Justin Jones was over serving drinks. Not unlike a lot of musicians, he had made ends meet as a bartender for years. On the whole, it was a convenient, flexible gig. But as those years stacked up to well over a decade, other parts of the singer-songwriter’s life had changed. Most notably, he was a father to two girls, and they were growing up, and he was tired of missing dinner with them.
Construction jobs were something he had sporadically handled for fifteen years, so last fall the 36-year old decided to stop taking regular shifts at the 9:30 Club and turned to general contracting. Demolition, kitchen renovation, custom shelving: Whatever needed to be done, he could probably handle it. The days started early and went long, but he was home early enough to spend time with his family. He worked for another contractor, until one day he decided he didn’t need to work for anyone anymore.
“I felt like I could do it myself, so I just started my own business,” Jones says. “I began taking jobs, and I slowly acquired the tools I needed.”
All the while, Jones was also at work on a new record. And like his small business, Outgrown is a story of self-reliance. It’s the product of a musician who has spent his lifetime slowly acquiring the right tools and is applying them in full for the first time.
But it all began with one song. Fittingly, it’s now Outgrown‘s first track.
“This whole thing started out when I wrote ‘Prairie Rain’,” Jones says. “I felt like that type of songwriting was a departure for me. The way the story was told, its voice, was different from anything I’d written before. I just wanted to record that one song and see what happened.”
Jones set up a recording rig in his house. He had worked with experienced producer Jamie Candiloro on 2012’s Fading Light, but this time he wanted to engineer, record, and mix everything himself. And that wasn’t the only way he was taking control.
“I wanted to be the lead guitar player in my band,” Jones tells me. “I’ve been the lead guitar player in other bands, and I was like, ‘I’m ready to be my own lead guitar player.'”
The fact that his contracting business was taking off alleviated any pressure that might otherwise have been placed on the endeavor. Music could go back to being what it once was for Jones: a labor of love.
“This is the first time in my life that I’ve had any kind of financial security,” he shares. “Being busy in my other life, outside of art, took all of the weight off of the music. I could just casually write these songs, and there was no pressure over what it needed to sound like or what I was trying to accomplish. It was super liberating.”
To wit, Jones would spend almost two months on “Prairie Rain” alone.
“I recorded ‘Prairie Rain’ three different times with two different drummers,” he remembers. “That was the first song. I just wanted to get that song right. I had to get it right.”
A nudge would only come at the very end of the process, when this Saturday’s record release show at the Hamilton – booked back in December – began to approach.
“All of a sudden, March rolled around and I only had four songs recorded,” Jones says. “That’s when I started to panic. It was like, ‘I’ve got to finish this thing now.'”
Jones would finish it, of course. You can hear for yourself below. Outgrown is a full, lived-in record, pulling elements of rock, blues, folk, and country into something entirely its own. And now he’s recruited a band to take it on the road.
When I spoke with him earlier this week, he was leaving a job site to pick up his daughters from school. That night, he’d be rehearsing with his band.
If it sounds like a lot to be juggling, it is.
“I’m hanging on by a thread right now,” Jones admits. “But I’m glad I’m busy. I’d be terrified if I was slow.”
How exactly does this record reflect a departure for you? How did that originate from “Prairie Rain”?
The main thing that feels different is that I’m writing from a different place. It’s less introspective. It’s less my tales of woe. It’s a much more positive, coming-of-age thing.
Some switch went off in my head, and all of a sudden I was super comfortable with myself. [Laughs] Instead of trying to validate myself through my music, I wrote the songs that made sense to me. It’s really hard to explain, but I feel like there’s a lot less bitching and moaning on this album. There’s a lot less complaining about how hard I have it.
Is that what you’re referencing when you sing about outgrowing darkness on the title track?
That is what I’m getting at.
I had kind of a turbulent childhood, and I think that was reflected in what I was creating for a long time. With this album, I was able to move past that. I was able to let go of it. I was able to write songs for other people – not just for myself. I was able to write songs about other people’s struggles, and not just be so hyper-focused on what I’ve done and lived.
You close the record with a song about where you spent your childhood: “VA”. What’s your relationship with your hometown?
When I lived outside of Harrisburg as a kid, I hated it. Now, I sort of remember it fondly. It’s easier to do that because now when I go there, it’s such a cooler town than it was when I was there. It’s grown and changed so much. It’s a much better place to hangout.
But it’s still a beautiful area. It was when I was a kid, too.
I miss being around my family. I’ve lived here for fifteen years. I just miss it. There’s an ease of breath that comes over you when you return to where you grew up. I think that’s what that song is about: Coming home and feeling that comfort.
Did you write “My Baby Girl” for your daughters?
There’s a story behind that song.
My eldest daughter went ice-skating with some neighbors, and she fell and hurt her wrist. She was complaining about it for an hour or so, so I was like, “OK, let’s go to the hospital.”
She wasn’t crying, though. It didn’t seem like it was bothering her that much. She’s a very sensitive person, so for her to not be crying made me think, “It can’t be hurt that bad.” [Laughs]
We go to the hospital, and then we’re in the second waiting room. She’s gotten her x-rays already, and she’s spinning around on this chair. It totally seemed like she’s having a ball. I told her, “If your wrist isn’t really hurt, and we’ve been here at the hospital for four hours, and this doctor comes back in here and says your wrist isn’t broken, I’m going to be pissed. This is a lot of money that we’re spending, and you’re in here playing around.” Even with insurance, you have to pay pretty much half of it, and I didn’t want to waste the doctor’s time if she wasn’t really hurt, either.
And then the doctor comes in and goes, “Well, her wrist is broken!”
I was just like, “Man, I feel like such a jerk. Here I am telling my daughter not to waste anyone’s time, and all the while she’s being really tough.”
The whole incident spurred these ideas of her maturing, and then I sort of spun the yarn on that topic. I love the tune because of it. That’s how it came about.
Have you played it for her?
Oh yeah, I’ve got recordings of me when I was writing it with her in the room singing along with it.
Was there anything you brought to this record from your time writing and playing with the Deadmen?
Every experience that you have only makes you better. But playing with the Deadmen definitely made me feel like I could be a lead guitar player. I was essentially the lead guitar player in that band – not purely, but I did a lot of it. That’s one way that playing with the Deadmen affected this particular recording.
The Deadmen also got me excited about writing songs and recording again. When I was touring, I sort of got disenchanted with it. When you’re trying to make music your career, it gets real discouraging. The music part is really fun, but it’s such a small percentage of what you’re really doing.
It was nice to just feel focused on the music, and have no deadline or real goal. All of a sudden, boom, I had this record that I think is the best thing I’ve ever done.
How long were your working on these songs?
It was a solid five or six months. I would have a drummer come over, and we’d play along to a scratch track of me playing the song, and then I would build the song off of that. I had different people play different parts. I wanted to get the best people for the job on every song. It wasn’t just guys in my band that played on the record. It was a bunch of different people, but I don’t think it sounds like it. For whatever reason, it ended up sounding like a band.
I wanted it to not be a typical Americana album. I knew that it would be kind of mellow, but I wanted it to have a lot of textures and layers and soundscapes. At the same time, I didn’t want it to have a bunch of ambient noise. I didn’t want it to be some trendy Yankee Hotel Foxtrot recreation. Those seem to be so popular right now. Everybody starts every song with some drony, organy, space sound. I’ve just seen it so much. [Laughs] I wanted it to sound like we were just playing songs again.
Who’s the guest vocalist on “Outgrown”?
That’s one of my good friends from Harrisonburg, Jeremiah Jenkins. He and I wrote that song together. He wrote the bridge, and initially it was just me singing, but I invited him up to sing on it, too.
He’s someone that I often will bounce song ideas off of – sometimes he’s got some ideas to helps, sometimes he doesn’t. With that one, I sent him the song with just the first verse, and he wrote the rest of the song. Then, I rewrote the last verse. I actually rewrote the bridge, too, but when he came up, I had him sing the bridge that he wrote. [Laughs] He worked it.
When you sing, “I don’t know what I know,” what do you mean?
I used to know what I meant by that. [Laughs]
What I mean is that I don’t have any certainties about anything. I sing about all these absurdities in the verses of that song, sort of like a dream. There’s nothing real in the tune: You’re swimming in the bottom of the ocean and fish are talking to you. I don’t really know what I was talking about! Sometimes you don’t know. [Laughs]
That song is sort of the anomaly on this album. It’s a song that I don’t have a deep personal connection to. But I liked it and the way it sounded, so I still wanted it to be on there.
In a previous interview, you told me that your wife has said the totality of your personality doesn’t show up in your music. I’m wondering If you feel the same way with this record, because I hear something that feels very honest.
I definitely feel like it’s a much more honest album. It’s hard to say that, though, because it’s not like I feel as if I was being dishonest in the past. It’s not that I wasn’t writing from a place of honesty. Saying the word “dishonest” slights the other songs that I’ve written.
But if feels like I’m no longer appeasing this caricature of myself. I’m not playing a part as much as I might have been in the past. I’m not seeking validation.
A part of being an artist is walking the line between acting like you don’t care what anyone thinks, but then hoping that everyone likes it. No one’s opinion matters to you, except everyone’s. [Laughs] What you may hear as honesty, I see as me saying, “I’m not going to play this game with music anymore.”
I think people will like it, but I don’t really care if they don’t.