Justin Townes Earle
Artist: Justin Townes Earle, 28
Are you on the road right now? We're heading from Nashville, Tenn., to Birmingham, Ala., to do a show with The Swell Season. We did a show with them (in late May), which was very interesting. We were right in the middle of the tour and we were making a record, so it was a complicated day and I was rushed.
When did you get into music? I started playing music just like most people my age. I was in a Nirvana cover band when I was 12 and played punk rock. Through the Nirvana "Unplugged" record I heard Lead Belly because they recorded (his song) "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" on that record. When I heard that, it kind of started spinning me back. Once I discovered people like Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, I realized that I knew I wanted to play music at that point. I've done nothing else since. I quit school and quit selling dope and started playing music. It was my goal to be making records and be making a living doing it because I'm not really good at anything else. (Laughs) I'm a pretty good house painter. I can lay some brick, but I hate that (stuff).
Have you kicked the drug habit? Yeah, I've reined it in. The drugs and alcohol have taken a lot of really great artists from us. Most of us think that's something that we have to do when we're young. We think that we have to be completely (messed up) to make good music, but it's not true. You get some good, wild experiences from it, but you don't remember half of them. I'm a gatherer. I tend to gather (song material) from movies, books, travels, crazy women (and) church . . . and piece it all together.
Were there specific books or movies that influenced you? (My 2009 album) "Midnight at the Movies" . . . came from when I was 18. I had a very big obsession with the beat generation, which started with "On the Road." It took me a long time to process all of that and put it together into what I wanted to say.
Do you have a songwriting method? Or is it haphazard? I'm a very notorious cocktail napkin writer. I never sit down and write at a desk. That turns it into too much of a job. I'm also a painfully slow songwriter. I'll take up to six months to write a song sometimes because I don't think that there's anything that should be forced. I like to write on little scraps of paper. I put memos in my iPhone.
Is that how it works in the studio? I tend to walk into the studio (knowing) what will happen. The record that we just recorded (which) me and my friend Skylar (Wilson) produced . . . ran very smoothly. I have a lot of great players, and I trust my players to do what they do. I rarely have to tell them what to play because they have pretty . . . good ideas.
How do you keep your sanity on the road? There's not sanity out on the road. It's completely crazy all the time. Anybody (who) can keep their sanity on the road probably isn't touring hard enough. It's a completely insane lifestyle . . . not meant for human beings. We tour in a van. You sleep very little. You're constantly in transit. You party too much. You meet strange people.
Do you think you're built for it? I've been on the road since I was 14 years old. It's all I know how to do. What I'm struggling with these days is figuring out how to be at home and how to slow down and how to be what I think my grandfather's idea of a man was. I have no clue how to do that. I would be a terrible father right now.
Where do you call home? I live in New York (City's East Village). When my feet hit the island of Manhattan, I knew I was home.
Any experiences stand out to you so far? I think the single greatest moment of my career was sitting on Levon Helm's couch watching football with him. I don't even like football (but) when Levon wants to watch football, you watch football.
Has anyone given you good advice along the way? When I was . . . 13 years old, my dad (Steve Earle) was making a record and Waylon Jennings came in and he saw me playing guitar and he walked up and put his hands over the stings and he goes, "Son, stop that. It will ruin your life." That was pretty good advice.
What's coming up for you in the next few months? I'm going to be doing pretty light touring. We just made a new record and it's going to come out in September . . . and then we'll do a full U.S. tour. The album is called "Harlem River Blues." I (play) a collection of different styles of southern music, and I lean more toward a gospel, R&B and Memphis soul thing on this record. I'm a southern music preservationist.
- ERIN McCRACKEN, FLIPSIDE STAFF
If you go
Justin Townes Earle will play a CapLive concert June 10 at the Capitol Theatre, 50 N. George St. in York. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets cost $12. Philadelphia singer/songwriter Birdie Busch will open the show. For details and tickets, call 846-1111 or visit www.caplivemusic.com.
On the Web
For details about Justin Townes Earle, visit www.justintownesearle.com.
To read more meet-the-artist interviews, visit www.flipsidepa.com/musicdirectory.