and just push them a little bit. I think it’s very important that you make it very obvious where you are coming from in the first place. You know, where the idea came from. I’m not trying to do anything new, I’m just working in said existing formats and bucking the boundaries but not at all trying to reshape them.

Muzzle of Bees: The secondary question to that, your stage performance is very different from most modern musicians who kind of just get up and play songs. You kind of feel like they are self-important a little bit. You are really out there carnival barker style with intros and that sort of thing. Was there somebody in particular that influenced that in you?

Justin Townes Earle: I think it was growing up in Nashville around the Grand Ole Opry and obviously shit like “Hee Haw.” There’s a reason that people like Porter Wagoner and Conway Twitty. These were the highest selling musicians in the world during their day. Roger Miller had number one hits when the Beatles were on the charts. One of the very very few people who can claim a number one hit during the reign of the Beatles. So, I just kind of took the cue from that, make everybody realize that, well, give them something to talk about. Otherwise, I’m just a songwriter. There are plenty of people that can write songs as good as I can but the one thing that I hold over a lot of songwriters is that I can burn you up in a solo acoustic performance. I’m very proud of that fact. I want it fucking bullet proof. That’s how you stick in the memory, that’s how you stick in people’s memory, you gotta grab their attention, then they’ll listen to fucking songs.

Muzzle of Bees: That reminds me of the first time I saw you in, I think it was 2008, on The Good Life and my wife, then girlfriend and I sat there amazed because it stood out so much from the concerts, and I go to a lot of shows, so refreshing to see someone who had that kind of care and it wasn’t just going up there and going through the motions. It was drawing people in, and giving them that sense of this is something different. I sometimes feel that is kind of fleeting these days, unfortunately.

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah, well, especially being a personal songwriter. I’m kind of giving people something to have stock or take stock in and that’s what good musicians are about to me, I mean good song writers make you believe in this music. It’s like Springsteen. Write about the shit you know, the situations in life and hope that people feel the same.

Muzzle of Bees: We’ve talked a lot about going to see shows and going to see you, but what was the last show you went to see as a fan?

Justin Townes Earle: Oh, fuck. Um… Um… I think the last thing I saw as a fan was Crowded House.

Muzzle of Bees: Did you see them on their last tour?

Justin Townes Earle: I saw them in Australia actually.

Muzzle of Bees: Oh wow.

Justin Townes Earle: I saw them at the Byron Bay Blues Fest, me and Jason Isbell and we actually the same night saw Taj Mahal.

Muzzle of Bees: Had you seen Taj Mahal before?

Justin Townes Earle: I’ve never seen Taj and he was on one of the big stages late at night and that was when I was still drinking and me and Jason Isbell had a bunch of pretty girls and lot of whiskey.

Muzzle of Bees: (Laugh) Well, Taj Mahal music lends well to that scenario I can imagine.

Justin Townes Earle: Oh yeah, it was pretty amazing. I mean, that whole festival that Byron Bay Festival is really well put together and a lot of people could take some tips from it.

Muzzle of Bees: Does the world stop when you and Jason Isbell are in the same room at the same time?

Justin Townes Earle: Yeah. It can get pretty dangerous with me and Isbell when we get going. It’s better when I don’t drink, but man, if we’re both drinking then, boy, we can do some damage. He’d never been to Australia before and I’ve been doing pretty good over there so I asked him as my opening act. I asked for Jason and it was just me and him and my tour manager in a van, blowing across Australia and it was fun as well. All kinds of mischief.

Justin Townes Earle begins his tour this week, and will make stops next week in Chicago and Madison. We highly recommend you see him live and, if you haven’t already picked up a copy of Harlem River Blues, please do so, it’s one of our favorite records from 2010.

Buy: Justin Townes Earle – Harlem River Blues
MP3: Justin Townes Earle – “Harlem River Blues”