Justin Townes Earle

Harlem River Blues

BY Kerry DoolePublished Sep 13, 2010

With four albums in as many years, Justin Townes Earle has a work rate rivalling that of Ryan Adams. Happily, he's getting better with each one, as Harlem River Blues demonstrates. It cuts a wide stylistic swathe while digging deep into your heart. The title track is a country gospel tune that leads things off in stunning fashion, and it's just one of the many references to Earle's current NYC base. Other songs range from the retro-rockabilly feel of "Move Over Mama" to the gentle populist folk of "Workin' For The MTA" to haunting ballads "Learning To Cry" and "Rogers Park" to bluesy, horn-fuelled lament "Slippin' and Slidin'," a tune that finds him in prime vocal form. He has a softer, more melodic voice than his old man, but shares his deft lyrical touch. Earle's stellar list of players includes ace guitarists Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers), Paul Niehaus (Calexico) and keyboardist/co-producer Skylar Wilson. The only flaw in this superb disc is its brevity, clocking in a hair over 32 minutes.

There's a sonic and stylistic range to the album. Is it about finding the right setting for each song?
I'm a pretty big picture songwriter ― by the time I'm done with a song, I typically know exactly how I want it to sound and what kind of instrumentation [is needed]. I'm also a very slow songwriter, so I have a lot of time to think about it. I'm not one of those songwriters who finish a song in a day; it takes me months sometimes. I rarely write more than 12 songs a year.

Yet you're more prolific than your peers, with four albums in as many years.
That is something I consciously did. Being who I am and where I stand in the business, I knew I had to do something to make sure everybody knew I wasn't a fluke. I figured the only way was to release records on a rather ridiculous schedule. That's also going to change; I need a little break after this record.

There are plenty of NYC references. Has moving there fired up your muse?
This city is pretty inspiring, 24 hours a day. You can maximize your experience here. I live in a really communal neighbourhood. A lot of people have lived here for 50-plus years; I've been able to tap into their experiences and their stories. The East Village is a very interesting place. Being able to be 28 years old and afford to live here and not have to scrape up change to buy cigarettes feels pretty good.

I'm sure it'll be pointed out that moving to NYC has also inspired your father. Ever discuss that with him?
Not really. We don't discuss much, period.

Are you pleased with the early reaction to the record?
I've been lucky in my career so far. I haven't received any bad reviews, and this one seems to be doing better than the last one, so it's looking good.

Did you go into the record with a certain mandate?
In this business, if you walk into the studio not knowing enough about what you are getting ready to make, you probably need to wait. That means you are probably forcing things and doing things you shouldn't.

There's a talented group of guest players on Harlem River Blues. How did you hook up with Jason Isbell?
Jason and I have been friends for a long time, and we've done a whole lot of touring together. He opened some shows for me in Australia. That rather flips the script, as I open shows for him here. We just started talking ― the two of us and a tour manager [while] travelling. We were talking about my new record and he offered his services. I accepted!

In your writing, some songs are character-driven stories, while others are more personal and introspective. Find one style easier to write?
I think the more personal stuff is easier. It is mine; it's me. Luckily, these days there's no one I know better.

Do you sense you're getting better with each record and tour?
I sure hope so; it is all just practice for the next one.

Do you think there are any traditional or mainstream country music fans in your audience, not just the Americana crowd?
I definitely don't want to crossover into mainstream country; we've already achieved some crossover. I'm called an "Americana musician" 'cause no one knows how to classify me, but if you go to my shows you'll see kids who look more like Bright Eyes fans or Jenny Lewis fans ― lots of pretty girls with glasses and tattoos. We've crossed over into the so-called "indie world." That's a much safer place to be for your soul than the mainstream country crowd.

Did playing the Grand Ole Opry have resonance for you?
Of course, you are standing on a stage where some of the greatest songwriters and singers in the world have stood. It is something I always wanted to do. I can check it off the list now, as the Grand Ole Opry sure ain't what it used to be.

Are you pleased to have an audience outside the U.S.?
Definitely. Australia is very easily my absolutely favourite place to play; it's a pretty magical place. They don't call it Oz for nothing.

Do you enjoy your gigs in Canada?
Definitely. I especially love going to the Horseshoe [in Toronto, ON]; it is one of my favourite venues around. It has a lot of history.

Is performing something you really enjoy?
I enjoy it. Over the past four years, I feel I have overworked myself, to the point where I'm not as gung-ho about it as I used to be. The road, I do believe, it ages you several years for every year you're out there. It's hard at 28 to realise you're not 18 years old anymore.

You got airplay up here for your Replacements cover, "Can Hardly Wait." Ever get feedback from Paul Westerberg?
Not a peep. I heard from the Replacements manager, and he seemed to like it very much.

Is it frustrating that radio programmers often go for covers?
It is all publicity; it gets your name out there and it sells more records ― that's the goal, especially these days. The atmosphere is not what I could call "welcoming," for new artists. It's a very, very hard time in the business, and I feel really bad for bands starting out now. The opportunities are getting less and less every day.

So, you don't take success for granted?
Definitely not, I am very, very happy to be here.

Tell me about your acting stint on Treme?
It is a pretty amazing series. I've done a little bit of acting over the years, so it wasn't my first show ― been in a couple of independent movies, but nothing close to that level. It was very interesting and a little scary ― not the same as stepping up on stage at all.

Have you always been involved in producing your records?
I've always had a hand in it, but never been the producer. I was also not arrogant enough to think I could step in and do that job; I needed to get a few under my belt and observe. Me and Skylar, the co-producer, plus the engineer, have worked on every project we've done, and I finally felt safe in the fact we had a team that was pretty unbeatable in the studio. The sessions went very smoothly and we were done in five days.

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