Industrial Worker Book Reveiw: 8 Hours to Work, 8 Hours to Sleep, 8 Hours to Read

Songwriter Sessions #3: Letting It Go with JJ Grey

Interview by William Hastings, Editor, Industrial Worker Book Review

JJ Grey is a musician from North Florida.  Other writers have described his music as front porch soul, swamp funk, all kinds of adjectives slapped together to label something for the advertising departments that doesn't need a label.  It's just damn good music.  And to make it JJ has proven himself to be one of our finest songwriters.  His songs are taught and full of the characters, sawgrass and water that make up his home.  But to leave it at that is to do him a disservice.  There's a depth to his songs that moves beyond place toward something greater, something that we all feel.  He and his band MOFRO do it by making you shake your ass or sit back and think, but either way, you feel it and it doesn't let go of you.  This is why he succeeds where so many others fail: he's writing from blood and sweat and sinew and the hard earned places of the heart felt right.

We'd set the interview for noon but the night before I was up until nearly sunrise working on a novel.  I was thick-headed and half in that dream state I need to write when I had to call him.  I cracked a beer and opened my window.  The grass was dry, the air thick and heavy.

"You're in South Dakota right now?" I said.

"Yeah, I got in today.  I play tonight," JJ said.

"This is the start of a five or six week run for you guys isn't it?"

"It is.  Then over to Europe in the fall for a little bit."

"Does it take something out of you?  In my life, it's taken quite a bit out of me.  I've lived all over the world and every time I come back I feel like a piece of me is gone.  That something's gone away from me.  What I mean is, you're going to places your family and neighbors might never see.  You're exposing yourself to things other people might never feel.  Does that change your sense of home?" 

"No," he said.  "It doesn't.  Not for me.  You see, I've been doing it for a long time.  And I like being home.  I like heading back there and seeing my baby.  I try not to stay out for too long and I like to head back when we have small breaks in the schedule."

"That doesn't make you feel torn between two things?"

"Not at all.  Home for me is home, it's reality.  I see the road as being, I don't know, un-real.  The road doesn't change my sense of home.  You learn to take it with a grain of salt and to not buy into anything too crazy.  You meet all kinds of people out there but home is the real.  Sure, home's changed.  I mean before the economy sunk people were cutting down trees and building developments like it was a salmon run or something.  But then the economy dropped out and it really slowed down.  People were.  No, we were all behaving like there's always another salmon run, you know?"

"Yeah.  Like the stores, the money, the houses..."

"Like it will all keep coming.  But we need to learn to strike a balance.  That's what I head to home for, that balance.  The real."

"What is it about that place, North Florida, that produces such great writers?  Just from that area you and Sterling Watson, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Andrew Lytle at U of F, Harry Crews."

"Harry Crews.  I love Harry Crews' stuff," JJ said.

"Like?"

"I read his Childhood: A Biography of a Place and it really hit home for me.  I grew up on the tail end of what he wrote about in there.  My father grew up in it.  When I spent the summers with my grandparents we didn't go to the grocery store for much.  We grew just about everything we needed.  Slaughtered hogs, twelve chickens a year.  We did for ourselves just as he wrote about in there.  I know that area, Bacon County, Georgia well, too.  Have family up there.  But to go back to your question, I reckon that Florida at the turn of the century was still the wild wild West.  There were a lot of people down there who were running from something.  Then the gates opened up and people from different parts of the south moved in.  Maybe they were running, too.  Some not, I imagine.  And then, again, the northeasterners figured it out, that you could come down here and escape the winter and it was cheap to live.  It became, in many ways it always had been, this big melting pot.  But  there were still these pockets that never changed.  That still haven't changed that much.  And maybe it was the mixture of these two worlds that gave birth to these great writers.  Just like how in Memphis you had bluegrass and blues and jazz and country all colliding with each other and these great musicians coming out of it.  Happened in New Orleans and it happened down here.  Look at Marjorie Rawlings.  She had written some things before she came down here from the northeast but she apparently wasn't moved by them.  It was like she was trying too hard on the page.  Then she comes down here to Cross Creek, this northerner who had no idea what she was really getting into, and she let herself go here, just absorbed it and her books changed.  Her writing totally changed.  There's beautiful stuff in there.  Great stuff."

"There is.  South Moon Under and Cross Creek are incredible." 

"Right.  Do you know J.T. Glisson?" he said.

"No," I said.

"Oh.  Oh man, you gotta check him out.  J.T. Glisson was Rawlings' neighbor in Cross Creek.  He wrote an incredible book called The Creek and another incredible one called Guardian Angel 911.  You have to read these.  He lived it.  In The Creek he talks a lot about being Rawlings' neighbor.  He's not trying to set the record straight or anything, he writes quite a lot about how highly he thinks of her work, it's just that he's telling the story of the place from his perspective, from someone who grew up there.  In Guardian Angel 911 he talks about how everyone that is alive is a character given the room to be one.  This is what Florida offered these writers, the room to be a character.  To have feet in both worlds.  When those worlds mingle, collide, in a small community but in such a large physical space, it allowed people to be themselves, to find out where they stood.  We butchered our own hogs and at the same time I listened to Elvis Costello and The Dead Kennedys in high school, you know?"

"I like that you saw an ease, a clearness in Rawlings' best work.  But it seems like the best prose, the best music, always does this.  That it's those writers who can get out of the way, almost disappear, and let the characters, the story do all the work.  They don't draw attention to the work."

"That's what I mean by letting it go," he said. 

"And this is what you're trying to do when you write?"

"Exactly," he said.  "I used to try and think too much about it.  I'd think that this song needed a change here, because maybe someone told me that there weren't too many changes in my songs, or that I'd need a solo there because it was time for one.  But it never worked out right.  It didn't follow the gut.  I could go to my records and tell you exactly where I thought something out.  And I could go to them and tell you where the song just came to me like I was taking dictation.  And the songs people ask me to sing the most are the ones that just came to me.  I've learned to just let it go.  To just let it happen."

"Henry Miller said something to the effect of, 'Writers are just antennae.'"

"He's right.  I agree with that.  The only difference between my writing on the early records and now is that now most of it just comes out of thin air and I just let it happen."

"So you don't write every day?"

"Hell no.  As it comes.  I have a pocket recorder that I use to save a million ideas I'll probably never use, just a shitload of ideas.  But you work through them and then it comes to you.  You chase these ideas, these rabbits, with grim determination and you end up with a rabbit in a cul-de-sac.  Nothing.  But if you just let it come, that's where the great songs come from."

"But it takes discipline to do this.  Practice."

"Absolutely.  You couldn't just sit down and write a novel could you?  I mean without throwing away tons of pages first."

"No," I said.  "I wrote a book in the third person.  Got all the way through it and then realized it had to be in the first, right from the person whose story it was, right from their mouth.  That was a whole year of my life gone."

"It wasn't gone, it's just that you had to build up to a place where you could let it go and let it happen."

"That's right," I said.  "When it came, it came.  I was just taking dictation from the gods."

"That's what I mean," JJ said.  "That's it.  Always trying to write a great song in one go is my biggest problem.  Sometimes it happens, but other times it is making it not happen, doing something else after I've worked up toward it and then it comes.  Part of life is living these things, those things that led nowhere as part of the effort of it all.  Because nothing is static.  I'm changing, my music is changing.  You just have to give yourself room to enjoy it."

"It can't be static," I said.  "But you've got to learn in all of that failure what is shit.  Do you find that is what makes it easier to let it all go now, is that you've done this enough, practiced enough, played enough, to know when something you are doing is absolute shit?"

"Definitely.   It takes time to learn to hear the difference.  It helps you to lay it all on the line.  Part of the human condition that people are scared of are the phantoms that aren't there.  They're scared to have other people see the 'me.'  Scared to let it all out.  But you have to plant the seed.  The tree grows on its own and then it bears fruit.  So you learn to cut the shit out and push yourself to let it happen, to lay it all on the line because that is when it is great, when people can feel that honesty in there."

"So who are you writing for then?  That's one of the interesting things about your music, that you can dance to it at the same time you're learning something about loss or heartbreak or politics."

"Well that happens, that learning, but I wasn't preaching to anyone.  I was really just preaching to myself.  I came to a point where I was ready to walk away from it, my home, and then I started looking hard at the place and writing about it.  What I was writing about, what I am writing about, was to teach me about the place, to find it.  I didn't want to do anything clever, nothing like that, because I’m never moved when I hear something or read something and you can see the person thinking to themselves, This is a really good idea.  Now that's clever.  Cleverness never moves me.  I guess I wanted to figure this place out, my home.  And in that sense these songs just wrote themselves."

"But there's something else happening there, too."

"Sure.  There's something uplifting about recognizing the human element in music.  It's not uplifting when you are stuck in it, those troubles.  But when you hear it, when it takes you beyond it, you can grit the teeth and excise those proverbial demons.  I mean, everyone has lived the blues and music is just speaking.  So when you get up on stage or when you sit down to write there's no need to re-write the book of language.  You just have to let go, you can use the simplest vocabulary on earth, but if you are on that edge, that place of letting go, it shows you.  It shows you, you.  It shows you deep truths.  But those deep truths are also what people are scared of, those phantoms like I said.  But you have to do it again and again.  It is liberating to do it and liberating to watch it.  You have to put it on the line."

"So this is what you're trying to do each night on the stage?  And with the band pushing behind you?"

"I'm trying for a clear head space where the slate is clean.  Where the bullshit that surrounds us peels away and we're just left with ourselves.  We're all there pushing each other.  And I make it a point to make music on the stage where we have to let ourselves go.  It's why I'm here on stage.  Not to make a living.  Not to impress anyone.  Not for some type of approval.  It's why everybody, us and the audience, is there.  We're all there for the same reason.  It's like we're all chipping in for some keg party.  We're all chipping in to make it happen.  You, me, the band, the audience.  We're all chipping in because we know we're there to connect.  I'm there to connect with everybody there and they're there to connect with me.  And that's when something great happens.  When the whole room comes together.  And you know what?  It's always there except that it's covered with bullshit, our bullshit that we bring to it.  But you've got to erase it, you've got to push it away and that's when those great discoveries, that magic happens.  When we're in that zone, when I'm out there on that line, it just does itself and it's like I am watching the show happen."

"It amazes me how quickly you guys drop into that zone in a show," I said.

"But that comes out of trust.  We trust each other.  There's no questions anymore.  It's like I said earlier, that if you just give people room to be themselves, even to make mistakes, they'll do just that.  And if they make a mistake it is usually because they were pushing themselves in that new place.  I used to micromanage the band a lot.  Too much.  But I don't do that any more.  It doesn't work.  And these guys are so good they can make it happen every night.  The only obstacle is my own thoughts.  So we give each other room to be ourselves on stage." 

He paused.  I knew there was more so I didn't say anything.

"But there is one limitation," he said.

"What's that?"

"Don't let it interfere with the story." 

"But how hard is this to capture every night?  Or every time you sit down to write?"

"Well, it can lead to certain expectations if you aren't careful.  You start to think about last night's show or the last song you wrote and you start to think about what made it work.  Then, if you aren't careful, you'll start to try and push for that, doing that, every night.  You want it to be the same but it can't be the same.  It can't and there's no tricks.  You've got to move on.  You do it, you make those things happen, because you've let go.  So you build your chops, you fall down and you move forward and let go completely.  It will all do itself if you let it.  I don't remember waking up this morning and making it a point to make my heart beat today, you know?"

"I do," I said.  "But let me ask you this.  If letting go is what makes it happen, what makes a good song?  What to you makes a song good?"

He stopped and exhaled.  I imagined him pulling aside the curtain on some lonely hotel to stare out across a parking lot at a Dakota sun.

"I," he said.  "I can't put my finger on it.  You just know it.  It's like your favorite color.  It just is.  It's gotta have soul but you can't define soul.  Metallica's got soul, I love Metallica.  Otis Redding, my favorite soul singer, he's got soul."

"In buckets," I said.

"God yeah.  It's like Terence Malick's The Tree of Life.  It's a film with soul.  He tried to show you life in that film, but you can't define life.  So he just gave you beauty.  That's it.  That's it." 

I looked out my window at fields too dry, too set with my own worry and hope and wonder.

"You just can't teach it," JJ said.  "How could you?  But when you read it you absolutely know it.  Same with when you hear it.  I remember reading Bukowski's poem, Bluebird, and thinking this.  His language is so clear that the poem just happens to you.  I didn't need to think about it, it opened up on me.  I knew it.  I felt it and had lived it." 

"He didn't interfere with the story," I said.

"No, he didn't.  And he laid it all on the line."

* * *

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