NoiseTrade One-on-One

Interview with Justin Townes Earle

JTEwebWe’re incredibly stoked for Justin Townes Earle’s brand new album Kids in the Street coming out next month (5/26 on New West), so we hopped on the phone with the charmingly candid singer-songwriter for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. During our discussion, Earle opens up about the perspective shift in his new batch of songs, what it was like to work with an outside producer for the first time, how the blues and Paul Simon’s Graceland album have both influenced him, and how he became a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan.

NoiseTrade: Your new album Kids in the Street is the first album you’ve written since getting married. How did becoming a husband and moving to Portland affect your songwriting?

Justin Townes Earle: Portland hasn’t gotten to play a role just yet because it’s still a little too fresh. These songs were written before I got here. I think the big thing with these new songs is that I’m still dealing with subject matter that existed from when I was 15 to 25 years old. I hope that I’ve become a bit more of a thoughtful person, in general. Hopefully that shows in my writing these days. I definitely feel like I’m approaching things from a slightly different point of view.

NT: Which song was the easiest to write and which one turned out to be the hardest to finish?

Earle: Actually this was a pretty difficult record to write, overall. I can’t think of a specific reason for that though. All of these songs took a bit of effort to finish. “15-25” was probably the one that came the quickest because I knew I wanted to make my version of “Tipitina” by Professor Longhair. “Faded Valentine” wasn’t finished until a few days into the recording sessions.

All of the other songs though… “Maybe a Moment” went through five different melodies. There are probably 20 different edited verses that are nothing alike on that one. I’m like that anyway though. I’m very laborious about how I write. It’s rare for me that a song doesn’t need to be cleaned up or edited in some way. I can take up an entire legal pad on just one song. I love the English language but it can get overcomplicated sometimes. It’s like, do you want to be Thomas Wolfe or William Faulkner, you know?

NT: From a musical perspective, there’s a real blues and soul vibe on Kids in the Street. Were there any artists or albums that inspired that choice?

Earle: As far as albums that influenced this record, I was listening to a lot of Professor Longhair and that ‘Nawlins piano-based party music. As far as the blues and archaic soul influences, I’ve been listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sleepy John Estes since I was 13 years old. The blues is what got me wanting to do this for a living in the first place. With this record, I let it loose a little bit more than I normally do. This record pushes more towards that unrepentant bluesman kind of area than any of my other albums.

Before we started recording, the record that I told my producer Mike Mogis to listen to was Paul Simon’s Graceland. Take all of the production off of Graceland and those are blues songs. It’s Paul Simon doing Mississippi John Hurt and taking it to Africa. I love that record, it’s one of my favorites.

NT: You actually recorded a cover of “Graceland” as the b-side to a 7” single for your PledgeMusic campaign. What’s the story there with your connection to that specific song?

Earle: Growing up and coming of age in the ‘80s and early 90s, that record was everywhere – Graceland and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album. While I have to admit that it took me years to appreciate Born in the U.S.A., I immediately took to Graceland. I had a childlike fascination with that record that grew into a grown-up’s loving of that record, but it was two totally different understandings of it. That’s one of the things that I find so amazing about that record.

NT: What drove the decision to record away from Nashville and to work with an outside producer this time around?

Earle: That was initially New West’s decision, specifically Kim Buie. Admittedly, I was like “Hey, I’m making my eight record, what do I need a producer for?” But I very much respect Kim Buie and John Allen at New West. They’ve both been around a lot longer than I have. So after my being a little fussy about it, they started sending me some producer names. I wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea, but that’s the best way to go about art sometimes.

What initially struck me when Mike Mogis’ name came up, is that I knew some things about him right off the bat. He’s been a part of two of my favorite-sounding modern records: he mixed M. Ward’s Hold Time and he recorded Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat. Those two records just sound incredible.

When you grow up in Nashville, you have to admit that the caliber of musicians is a bit higher than everywhere else. You almost have to ask yourself, “Why would I record anywhere else or use anyone other than Nashville musicians?” But recording in Omaha was pretty interesting. I stayed pretty isolated the whole time. I pretty much just ordered food in and worked on the songs. Omaha was just so quiet at night and I loved stepping outside and seeing the sky blown up with stars.

NT: Alright, last question. With your PledgeMusic items, you’re offering signed baseballs and an old school felt baseball hat. Do you have a favorite baseball team and who’s your all-time favorite player?

Earle: Yes, I am a life-long Chicago Cubs fan since I was about four years old. I didn’t get to catch any regular season games last year, but I was at Game 4 and Game 5 of the World Series at Wrigley Field. I was on the eighth row down the first base line. It was so incredible. Growing up in Nashville, we didn’t have a professional baseball team, but my mom’s mom was a huge baseball fan and she loved the St. Louis Cardinals.

Luckily, we had WGN growing up, so we got every Cubs game. Back in the 1980s when I was really falling in love with baseball, there were no lights at Wrigley Field. Cubs games had to be started in the afternoon, which was right when I was getting home from school. To be a Cubs fan, you kind of had to love baseball for a whole different reason. You had to take pride in something other than winning.

As far as a favorite player, I’d have to go with Ryne Sandberg, only because I never got to see Ernie Banks or Billy Williams play. I actually got to see how amazing Ryne Sandberg was. When I think of Chicago baseball, I think of Ryne Sandberg at second base.

When writer Will Hodge (@will_hodge) isn’t singing “Go, Cubs, Go,” you can find him running off at the keyboard about music, concerts, and vinyl at My So-Called Soundtrack