(Interview conducted by Bill Mallonee)
The new Ep is Tell the Truth.
1. Joel, judging from my familiarity with your previous work, I was expecting a barbed and unrelenting political diatribe, one with “teeth.”. Instead we’re treated to very restrained, almost gentle collection of songs. Explain!
Tell the Truth ‘happened’ in the midst of recording the upcoming, big, full band studio album “The Last War”. We got done with the tracking for TLW, I took those songs back to my home studio and did additional work on them, but in the midst of that process, there were some songs that emerged that I quickly figured out were a different “thing”. The debut JTS EP was “Closet Songs I”, which I wrote and recorded in one week as an antidote to my procrastination problem. The idea of that one was, one mic, one guitar, in an actual closet in my home. One song a day, write it and record it. I ended up adding some textures on that, but all acoustic guitar. On TTT I ended up capturing what the late night sessions of writing on ideas (some songs are actually older, but had not yet found a home, while some are brand new) and exploring not only lyrically ‘risky’ areas but sonically as well. I think its pretty fragile and vulnerable, but in a different way that Closet Songs was. I open with “Liar” which is sort of a ‘laying bare’ the idea that, while on the record I explore themes of mortality, politics, fear, doubt, even sexual assault culture, I cannot even state with certainty my own purity of heart or motivation. I like to introduce “Liar” live as “the most honest song I’ve ever written”. But, to get back to the initial question. I think its interesting that the ‘barbs’ don’t come through more sharply. I actually feel like some of the songs have among the sharpest lines i’ve written, almost hard to perform live. Especially on “Boys will be Boys’ (based on experiences of women very close to me concerning the ‘ol boys club’ culture of campuses and corporate america), and on the closer “The Heretic”. That’s one that I actually think could get me in trouble in certain venues (lol!). But it just flowed. I see, though, how it could be heard at first as gentle, based on some of the arrangements. Its a weird record. Maybe the gentleness sensed is more of a woundedness- these songs have a theme of wounds – of being at a place where telling the truth is the only way for the wounded to find justice, but also the only way that those in power can realize their humanity – to admit their own wounds, their own fragility, their own mortaility.
2. The instrumentation is wonderfully sparse.
Acoustic guitars with minimal treatments, keyboards supply melodic underpinning, a few drum loops and vocals. all giving way to a wearier vocal delivery.
It’s a significant departure for you.
Thematically, what were the truths you wanted highlighted here?
What are your inner reference points here?
Joel: So, musically I love understated arrangements. I love when you wait for that one little ‘bit’ in a song that only shows up once. I also felt that the songs demanded a fragile treatment – it should sound beautiful, but it should also sound like it could fall apart at any moment. So, a reference point for me, in the type of music I write will always be records like Jay Farrar’s “Terroir Blues”, just ones I listen to and think – ‘man, that’s a whole world created there, but its not “BIG”, its got a strong anchor, but its gutsy, weird, surprising, and takes some commitment to “get”.
“Tell the Truth” is a very purposeful them. In the ‘post-truth’ era I wanted to dive deep (or, more accurately, I would say, it just kind of showed up that it was the theme) I wanted to explore what it was to tell the truth. First there is the willingness to say ‘i don’t know everything.. I could be wrong’ (Liar), then a spotlight on the courage it takes for someone who is victimized, never believed, and up against the odds to speak a truth to power (Boys will be Boys), “Laserbeams” is a transition – a moment of questioning one’s preconceived ‘truths’, wondering what is going to remain if that ‘truth’ is questioned, what are the repercussions? What remains? “Fragile” is a contemplation on mortality – once all is broken down, what do we have left? What still connects us? And then “The Heretic” is a post-script – what does one do when one must speak the truth even if it means losing everything?
Inner reference points? Well, I’m not a “christian artist’ (I actually despise that term), but my reference point is Christ. What I mean is that I still try to refer to the one who always found himself among the broken, the lost, the failed, the abandoned, the loser, and spoke that good news to them – to us – ‘I see you – I know you – you are more than what you are called, what you are labeled, what you are seen as. Man, to me, there’s nothing else. But it has to be connected with the real, felt, experience of the wounded.
I can give a few specific examples for this record — “Boys will be Bcoys” is directly connected to stories from women I know who were vicitmized by sexual violence. That violence affects every aspect of a person, including dignity and sense of worth. I believe Jesus is with the survivors of that and calls the perpetrators (including those who idly stand by and do nothing) to repentance. “Fragile” is very personal. I lost my sister in law, Naomi this year – a week from her 33rd birthday she succumbed to her battle with colorectal cancer. I also lost a dear friend, suddenly, at the beginning of 2017, to a heart attack – way too young, way too sudden. I believe Jesus is with the ones suffering, for whom pat “Christian” answers bring no relief.
3. The record has a rough hewed dynamic; as if the songs were written very quickly and then recorded as quickly, thus capturing a magic and instilling a sense of urgency. Am I onto something?
The delivery and “work ethic” here seem to be part of the EP’s themes as well.
Joel: Its interesting, because all but “The Heretic” were written and even performed for some time before the recording of them. In that way it is different that “Closet Songs”. The immediacy was more in the arrangement. “Hey, see what that Casio MT68 sounds like there — cool! Go with it!” Now -I’ll admit that, more than on other records, I did obsess a bit over some panning, effects, etc. But never in order to make a ‘clean record’. The idea was it to be weird, even unsettling at times, I guess.. Fragile is really the best word for it. I didn’t want it to be ‘guy with a guitar’ at all. I wanted to evoke a space different than that. So, except for “The Heretic” its a bit of fun with sound, within my very limited, very ‘indie’ home setting. I mean, I’ll be honest – it was recorded on free Audacity software on a super old Mac, using a couple of mics, a keyboard legit from the 80s that my father in law gave me, and, well… of course my tele, vox, and martin. But its great fun to work within limits. I find it exhilarating. I’ve been encouraged by quite a few folks I really admire to try to never lose the sense of urgency – of capturing the take – of worrying less about perfection and more about the feel the ‘it’ of a song. I’m still learning. And what you hear on TTT is me pushing some of the boundaries of my own knowledge and equipment – so, I could listen back a few years from now and think “Oh, man! I wish I would have done that this way.. It would have sounded cleaner”or whatever…. But… I dunno… in the times we’re living in I just decided there’s no guarantee of anything.. And.. well.. Nothing new under the sun, so there never is… so go for it.. Try at least.. To tell the truth while you can.
Tell The Truth is up for a listen and or purchase at: https://joeldavidweir.bandcamp.com/album/tell-the-truth