JOSH T PEARSON: A True Country Gent
Ever since I wrote my review for Josh T. Pearson's astonishing debut solo record Last of the Country Gentlemen exactly one year ago, I've been waiting to disagree with myself over it: evil doppelgänger style. The truth is, my review was based largely on the overwhelming emotional connection I felt with the album from the first moment I put it in my car CD player on the way up to Blackpool in February. And as we all know, immediate emotional responses can so often be deeply mistrustful and misleading. But ten months on, I'm still discovering new and beautiful corners of the record. It's an undeniably divisive album (I've lost track of the number of discussions I've had with people who "really don't get it") but its high standing in many end-of-year polls reflects how this strange, beautiful and emotionally devastating record has resonated with many people over the course of 2011. And as for me? I still stand by every word of the review I gave back in March. My album of 2011, by some considerable margin.
But even to those who maybe haven't lost their hearts to the record, it's unquestionably warming to see the growing adulation that Josh has received this year from all corners of the music scene; both those aware of his work with Lift to Experience and those discovering him for the first time. From gigging in small Berlin backstreet bars over the last two years, he finds himself headlining London's Barbican tonight (26th November) at the climax of a relentless year of touring and promoting the album around Europe. As I arrive at the venue to interview him prior to the show, he's still soundchecking - his voice resonating mournfully through the walls. I'm led through the cavernous recesses of the Barbican Centre and settled in the cafeteria of the backstage area. After fifteen minutes, Josh arrives directly from the soundcheck, dressed all in black and profusely apologising for being late. We then make our way through to his dressing room where Josh proceeds to spend five minutes adjusting furniture, temperature gauges and even the room lighting ("What do we do here? We can work with that...don't know what this one does") before we finally sit down to discuss the interview in semi-darkness; Josh sat in an armchair, clearly too short for his stature and generally avoiding eye contact unless he wants to specifically emphasise a point or a remark he's made in his slow Texan drawl. He's softly but deeply spoken, to the point where I have to push the Dictaphone right up to him out of fear that his words won't come across on the recording. But when he does speak, each word comes out deliberately considered:
It's quite a way to end the year, playing a place like this after everything that's gone on. Obviously you'd have had faith in the record but could you ever have envisaged it leading to here?
Josh: Not at all, no. I mean, I wouldn't have seen it happening; not with this record, this type-of music. I thought we'd have toured for three months and that'd be it. I thought I'd be married to the shitty rock clubs for all eternity. But not this.
What has surprised you most about the way the record has been received?
Well, I think it's the volume of it. I think it seems to have come at a specifically poignant time and...I don't know. I guess there's just a lot of sadness in the world. And maybe three years ago, I don't know what it would have been. I wasn't planning on it or planning on a folk record. I don't listen to music so much so. (long pause) I was not planning on this response. Or any response. I thought the critics would have liked it but the people wouldn't y'know?
I mean, the first time I heard the record I pretty much had to pull the car over on the motorway because I was so struck by the emotion in it. That hasn't really happened for me with a new record in about six years. And a lot of other people who've loved the record have said similar things - that visceral response...
(laughs) Well, you've got soul then brother! It either hits you or it don't, y'know? There's no accounting for it: whatever strikes that chord and you either get it or you think "what's this guy going on about" I haven't listened to it still since we recorded it...
Since we mixed it, I'm sorry. I heard it in the background where I was playing somewhere once. I don't have to...I play the songs everyday! I was not expecting it, no. Again, we just kept adding show after show. People kept coming, it seemed like they needed it, y'know? And there's good show and there's bad shows but by and large, it seemed to be adding to a cumulative positive energy by playing sad songs!
Do you find there's a degree of personal catharsis in that? In terms of the emotional release that other people are getting from the songs?
Well, it wasn't, but it does seem to be now...seems to be helping to keep the cumulative air of thankfulness. I mean, the show we played yesterday - Exeter. You talk to a couple of guys afterwards and they...they really mean it. They said "thank you for putting this out there". Yeah, I thought the reviews would be good but I'm still a little shocked. But here we are. Nine months into it, it's December and we're still playing these songs. And playing at the Barbican - this is a pretty good venue for ten minute country songs.
When I saw you in Manchester, one of the things that struck me was the amount of jokes you put in around the songs. I mean, one minute you're trudging through despair and the next you're making all these one-liners about goats and people are splitting their sides. Is it something you intentionally put in these to soften the blow?
Yeah. I mean, it started as a joke but...I don't know why. I mean, there's certain guardrails I need to protect myself more than anything else. Sometimes I'm just not strong enough to carry the torch the whole night. If I'm up for it, I can play it straight through and maintain that level intensity, or that headspace of sadness. But normally after ten minutes I need to snap out of it or it gets a little dangerous...
In what way?
Well, sometimes you just dive down and...sometimes, you're just staring into the light and... (tails off, pauses again, stares into the distance) I don't know what you call it. So to break it up, to pull myself out of the water, I tell my terrible jokes? And to me it makes sense, to that part of me! And between the two...it's just to pull myself out of the water. A lot of people, it kinda rubs up the wrong way, they want to hear the sadness all the time (laughs) Y'know: "keep playing!" And that's tough.
Does it take a lot out of you playing those songs? There are so many points on the record where you can almost feel the pain coming off the record. I mean, how are you at the moment?
I'm ok...have my ups and downs! I'm a normal person: thinks about suicide a couple of times a day. But there's some bits on the record I still can't play. I mean, the honeymoon song, (Honeymoon's Great! Wish You Were Her) I still haven't played that since we recorded it. Because it's just a little too close to home. But I'm a little further from it now so it's ok. (thinks) I do better around people; I tend to shut down if I'm alone. And it's good to be on the road I think, for emotional release. Even though it's exhausting and you're sleeping in different places...being in a car for four-to-six hours or trains and buses...all that jazz, y'know? But there's a real healing from the open road.
One of the common themes, not just on this record but on The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (former band Lift To Experience's sole album, released in 2001) before it is your spiritual belief. Is that still as strong as ever, do you still have that strong faith?
(long pause) Yes. Yeah, I'm a believer. Believe I'm bound for hell, but still a believer. Prisoner of the Lord. Forever locked in his cage; can't get out.
Do you find it an easy thing being a believer and being in the music industry, does that cause a problem for you?
I don't know, I've not had a lot of practice...this is my second record in ten years. The first one, I really shot myself in the foot. But never mind...it wasn't really an option or any sort-of thought process of changing for other people's opinions. I think we did a little better in Europe because the right wing isn't shoved down your throat as it is in America. America was pretty polarising because you couldn't categorise it. And people start freaking out when they can't categorise. You couldn't call it "Christian Rock"; you couldn't call it "Other". And at that time, ten years ago, critics were super-antagonistic to anything with Christian imagery. Just because they do have the right wing shoved down their throats and they're a little sick of it.
Was that something that you tried to avoid then? Because on the record, there always seems to be this battle between the secular and the spiritual...
No, there's ten years on that and it's a different songwriting style. It's in first-person...different mixed metaphors there. Lift stuff, it's not in first-person but told in third...big sweeping gestures. This album would be more secular in the sense that it's locked in the earth and it's, y'know: man and wife, flesh and blood rather than transubstantiating towards anything. I hope there's plenty of spiritual imagery on the record: hope, a loss of God and a loss of human love. That was the plan at least; I don't know if I got there but I sure tried.
I know you've been touring substantially around Europe but speaking of America, how has the reception been for the record over the Atlantic?
I don't know, my ear's not to the ground over there. I've not been across really. We played SXSW...I played one show in New York the week after. And that was New York, no-one cares...
What's changed for you then, with respect to America? Given that so much of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads contains so much love for your homeland?
Nothing really. Texas was always just a metaphor for who I was and a place. And I needed it - I needed a metaphor so I took it, made it my own. I just happened to be there at the time. I mean, I've done a lot of travelling over here since then...couple of years in Berlin...couple in Paris and a year in London. But I'm an American. Thirty-Three years at least in my own country. And I'm glad to be: there's no anti-American sentiment meant at all. No, I think this is more a country record than the Lift one myself, as far as American country. I mean, of the earth. I think the Lift one seemed more European in that existential, 19th Century philosophy sorta way.
Speaking of the Lift to Experience record, it seems to be one of those seminal records that has this formidable reputation amongst people, especially with a lot of the Drowned in Sound readers. Do you ever still listen to it?
No, I haven't. We had the benefit over here of touring it a bit. I think some of those boys would have saw the shows and got something out of seeing it live. But we didn't get to. The wheels got knocked out from under us before we got to tour the States. We did a couple of shows on the West Coast...Texas. And that was it. Then the wheels came off and we didn't get to do any work over there unfortunately. (here, a touch of bitterness creeps into his voice and he seems a little reluctant to discuss the subject) We didn't have a lot of support, it was pre-internet days, didn't really have a record label there. So we kinda dropped the ball on that one. We just needed to work it, work the land. It's just a land that you've got to go and tour...play, play and play. And with this record we just need to go and play shitty venue after shitty venue for months on end. Play for fifty bucks...a hundred bucks just to make it to the next town. Eat and sleep...all that jazz. And I haven't done it, because I've been over here.
Do you think considering the reception that your own record has had over here - what with the critical praise and the fact that you're playing venues like the Barbican - you'll be able to move straight into the bigger venues over in America? Or does it not work like that?
Over there? I don't think so - I don't think we mean shit over there. I don't see any activity anywhere on the websites or anything. And the reviews haven't been kind like they have over here. A couple of web-blogs maybe but I don't think there's a place for it really, these ten-minute country songs. I haven't seen any reception so we've just stayed over here because people keep asking us to play. And you've got to go where the work is. It's hard enough to play the songs anyway so I'd rather do it where there's a crowd there and they something from it, rather than in some shithole where there's five people and they don't care. And it seems better for them too, y'know?
On that note, one of the things that I wondered was how given how deeply personal and emotional the songs clearly are, how do you retain that intimacy when you progress to playing bigger and bigger venues such as here tonight?
I don't know - I'm new at it. It's really a new thing for me. As I said before, this is the biggest indoor headlining show I've ever played. We played some festivals with a couple of thousand...maybe three thousand. But those were people standing so it doesn't look so big and you can control them a little better. But I'm really new at it. I think I'll be pretty good at it with a little more practice. But I've got to learn how to read those spirits, how to listen to those spirits because they're just, y'know, bigger currency. I can control a small group pretty good, or at least interpret the small group and judge if I can control it - lead it to certain ways. But I think with bigger ones, it can be scary. Especially as you don't know if they're on your side - the overall consensus can turn and rather than you being able to lead them, they lead you. I mean, there are good shows and bad shows; sometimes it's not there at all, no matter what you try and it's never really easy. And you can play in the smallest little crack hole and have a great show, and then play a great place like this: good looking, spend an hour on the sound. And then end up playing and it'll be terrible. We were in Exeter yesterday and it was great - two hundred kids...a little sold-out venue. I played there 10 years ago with Lift, I didn't even realise I'd played there until after when some guys came and told me they'd saw me on that stage ten years ago. It was a real full-circle, the whole thing y'know? Even this show, just because we were at The Slaughtered Lamb at the start of the year, right around the corner. And I haven't really stopped since and here we are at the Barbican trying to figure it out. I don't even have a sound-guy yet! We've got one tonight because it's a big show - Andy, he's good. But we're only just now getting to where we can actually afford it.
How did the Christmas album come about? And what do you think of it?
It's pretty good! Nobody died! (laughing) It was something we did for Rough Trade off the fly. I could have done with a couple more days of practice...was planning to do four days but I only got two being on the road. Excuses, excuses! But anyway, it's just me on guitar and four songs. They needed an EP to go with their Top 10 list...they always ask everyone to recover a special EP for them. And I didn't have any songs other than covers I could have given them that were finished. It's good. Not great, but good enough for just a guy on guitar, two microphones and two-inch tape.
It's refreshing to hear something with the guts to be so stripped back and unashamedly naked these days - both the album and the Christmas EP. So often, you hear delicate songs and when they hit the mixing stage, they're given the full reverb treatment, have bits grafted on, extra instruments...
You know, I was a little worried about recording that EP in London because I get really twisted and turned up with all these currents moving around. Because there's just this frenetic energy here. I was worried about doing it because I really need a specific headspace to go to. One of the reasons I did it (Last of the Country Gentlemen) in Berlin was because it is a quiet, slow town. I think I got a little of it across on the Christmas songs thankfully. It was done at a little place in Hackney (Toe Rag Studios with producer Ian Watson). You feel a locked in your own little world there so good enough I think. Probably would have been wiser to go to Berlin but...they're not frolicky Christmas numbers y'know? The ideal songs you record in London are with a marching band I suppose!
We're interrupted by a knock at the door and Josh's tour manager opens it, politely requesting that Josh complies with another interview that he has booked for. I motion to collect my stuff but he gestures for me to sit down: "We can finish. Can we get five more minutes? I was late coming in". There's a nod from the tour manager and we continue...
What are your plans for after these shows?
I don't know what happens after December 12th. I think that's the last show and after that, I've got no idea. I'm getting a little tired of doing it alone if I'm gonna keep doing it over here. And I've ran out of jokes too! I need to put a drummer with it and have some sort of country rock outfit if I'm gonna keep playing these songs over here.
So you'd like to go back to having that bigger sound in the future?
I don't know, I just....I don't know man! I've just got these folders...folders and folders and folders of sketches I've made over the last ten years. I'm surprised I got this one over the fence at all. Build these worlds and then just...wash them away. I don't know why... (stares off into the distance again for a few seconds) Light a fire...just let it burn. I'm still surprised we got to do this record. I'm glad we did but it's got to be above a certain threshold when I've finished one of these batches of songs. And if so, I'd be glad to do it. But I'd like to have other players because I don't want to be alone any more.
Just to come back to something, you've referred, almost jokily at times to "ten minute country songs" but I'm interested in discussing that. Specifically, when you're working on the songs in the studio or adapting them for the live setting, do you find it a real challenge to strike a balance between something that stays emotionally involving and something that goes on for too long and loses that tension?
Well, live it's a little different. The songs change a little bit depending on the currents in the air or the speed, the tempo...the rise and fall. It's like a loose free-form...I'm not married to it, it's not like a full band or you're locked in verse/chorus/verse. And that is one benefit of playing alone; though it's difficult, you can really listen and go where the song is leading you. So to answer your question: Yes, it can be hard. And no, it can be super-easy if the song is just there, it can sound totally natural. They're not long to me - they're the length that they need to be. Obeying the song y'know, that's the rule. And always come back to that. Listen to the song, obey the song, listen for space...it's often what you don't play that counts. And that balance...right there on the edge...getting the essence of the tranquillity across. That's what leads to paths of understanding.
There's a knock at the door for a second time and though Josh kindly offers to stay for another ten minutes, it's clear that he's needed elsewhere. He insists on a photo being taken before I leave and thanks me profusely for the support over the years ("You guys were with me all the way back with Lift. I mean, I used to read that stuff and be amazed that all these English kids were digging such a weird record"). And then suddenly, he's surrounded by a crowd of tour managers, PR and stage hands. It's an odd sight to his placid persona enveloped in the middle of such chaos - somewhat bemused by all the attention and adulation. And though he's clearly touched by the critical reception to the record, he's still clearly taking everything in and somewhat perturbed and astonished at the speed in which a relatively obscure and outwardly impenetrable album has been elevated and acknowledged beyond anything he expected. Yet another thing is clear too - Josh is still fragile. The emotion and edge-of-the-blade poignancy that made Last of the Country Gentlemen so profoundly moving is not only undeniably real, but also still casting a long shadow upon him. But he's found an unusual kinship with his sorrow, one that is helping to pull him through the darkened doorway and into the blinking lights. As he says before we leave, rubbing his long fingers through his thick beard: "The other day...I don't know where we were... there were a couple of men who had mentioned their drinking problem...Cardiff! Two. Two guys...different guys. And it was a real genuine thing...their lives; they were strengthened from listening to the record. And that is rewarding. And I wouldn't know that but by playing shows and talking to people afterwards. It's exhausting trying to smile all the time but that encouragement is...is so good. I'm glad I put it out there. I wasn't sure for months as to whether it was the right choice for months. I'm still kinda wondering really" He might still be wondering, but for many, many people, Josh's sadness has held up a comforting mirror to reflect their own sorrows. And deep down, through the lines of humbleness and incredulity written on his face, you can tell that this means a lot to Josh. Before leaving, I ask him when he'll be back. "I'll be back in ten" he smiles. "Might be ten weeks, might be ten months, might be ten years. But I'll be back. Don't worry about me". And with one more smile, handshake and a heartfelt "God Bless", he's gone.