Justin Wells: Interview From Railbird
I can think of some pretty great ways to spend a birthday, but I think Justin Wells would say he was right where he wanted to be celebrating. We sat down backstage at the Railbird Music Festival at the Keeneland Horsetrack grounds in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky on Sunday, August 11th, the day of his birthday, to talk about the festival, where his career is going, and where it has been. The previous day, Justin and his band, Colin Kellogg, Daniel Mohler, Robert Frahm, and Lee Carroll played to a substantial and enthusiastic hometown crowd on The Burl stage at Railbird. That particular stage featured local and regional acts throughout the weekend. From the stage, Justin noted that the artist he had been most excited to see perform at the festival was Mavis Staples. Unfortunately, she was slated for the exact same set time over on the Limestone stage as Justin was to play on The Burl stage. In homage to the legendary Ms. Staples, Justin had scrawled “We love (heart symbol) Mavis” across his right forearm for the crowd to see as he wailed on his Fender Meteora. (Side note trivia: Justin was one of the first to own that model of guitar.) Justin Wells and his band delivered one of the best performances I have seen from the group yet. You can tell they were excited and catching the energetic vibes off of the crowd. He did a mixed setlist that consisted mostly of tracks from his 2016 Dawn in the Distance album and new, unreleased songs.
It was nice seeing Justin enjoying time with his family and friends and checking out the sets of fellow musicians. He may have a large presence physically, but he’s got an even bigger presence of heart. If you know Justin, you’ll recognize his usual quips throughout the interview. Here is a run-down of the discussion Justin and I had on that Sunday at Railbird Music Festival:
Fans have been “chomping at the bit” for you to release your new album. Can you tell us a little about the themes of the album?
When I started writing this record, I was thinking on current events and the like. But the writing was coming out forced, and I didn’t feel like I was adding to any sort of conversation. Instead, I started thinking about what every human being has in common, namely, life, birth, childhood, love, age, and death. I wanted those life stages exemplified in song, not only lyrically, but sonically. The idea was to have an album be a life from the womb to whatever’s after death.
Do you have a working title yet?
It’s called The United State.
It’s been three years since your Dawn in the Distance album was released. Do you have an estimated release date on the new project?
Tell us about the musicians that played on the new album. Did you bring in anyone that worked on your previous projects or were there new players this time around?
A bit of both. The album was produced and mixed by Duane Lundy, my co-conspirator from Dawn in the Distance. That record was deeply personal, and we used a great bunch of studio guys that I knew personally and who knew some of those songs well. With the scope of this new project pointing more outward, I wanted to shake things up a bit. Duane suggested both new settings (we recorded in IL, KY, and NY) and new players. Brothers, Miles Nielsen (Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts) and Daxx Nielsen (Cheap Trick) played bass and drums, respectively. Laur Joamets (Sturgill Simpson, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’) and Alex Munoz (Margo Price, Nikki Lane) played guitars. Miles’ bandmates Daniel McMahon and Dave McClellan joined Miles for backing vocals. My touring bandmates, Colin Kellogg and Dan Mohler, played on a couple. Returning, were the magnificent Lee Carroll on keys and Tripp Bratton on percussion. Justin Craig played acoustic guitars, as well as playing every single instrument on one track. My good friend J. Tom Hnatow makes a beautiful-sounding cameo. And I was lucky enough to get Abby Hamilton in to sing on a track. Keep an eye on Abby.
What are the elements you are hoping fans take away from the new album?
That we all bleed the same blood. That there are certain footsteps that every single one of us take, no matter where we reside or what we believe. That the things that divide us are plastic things spouted out by transients, and that we’ve got a lot more in common than we’re led to believe.
When did you start writing songs and realized you wanted to be a musician?
When I was young.
What artist has been the most influential in your life/music career?
I’d be hard pressed to name just one. George Jones, Levon Helm, Elton John, John Fogerty. Petty. Springsteen. Pink Floyd. More recently Bon Iver, Daft Punk, Lizzo, Mike and the Moonpies. I’m looking forward to Sturgill’s new record.
After the 2015 dissolution of your previous band, Fifth on the Floor, did you have any conflicting feelings about continuing on with your music career? Did you ever think, “This is it. I’m done,” or did you know you were going to keep on creating on a full-time basis?
I don’t think you ever stop creating. It’s got to do with whether or not you’re going to let that drive you. The only times I’ve had to face doubt is in the context of being a husband and a father. After Fifth on the Floor, I spent a good bit of time uncertain how exactly I was going to justify running around with guitar in hand. I’m lucky enough to have a wife that, when I broached the idea of going to get a job that came with a steadier check, answered: “If you quit, you’re teaching our children how to quit.” She found that self-doubt and kicked the shit out of it.
What artist, past or present, would you like to do a tour with?
Petty. No question.
What did it mean to you to get to play a festival like Railbird in your hometown?
It meant a lot more to me that my hometown showed up and showed love. Lexington is a jewel. Railbird was as lucky to be here as I was to be on that stage.
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