We meet on a typically drenched English afternoon in the elegant surroundings of London’s Leonard Hotel.
JJ Grey looks tidy and neat – keen and observant. His eyes flick this-way-and-that as if he is a flinty-eyed and energetic Rat Terrier on the look out for prey.
JJ Grey is about to release his new studio album entitled Ol ‘Glory
“Yes, this my seventh disc …” He says.
“I counted ‘em up. (He smiles). I am excited … very satisfied.”
“It was great fun making it and it was a whole lot of self-discovery for me … singing it… It’s been a blessing for me to just be a part of doing it.”
The album consists of a whole bunch of new songs.
“Yeah! But some of those songs, they write themselves … one of the tracks “Turn Them Loose” I wrote in London years-and-years ago. (when I lived here) but I never finished the lyrics completely. I also wrote a couple of tracks (‘The Island’ was one of those) while I was recording ‘This River’ [the last album] — it might have been whilst I was waiting to get a piece of gear fixed… I might be by myself on the piano or on the acoustic. [That’s when I wrote it out.] In fact one or two were written before This River but we weren’t ready to do ‘em yet.”
And is this new album about patriotism?
“No, I never thought about that … Actually.”
“It’s about a relative of mine (at my grandmother’s funeral.) At the funeral they had an old-time Gospel Group and they were singing “I’ll Fly Away” (the old gospel tune) and my uncle just jumped up out of his chair and he hollered “Ol’ Glory… ”
“So it wasn’t about the flag — although I can see why folks make the connection — especially since the Country Ghetto cover (the third album from the band) depicts the original colony flag – which was a rattlesnake – and included the words “Don’t tread on me.” (The Gadsden flag is often viewed as an enduring symbol of American patriotism.)
“Ol’ Glory kinda signifies to me something … in that moment… when my uncle yelled out… what he yelled was so real (he is not the kinda person to yell out anything, actually) and was something that was so out of character — that it has always stuck with me. And so I have always thought about that moment – when people talk about The Glory. (It was in the Terrence Malick movie ‘The Thin Red Line’ when Private Witt asks: “What’s keepin’ us from reaching out, touching the glory?”)
“That moment [of Glory] – when it comes to you…. is so real (for example seeing what the sun does every day or seeing a mountain in the distance) … and that’s the glory of it.”
Glory also means heaven doesn’t it?
JJ Grey creased his forehead up at this suggestion.
“Yes, I was born and raised a Baptist … when I was in church as a child I always thought of it as the glory that God gives out. He emits Glory. But not necessarily in a religious sense – but in a more spiritual sense. The two are not always separated (in some peoples minds they can get caught up in the dogma of rules and regulations) — then they miss the glory!”
“This record is about me recognising and seeing The Glory (for the first time). It’s true that over the past six or seven years I have really started noticing life … and I have started living it rather than thinking about it. Before, (I realized) that I was living my life vicariously through my thoughts about life… rather than actually living life.”
“The Willie Nelson song “I’d Have to be Crazy” (written by Steven Fromholz) … It talks about ants on the ground [Following ants, as they crawled across the ground] — it’s things like that …things that I marvelled at as a child – which I didn’t [till recently] marvel at as an adult…”
Why don’t we (adults) marvel at things?
“As an adult, I thought that there was more important things to do than to look at ants… when I was a kid I thought that everything was a marvel. But when I got older [that] all changed. And I thought to myself “Well, the world has changed.” It took me a long time to realize that the world didn’t change – it was me that had changed. Then I realized that I didn’t have to do anything to ‘change back’ all I had to do was quit pretending that I knew it all. Quit pretending that, when I look at something, I know what it is.”
“So, all of that, is the impetus behind what the title of this album means. That is what it is all about…”
How does your music make you pure? So that you are not subverted by the influences around you — so that you remain child-like?
“For me it becomes a mantra — I write songs to remind myself (and not to preach to anybody else) — I’m not trying to influence nobody (hell, I can’t hardly influence myself) — but for me it’s about focusing on what is important … Because the only the only reason that I write … is to tell the truth.”
“Children are born with untainted minds — they believe that you [as an adult are gonna tell the truth — they don’t really understand falsehood] – lies are taught — it’s kinda like social hypnosis (we do it to ourselves) so therefore you can undo it to yourself. And if you quit hypnotising yourself [with lies] then joy — in my opinion — it happens all by itself. You do not have to do anything. It takes effort to lie yet it does not take any effort to tell the truth. Well, that is, unless you’re afraid of the truth.”
“That’s why as a musician — as a singer — I want to share an honest moment with an audience. And there should be no bull-shit between any of us. We’re just here and I’m gonna sing and, if you love it (and if you show that back) then it’s like stoking a fire. And things just get brighter-and-brighter. For everybody. That’s all I ever wanted to be part of. When I finally realized that, that’s when the shows started getting a whole lot better for me. Because then I started noticing people better. I wasn’t a nervous guy any longer.”
“I wanted this new record to feel like that for me. To feel live. I wanted to get that feeling – and I wanted that feeling, perhaps, to ‘infect’ the rest of my life — or maybe I should use the word ‘infiltrate’ — so that I am not just ‘in the zone’ on stage but I am ‘in the zone’ most of each day.”
Is Grey a story-teller?
“Well, I grew up with story-tellers. And everybody tells me that I am … so I guess I am. If you wanted to ‘take the floor’ and entertain my family, then you had better be fast (snaps fingers) and it better be fun. Otherwise you will be ignored. At family gatherings (we have several a year) — when they start shucking it down — you gotta hold-on if you wanna step in and say anything. So I had lots of good teachers.”
“I grew up listening to lots of vinyl records. Jerry Clower was a huge influence on me. A major influence. As a kid I could recite his records accurately. And also I used to listen to Brother Dave Gardner (his early records) — Brother Dave was so far ahead of his time. He was an ordained minster and a jazz drummer… and a helluva comedian. In fact Chet Atkins produced all of his records. They were put on RCA. And my Dad had all of ‘em. I remember Did You Ever? and Kick Thy Own Self. But I didn’t really know what he meant by that stuff ‘till not long ago. He was always saying stuff about ‘wierdness’. It was about how surreal life is. He was a very philosophical cat! People today probably wouldn’t think he was politically correct — but at the time he was just a story-teller — assuming the roles (assuming the identities) of those characters. He really got into those characters. So Brother Dave was a huge influence too.”
Why release Ol’ Glory on vinyl?
“I love vinyl. Vinyl sounds better. I hate to seem a hopeless romantic who just loves old gear … and, frankly, I will record on anything (I do my demos on digital ‘cos it’s very fast and easy) — but if you want it to sound really good, then everything goes to tape. You just can’t mimic it. In the end, when you hear something on repeated listen… you can tell. You can tell that it’s ‘in the box’. And when they use really good thick vinyl (Grey says they use 180 “grain” then checks himself and says “gram” instead) — it’s still made in an old plant in Nashville. Using the old original stuff. And it sounds warmer to me. There’s something about it. Maybe it’s the little cracks and the pops. And the hisses. I know that vinyl here (in Europe) never died the gruesome death that it died in America. And the one thing I really love about Europe (and England in particular) is that you aren’t always looking for something that’s new..new…new…” (He slaps his hands rhythmically to make the point.)
“Old stuff does not have the same stigma attached to it (here) as it does in America. At home you can talk about Elvis Presley to ten teenagers — one of ‘em might have heard an Elvis song, two others might have heard his name. The rest of ‘em won’t know who the hell you are talking about! While here, I find that the tendency is to think “Just because it’s old — it doesn’t mean that it sucks…”
In Europe we tend to live with history.
“Yes you do. And you enjoy it too! There’s no need to tear down every everything you build. Just because it’s old!”
JJ GREY was talking to Neil Mach.
Ol’ Glory is OUT NOW
Check our FULL ALBUM REVIEW here: http://rawramp.me/2015/02/18/jjgreyandmofro-finds-ol-glory/