Justin Jones grew up in Rawley Springs, VA, a small town in the mountains, just east of the West Virginia boarder. His latest album, Fading Light, is the first album released by 9:30 Records. Jones has an indie rock Americana style with deep soul. His songs are rich with poetic lyrics that are so fluid your heart clings onto every string.
Justin Jones chatted with DC Decibel this week about his career and the Cinco de Mayo CD release show he’s performing this Saturday at Iota Club & Café.
DC Decibel: It sounds like you have a really cool rock, blues, folk sound to your music. Where does that come from?
Justin Jones: I grew up listening to rock and rap like all my friends. But of course, living in a small town in the mountains there is more bluegrass and country music than in DC.
DC Decibel: What made you pick up the guitar and harmonica?
Justin Jones: I started playing the guitar around 4 or 5- years- old with my uncle. Though, you really can’t tell I’ve been playing that long (Laughs).Then in the 80’s my mom was married to a blues musician who played the harmonica. Then I just kind of picked up the harmonica when I was 19, and I guess I just learned through the power of osmosis.
DC Decibel: Were you always a singer, or did that come after playing the guitar?
Justin Jones: I was 13 or 14 and my friends were just starting to learn how to play Smashing Pumpkins songs and learning how to play. I already knew how to play, so I was writing songs while they did that.
DC Decibel: Was the plan always to be a musician?
Justin Jones: I didn’t fantasies about being a rock star or anything like that. Honestly, when I was a teenager, all I wanted to do was to be a professional skateboarder. All I did and think about was skateboarding. Me and my friends would skip school and drive up to DC, Philly, and New York and just skateboard all day and drive back home. Music was never something I decided it do, it was just something I felt compelled to do. I didn’t really make a choice of it.
DC Decibel: So you think of it as an unexplainable drive to create music?
Justin Jones: Hmmm, not really a drive just compelled. When I was 19 I broke my left ankle and then when I was 20 I broke my right leg open, and those two things were probably the biggest catalyst that made me focus on signing and writing songs. I thought; well since I can’t be a pro skateboarder, maybe I’ll try being a musician.
I’ve seen people struggle so I did not have any delusions. I knew it was not going to be easy.
When I was 20 I just started playing gigs at bars because I thought it was fun and would be a good excuse to be at a bar and party. I was the guy in the corner with an acoustic guitar, playing cover songs. I did that for a couple of years and then put a band together.
DC Decibel: What brought you to DC?
Justin Jones: Well it was definitely not a government job. I started taking music more seriously. My big goal was to play a big gig like the 9:30 Club. I felt like if I played there then I would have made it. Unfortunately, that was not the case. I mean, I’ve played there but I still haven’t made it.
DC Decibel: Now, you are the first and only artist signed on to 9:30 Records. How did that relationship come about?
Justin Jones: My manager started the label. We needed to start a label because I got a distribution deal, and I needed to create a label. Seth, my manager, thought it would be a good idea to create a label with the same name. I think he had thoughts of having more artists. I think now he’s just trying to establish me. I think that if things go well with me, he’ll sign on other artists.
DC Decibel: How has being the only artist in the label affected your music?
Justin Jones: I take it more seriously now than I ever have, but it does not affect my approach in how I make it. As far as creating music, having kids has changed how I create music more than having a label.
DC Decibel: How is that?
Justin Jones: I have a lot less time to do it. It used to not be uncommon for me to play guitar all day. Now, I wait for them to come to me. I have tons and tons of voice memos recorded on my phone with things that come to my head whether it’s lyrics or melody. My kids get jealous of me playing the guitar all day because they want the attention. And of course I don’t want to pay more attention to it than them.
DC Decibel: That must be tough. You’ve also been touring a lot nationwide. You’ve opened for Sheryl Crow a couple of times, and played with Ray LaMontagne. What was touring like?
Justin Jones: It’s not as much fun as people think it is. People think it’s a big party, and I’m sure it is for some bands, but not for our band. We don’t have a tour bus and big budget. We have a van and get one room for five guys to sleep in, roll out the air mattresses and try to sleep. Then, wake up the next morning and drive for another eight hours.
And if we don’t do well selling CD’s and merchandise we end up losing a lot of money. It’s a volunteer job. It’s like an internship; you get paid in experience (Laughs).
DC Decibel: One of my favorite things about albums, aside form the cover art, are the album titles. And there are two album titles that really grab you: “Love vs. Heroin” in 2006 and “…and I am The Song of the Drunkards” from 2007. What was going on during that time?
Justin Jones: In “Love vs. Heroin,” I was literally in a relationship with a heroin addict and I was also a heroin addict at that time. We were trying to find out if love can beat heroin. Love did not win, and we broke up. It ended up being for the best. We both got clean. She moved on and is happy, and I got married and have my family.
The “…and I am the Song of the Drunkards” is also about some difficulties. It comes from Psalm 69 in the Bible. David is pleading for God to come rescue him, explaining his situation, and says: those at the gate mock me and I am the song of the drunkards.
DC Decibel: What is your new album “Fading Light” about?
Justin Jones: Fading Light is a track on the album which I wrote for my grandmother and it’s about her aging. (Laughs) It’s kind of funny because people misinterpret the meaning. I told my grandmother I wrote a song for her and she asked me what it was called. I said it was called “Fading Light” and she was like “Ugh, that’s not what I wanted to hear.” But it’s based on a memory I have of walking with her on a gravel road when I was really young. It may sound like she is the fading light, but no she’s fine.
This is my favorite album. I think it is the most mature in a way. The other stuff was a bit more naïve. I was romanticizing this terrible situation because like in some ways me being a heroin addict validates me as an artist, but that was something I really got over. When I got cleaned I was ashamed of that period of time.
DC Decibel: How do you find the strength to write something so personal, then get on a stage with a spotlight on you, and perform this very personal thing?
Justin Jones: It’s not like the songs are always totally autobiographical. I am writing about emotions that everybody feels. Everyone gets frustrated and has to watch their parents get old, and has to lose somebody, and has struggles and pains in their live. You can’t tell me you have it more than me or vice versa. It’s universal.
DC Decibel: This week, you are having a CD release show at Iota Club and Café, in Arlington. What’s the show going to be like?
We’re going to play some music and have fun. I’m excited because I don’t get to celebrate Cinco de Mayo so publicly. It’s going to be cool. We’re going to drink a lot of Tequila (Laughs). The only thing stopping me from singing all my songs in Spanish is that I can’t do that R-rolling thing people do when they speak Spanish. But for sure, there will be one song in there or something.
Fading Light is due to release on May 8, 2012. You can preorder your copy of the CD now.