A CONVERSATION WITH JJ GREY

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JJ Grey & Mofro are currently on the road to promote their new album, “This River”, released just a week ago on April 16th, it continues their tradition of heartfelt southern fried soul and R&B.  I’ve been a fan since 2007 and, hopnig against hope, contacted Alligator Records on the faint hope that I might interview JJ for my weekly blues radio show on K-Rock in Cold Lake, Alberta (www.953krock.com).  As it happens, JJ was able to find a few minutes out of his busy schedule for a quick chat- I wish we’d had more than 20 minutes .  He called from somewhere in Tenessee…   First off, can you tell me about the music you grew up on in Florida, the bands and musicians that made you want to play and sing the way you’re doing now?Well, when I was a kid my dad had a bunch of Grand Ol’ Opry 8-tracks, and so there was all kinds of stuff on there I really loved, but Jerry Reed was on there, he’d done a song called Amos Moses and that blew me away.  I think that really was one of the tracks that jump started me off.  And over a period of time I saw a lot of the guys locally that were playin’ southern rock and different things at maybe the ballpark, you know, they’d put on a little show at the ballpark.  And then my grandfather owned a little old tiny trailer park  beside a little juke joint called Cady’s and I used to hear people play there all the time.  So, you know, all those things influenced me, and back then you know roller skating at the roller rink, and the juke box, listening to everything from Stevie Wonder and Steve Miller, Ted Nugent was on there, so all that kind of stuff influenced me as well, I’m sure.Sounds like we grew up on some of the same music!(laughs) Yeah!That’s awesome!  For the radio show  I’m going to play a track from each of your previous Alligator (JJ’s label) albums, so if you could give me a quick comment on each, that’d be pretty cool- you ready?Sure!Okay, first album of yours I heard was Country Ghetto, came out in 2007, and the song War- talk to us about that song…Well that song, I get asked what it’s about, is it the war in Iraq of Afghanistan or whatever.  And indirectly I guess it is in a way, but it’s more about how can I hold any kind of real position of intelligence on the issue if you will, if I couldn’t control the war between my own ears.  It’s hard enough to decipher, you know, a fight between two family members- and we’ve all seen the collateral damage when that goes on- much less what a whole nation is doing.  It just felt like until we dig in to the war we got goin’ on inside our own heads, it’s gonna be hard to get rid of war outside because it all starts there, you know?  And so that’s kinda what the song is about for me- I can’t get up on any soapbox and holler one way or the next until I can kinda clean up my own backyard in my own mind.  That’s kind of what the song is about, you know.That’s a good way of looking at it, and just hearing you talk about that song too reminds of one of the reasons I like your music so much, is whether you’re singing something that feels autobiographical or if you’re telling a story, there’s always seems to be emotional truth in your songs.  Oh thanks!  I just try to let it happen and not get in the way, you know what I mean?  I don’t always know what the songs are about at first, certainly more often than not I don’t sit down with an idea and write a song about that, I just wait ‘til the lyrics materialize and then I figure out what it’s about later on. (laughs) Often that’s what happens to me.Yeah, and your fans will probably have a different interpretation yet too of the songs.Yeah, I agree. I think everybody does with everybody else’s music.  Some people think you mean this or you mean that, or they think you changed the sound so to speak, quote unquote, but playing music’s like puttin’ on clothes, ten years later you’re not wearing the same exact clothes even though you yourself don’t feel any different.  You might not feel any different, maybe you’re a little older, a little wiser or whatever, but for the most part there’s not that much difference between you and that person ten years ago.  But at the same time there’s a huge difference you know, but you don’t always see it if you’re that person.Absolutely.  Now, talk to me about the song The Devil You Know from 2008’s Orange Blossoms, because these songs are for a blues show, and this strikes me as being a good song for that.I guess I sort of envisioned it as life was singin’ to me, and the idea was that instead of noticing all the great things that go on around you at any given time and all the beauty in the world, you’d rather live in a world that you invent in your head where the world is this cruel, terrible place that’s out to get you.  So that was what the whole idea was- you turn to the devil you know because… you turn your back on living life to the fullest and would rather pretend that you’re a victim or pretend that life is against you or this or that, and out to get you.  And that was my firsthand experience, I’ve been on both sides of that fence for sure.As have we all.  Now the next song is from 2010’s Georgia Warhorse which is a great album by the way…Thank you.You’re very welcome.  The song I remember you playing on the live album too, and you introduced it as being inspired by your new baby daughter, is The Sweetest Thing- can you tell us about that?Yeah.  Everything adds up for me so far in being alive, everything’s added up, one thing after another after another, adding to your perspective of the world and your perspective of life.  My son is much older, and he’s grown now, and my daughter came along and it just changed me again.  It changed me when my son was born and it changed me when my daughter was born years later, you know?  I realized how sort of locked into my own head I was, how I didn’t notice anything in the world at that point.  All I noticed was I gotta get from point A to point B, I gotta get there at this time, I gotta get this done I gotta get that done and this is going on and that’s going on, and I never noticed anything.  You know the old saying ‘stop and smell the roses’?  People been saying this kind of stuff for thousands of years, but it’s so easy to become that hamster running in a turnstile wide open, and then complain about it.  Complaining that I’m having to run in this turnstile, and all you gotta do is slow down and stop.  When my daughter came along, you know, it slowed me down and put the brakes on for me a lot.  And then I started noticing not only her, I just started noticing all the little sweetest things in life, you know, and enjoying them again instead of being averse to it I was in tune with it I guess you could say.  It still happens- I guess you could say it changed me forever.I understand completely what you’re saying, because I became a father for the first time at age 24 and for the last time at the age of 38, and it’s a completely different experience, really.  Definitely- definitely, and I wish, I guess we can all say that I wish I knew then what I know now- not that I know a whole bunch, but I certainly know more than I did the first go around.  But that said, I’m really fortunate in my son he’s doing great, he turned out great, even with having me as a father!  (both laugh)Okay, one more song to ask you about before we get into the new album.  The record of course, the live album Brighter Days with the CD and the DVD… just an amazing, amazing album, my wife & I just both fell stone cold in love with it.  The song that she likes the best, the song I gotta ask you about, is A Woman.  Are you telling a story, are you singing about your wife, where did that one come from for you?You know, that one… I was asked to write a couple of songs for Cassandra Wilson, and they wanted kind of a soul song.  I’d never really been asked to write songs for other people, and I was just sittin’ in the car drivin’ at the time, and then it all just kinda came to me you know, just made it up.  And then I got on the phone, and I think they brought in a producer and they actually ended up writing all the tunes for the record there at the studio, so they didn’t use it.  So I just changed a few words so it would be from a man’s perspective of a lady, you know?  That’s kinda how that got going, I’m really glad they didn’t use it because… well, we could’ve played it live anyway, but I love playing that song.  Shemekia Copeland recently recorded that song, which I was happy about as well, but …Wow, I’d love to hear her version!…I’ve always wanted a woman to sing it, you know.It’s a great song and your vocals on it, especially on the live version of it, are so powerful… Aw, thanks!Okay, let’s get into the new album which is, of course, This River, which came out no April the 16th which was just a few days ago.  Now, you took a different approach to recording this time, playing most of the record live in the room with the band instead of assembling the parts which is, of course, the standard recording practice.   Was that a result of the artistic and commercial success of Brighter Days?Well it… I’ll tell you what, Brighter Days, doing that had an influence on it because I was listening to it and watching the film, and there’s always this extra bit of glue that holds everything together when everybody’s playing together at the same time that’s not always there whenever you overdub.  On every record I’ve made it a point to do as much as possible as live as possible, but I never had the horns in the same room.  The horns would always be overdubbed, and consequently I could tell, you know?  I can tell listening to this new record, what’s different about it to me than some of the other records, and some of the songs from previous records might’ve just been me and the drummer playin’ together then overdubbing the bass and then this and that.  And the further you get out on the periphery of adding tracks the less room there is for somebody to play because if you’re a guitarist or drummer or playing keyboards and you’re only playing as a three piece at that time, you’re gonna play to the room.  You’re gonna fill the song up, there’ll be more in your playin’, you’re gonna play more.  What’ll happen is there won’t be any room to add things later.  Now if everybody plays to the room, everybody will play less when they need to and more when they need to because it’s happening in real time.  I was really happy with the outcome of that, with doing that.  I don’t think I’d do another record any other way anymore.Yeah, I have to agree with you there.  There’s a real organic feel because you’re not playing to a click track, it’s a bunch of guys playing together and you can almost feel the energy bouncing off each other.Yes, for sure.Now, the record opens with a really cool song, a playful blast of funk called “Your Lady She’s Shady”, which reminded me of the old Sly & The Family Stone records I used to listen to as a teenager.  The song’s just an excuse to have some fun, maybe?Yeah.  You know, I was just jammin’ around with that riff and then the words came up.  I had a friend at the time who, he wasn’t actually married at that time to his girlfriend, but he was just runnin’ around with any and every woman he could find, and then he would sit around complain that he thought his lady was cheatin’ on him.  And I just thought that was the funniest and dumbest thing I’d ever seen in my life, you know.  (both laugh) You watch somebody constantly cry and complain that his lady’s cheatin’ on him, and she’s not, and of course it’s just his guilty conscience because he can’t stay home one night, you know.  It’s probably an unwanted tribute, at least from his perspective, I’m sure he’s not crazy about it, but he probably don’t think it’s about him- he probably thinks it’s about somebody else!  (both laugh)Lucky for you!  How about 99 Shades of Crazy- was that inspired by someone you know as well?  That one was inspired by someone I know really closely, that one was inspired by me (laughs) I’m the one that’s crazy!  I figured that out that we’re all kinda crazy in a way, we’re all kind of insane.  There is, in my opinion anyway, which doesn’t amount to much… It seems like there’s not a whole lot of difference between the guy sittin’ on the park bench talkin’ to somebody that ain’t there, and the guy sittin’ on the park bench talkin’ to somebody that ain’t there but not doin’ it out loud, know what I mean?  You don’t hear him doin’ it, and we all do that, I guess, to a degree.  We keep fights and arguments and betrayals and all these other things that we like to dream up, these dramas and keep ‘em alive in our head and roll ‘em around you know, and discuss about how we’re not gonna take it anymore from so-and-so, and we’ll show them, we’ll do this and we’ll do that.  And it’s all insane, it’s absolutely insane, and it’s no different than anybody doin’ it out loud.  I figured that by singin’ the song it would make me less insane, and I think it has.  At first I told somebody it made me only about half insane, but I’ve bumped that back to about three quarters or seven eighths insane, I still got a ways to go yet! (both laugh)It’s nice to get some of that out though, yeah… I’m going to ask you about a couple songs here because our time is running short.Uh-huh.The Ballad Of Larry Webb, a great song- is that a true story about somebody you knew growing up?Yes.  It’s about a man right down the street, kinda, that I grew up down the street from.  I worked at the dog track with him for a couple of years too when I got older.  He’s just a guy that always, was always smilin’, no matter all the things that looked like bad things had happened to him you know… bein’ really poor, he couldn’t read or write, livin’ in such a small place, all the things that happened to his children and his family, and I never saw the guy without a smile.  Even when he got mad about somethin’ it only lasted a few seconds then he was back to smilin’ again.  For me it was profound in a way.  It was definitely something that at the time I didn’t appreciate, but as I got older I guess I learned from it.Absolutely.  Now the final song I want to ask you about is, of course, the title track.  Now I know you get kind of mislabeled as an environmentalist- what I hear when you sing songs like this one (This River) is you’re singing about the environment you live in.  Now I know that feeling of being near the water and how it makes you feel connected to everything, and the song Lochloosa speaks to me on that level about the city I was born in which is Victoria on Vancouver Island.  And I kind of get that same spirit from This River as well, the song itself.You know, there’s something that’s so inverse about all the things that we create as human beings in things like that, in things like the St. John’s River and that particular place where I’m singin’ about, it’s 3 miles wide. There’s something in this stillness or this quietness, this stilling thing, that you probably won’t find so much in Times Square. It’s probably there, you know, but you’d probably have to be a Zen monk or a kung-fu expert or somethin; to see it! (both chuckle) I’ve been lucky enough to travel from Victoria all the way across Canada, and it’s everywhere along those highways, and out there on that island along the ocean there.  You can sit down, and everything starts to slow down.  All that, like I was talkin’ about earlier, that hamster, runnin’ in that hamster wheel, the wheel just starts to slow down, and it does it all by itself, you don’t have to do anything.  That’s what that song was kind of about, was how that river, which is also kind of  stands for the river of life if you will, or the river of my life anyway, I can’t speak for anybody else- how just sittin’ there, on the face of it, just slows things down.  It amazed me that, by slowin’ down, I got so much more of the things that I wanted to get done in my life started gettin’ done instead of me runnin’ around crashing into everything all the time.  That’s what it seemed like, I seemed like a pinball in a pinball machine.  Those places, those things, Lochloosa and The St. John’s River, it could be anywhere in the world, those are at home so those are places I’m really familiar with.  I never get tired of looking at it.  There was a time when I would look at it and I wouldn’t see it, it’s just water and I’d have some kind of smart remark, it’s just water, it’s nothin’.  But that’s not true, and even sayin’ it I knew it wasn’t true at the time, but I just couldn’t see what it was.  I guess if you sit long enough in front of it, eventually it’ll just start to creep into your veins, you know?  You start to see what it really is, and you start to know it instead of think about it.It’s like you said on the live album as you guys were launching into Lochloosa, when you said it’s a place to go to escape reality, and you thought about for a minute, and it’s a place to go to get to reality, and I think that was just right on the money.Yeah, that’s exactly how I see it.  At first I used to think it was weakness.  You know, I said “somebody told me once I go there to escape reality”, and that somebody was me.  I said ‘a friend’ but it was me that said that.  And then I realized that no, that IS reality.  The place that ain’t reality is the place where all the problems, my world of drama, the world of ‘he said- she said’ which I’m not into that much, but it’s hard to escape at first for any of us.  We live in a world where sometimes bad things happen, and you can either deal with it and roll, or you can turn it into an albatross that you can wear around your neck.  Either way, at any point you can choose to cut it loose, you know?

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