JJ Grey – Back in the game

by Matteo Bossi

Nine years after the previous record, JJ Grey is back with a new album, “Olustee”. An album that marks a return on Alligator, already the home for five JJ Grey & Mofro projects between 2007 and 2013.”It’s crazy, I had no intention to take it that long…Life happened. I actually started recording some parts of this record within a year or maybe a year and a half of the release of Ol’Glory. But there was like a moving line that kept moving forward…if somebody would ask me how long since you put out a record? I’d say three or four years. Now it’s almost nine years. It’ surreal how sometimes it feels like it was only yesterday and sometimes like it is a long time ago. Usually I’m wrong both ways.”

So there was no specific reason.

No, we were touring a lot…then Covid happened and it slowed down the whole process of recording. Because I was not ready, even we were off the road. Honestly I had the music done for this album, maybe two or three years ago, apart for a couple of little things I added later and obviously the strings were done later with the orchestra. I didn’t have the lyrics finished until I  moved into this new studio building. Then suddenly when I did everything started to click and in two weeks I did more than in the previous eight years! I finished all the lyrics and the singing. The band had never heard the songs finished, they just did them instrumentally in the studio…I knew what I was gonna do, sort of, but it did not come together until last September or October. I’m terrible with time. Writing the lyrics was the hardest part for me, because I wanted them to write themselves as much as possible. I did not want to sit down and try to be clever, that is a disaster in the making! The other part is I’ve just kind of distanced myself from music for a while, not on purpose, even though if I look back and reflect now when I come home I tend to do that. I don’t really practice…

On all the other records you put out you had Dan Prothero as a producer, this time you did that yourself.

Yes and part of that was due to Covid as well…I got so far into the process, I mean I got all the tracks done. And one of the things I’ve always relied on Dan for is the tone and the sound  of  everything. The singing for the last fair amount of records, maybe to some extent all of them except “Blackwater”, Dan and Jim Devito at Retrophonics both helped me with tutelage if you will, or mentoring is a better word. They direct me in the right way, because of the sound that I liked. I’d sing myself at home in my little studio…I’ve done that since “Country Ghetto” or “Orange Blossom”. I did not set up to do it differently this time, but I demoed all the stuff myself at home and then we played to that demo. Invariably I’d play something on the guitar that I’m not able to repeat again…or sometimes it is the opposite. For example there’s a song called “Rooster” where the guitar is what I played on the demo here in my home studio. “Olustee” is another one. At the beginning I thought about doing a demo in the studio and then do the real thing, but thanks to Jim and the stuff Dan had taught me over the years we did not need to rerecord again anything. That how I became the producer of this record, it kind of happened. I was happy with what we had so we just kept going.

On the song “Olustee” you make reference to the wildfires in Florida in 1998. Sometimes your songs are grounded in the real stories that happened in Florida. Like “On Palastine” for example.

Yes, it’s funny you mentioned the two songs together, because Lake Palastine is just five miles from Olustee, they’re really near each other. Olustee is sort of a composite of stuff my grandfather told me about wildfires and myself getting caught in a wildfire. I put the two things together a little bit. But  I’ve never really thought about try to connect here or to connect to a place…some people can write songs like a machine, I can’t do that, I don’t have the ability to do that. I just write about what I see. I wanted to be a performer and play a show…but I really don’t have the talent to be somebody like Perry Farrell or Anthony Kiedis!  My point is to keep it simple and write about stuff that moves me.

 A song like “The sea” is like that.

Yes and it’s another one that wrote itself. Every song that require some sort of craft on it, most of them you won’t ever listen because they suck! I’ll give you an example Some people could be handed a speech on a piece of paper and they could read it and perform it but for me it’s different,  the songs are just like conversations, those songs seem to always be about something…For “The Sea” the guitar part that I came up with sounded like the ocean to me, I kept messing around with it and I just had the chorus, “I belong to the sea”…but the rest of the lyrics came later.

JJ Grey ph Steve Rapport

What about the cover of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind”, is it a song you are used to perform live?

Yes, I love John Anderson,  “Black Sheep” and a bunch of other songs that he’s got, but “Seminole Wind” is my favorite, I’ve always loved that song. No matter what band I’ve ever been in, cover band or anything, at some point I’ve played  some iteration of it. These guys  crushed it. It was the first song in the studio on the second session. I mean the first one being right after “Ol’ Glory”, where we recorded the basic track of “Starry Night”, “Free High” and a third one I can’t remember which was. Then there was a long gap of years, like I said, and when we came back the first song we played was “Seminole Wind”. I don’t do a lot of covers but I wanted to record this one. We played it like John Anderson did but in the end musically it wound up a lot different, in spirit the same.

 And lyrically it’s a song you certainly can relate to.

Oh 100%, yes…I’m sure it has influenced me. And the video he did of the song back then too. Because I was fresh out of high school, I wanted to get away from the farm, being whoever I was trying to be…my mom gave me a book to read titled “A Land Remembered”. After the first chapter I just took off to the book and i brought back a flood of memories from my grandfather on my mom’s side. He was born in 1904 or 05 and he was really a late baby in his family, his closest sibling was nearly twenty years older than him. His parents or grandparents would tell him straight stories going back to the battle of Olustee or even before the civil war…And he would tell me those stories of stuff that happened in 1840/50. And there  was a richness and depths in all that. I think stuff like “Seminole Wind” ring the bell of that too.

I remember you told me “The Sun is Shining Down” comes from you grandmother.

Yes and I didn’t know it was about that. I remember we had left from a great big festival in south Florida a friend of mine used to run called Langerado. We were driving and suddenly I just picked up a guitar and start playing. Withing minutes I had all the words and the music all at once. I had no idea what that was about. Later on I realized this is my grandmother telling me the story of my grandfather dying. She was driving him to the hospital but he died along the way. It just showed up in the song. People call that stream of consciousness maybe, but everything is stream of consciousness, this conversation too, none of us is reading off a sheet.

People think it takes such a talent to write songs but everybody can write songs, it’s like writing down conversations back and forth to each other. It doesn’t always have to rhyme. The songs that resonate the most to people are songs that almost never rhyme! I think those are the real things, that go down on a deeper level. In my experience it’s gotta be the deeper me, the things that make my heart beat. It’s like whispers in the deep that sort of guide you, like a mantra to yourself to remember what’s important. Many of them describe things or give me answers to questions that I had. If a person is trying to figure out the mystery of life, why we’re here, than you become a math genius and one day it all comes to you and you write down a formula. And it’s something you’ve been writing for years but you never knew you were doing. That’s what songs feel like to me.

JJ Grey

JJ Grey ph Steve Rapport

Is it  a responsibility to write with this attitude?

It is, to be true to  yourself.  I’m responsible to how I perceive it and my connction to it. Anything that detours to that is automatically a move away from it. That’s not to discount someone who professionally writes pop songs…everything has its place. But only you can experience, it’s like a movie, your friends can’t watch it for you, Like Colonel Bruce (Hampton) would say about being a musician, he said I take the music and the history serious but I never take myself serious, there’s nothing more disgusting than a musician who takes himself  too seriously! All that said I feel, like they say life  is 10% what happens to you and the 90%  how you react to it. It’s in that percentage the responsibility for everything.

Bruce Hampton seems to be somebody who really embodied this kind of spirit.

Absolutely. And  I was not that familiar with him but I got to know him thanks to a friend of mine Ted Pecchio. Ted played with Susan Tedeschi forever, than we she and Derek did their thing, he came to play with me. But then he needed to get off the road so Todd Smallie who was Derek’s bass player, took his place in my band.  It’s all one big giant family in a way. Ted always told me some of the stuff Colonel Bruce would say, he was a special human, a deep, hilarious, funny guy. It’s crazy how many wonderful musicians he helped. People had talent before they met  him, but he pointed them towards their strenghts in a way. I wish I got to know him more. I did meet him later on, Ted played with Bobby Lee Rodgers and they were Colonol Bruce’s band for a while in the early 2000. After a while he would always bring on a new batch, wether in was Jimmy Herring or the Burbridges…a wonderful spirit.

When did you reconnect with Alligator?

I’ve never lost touch with Alligator in a way. I really wanted to come to Europe and Mascot was based in Europe. It helped to bring things up there, I’ve met a lot of people. We’re working on coming over again. We’re going to tour this record with an eleven piece band, instead of the usual seven piece. I don’t know if I can afford it, we’re going to find out…For now we have a week long of shows in June and then we’ll come back in the fall probably. I really  want to come to Italy, I’m such a huge fan of Italy, it one of the pinnnacle of human history for arts, music and everything. I really want to go to Florence and see Michelangelo I remember my wife before we were even married she gave a book by Irving Stone, a biography about him, “The Agony And The Ecstasy”.


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