Twin Cities-based, internationally accomplished singer-songwriter Justin Roth hits town at Ginkgo Coffeehouse. He was just in Europe and is on a mini-tour of Minnesota and Colorado. Won’t be in the area again until an appearance at Aster Cafe in October. Thus, this is an opportune occasion to catch a remarkably successful artist.
Roth is on the road to promote his new album Now You Know, following Shine, In Between, Two Forms of ID, Lifescapes Solo Guitar, and Up Until Now. His vocals, vaguely echoing Paul Simon and Jackson Browne, are clean with an original voice. Reflective lyrics, bordering on poetic, nearly profound, get the job done. What distinguishes Justin Roth as an artist of consequence is his guitar work. He is, to say the least, a fascinating musician, wielding texture on texture of aural intrigue. And has a fine ear for arrangements, coming up with rich melodic structures.
Roth, while performing in Italy, took time for an e-mail interview to talk about plying his craft.
Who are your chief influences as songwriter?
When I was in college I first started hearing people like John Gorka and David Wilcox, and it was the first time I was inspired by how much could be said in a song. I was influenced by their creative use of language, imagery and insight.
As a singer and musician?
As a guitarist, I was in 11th grade and had only been playing for about two years when I saw Michael Hedges open for Crosby, Stills and Nash. My outlook on the guitar completely changed and [I] saw that [the instrument] was capable of so much more than I had ever imagined. From there on out, I devoured his music and went on to discover other great guitarists, like Minnesota’s own Billy McLaughlin, and songwriters that had a strong guitar focus, like David Wilcox and Willy Porter. Vocally, these same artists as well as Martin Sexton were the primary people that inspired my vocal style.
How’d you go about selecting material for Now You Know?
I spent the better part of a year working on [the songs]. Four were co-writes, which was the first time I had ever done that. The others I wrote after taking time off from my constant tour schedule. In the past, my albums were simply a collection of the last 10 songs I’d written, but this time I had the freedom to write numerous songs and include only those that I felt best fit with the overall vision of the album. I had written over 30 songs and gradually selected and honed the ones that fit together thematically with the arc of the album.
Producing the album, how was it working with engineer Alex Oana and why’d you choose him?
I recorded, produced, played and sang every note on the album in my home. It was the first time I had ever made an album this way, without involving anyone else in the process. I wanted to represent the songs the way I heard them in my head without bringing someone else in to change or manipulate the songs into what they thought they should be. The reason many artists hire a producer is to come in and create the vision for the album, choose instrumentation, and to help edit the songs. However, I wanted the freedom to discover and create the entire palette of the album on my own to get more in touch with my own music…to dig deeper into my own creativity and musicianship to see what I could come up with on my own, instead of surrendering some control to someone else to make the songs work. Choosing to involve Alex to mix the album, after I had recorded and produced everything else, was twofold. Alex’s mixing prowess was first and foremost. Being that I had recorded the whole album at home with a modest studio set up and minimal self-recording experience, I knew it would be best to have Alex make sure everything came together sonically. Mixing is an art form in and of itself, and one that I felt I didn’t have enough experience to do on my own. I had worked with Alex on a few other albums in the past and I always liked how he heard music and could pull it all together. Two, I also knew that he would surprise me sonically with what could be done with my tracks. He honed in on the mood of each song and found out how to represent and support that mood tonally with the instruments. My arrangements stayed the same, but with the use of effects and EQ he bought a new dimension to the songs, further expanding what was already recorded.
You play pretty much everything and the kitchen sink on Now You Know. Are you working with a backup band on the tour?
I pretty much always perform solo. The extra instrumentation on the album was intended to support and dynamically enhance the songs, but without ever sounding like a band. I didn’t want any other instrument, besides my acoustic guitar and vocal, to ever draw too much attention to itself as if there was “a drummer,” “an electric guitarist,” or an ensemble. The parts are complementary, but were intend to not distract, or significantly alter the way the song sounds when performed solo. There are a lot of harmony vocals and vocal pads on the album though which is probably the most significant departure from the way the songs are performed. Most of my previous albums have a backing band, and since I never perform with a band, this was my way of representing my music some where between a live solo performance, and a fully produced album. I wasn’t interested in doing a solo live-in-studio album, because the purely solo performance is what my live shows are for. The extra arrangement on the album is more of a subliminal ambiance to enhance the songs, rather than a full-blown band production.
I’ll be releasing a solo acoustic instrumental guitar album. I’ve always included a couple finger-style acoustic instrumentals on my albums and had a lot of success and positive feedback from the Lifescapes Solo Guitar album I did for Target stores in 2000. So, I finally wanted to put together my own collection of my instrumental compositions.
Photo courtesy Justin Roth