“I suppose when you are making grown men cry at shows you are doing a good thing” – Siobhan Kane talks to Josh T. Pearson who plays Whelan’s on Friday 17th August.
In the song “Honeymoon is Great, Wish You Were Her” Josh T. Pearson relays the complicated feelings behind marrying the wrong woman, knowing that he will never live around it. He sings of gouging his own eyes out, yet knows that even that would not alleviate the mental torment of being haunted by the woman he truly loves. It is searing and sad because it is true. Everything that went into his 2011 record Last of the Country Gentlemen is similarly true.
Between Lift to Experience and his solo record, Pearson had been living to his own careworn melody, moving to Limestone County for some years, doing odd jobs, being both part of a community, and not part of it, constantly writing music, later performing it live, but not recording it. That is until he came to Ireland to play with The Dirty Three, and his mind was changed. That moment encouraged him to record a collection of songs that he had been living with, or rather being haunted by, and as much a catharsis as an artistic statement, Last of the Country Gentlemen was born.
Since then, Pearson has been on the road, touring these songs that move and shatter, meeting like-minds along the way, which has produced collaboration, and indications of life outside a record that has possessed him. As much as he has been through devastating periods, he is very much like the title of his record, with a sense of courtesy that is born of another time, that goes far beyond formal manners. It speaks to a kindness and warm sensitivity, a way of seeing how the world really is, while striving to capture a sense of what it should be, and perhaps one day inhabit. It is bound up in something one of his favourite writers Flannery O’Connor wrote,“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful…the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it“, Siobhán Kane talks to Josh T. Pearson.
You just played in Poland at the OFF Festival, how was it?
It was a real nice festival. They are sweet kids, I like playing over there in Central and Eastern Europe, they tend to be a lot more thankful. It’s the one really good thing about touring actually, meeting the people, because with places, you don’t really get to see much, just the hotel room and the venue, so people are all you have when you are touring. I stayed an extra day at that festival just to see people like Iggy Pop, and I got to see King Creosote, we had breakfast together- he’s a good one. I played his Fence festival last year. Jon [Hopkins] was at the table too, what a sweetheart, I had never met him before. I am playing these festivals to wrap up last year’s work really, I didn’t tour the States at all. We just wanted to finish up and bookend it, and my manager thought it would be a good idea to end it in Ireland, as that is where it started in a way, so we are playing Dublin and Kilkenny.
Hearing you talk of that small festival reminded me of seeing you last year at the End of the Road festival in Dorset, you seemed very at home there, with all the little peacocks roaming freely around, yet you talked of having had a bad experience with another musician – Twin Shadow. It brought to mind something Steve Albini wrote a while back, after he had to share a bus with Odd Future and was shocked by their lack of courtesy.
Oh yes, and it also started to rain when I started playing [laughs]. Oh shoot, was I talking about that publicly? [laughs] I’m sorry, I usually have better manners than that, but it was right off the cusp of that, and my toes were still sore, because he had just stepped on them. I am a believer in manners, but we have a lot more space in the South so we can be more respectful of others, whereas they are not afforded that so much in New York City, as you don’t have time, you need to keep the city functioning – I forget that sometimes, but it doesn’t excuse him for being rude, but I shouldn’t have been talking about it, but it probably won’t stop me [laughs]. It might be that I am getting older, “kids today, their lack of manners, no respect….” [laughs].
Do you think there is a marked difference in terms of manners with the South?
Yes and no. I think I am trying to come up with an excuse for talking shit about someone in public, I probably should have talked to him privately – he’s young, although regardless of any age you shouldn’t be like that, and when you are away I feel like you are an ambassador for your country, I think you should be on your guard to even perhaps be nicer than you would be in your hometown. Maybe in New York, or London, you are pressed for time, and it’s the nature of keeping the machine going, but we were in the countryside in a small Italian village before we got to the End of the Road….nonetheless I shouldn’t have been talking smack about it [laughs]. That’s just me trying to cover up my own failings, I apologise.
After Lift to Experience ended, which was a sad day, you moved to Limestone County for a while, and took yourself away from things in one sense, but towards what you needed to, at that time. I read that the local Baptist church looked in on you, and you ended up leading the songs in church, sometimes.
You liked Lift to Experience? Well then you’re the girl [laughs], we had one girl fan. It’s nice to finally meet ya [laughs]. We had maybe only one or two girls as fans, and we used to joke around and call it “dude-rock” – guys who liked guitar music and effects and all that, but it means you’ve got good taste [laughs]. After that I moved to Limestone, it’s poor. It’s a county in the middle of Texas, between Dallas, Houston and Austin – it’s central Texas, just country people – they don’t get out so much, and it’s pretty insular – normal country people are scared of new people. They were so suspicious of me, it took a few years for them to accept me. I am still a member of that little church, actually – my home is out there, it’s where I say I am based when I am in the States, even though I am on the road most of the time. It is a sanctuary, it is only a town of 300 people, it’s like having a little village all to yourself. They are a bit racist and redneck, but when they know you they would lay down their lives for you. They are sweet people, it’s just the nature of gang mentality, when you don’t get out much, it takes a while to let anybody in, but you know the next town is only 7 miles away, and has around 6000 people there – there was an oil boom eighty years ago, and some towns boomed with economic growth.
The South is also a place where they have a huge history of Shape Note singing/Sacred Harp- the more I look into it, the more people seem to be affected by it.
I have tried it once or twice, but I am not very good at it. There was a film done about it a while back that you should see [Awake My Soul: The Story of The Sacred Harp], the guy in 16 Horsepower [David Eugene Edwards] did an introduction to it, it is worth watching. They still have competitions every year, it is beautiful stuff. It’s very raw.
Raw is a word I think of in relation to your work, and you once said that you love Hank Williams because of the same thing, the simplicity of composition, yet complexity of subject matter – “God, love, death, it’s all you really need. Also its limitations, sonically, it’s raw.”
It’s true, whereas I unfortunately beat things to a pulp and beat them up again and again. I will spend a month on a comma. I liken it to stepping into a boxing ring and getting the crap kicked out of you. One thing I admire about the country stuff is that it is short and straight with its structure, and you can pass it on, whereas what I do is modern country if it is country music at all. When they had the 45’s they were then more limited in time and structure – just two minutes, as opposed to the old tradition where there are 16 or 20 verses, a good long story, where we all wanted to see what comes around the corner, but then the 45’s came out and it was put into more of a pop structure, where they had to have a good refrain – two verses and a chorus and that’s it, you have the hook in your head. Whereas I grieve over one word, as I know it can change the whole context, but there is always a subtext, so hopefully it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
You have moved around a lot in the last decade, and were based in Paris at one point, and then Berlin, which you seemed to really like.
I enjoy the people. It’s a cold town, but the people are what make it rich. It’s a new town really because it was so destroyed, but there is a lot of space, and freedom to exercise your thoughts and walk around. It changes every day, so quickly – if you have to be in Europe, it’s a great centre. I like it a lot.
And you have collaborated a little there, I am thinking in particular of Dustin O’Halloran – do you think you might work with him again?
Oh yeah, he’s great. I asked him once about maybe doing a Christmas album, I thought that would be real nice [laughs], but I haven’t put one foot in front of the other about that yet. I am looking for a new home at the moment, and Berlin is definitely on the shortlist. I also love when I go to Dublin, but I don’t know whether I want to make that my home just yet…..
You have always had quite pivotal moments here, both good and bad.
[Laughs for a long time] Yes, I certainly have. There is something in the water there, that draws me back. My father and mother were from Kansas, but before that they were all Irish, all Irish blood – Limerick. It was strange and not strange being in Dublin when my father died.
The positive experience was that when you supported The Dirty Three years ago, afterwards, two different men, separately, told you how much those songs meant to them – it was heartening to read that those experiences encouraged you to record what would become Last of the Country Gentlemen.
That was it – there was one in Dublin, and one in Kilkenny, or perhaps it was Cork – but two men separately said a similar thing, it was significant enough to make me consider my own aesthetic, and to go further with it, and I did. Sometimes people tell me such things, but only when I am out around people that would recognise it, not when I am in Texas at all, people are not so interested. Over in Europe it is very different.
I think that record reaches something very devastating, hidden away – do you feel you have a little more distance from it now?
I was just in Texas for four months, and I didn’t play shows for around five or six months, and didn’t play those songs for that length of time – December until the end of May, until I came over to play these festivals. It was nice to take a break, I’ll be honest, it was really healthy, as you can stay in that sad mindset. It can be cathartic for a while, and then somehow it starts to become detrimental, but I have the muscle memory, and can now conjure up the ghost without it being too painful, and move away from it afterwards. If it starts getting dangerous again then I won’t do it, but it seems to affect people, and it becomes redemptive for them – it’s good to know you are not alone.
I think sometimes records come into people’s lives for different reasons. It was comforting that in a period of great personal grief, you managed to create, it was an act of living, showing you were not defeated, yet.
I wasn’t expecting it. And I completely agree with you. It goes back to what you were saying about the guys in Ireland, specifically – I had no intention of putting these songs out. In the last decade, I had only been working on songs for live shows, and for the craftsmanship, the grace of working on creation, and playing live – but it was specifically those boys in Ireland, because they were so earnest about it, it wasn’t like “hey good show, really appreciate it”, they were affirmed in a different sort of way, they needed to hear it, and were changed on an almost molecular level, they knew they were not alone, and felt grace or better.
I remember something similar happening to me when I was younger and I was reading Flannery O’Connor, a Southern writer and gal, long dead, and she would write about some Pentecostal and affecting religious stuff, and there was a book she wrote called Wise Blood. I read it, and as a young man I just wept, I saw literature as a means of grace, and I felt compassion for myself, and I knew psychologically why I was beating myself to a pulp in life, and I understood that for the first time in my life, and it was a major stepping stone, a line of demarcation really. I could forgive myself, because I could understand why I was acting that way. It was really regenerative, and there was a similar earnestness in those lads in Ireland. You guys tend to be a little more passionate, perhaps – and I felt the earnestness there.
Ireland is a difficult place in that sense, because there is passion, but also a history of repression of feelings, and many people lose themselves in other things – alcohol, work, family, and not attending to the personal emotional, interior world.
You know, I could tell that those lads don’t normally do that in their daily lives – there is a certain freedom in meeting a stranger as you are gone the next day, and when they came up to me they were looking left and right, their eyes were welling up, they had big old hearts amid big strong shoulders. It was that song “Honeymoon’s Great, Wish You Were Her'” that seemed to get them, and you know, I haven’t actually played that song since I recorded it, it’s a real heartbreaker, it’s because it is about the nature of true romance, and about looking back, nostalgia, and growing up.