Cosmic Cowboys, Acid and Having a Beer With Jesus – Justin Osborne of Susto

10915026_1610467402502047_3413982370388978341_oTouring in support of their second album, & I’m Fine Today, South Carolina band Susto make their debut Scottish appearance at Celtic Connections this week. Formed in 2014 by Justin Osborne, the band have rapidly gained a reputation for their live shows while & I’m Fine Today is a well crafted set of songs which explore doubt and the human condition and  essentially ask the question, “Why Are We Here?” With beautifully delivered ballads such as Havana Vieja and more complex layers of sound as on Waves, the album is like a less manic version of The Flaming Lips with a dash of Wilco added.

Osborne grew up in a Pentecostal community and attended military school for a while. Rebelling, he dived into drugs, lost his religion and started a band, Sequoyah. When they broke up in 2013 he returned to college but eventually left and travelled to Cuba before forming Susto. On the eve of setting off to Europe (and on his birthday) Justin took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, Happy Birthday to you. I believe it will be a busy day as you are flying out to Europe. Is this your first time over here?

Thanks. We actually leave for Europe tomorrow, first we fly to Chicago then to Copenhagen.  I’m really looking forward to this, really excited. I’ve played solo before in Europe and in the UK I’ve only played London so I’m excited to be getting to some other places such as Glasgow to play at Celtic Connections. I hear it’s a great festival and that you get to meet lots of other musicians and I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. We’re also playing some showcases in the Netherlands with some other musicians and I’m really looking forward to seeing Corb Lund and Colter Wall.

First off, can I ask you about the band name? I’ve read that Susto is a Latin American term meaning a sense of malaise or dread, kind of like an existential crisis.

It’s a bit of both really. I was an anthropology student when I first heard the term and it literally means that your soul is separated from your body but the  more I read about it I realised that it has degrees, it can be as simple as a panic attack all the way up to a feeling that you’re not really yourself. When I first heard it I was like 24 or 25 and I thought it described how I was feeling but then I started to learn Spanish and I lived in a Spanish speaking country for a while and I realised then that it’s often just a colloquial term for a fright. But it still has this deeper feeling and I thought that it was an appropriate name for my band.

You lived in Cuba for a while?

Yes, I was in Havana for much of 2013.

Was it easy to go there? I know that the US back then didn’t really encourage tourism.

Well when I went there it was just before Obama relaxed some of the rules but the first time I went it was through an educational programme which was one of the ways you could legitimately visit the country. The second time I kind of snuck in, I flew to the Bahamas and from there I was able to get to Cuba. But then I got detained in the airport when I came home as they didn’t believe that I had spent all that time in The Bahamas and I was carrying all this Cuban rum. However I got off with a slap on the wrist so that was OK. The Cubans are happy to see you, it’s the US government who don’t want you to go.

You’ve said that your time spent there was quite influential. Was that in terms of you personally or was it more of a musical influence?

Both really but it’s not really an obvious influence on the sound. There’s so much music on Cuba and it’s so diverse. There’s the traditional dance music and there’s lots of rock bands and cover bands who just do Beatles songs but what really intrigued me was the singer songwriter tradition, called son truvo. They have this sense of sarcasm and they’re not afraid to sing about the darker side of humanity but kind of playfully and I think that has been the main influence, I came back really as a different kind of writer, using lyrics in a different way from before. It’s definitely on the first album and some of it spills into the current one. We’re not afraid of being sarcastic and we’ve put out little vignettes on some of our videos which I think shows that side of us.

That comes out on the song Chilling On The Beach With My Friend Jesus. Your idea of heaven is having a beer on the beach with your friends instead of seeing pearly gates.

I guess. I’m not religious but I come from a deeply religious family and part of my struggle over the past few years has been reconciling where my head is at now with the way I grew up and being able to communicate with my family. That song was meant to be like a bridge between people who had lost their faith and those who have the traditional beliefs. I don’t know if I succeeded in building that bridge, maybe I blew it up. The song was one thing but then we made a video for it and that made some people more upset, they didn’t like to see Jesus partying and drinking. The church I grew up in, there’s no alcohol so that didn’t go down well but I was told that I had a personal relationship with Jesus and I think if that’s true then you’ve just got to be yourself and not be like on your best behaviour all the time and that’s what we tried to show in the video. I don’t lose sleep over it, a lot of people had fun with the song and we certainly did but if you read the YouTube comments you see people writing, “You’re going to burn in Hell” and stuff like that but I just laugh it off.

You mentioned setting up little vignettes or stories for several of your videos

In a way it’s really just giving people something to chew on. I mean we can’t put out a new record every couple of months so we add a little bit to a song. It’s mainly for people who are really into the band, who are interested enough to search us out. We don’t do it with every song, there are some that I’m not comfortable talking about but it’s more or less a way to orientate people and let them know where we are coming from. We’re kind of giving people a different way of hearing a song and it’s been fun to do but listening to music is a personal experience and some people just want to hear a song and some want to know more about it and I think the listener has a right to choose which way they go about it. We don’t want to push a song’s meaning down anyone’s throat, it’s really just to keep the interaction going.

Having said that, some of the songs are quite obvious. Gay In The South for example tackles attitudes towards gay people with family and friends saying they will go straight to hell. Some parts of the South have always had a reputation for being intolerant but do you think it’s worse today?

I was up late last night just talking about the way this country is going and there are lots of conversations like that going on all over the place. When it pertains to gay rights, women, minorities and such I had hoped we had moved on a little bit but when I go home to my family and the place I grew up, it’s not just my family but people in restaurants and most people around you and it’s like they all voted for Trump. It’s not the case in Charleston where I live now, it’s a more progressive town, but back home you start to think, why, where did we separate? Guys I grew up with, played sports with and could probably still have a beer with, but when it comes to politics there’s a very big rift. With my parents I cannot talk about politics at all, it would just blow up even though they’re people I love. Before Trump there was already a lot of animosity, us and them, but Trump is the great divider, the wedge that’s making that split much wider. It’s sad because basically I love people and I Love my family and where I’m from but I can’t reconcile with their views.

Can we talk about your experience of microdosing with LSD?

I got into LSD when I was at college, not microdosing but going on a trip trying to get that psychedelic experience, it felt like it was stripping away the layers of bullshit and seeing the world in a new way. Maybe that was just us going crazy, I don’t know but it didn’t really feel like that. I started hearing about microdosing when I was in Sequoyah, as a band we weren’t tripping all the time, maybe just a couple of times a year. But by then I had a song called The Acid Boys  and I’ve got the word ACID tattooed on my hand and so some fans would give me some LSD and I started to think about microdosing – the government’s definitely listening in on this but it doesn’t matter because I’m clean right now!

I didn’t want to go back down the whole ten hour acid trip but remembering the changes it brought out in me I started microdosing in the studio for the first record, it wasn’t just me but our guitar player at the time and our producer. And we got a lot done. We were taking just trace amounts and it wasn’t as if you felt you had any substance in you, it was just like, “Wow, I’m in a great mood today, I’m firing on all cylinders.”  It just raises the energy levels but it’s not like caffeine or any kind of amphetamine, I hate that edgy feeling, it’s just a very clean feeling of energy. I don’t do it all the time and although we did do it a couple of times when we were making & I’m Fine Today there was a lot more times when we weren’t doing it. I’m not like saying to everyone, go do acid, but for me personally it’s helped me deal with bouts of depression, helped me deal with the changes in my life.

There’s a song on the new album, Cosmic Cowboy. Did you grow up listening to psychedelic country records?

I’ve been a Grateful dead fan for a long time. I’m not really into jam music, bands like Phish although a couple of the guys in the band like that. I’m coming more from a punk rock and singer songwriter background, I went to military school right after high school and while I was there I just fell in love with the imagery of The Grateful Dead, the Steal Your Face look, I’m even wearing a Dead T shirt right now. I was drawn to them through the graphics and although I wasn’t smoking weed or anything I started to fall in love with their music. It wasn’t because of them that I started taking LSD however, that was just boredom

a4018315158_16You said earlier you had studied anthropology and with your interest in Latin America I wondered if you know much about the culture and drugs of indigenous South American tribes

Well I’ve never used a drug like Ayahuasca which some Amazonian tribes use but that culture is represented on the album cover for & I’m Fine Today which is a painting by Pablo Amaringo. He’s deceased now but he was a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon, a rain forest preservationist and an amazing artist. Our drummer is a visual artist and he brought me some ideas for the album artwork including this. It’s supposed to be a representation of this inner battle that can happen and I thought it was a great way to represent the concept of Susto. When Marshall brought that to the table I couldn’t believe that a piece of artwork like this could exist. Because again, the reason the band is called Susto is because of that ongoing battle internally and I just thought the painting represented us. We spent a lot of time making this album and we were always adding little things here and there, maybe we added too much stuff but the album sleeve, it’s like you can look at it and keep on finding new things and I think it’s like listening to the record, you can keep on finding new things in the songs. I’m really grateful to Pablo’s estate and to the Universe for putting that artwork in front of me.

Susto are playing two shows at Celtic Connections on 3rd and 4th Feb. All tour dates are here.

Website

Advertisements

Findlay Napier. Glasgow. Cheery Grove Records

a31bbe_6a612d26cfae416f991e593997008c1emv2_d_1490_1491_s_2Celtic Connections is coming up and one of the first artists Blabber’n’Smoke is going to see is Findlay Napier who will be performing his latest release, Glasgow. An album that is part tribute to, part dissection, of his adopted hometown, Glasgow is a worthy successor to Napier’s VIP, an album that found him delivering wry biographies of some famous (and some not so) people.

Glasgow’s a notorious city (or so we Glaswegians think). On the one hand it has a reputation for poverty and violence, on the other, it’s the friendly and forward looking metropolis that has been a city of culture and which has its very own “style mile” (in reality just a bunch of the same department stores you can find in any city centre). What Glasgow does have and always had is a ready supply of talent ready to mythologize the grimy tenements, the gangs, the shopping, the culture, the football and the music and perhaps Napier’s greatest achievement here is that he isn’t one of those. Sure, there are moments on Glasgow when he is in thrall to the history and romanticism that does exist in this once called “second city of the empire” but overall here he is an oblique aural flaneur taking the listener throughout various aspects of the city that have influenced him. That he does it with such casual excellence is the icing on the cake.

With Boo Hewerdine supporting on guitar and piano and with occasional field recordings the album is less fleshed out musically than VIP, however this allows Napier’s clear and ringing voice full rein over the simple backings. He opens the album with tolling bells as he sings about the city’s central necropolis, a ghost story one might expect but instead Napier delivers a potted history of Glasgow’s patron saint while describing the Goths who frequented the graveyard when he lived nearby. As on VIP’s Hedy Lamarr, Napier gets a subject and takes it places one would never expect. Glasgow’s history of shipbuilding sails into view on the powerful There’s More To Building Ships with Napier railing against the faceless men who dismantled the industry while detailing the industrial illnesses endured by the workforce, here he reminds one of a powerful songwriter from Leith, Dick Gaughan. Pulling Wires is another social testament inspired by a documentary on Glasgow’s homeless who collect scrap metal and again it’s transformed into a memorable and hefty folk song. The Locarno, Sauchiehall Street 1928 pays tribute to a famous Glasgow dance hall and is imbued with a similar sense of wonderment and memory as VIP’s Valentina but Napier’s other slice of everyday life centres on a chip shop bang in the centre of town as he sings of an unrequited love affair with a girl who wraps the fries. Banality transformed into art it’s supremely underplayed.

As a musician who came to live in the city, Napier acknowledges others who have written and sung about Glasgow with a fine selection of covers. Chief of these is his rendition of Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice, a song popularised by the late Hamish Imlach and a great vehicle for Napier who gives it just the right amount of salaciousness. The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, a reminder of Napier’s student days is stripped right down and sung as a delicate and tender love song, Napier posing as a Glaswegian Chagall. Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow manages to cram several tributes into one as it mentions The People’s Palace, Glasgow bands, footballers, Glasgow’s one time reputation (again) as “cinema city” and , most of all, to the writer, Marra, a Dundonian who wrote about Glasgow better than most Glaswegians. Football, and its unsavoury punch-ups, open Julia Doogan’s Glasgow but the song soon settles into a hymn of sorts to the Dear Green Place. Finally, Napier offers up a gorgeous reading of Emma Pollock’s Marchtown, a glorious song which addresses the history of an area, now called Strathbungo, historically associated with Mary Queen Of Scots, an area which Napier himself now calls home.

Glasgow is an album which any fan of Napier will love and for many Glaswegians it will strike a chord. From the excellent cover artwork with Napier recreating Raymond Depardon’s striking image of Govan kids in the 80’s (including a very sad shot of him standing in the doorway of the derelict Lyceum cinema, a haunt of Blabber’n’Smoke’s childhood) to the many totems mentioned in the songs, it just hums with the vibrancy that many of us believe still surrounds the city.

Findlay Napier performs Glasgow at Celtic Connections on Saturday 20th January while he also hosts the late night sessions at The Drygate and Hazey Recollections and he will be appearing with Shake The Chains on 31st January

Website

Tim Henderson. Gone To Texas: The Legacy Collection (Vol.1)

timhenderson6For anyone interested in Texan folklore and the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock and Guy Clark this album is an intriguing listen. Tim Henderson, who died in 2011, was from West Virginia but moved to Austin, Texas when in his 30’s. Influenced by his grandmother who played mountain dulcimer Henderson took up music at an early age but once in Texas he joined in the budding musical scene there releasing his first album in 1978. While his fame never expanded much beyond the State’s borders, at home he was feted with Townes Van Zandt championing him as he won a best song award at The Kerrville Folk Festival in 1977 while he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Texas Music in 2011 for his “timeless contributions to Texas music.”

Gone To Texas is the first volume of a six album set which gathers Henderson’s recording together and, as the title hints, it concentrates on the songs he wrote about Texas history, culture and people. Released last year in The States it’s coming to our attention now due to the ministrations of promoter Rob Ellen who heard about Henderson when he was on the road with an artist Henderson mentored, Chuck Hawthorne. Ellen attended a concert celebrating the album release and was knocked out and amazed at the galaxy of Texas artists who turned up to pay homage and undertook to try and spread the word further. For that we say, Thanks Rob.

Listening to the album I was struck time and again as to why Henderson isn’t better known. His songs range from vibrant retellings of pivotal moments in Texas history to songs packed full of humour and wit. His Ballad Of Whiskey John (one of the songs that helped him win the Kerrville New Folk Competition – Van Zandt was a judge that year) is a folk tale, almost a talking blues, which recalls Loudon Wainwright and Kinky Friedman. Witch Of West Lynn, written in revenge against getting a ticket for running a red light, cackles with an absurd humour with Henderson roaring like Shel Silverstein while Jesus Would Have Loved El Paso is a sly dig at television pastors such as Jerry Falwell who delighted in calling Texans sinners and it’s delivered with a passion similar to that of Tom Russell.

Russell comes to mind again when Henderson dips into the border territory as on La Dona Maria and Maria Consuelo Arroyo, both replete with Hispanic sounds and the latter leading us into another comparison, this time with the rawness of Terry Allen’s Juarez. There really is so much treasure here (some not so polished, the living room recording of Texas Morning Ride gains from its lo fidelity) with songs such as Dust and Texas In His Ways truly embedded in the Texas tradition but our favourite is the magnificent Miss Amelia Harris, Spinster, a song which sounds as if you had bundled together all of the artists we’ve mentioned here and added a dollop of John Prine.

Gone To Texas is a tremendous listen and it whets the appetite for the accompanying volumes. Hopefully it and the other five discs serve to spread Henderson’s legacy further afield, we’d certainly love to hear more of the man. Thanks again, Rob.

Website

Here’s some vintage footage of Tim Henderson…

And here’s Chuck Hawthorne singing Miss Amelia Harris, Spinster (just for good measure)

 

 

Mary Gauthier. Rifles & Rosary Beads. Proper Records

digitalcoverofficial3000x3000Mary Gauthier is no stranger to hurt and heartache, despair and gloom. Over the course of seven albums she’s relayed her own troubled past – adoption, drink, drugs, brushes with the law – and done so brilliantly rising to the top of the current crop of singer songwriters. Rifles & Rosary Beads is another album of troubles and woe with Gauthier’s wearied and resigned voice, as always, capable of conveying a multitude of emotions. The difference here is that Gauthier is relating the pain and trauma of war veterans, the songs having their gestation in a series of song writing workshops where she sat down with US veterans and transformed their experiences into song.

Songwriting With Soldiers is a non profit organisation started by Darden Smith which encourages veterans to share their experiences with professional songwriters. Weekend retreats feature workshops and the resulting songs are performed and recorded with participants given a CD to take away along with other memorabilia of the retreat. Download copies of the songs recorded are then made available to the public with the veterans involved and the artist given song writing credits Gauthier (along with a list of other well known artists) has been involved in the project for several years and Rifles & Rosary Beads is her “commercial” version of some of the songs she has co-created over those years, all of whom were consulted and agreement given that the record be made. A portion of the sales generated will go to Songwriting With Soldiers.

You can read an interview with Gauthier here which goes into some detail about the song writing process, however in the studio she has recorded the songs very much in her usual manner such that anyone not knowing of these songs’ gestation would just be marvelling at yet another very fine Mary Gauthier album, The War After The War and Morphine 1-2 could easily sit on any of her other albums – the former song was crafted when Gauthier sat with six spouses of veterans who explained their ongoing difficulties dealing with the emotional fallout from war on their partners (with all six listed as co-authors). While there’s a strident, almost martial edge, to the opening song, Soldiering On, the album as a whole is set in Gauthier’s familiar laid back style. Iraq portrays a female soldier’s experience of sexism from her supposed comrades, Rifles And Rosary Beads is a vivid picture of a soldiers totems and fears and It’s Her Love is a devastating portrayal of a veteran’s reliance on his partner’s support. The album closes with an anthem of sorts, a cry against the indifference meted out to many wounded and troubled service men and women as Gauthier sings that they are Stronger Together.

Rifles & Rosary Beads is a powerful and emotive listen. It’s Gauthier doing what she does and doing it well. Beyond that it raises the profile of the forgotten wounded (and surely here in the UK there’s a need also). You can hear many of the original songs recorded at the retreats here.

 

Best of 2017

OK, decorations are coming down, it’s back to work time but before that here’s a short list of the albums that have stood out over the past year. If there’s a link it will take you a review of the album. Looking back it seems that 2017 wasn’t a bad year for music in terms of releases but a total bummer in terms of Tom Petty leaving us. Here’s hoping next year is as good so, all the best for 2018.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

cp18cdIn the year of Brexit and Trump, Chuck’s sheer love of rock’n’roll shone throughout this album. Coupled with seeing him play two blindingly great gigs this year the album’s been a regular on the stereo and in the car while Jesus Was A Social Drinker is my song of the year.

 

Jeremy Pinnell, Ties Of Blood And Affection

e2069a_5277bb38e84c4e118495b89d2105a130mv2While Stapleton gets all the notice I think there are numerous others who are bringing out better albums and Jeremy’s second solo album is the best of the lot this year. I was privileged to host a house concert with Jeremy and Ags Connolly and it was a great occasion.

 

Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life

cc752a_ccb74ac415f74324bdde66d0b5f81184mv2An album of glacial purity with glimpses of Joni Mitchell in its shadows.

 

 

GospelbeacH, Another Summer Of Love

500x500Jangled sunny California music which stretches from Petty to The Jam in its inspiration.

 

 

Nathan Bell, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland)

love-fear-front-coverOld fashioned protest perhaps but Bell is a powerful writer and as good a champion of “blue collar” folk as Rod Picott. And, in concert, he’s funny with it (just like Rod Picott).

 

Blue Rose Code. The Water Of Leith

the-water-of-leithRoss Wilson continues his journey into the hinterlands of folk and jazz. A wonderful and evocative album.

 

Eric Ambel, At The Lakeside

61ceyom7fgl-_ss500It took 12 years for Ambel to come up with this one, a bunch of songs he imagined could have been on his pub’s jukebox. Guitar album of the year.

 

Don Antonio, Don Antonio

cs646897-01a-bigAside from his band, Sacri Cuori, Antonio Gramantieri has worked with Howe Gelb, Dan Stewart and Alejandro Escovedo. This solo album is a magnificent retro stew of sixties soundtracks and Italian cool.

 

Jaime Wyatt, Felony Blues

jaime_coverA true jailbird, Wyatt’s album is part outlaw country, part Laurel Canyon country rock. For me she just beats Margo Price

 

Malojian, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.

a1294981180_16Irishman Stevie Scullion conjures up a slight psychedelic trip with McCartney like melodies and Harrison’s Blue Jay Way vibes.

 

Best reissue/compilation

The Wynntown Marshals, After All These Years

a2597450969_16A perfect introduction to the band if you haven’t heard them before. A perfect keepsake for those who are in the know.

 

 

Also of note…

Slaid Cleaves, Ghost On the Car Radio

Margo Price, All American Made

Danny & The Champions Of The World, Brilliant Light

Ags Connolly, Nothin’ Unexpected

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock

Todd Day Wait, Folk-Country-Blues

Whitney Rose, South Texas Suite

Norrie McCulloch, Bare Along The Branches

Russ Tolman. Compass & Map

John Murry, A Short History of Decay

Jim Keaveny, Put It Together

Ian Felice, In The Kingdom Of Dreams

Gill Landry, Love Rides A Dark Horse

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters

Daniel Meade Shooting Stars & Tiny Tears 

The Sadies, Northern Passages

John Alexander, Of These Lands

There are many others which could/should be mentioned here, apologies to those I’ve either forgotten about or overlooked. In the meantime here’s the song of the year.