Justin Townes Earle on the ‘Commies’ Ruining the Music Industry
The scrappy musician on the folly of double records, being heir to musical royalty, and why the industry sucks more than ever (he’s looking at you, Spotify).
Justin Townes Earle is a scrappy motherfucker. Son of alt country legend Steve Earle and godson to Townes Van Zandt, he grew up with his mother in Nashville neighborhoods he’s quick to identify as bad, taking to both playing music and heroin. His music reflected this harsh existence. Now clean and freshly married, things are looking up, as he releases his second album in a year, Absent Fathers, today.
Picking up where its predecessor, last September’s companion album Single Mothers, left off, Earle brings a brutally blunt, honestly raw edge to his beautifully crafted and no doubt autobiographical songs. We caught up with him while he was in Park City, Utah, to talk about the folly of double records, being heir to musical royalty, and why the music industry sucks more than ever.
Okay, so why release another album so soon?
Well, I recorded ‘em at the same time. My original plan was to release a double record, but some things got screwed up with the label it was originally supposed to come out on. Plus, a double record is hard to sell…It takes a lot to convince people they need to sit down for that long, you know? So for the times it was a better choice businesswise to cut the record in two and make them companion pieces.
What happened with the label? Didn’t you recently switch?
I was on Bloodshot, which was a great experience. They were wonderful to work with… I work with people now who act like they have less money than Bloodshot, and I just don’t believe that, you know? [Laughs] I ended up with Vagrant Records. Everything’s been running smoothly so far, that’s the best that you can ask for in the music business. If you say everything’s going good that means you’ve relaxed, and I’m not relaxed.
Was it hard to cut the record in half? How did you pick which songs went with which?
Each disk was written to be each disk, they were basically written as separate records about a year apart. But there’s an obvious, to me anyway, continuity between the songs. They’re a bit more dismal on the first record, and then still somewhat dismal on the second record [laughs]. Rather, on the first there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, and on the second there’s a light, but it’s still a pinhole in the distance.
Is that indicative of the way your life was at the time?
Yeah, I think so. When I started the first record, I was in a very miserable relationship. Then when I finished the other record I was just out of a miserable relationship. But things changed for me very quickly; my business life was shot to shit for a little while because of the people I chose to get involved with. You never know in this business, they’re always liars, all of ‘em [laughs]. But I got married, I met this amazing person, and life wasn’t so dismal. I’d lost faith in the idea of love, period, and thought that people got married out of convenience.
Sounds like you’ve had some bad experiences.
There’s a handful of people in this business, if they see me coming, they better turn the other direction and hope they’re faster than me. They know who they are. I come from a pretty hard knock kind of life. Growing up with my mother in the neighborhoods that I grew up in, I have to remind myself on a regular basis that I cannot stick a gun in the face of people I want to intimidate.
Between getting married and constantly touring, how do you find time to record two albums?
Whenever I go into the studio my records are pretty much fully realized. I leave my mind open to new sounds and things, but I don’t hire musicians until I know exactly what I want them to do. I’ve never gone into the studio needing to write songs or finish things up. Occasionally a little thing will get tweaked here and there, but no major adjustments. Why even book the studio time? You talk to any other band that makes records and it’s like, “how long were you in the studio?” And they say, “oh, two or three months.” I’ve never taken more than ten days to make a record, done and mixed and off to mastering.
Do you think that’s because of your lineage? You have professionalism in your genes?
My dad can take a good bit of time to make a record. Not as much as most. He did instill a lot of business stuff in me, but the business is constantly changing, and what my dad knows has nothing to do with the business today. And that’s just the truth of it. Guys my dad’s age, the business that they came in on, it’s not like the change from the ‘60s to the ‘70s to the ‘80s. You might well have gone from the 1990s to the year 2 billion. Right now there’s not as many people to get advice from because this is all new for everybody.
It also doesn’t seem like you invoke your dad or god father a lot to get ahead. Is that a conscious decision?
It never made sense to me to lionize these men. I was there. I know the truth. It’s not as pretty as everybody thinks it is. So I don’t have this reverence for these people that everybody else does. It’s definitely a strange position to be in, because yes, I look up to both men in many ways, but I look down on them in many ways too. Also, stepping out, I didn’t have to make sure I sounded different from my father, it just naturally fell out like that.
What’s your take on the digital thing? On Spotify?
I’m struggling with people about that right now. My music is on there, but I’m not getting dogshit out of it. The majority of my friends, you ask ‘em about Spotify, they say, “oh yeah, I just get the records on Spotify, I don’t buy ‘em.” That’s a serious thing! I’m still trying to figure it out, but I do not understand the advantage of it.
I remember buying my first record son cassette tapes, and I haven’t heard music that sounded good that I could bring home since. All the digital dorks can say what they want, but you lose frequency. You’re taking something that you did your best to expand the sound of in the studio, and all of a sudden the record comes out and you listen to the CD or the MP3 and there’s something gone.
It’s interesting to think there’s bands now who will be huge popularity wise, but may only make a fraction of the money that a much smaller band would have pre-Internet.
My albums sales and my merch, there’s no way I could live off that. No possible way in the world. I wouldn’t say it makes up even a quarter of my income. There’s just all these different ways for people to get your record. You know, you fuck up and give it to the wrong blog early, and it’s all over the Internet for free. What’re you, a commie? We’re supposed to get whatever we can in this country! It’s a sticky situation. Everybody thinks I’m doing a beautiful business, but I’m in a slugfest 24 hours a day, seven days a week in between shows. You don’t know what’s going to happen next—you could just be in the carriage of a fucking ship on the way to the old country.
You say you should get it while you can. Would you ever sign to a major label, or go the pop country route to pay the bills?
Oh, no. I just wouldn’t. I cannot be in a situation where anybody has that much control over me. At this point in my career, my seventh record is getting ready to come out, and I own every single bit of it. I own every record, I own all my publishing, the only deals that I have with Bloodshot are licensing deals. I’ve struggled for a long time just to hold on to that kind of thing. It’s either quick money now or your kids go to college later.
Anything you want to add?
Not really. I’m gonna be here for as long as I can for all my fans, but everybody’s gotta understand a man can take as much as he can take, and I’m getting pushed to the edge by the music business. Everything about what I do is fun, but the industry will ruin that every time.