JJ Grey’s 9th album ‘Ol’ Glory’ is released on February 23rd and it’s his first for his new label Mascot/Provogue.
As with previous album he’s immersed himself in a seamless blend of deep swampy grooves, country blues and jammed out old school r&b.
He flies the flag for enduring southern soul music, forged by traditional values, infused with rock, soul, blues, funk and country and gives it a contemporary relevance with lyrics drawn from his own experiences and outlook on life.
He’s an emotional singer whose songs reflect an ‘in the moment’ vibe, subtly shaped by long time collaborative producer Dan Prothero. If ‘Ol’ Glory’ is another step up the ladder for this engaging harp playing vocalist, he simply making music that reflects who he is.
JJ Grey spoke to Pete Feenstra about his new album, his musical inspiration and his views on life.
Let me ask you about the following quote about the album: ‘It’s a blues record with one foot in the church. It’s a Memphis soul record that takes place in the country’.
Do the ideas for this record come from different musical influences or primarily from your lyrical ideas?
The lyrics really. That quote actually came from a friend of mine. He felt that way, but really I don’t think too much about the style of music when it comes to songs. It’s a little bit like your accent really, you just talk in a certain way and that’s how it comes out.
You’ve been called a soul swamp rocker with elements of blues, funk, soul and rock and now it seems you’ve added country to the new album. Have you always considered those genres of music to be interrelated?
Yes they have always been interrelated for me. They are also interrelated in general because that’s the stuff I grew up listening to. So much of it is culturally connected and just musically connected like all music is. That’s why people from where I come from can understand music from other parts of the world and vice versa. It’s all a form of conversation to me and people can enjoy what other people have to say – maybe not all the time – but most of the time. The thing is, people like to talk and I think music does the same thing, or at least it does where I come from.
You built your career with 6 albums for Alligator records and even before signing with Provogue, you seem to have made it this far on your own terms, with little compromise to your lifestyle or music?
Yeah definitely I’ve been very fortunate in signing to Mascot/Provogue. I also consider myself fortunate in doing what I want to do and being able to enjoy the ride while doing it.
The opening track on ‘Ol’ Glory’ is ‘Everything is a Song’ and I guess that’s a pretty good metaphor for your career so far?
Yeah, you know I was on my way driving home the other day when my daughter started to sing in the car and she started making up words along with something that was playing on the radio. I started looking around and at that moment it seemed like everything was singing to me. She was 3 years old at the time and it was a joy for me to hear that. I just realized sometimes you have to and stop smell the roses and appreciate everything that’s around you.
So what does concept of ‘Ol’ Glory’ refer to?
It’s just life, the glory of light or whatever. I feel everything’s just shining through you and coming down. ‘Ol’ Glory’ is a lot of things, but mostly just the feeling of being alive and enjoying the moment I guess.
Is your music a search for a universal truth?
Well you know what I mean? I think it’s actually more about abandoning a search and just enjoying the ride and just living. For me, it’s what you have in this moment that makes the search over at that point. You don’t actually stop searching of course, but you quit feverishly looking for it.
You started off Mofro Magic in the mid 90’s in the UK. How did that relocation come about?
I had got an offer of a deal with a UK label called Acid Jazz and I came over to do the album. In the end it didn’t happen but I stayed over here for about 2 years and did a few gigs. Eventually I hooked up with Dan Prothero out of San Francisco and his label Fog City records. I actually did most of that on the internet when I was in the UK and he talked me into coming back to the States and putting a band together over there.
You’ve worked with him on all your records. Would it be difficult to reach those inspirational moments with another producer?
It would be difficult for me. It’s the way he captures those sound and tones that are magical for me. The other thing is he gave me a direction in the early days and steered me more towards r&b, otherwise I’d have been going in other musical directions.
Given a lot of your music is based on personal experiences, do you consider yourself a lyrist first and musician second?
A lyricist first I guess. I always felt that way, but music always comes easier than the lyrics! I have to be patient with lyrics. When the words come, they are like a candid, honest sort of conversation, so first you have the conversation, and then when it all comes out – I mean the words come out- you just write them down. Quite often my best stuff happens accidentally when I’m working on the guitar or piano, or whatever. And when it happens I just let it flow.
Your songs feature a lot of southern influenced narratives. Is the south an endless well of inspiration for you?
Growing up where I did – I mean in the south and Floridian particular – means different things to different people. It’s like trying to describing water to a fish (laughs), I mean what are we talking about with all this water around? The fish says, what are you talking about, as he kind of grew up in it. You don’t really notice where you grow up in.
I mean I didn’t really know that I was from the south until I left there. And then you see other people, other places and different things. It’s all got different flavours and when you do leave, you respond to different people. Its like food, everything has a different flavour and the one thing I never wanted to do was become a caricature of myself and the culture I grew up in, so I don’t think too much about it, and just let it ride.
Your albums have always had an autobiographical feel, or as you’ve said; “living your own movie”. Does that mean you get most of your ideas from everyday life?
Yeah (laughs). My life in general feels like a movie and when you think about it you are writing, directing, producing and acting in your own movie, I think we’re all doing that, whether you realise it or not. We’re writing the future part right now. Where its gonna go and how its gonna go you never know, but it’s both fun and in some ways scary to have that much power in your own life, but generally for me it’s a fun idea.
Mofro features Anthony Cole (drums), Andrew Trube (guitar), Anthony Farrell (organ), Todd Smallie (bass), Dennis Marion (trumpet) and Jeff Dazey (saxophone) and has always been an integral part of your music. Does the band influence the songs at all?
No not really, other than the fact that anything I dream up they have a great ability to play.
Are the grooves in the songs already there at the time of writing, or do they reveal themselves when played live?
A little bit of both. Most of the grooves are already there as part of the arrangements, though of course the guys expand on them by just being themselves. They hear a song and then they kind of learn it like you would learn a cover song. Invariably they add their own style, but I don’t think they give things a ton of thought as they’re musical people. Whether they change a song or not they just play it.
You’ve spent more time on ‘Ol’ Glory’ than on previous albums, yet your previous albums were great examples of musical and lyrical minutiae. So what’ s new on the album?
You know I don’t know! That’s a Good question, but I’ve never been able to think of it like that. If there’s anything new, it’s something new to the process, as musically I’m not really aware of it. It’s like hearing your voice on an answer phone, and you think is that me?
When I record something, it’s literally something new for the first time in my life. For this album I never thought of doing something particularly, though you do learn things along the way of course, and I guess they might affect the outcome.
The album does have special moments when it sounds as if you went that bit further. I’m thinking of the poetic charm of ‘Island’, while both ‘A Night To Remember’ and ‘Turn Loose’ have an impressionistic feel and almost a Dylan style stream of consciousness. Was that your intention?
I appreciate that you put me in great company there. Again the songs sort of happened, but when songs are something to do with me directly they are easier.
‘Night To Remember’ was really easy to remember and write, as it really happened to me, while ‘Island’ is about the environment about where I grew up. So the songs are about things that affect me and they are also written to remind myself of what’s important. The songs are like a diary entry to remind myself about those things. I’m not trying to inform others about things, it’s all about informing myself.
‘Everything Is A Song’, has a spiritual feel. Is spiritualism the glue that binds the whole album together?
Yeah I would say so for sure, sometimes I have to speak to myself about enjoying things in the moment. It goes back to enjoying life now and smelling the proverbial roses and looking around and seeing where you are instead of being in the world of what you might have done etc.
Both Derek Trucks and Luther Dickinson guest on the album and Derek also appeared on your ‘George Warhorse’ album. Did you have particular songs in mind for them?
Oh yeah I call Derek when I’m ready to do stuff, and it’s the same with Luther. They are both great musicians and good friends and if I can make an album with them I will.
On your previous albums you were portrayed as a backwoodsman and now on your new video the emphasis is on surf. Is this an attempt to show you in a wider scope?
Yeah, well I’m both (laughs). I grew up surfing and a lot the guys I grew up with they all surf and then they’d go to school wearing cowboys boots and ripped wrangler jeans. It’s almost the antithesis in looks of what people associate with surf. People in all walks of life surf.
When you go back home after touring etc, do you switch off completely?
For Sure, I don’t take any of it too seriously. It reminds me of that quote; ‘there nothing more obscene than a musician taking himself seriously’. You should take what you do seriously but you should even take that with a pinch of salt. Just don’t take yourself too seriously, just enjoy it.
I do enjoy it all, but sometimes I feel like I’m switching off all the time. All I notice is that everybody’s into it and the guys I’m playing with are into it, so I just enjoy it.
I’m definitely not one person on the road and another when I get back home. When I get back there’s enough fixing jobs for me to do, a farm to keep up with and stuff in the house that takes up most of my time.
Interview © February 2015 Pete Feenstra
Photos by Jim Arbogast
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
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