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Justin Jones has spent over a decade in Washington D.C. writing songs and playing his own brand of alt-country. He’s endured the rejection common to talented indie musicians in a crowded marketplace. Jones also shows a willingness to alter his priorities in order to achieve success on his own terms, a plan that, when one considers his recent accomplishments, seems to b e working. On Friday, he will showcase his newest release, The Little Fox, at Arlington’s Iota Club and Cafe. That show follows on the heels of two South by Southwest shows, including one at the legendary Stubbs BBQ.
City Paper: What was your impression of SXSW?
Justin Jones: SXSW was exactly what I expected. Traffic, hassles, drunk idiots, tripping idiots, Tex-Mex, BBQ, Jameson, ordering a pale ale and getting a bud, and a few moments that felt amazing playing music. What I didn’t expect was having to spend $1,300 on a new brake system for the van.
CP: How does the new EP, The Little Fox, compare to your last recording, California?
JJ: Definitely more on the raw side. California was recorded with session guys—really great session players. To me it sounds like me singing with a group of 45-year-old guys that have been playing music their whole lives.
CP: Is The Little Fox a collection of songs or does it have a theme?
JJ: It’s an album dedicated to not having any love songs on it. As someone who has written a ton of love songs I was determined not to write any. The theme I think is very much about dying and mortality.
CP: Is that a natural progression, as you get older?
JJ: It must be. And then I had children. I started thinking that it’s not going to happen for me in terms of a music career. There’s also a tune about the absurdity of the drug war.
CP: Do you find that when you start accepting that it may not happen for you career-wise as a musician—that it creates a freer atmosphere with less pressure?
JJ: I had always said, when I’m 27, I’ll go back to college and I’ll start a real life. That happened and I didn’t do that. I’ve known for quite a while that it wasn’t going to work out the way I wanted it to. Now, what’s interesting is that I’ve become so disinterested in the business side that’s its working out exactly the way I want it to. I’m the only one deciding how it’s going to work out and while that makes it harder to succeed in a financial sense…your goals get smaller. I just want to record music that I like, and hopefully people will like it. However long it takes to actually make a career out of it, I’m willing to wait.
CP: So it seems like the acceptance of that reality has been a positive?
JJ: I moved up here [from Kill Devil Hills, NC] thinking If I played the 9:30 Club I’ve made it. And you realize, that’s not it. [laughs]. Yes, it’s a great club but you realize a lot of things have to happen. You need to be playing at the 9:30 Clubs everywhere.
There’s no reality in this business. You can work ten years and not make any progress, but that’s because there are no guarantees in any types of art form. If you were a novelist, you might write 30 novels and never get them published.
CP: So how do you keep your chin up against that type of adversity?
JJ: I’m a chin down type of guy [laughs].
CP: There’s been a recent spotlight on the vitality of the D.C. music scene. How has the city and its cultural scene nurtured your progress?
JJ: It definitely had an influence. I moved up here and got deep into drugs and lived out of my car for two years. That would not have happened had I not moved here. But I certainly gained a lifetime’s experience in five years. It has nurtured a lot of output, that kind experience fills you with so many feelings, and then having come out of it and getting married and having kids and seeing the positive side….
It’s funny, because I really didn’t write depressing music at that time and my music is sadder now. It had an influence because that kind of mental trauma will influence you. Now I have this whole “I made it out on the other side” thing.
CP: Are you thinking, since you’ve gone through some serious struggles, that the challenge of getting your work to a wider audience is minimal in comparison?
JJ: Yeah, but I try not to get to wrapped up in self pity. I actually made it out. Most people don’t. To me the worst days these days are pretty cool.
CP: How has bartending at the 9:30 Club affected the way you approach music?
JJ: When you see a great band, it can simultaneously bum you out and inspire you. Delta Spirit. That band is so awesome and they blow you away live…and I have to realize that what they do is not what I do.
CP: One gets the sense that many of your songs are autobiographical. Do you find yourself creating characters and imbibing them with the emotions and stories you want to convey?
JJ: Yes. Totally.
CP: What do you listen to that would surprise a Justin Jones fan?
JJ: Ray Charles. I listen to Ray Charles all the time. And Jackson Browne. I was a Public Enemy and Wu-Tang fan growing up.
CP: It’s often tough to make the sonic connection between your speaking voice and your singing voice. Do you make a conscious effort to use a distinct singing voice?
JJ: A lot of people say that to me. That’s just how I sing. Before I actually heard myself recorded, I thought I sounded like Marvin Gaye [laughs].
CP: Who would you characterize as your influences?
JJ: I listened to a lot Steve Earle and Ryan Adams in my twenties, Wilco….I like all the bands you think I should like [laughs].
The Friday, March 26th Iota show features Jones with opening acts Don Dexter and Peter Bradley Adams for $12.