By Derrick Perkins (Photo/Justin Townes Earle)
Few have lived as hard as Justin Townes Earle and survived to talk about it.
Born the son of a famous musician (more on that later in the interview), Earle was raised by his single mother. Though clearly talented from a young age, the budding singer/songwriter was just as obviously troubled.
Drug use, addiction, run-ins with the law, rehab. All those things would come to pass.
The 32-year-old Earle does not shy away from discussing it, describing in one interview after another his flirtations with rock bottom and his constant struggle with addiction. Tortured artist, at least from the outside, seems an apt way to sum it all up.
Maybe not, though. In a quick interview from the road — Earle is touring again, traveling this time with American Aquarium — he is upbeat: passionate yet laidback, soft-spoken but gregarious, polite and irreverent all at the same time.
It’s hard to believe he is routinely described as one of the best talents of his generation. With five albums under his belt, the prolific musician has made a name for himself with his signature mix of blues, country, soul and R&B.
With a two-night stop at The Birchmere next week, Earle took a little time off from his travels to talk about his music, past and new album, “Single Mothers,” with the Alexandria Times.
Alexandria Times: You’re playing in Alexandria a couple of nights, how much from your new album [“Single Mothers,” which was released Tuesday] should fans expect?
Justin Townes Earle: A good bit. … We’ve got pretty much the entire record on the set list, with some old ones also.
NPR’s First Listen seemed to come away describing it as something of a tribute to your mother and I didn’t know if that was the same way you saw it or if you saw it [differently]?
It was a tribute to just mothers — period — single mothers, because it’s an incredibly hard thing to do. It’s getting easier for women in the workforce but it historically hasn’t been. My mother struggled constantly to raise me on about $13,000 to $16,000 a year.
Going into making this album … was that something you were aiming for or did it just happen organically?
The ideas pop in my head first, but all my records are written as … conscious records. I don’t just make it up as I go along, like [I] write a bunch of songs and pick [the record] out out of the ones … that go together. I write them to be a record.
I’ve read a recent interview you gave to American Songwriter where you guys talked a little bit about how your music, your sound, has changed over the years. I’m hoping you can tell me how you think it’s changed over the past couple of albums?
I started off with a lot of country aspects to the music, but then it kind of went back to, I started with acoustic blues, and it went back to that. Blues alone is something that I love and R&B, traditional R&B, music. I think there’s more of a connection to country music than people understand.
Do you plan on changing the style of the way you play or is that … you find something new and you want to explore that?
I try to only explore things that I know very well. So far that’s just been the styles of music that I grew up with.
I hate to go to this subject, because it sounds like you don’t like it, but everything I’ve read about you, you’re always described as the son of, insert a certain superlative here, Steve Earle. How do you respond to that? Do you ever get sick of it?
They write about [Steve Earle being my father] but nobody has said anything to me about being the son of Steve Earl in years. I managed to make a very distinct difference between mine and my father’s music. I think that these days he’s actually asked more about me. But yeah, that’s never been an issue for me. I mean, he’s my father, he came before me. He was a part of this tradition before me. Those little a—holes who come out and [say], ‘I don’t want anything to do with my parents because they’re famous,’ it’s like, well, ‘good luck, a—hole.’
How do you prepare for a show?
I try to relax, so I can be relaxed on stage. It’s hard to do what you do, period — no matter what you do — when you’re being rushed around and things like that, kind of like what we’re doing today. … I like to have a little bit of rest. I like my rest and I like my reefer and those two of things kinda get me going.
I’ve also read that you’re not a huge fan of set lists and I’m hoping you can tell me the reason for that?
I don’t like set lists when I’m performing solo. It’s a bit harder to do that with the band. I do write set lists with the band. Still, if I go out and do a solo show then no [I don’t put together a] set list.
How does the set list come about? Is it done out well in advance or put together depending on how you feel that day or that hour?
I’ve [put] the set lists together, but usually we work with one for a while and then switch it up because people do actually get kind of pissy when they don’t get to hear the same songs that they want to hear. With most of the record in the set list … [and] we’ve only done three shows, [we’re not going] to throw any curve balls at people really early.
What is a good show for you, whether you’re performing or in the audience? What makes a good show?
Once again, just being relaxed on stage. Some nights you’ll feel a little off and not hit all your points well. But I think that it’s really just about state of mind. I think if you don’t enjoy this as a living, I think it’s crazy. It’s just one of those things. It does take a certain kind of person. I love every aspect of this when it comes right down to it, which is a lucky thing. I make a ridiculous amount of money to do something I love, for sure.
Is there anything you wanted to say to the folks in Alexandria or the people who are going to come to The Birchmere before I let you go?
Well, the set is good. It’s definitely going to be a little bit more rowdy of a show. … I just love being at The Birchmere. I like everybody who works there and they’re really good people. It makes it an easy place to do a show.