Two-and-a-half years separated Justin Townes Earle’s fourth album Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now from last year’s fifth effort, Single Mothers. While that’s not an unacceptable delay, it felt conspicuously elongated given that Earle’s first four records were distanced by just 12 months. However, as if to reassure fans he hadn’t suffered a creative breakdown, Earle released his sixth LP Absent Fathers in January this year – a mere four months after its predecessor.
In addition to being an excellent record in its own right, Absent Fathers revealed the cause of Earle’s relative period of silence. See, the thematic consistency in the two album titles stems from the fact they were composed and recorded at the same time.
“I write records to be records,” Earle says. “I’ve never written a large batch of songs and then just picked the ones that work. I write 12 to 14 songs a year that then end up on my records. I was thinking about a double record at first and then thought better of that. I do like my records to be digestible as one, so I split them up intentionally.”
As you’d expect from headings such as Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, neither album contains a selection of feel-good summer jams. Nevertheless, Earle does utilise the extended format to enact a significant emotional journey.
“It’s definitely a loose storyline of struggle that doesn’t turn into triumph by any means,” he says. “It just turns into hope. That’s one of the hardest things to do these days, I think, is to hope.”
Despite this nominal upward climb, a tone of melancholy permeates the two records. Over the course of his recorded history, Earle has frequently turned his gaze towards downhearted subject matter. It’s not likely he’ll turn away from this area of creative exploration anytime soon, either.
“Life is much more losing than it’s winning,” he says. “I think we do spend more time melancholic than we don’t. It’s one thing to have an upbeat tempo, to have a good time, but nobody’s walking on sunshine. Nobody. So that’s something as an artist you should be aware of. People love to listen to George Jones because George Jones makes them feel better, because they know he feels worse than they do.”
Indeed, Earle’s not alone in his habitual exploration of loneliness, heartache and individual desperation. Yet despite being commonly adopted themes, simply inserting downcast details doesn’t guarantee affective, communicable poetry. Earle’s back-to-back albums centre on family breakdowns, imbalanced relationships and individual suffering. His lyrics often cite minute specifics – place names, descriptions of physical attributes – but there’s definitely room for listener interpretation.
“I try to focus on the feelings as opposed to the actual situations,” he says. “One per cent of the population can think with me on something I used to do. Like, I used to get sad and shoot dope about it. You know, that’s not something that’s relatable.”
Likewise, melancholy might dominate Single Mothers and Absent Fathers, but Earle crucially avoids schmaltzy resolutions or self-seriousness. Striking this balance is no mean feat, and Earle considers some other songwriters who’ve made it work. “I think that Jenny Lewis is particularly good at that,” he says. “Fleetwood Mac records, they always have this almost melancholic tone. Even when the songs are upbeat they somehow seem to be sad. That’s a very interesting thing to me.”
Production-wise, the dual releases are distinguished by a comfortable amount of sonic space, which softens the impact of the thematic load. Throughout, Earle is joined by a small no-frills ensemble, which plays with unhurried poise. As ever, the spotlight is on his expressive lead vocals, which are wonderfully complemented by plaintive slide guitar. Fittingly, Earle prefers a direct recording approach.
“The only overdubs that were done on it were by my bass player and my guitar player,” he says. “As far as my drummer and I are concerned, we prefer to be live. I always track my vocals live because there’s a certain amount of spontaneity. There’s a certain amount of melody that usually will be lost if you do tracks and then come back and sing it later. I think it’s very important to actually get in the moment with it.”
Speaking of being in the moment, Justin Townes Earle heads back to Australia this month, for his eighth year in a row. After releasing Single Mothers last year, Earle brought down a full band for the first time. This time around, however, he’ll be all by his lonesome. “Playing solo seems to be how Aussies prefer me,” he says. “Australia has only seen me with a band one time, and I’ve been there two to three times a year since 2008, so you’re definitely more versed in what I do solo.”
Back in 2008, Earle was a little-known songwriter with an affinity for various strains of timeless American songwriting that weren’t exactly in vogue. Nevertheless, he immediately initiated a relationship with Australian audiences, which continues to blossom.
“[That first tour] was a gamble, but it was a gamble that Brian Taranto and Love Police were taking,” he says. “I’ve actually known Brian since I was a kid, so it was a very easy relationship to get involved in. I was very much just looking forward to seeing Australia and now I’ve definitely seen a lot more of it than I ever thought I would.”