Raising the Bar: Josh T. Pearson interview
Texan singer-songwriter Josh T. Pearson has enjoyed a warm reception in Europe, yet he’s struggled to peddle his art back in his home country. But with the release of his second album, The Straight Hits!, that could all be set to change. Laura Williams finds out more…
After several years in the wilderness (again), Josh T. Pearson has emerged from a cocoon of self-doubt as a beautiful, colourful butterfly – with albums brimming with new and varied material under his bright-white cowboy hat.
Unrecognisable from the bearded, sober, yoga-loving introvert of 2010/11, Pearson became reacquainted with a razor and booze, learned to dance and love again, and hasn’t looked back. “It’s been a great few years,” he says. “It’s so different to the first 40 years.”
After living in Europe for several years in the late 2000s – London, Berlin and Paris – Pearson achieved cult status with his only solo record, 2011’s Last Of The Country Gentlemen – Rough Trade’s Album Of The Year. It’s a heartbreaking story of love and loss, delivered intensely, by a man on the brink.
“We worked the Last Of The Country Gentlemen record for a year or two in the UK, then came back to America and no one wanted me, so I just moved back out to the desert in the middle of nowhere, Texas, and stayed there for a year or two,” he recalls. “I kind of thought life was over, and then a friend said: ‘Come visit me in Austin’, and he invited me to this bar called The White Horse and I walked into the bar and I felt the universe had made a bar specifically for me. I spent a year or two there, learning how to dance on the road to recovery, and I’ve come a long way. I was so in my shell and self-aware, and dancing was so liberating for me.”
Josh, I’m Only Dancing
Dancing isn’t the only change Pearson has made since moving to Texas. Drugs, liquor and love started to feature in his new life. “I don’t wanna say I don’t drink anymore, but I don’t drink any less. I incorporated it back in my life two or three years ago again and there have been a couple of close calls. I did fracture my foot recently. I tripped over a whisky bottle. There was some miscommunication about who had the keys, where they were and why I was locked out of the house, where my leather jacket was and where my phone was. Other than that, it’s been okay.”
Perhaps the most obvious change is in his appearance. Pearson started shaving for the first time in well over a decade, ditching the facial fuzz to create a dramatic visual transformation. “I started trimming the hair back and went all the way with it,” he says. “I hope a few of the older fans stick around. I know they’re gonna be sad to lose the beard. They’re like: ‘We like the beard, dude’, well go grow one yourself – it’s like 15 years of growth. It is annoying having to shave every day, but I’m good lookin’, so it helps.”
Humour has always been a part of Pearson’s life, even in those darker days. While playing Last Of The Country Gentlemen live, he would intersperse his dark, brooding set of songs with crude jokes, to stop him slipping into a black hole. Jokes about ducks, drummers and Willie Nelson were commonplace.
On the subject of Willie Nelson, Pearson recently recorded a song with The Texas Gentlemen called All My Friends Have Met Willie Nelson, So Why Can’t I?. “It’s like this country-punk thing,” he laughs. “It’s really cool. It’s a hit. I’ve never met him, but all my friends have. I need to change that. That’s why I wrote this damn song. He’s gonna get old and die and that’s gonna frustrate the heck out of me that I haven’t met him.
“The latest Willie joke?” he teases. “Why are divorces so expensive? ’Cause they’re totally worth it”. It’s a joke that cuts close to the bone for Pearson, who has undergone divorce counselling to make sense of the painful break-up which inspired his last album.
“I’m so glad I’m divorced now,” he says. “It was painful at the time, but years later, it’s so clear that we were not suited. I’m grateful now. It was a blessing that that tragedy happened. It’s all a journey. Albeit a very painful journey.”
Once a deeply religious man, Pearson likens love between two people to the love between himself and God, struggling once again to balance faith and life. He says: “Me and God, we don’t talk so much anymore. It seems to be weighted with the same amount of resentment and hate as most love affairs have. I don’t know where we stand. Maybe we’re taking some time apart. We’re on a trial separation, the Lord and I.
“If God would let me off this crazy thing and let me crack out some records, there’s some really fun stuff comin’ – political stuff. This is gettin’ crazy. Donald Trump’s our president.” As we discuss Trump, we briefly lose our phone connection. “Donald Trump has his evil robots listening,” laughs Pearson. “They’re comin’ for us!”
Pearson was at the US Embassy in London during the presidential election in 2016. He says: “It was unsettling; I’ve never seen the country so divided. A responsibility seemed to shift within me – like, where are the people really stepping up to spread joy?
“Everyone’s surprised at how different this record sounds. But I really found some marbles, and thought, ‘I’m going to put these marbles to good use’. I was going for every song as a different genre. I work every day on songs and I have at least 20 genres floating in my head, so the idea of these tunes was to pave the way for the next record and to give a little flavour for each of the different ones inside of me. “I know my output hasn’t been copious – I try to put out a record once every seven-to-10 years,” he jokes. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that! But now, I’d really just like to start cranking out one or two records a year. I really do have the material.”
Featuring nine songs which stick to the Five Pillars mantra (see boxout), The Straight Hits! takes you on a journey – from the in-your-face country-punk opener Straight To The Top! to the folkier Dire Straights Of Love and everything in between. Asked what his favourite off the new album is, Pearson reveals it’s A Love Song (Set Me Straight).
He says: “That’s the one song that really strikes a chord. That’s more Josh T. Pearson, the real me: the others, by design, don’t go too far down to a deeper insight – but that one’s personal.”
In 2017, Pearson reunited with his former band Lift To Experience and was faced with the biggest crowd they’ve ever played to at Green Man Festival in Wales – something he could only dream of in his home country.
“I’ve always had a warmer reception in Europe,” he says. “I can’t get a gig over here to save my life. They don’t like me. I don’t think I’m country enough to be country. There’s been no one to really champion it over here.
“I started doing these Monday-night gigs in my local bar. Really low key, no advertising and it’s been good. We’ll see what happens. I think America’s in an age now where it would like what I’m doing. I may be too optimistic about it, and I may get the middle finger, but I think it could be time where I can start playing over here – it would be a good thing not to have to cross an ocean to get a gig.”
He tells us how important Bella Union was in those early days – Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie signed Lift To Experience to the label on the strength of a performance at South By Southwest in 2000 – but he’s found his forever home in Mute. He says: “It was a real godsend to us to have someone interested and put out a double disc, that’s so special. I’ll be forever indebted to Bella, but Mute seemed like a better home for where I was headed with stuff.”
The Big Pink
The new record, which is being shared with European audiences via a spring tour and a series of Rough Trade gigs, is released on limited-edition pink-coloured vinyl – and is available in that format only from independent retailers (you can download it and buy the CD elsewhere, but the pink vinyl will require a trip to your local record shop).
The former man in black reveals that pink is his favourite colour, which makes him very excited about this record. “It’s awesome,” he says, “I’m so excited about it. I love vinyl. It’s the best thing ever. I like to put the vinyl in the oven over a coffee can and make fruit bowls.” Sacrilege, we suggest. “What if it’s a record you hate?” he replies. Good point.
We wrap up the conversation to allow Josh some more of the 15 hours’ beauty sleep he was raving about at the start of the call. “Thanks so much for your encouragement,” he beams. “Long Live Vinyl! Yeah! Hey, you know, I was kidding about making little fruit bowls. I was trying to be funny. Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys, that would be a good record to make a fruit bowl out of.”