The last time I saw Justin Osborne, he was exhausted. After six years of touring, three full length releases, hundreds of shows, and tens of thousands of miles traveled, he was ready to go home. A true hustler in the best sense of the word: steadily grinding, pushing a dream – building SUSTO – with a goal of sustainability in an industry that few find it in. The life of a songwriter on the road. On this particular September evening, I felt something very special just being in Justin’s presence. I felt the culmination of years of labor presenting itself to a single point, a moment in which I could easily witness just how far he had come on his musical journey. I often look back at a moment in my life while making the analogy of witnessing another’s success after years of hard work. That moment was actually two happenings: The privilege I had of watching a childhood friend of mine pitch at both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. At those two events, my mind was blown wide open; such an ineffable feeling. I live for these moments to be the witness of another’s determination coming into fruition in the form of a dream entering a state of reality. So… as three hundred-plus people shuffled into a Portland, Oregon venue to see SUSTO, and then as they sang along all night to the South Carolina boy’s lyrics, Osborne’s dream had become a reality. Of course, it is easy as a spectator to build this moment into a momentous occasion – while Justin was busy living in his world; grinding, building while trying to stay sane, safe and move forward. Yet in the eyes of this witness, there was pure, uninterrupted joy.
SUSTO exudes a certain sense of DIY intelligence. A rare work ethic of seemingly effortless diligence. Osborne has cultivated a world for us to rejoice in with a message that is abundantly clear: Be vulnerable, trust in friendship and family, talk about mental health, cultivate spirituality – and all with a thankfulness to be a part of this crazy, beautiful, fucked up world. Osborne and co. have captivated crowds around the globe with their own brand of transcendent alternative rock; enveloping stellar songwriting, a warm and inviting presence, modest charisma, and a raw, yet focused delivery.
I was lucky to be able to catch up with Justin about becoming a father, life during the pandemic, his creative process, building community, and a bit about what inspires him.
I recently saw you posted something about a new record in the works.
Yeah, I’ve been working on it over the pandemic. I had basically written the album by the beginning of this year, except for maybe a couple of the songs. I started recording right before the pandemic. We had a tour that started at the end of February that lasted until mid-March. We finished it right before everything shut down…well, we technically didn’t even finish it. The main part of the tour happened and then we had shows scheduled throughout the southeast – in our backyard areas – that all had to be canceled. Before we left for our tour I had already begun working on the album with my friend, Wolfgang Zimmerman – who I made the first two (SUSTO) records with. Once the pandemic started, I was thinking, “well we don’t have anything else to do.” Thankfully we were able to get some SBA (Small Business Loan) help to keep the business going in a way. We used the funding to make the next album. I was planning on funding recording with shows, but when they all got canceled our business manager was able to get us some funding. It hasn’t been super pricey because it’s at a home studio with a buddy. We’ve had the luxury of working kind of slow – which is really nice. The last album, ‘Ever Since I Lost My Mind,’’ being that it was the first one with Rounder Records, there was this formula we had to adjust to. Not even from the label but more from my manager, who wanted us to get into a real studio with a real producer. I mean…we made our first two albums in a storage unit. So, we did that, and I’m really happy with the way our third album came out. It was fun to record with producer Ian Fitchuk. Ian produced Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’. It was nice to be working with somebody we knew was a super-pro, and he was rad. He’s actually a pretty psychedelic guy, so we all vibed very well. At the same time that we were recording, I was going through a lot of lineup changes in the band, so it was just a weird time. This next album has been so peaceful and nice. I’ve been making it three days a week – I’ll go in and record from like 10 am to 5 pm and get home to make dinner for my wife and daughter. It’s just been relaxed – it’s casual. And there are no emails to check or anything like that because everything’s been canceled, so I’ve just been focused on making the album.
I’ve really wanted to make one of these albums of songs to sing to my daughter, and at the same time reflecting on my responsibilities as a parent to impart knowledge to my child. If I got…sounds morbid…but if I got hit by a bus tomorrow – hopefully I don’t, (knock on wood) – what can I leave to basically sum up what I know? And I guess I don’t really know that much (both laugh) – but I want her to have some sort of an imprint of a general overlay of my existence. It has been this contemplative record about those things. About being a parent, the miracle of it all – it’s weird. It’s hard to explain, but I’m trying to provide some sort of point of reference for my child. Not a “this is how you live life,” or “this is how much I love you,” but an album of reflection that’s inspired by becoming a parent and also losing a parent. It’s been a very transformative part of my life, man. It’s hard to explain. A lot of big things have been happening, negative and positive things. At the same time, it’s been this crazy COVID world – inside of this period when we started recording. So, from there too, it’s a lot to process. It’s been therapeutic. Not quite done with the record, but I’ve been chipping away.
To create “a point of reference” for your daughter and to be able to capture a piece of yourself in a certain time – what you’re going through, your experience…that’s a pretty damn cool thing to be able to do that.
Yeah, absolutely. I’m grateful for it. I think the years of touring and making albums in the past has given me something to do and helped me to, honestly, keep myself sane in challenging periods of life: The pandemic and my life in general. I’m very grateful for that tool – it’s become almost like a spiritual tool. A way of interpreting things and creating.
You have been touring hard for five to six years, right?
Yeah, basically since 2014 I’ve been hard at it. This is the first year I’ve spent more than a month at a time at home, and I’ve had 6 months. That’s been amazing. It’s been an important time for it too – I had a daughter – I got to see her take her first steps, hear her say her first words. I actually got to be around my dad before he passed away. Things that I would have missed out on if I hadn’t been forced to slow down. In some ways, this whole thing (freeze of touring ) – I’m grateful for it, in my life personally. I know a lot of people have had horrible experiences but I’ve been fortunate to have not. I’ve grown I think. I’ve opened my eyes, or rather turned my ears on to a lot of conversations that they’d been off to…or maybe I didn’t have the volume loud enough – if that makes sense. A lot of hard conversations, a lot of hard experiences, and hard realities to swallow. I’m grateful that I’m here and alive to try and tackle these things.
It’s so important to have those hard conversations with friends and family. We can so easily avoid conflict, but to have the courage to grow and have hard talks with people that we care about, that’s potent.
Yeah, it’s so important. Otherwise we’re just creating bubbles for ourselves where we just get “yes” from people all the time. That makes our relationships with those people more fragile and we’re afraid to say something that might not be “right.” I think that’s a big lesson of this year… well, it’s an ongoing lesson. The willingness to be vulnerable with someone to say, “I’m embarrassed that I did this. I’m embarrassed that I said this.” And to grow. Someone having the courage to grow with you is such a compliment. They respect you and they know that you love them.
You’ve built a great following that seems to be rooted in the tight community and fanbase you have in Charleston. Do you feel that building your local community, and then having it expand and trickle into your greater following, has been important?
I definitely recognize that as my reality, but it wasn’t on purpose. I think it springs from early on having a very DIY approach and that a lot of the people who are very involved with the musical structure here in South and North Carolinas are the same folks that I was messaging over Myspace back in the early 2000s, when booking DIY shows for my old bands. We did these local and regional tours and the neighboring states early on. There was this regional familiarity and name recognition happening, even though I’d never really had any success until very recently. The motto for our business over the years was “local, it’s all we could do.” I started young. I think I laid a solid foundation for things to grow. I’ve never really been attracted to moving to a big city for music, and even when I moved to Charleston, it was the obvious place for me to go in South Carolina. As I started becoming active here, it never crossed my mind to try and make it bigger. I was just excited about going on trips and regional touring. I’m really grateful for our regional fan base. They make it possible for us to play all the other places. If we didn’t have the support in those regional markets it would be harder for us to get the business up and going in Europe or on the west coast. Being home the last six months and getting to spend time and focus on my community and family – it’s made me realize again how grateful I am for that and how I want to focus more on that. I’m not going to stop touring, but I’m essentially just grateful to have an influence on the local music scene and in my community in general. I feel loved, especially in Charleston. I’m definitely a local boy.
Your local support has given you the ability to share your music all over the world, and that wasn’t just some strategy or plan. That’s beautiful. I was so impressed by your band: Putting out these amazing videos, recaps of the tour, all produced in-house. I think what sets your crew apart is your ability to do this DIY thing so well. When you made your last record, with Rounder Records, at a “real” studio with a “real” producer, your vibe didn’t get lost. It sounds incredible and it sounds like you.
I’m glad to hear that. You can wonder about those things when you mix up the process. In a way, you wonder if the authenticity is still coming through. I’m incredibly fortunate to have found myself surrounded by really capable people. I have my talents but I can’t do it all, not on stage, and definitely not behind the scenes. Having people in my band, like my guitar player Dries, who is an incredible guitar player, easy traveler and a great friend, who also can make outstanding video content. And Marshall, who makes sure our brand is coherent, and is also a kick-ass drummer, piano player, and hotel roommate. Even my old guitar player, Johnny Delaware has been helping out a bit in the studio. Wolfgang, my producer is a huge talent. I used to trade him random things from my house to record. My bass player, Jordan, and I went to high school together and have been playing music with each other for so long. I’m really grateful to have met so many talented people, chasing whatever it is we’re chasing out here. And I’m glad that comes across and I hope that people enjoy the content. I can kind of construct a narrative on an album, I’m pretty good at some logistics, but am terrible at other logistics (both laugh). I’m just lucky to have these great people around me to keep me in line and keep the whole operation moving.
I met you three years ago in Eugene at Sam Bond’s Garage. Is it a trip to see things growing? Selling 300 plus tickets in markets 3,000 miles from your home. And it’s clearly only expanding.
It is cool. I’m grateful for that. What I do right now is what I always wanted to do and if the thing never gets any bigger, that’s okay. It’s just some part of life and I’ve got to do this for a bit. But, It does keep expanding. It’s hard to refer to it as a career, but for lack of a better word, that’s what we’ve started. The more you do it the more you figure out, you get a better idea of how and what to do, and hopefully the audience is going to build. It’s definitely hard to get over humps. We’re not a huge band; we’re definitely an indie band and even though we’re signed to a label, we’re still a working man’s band. I love that we’ve been able to go all over the continent and parts of Europe, and have been able to connect and play shows for folks. The main reason I was drawn into music was my desire to travel. Being from a small town in South Carolina, I’ve always wanted to get out. My folks didn’t get to travel much, but I always had wanderlust, just with no money to travel. Touring was my means of getting out and seeing the world. So the fact that we’ve been invited to play all over the country and other countries, it’s super fun.
Your sound goes to so many different places. Maybe it’s just from being a child of the eighties. When you write a song, is there a process that you tend to lean towards?
I tend to write independently when I’m alone in my house. It’s pretty common for me to wake up from a dream, a vivid story that I wasn’t sure the meaning of, and I’ll try to describe the dream and get really into it. There’s not a steady formula or a time, although it tends to be before noon. I won’t really think too much about lyrics, more just try and focus on a feeling and spew out what’s inside. It’s very much a stream of consciousness. I rarely spend too much time (on writing). Either I’ll get an idea pretty quick and I’ll take the time, maybe that’s an hour or ninety minutes max, and I’ll figure out exactly what the song is and then record a demo of it. Or…I’ll get something and not realize that I like it until I listen to it much later. Or I’ll try for like twenty minutes and it’s just terrible, so I’m not going to force it. Definitely not a fan of forcing the process. That’s why I’d never make it in Nashville. I mean I’ve done my fair share of songwriting sessions. One or two have come away with things I like. I’m not against co-writing but that whole Nashville style, I’m not bred for it.
How does that go down? I’m not familiar with the “Nashville Style” songwriting process.
Three hour block, three people, the song gets split equally. It’s a profession. People do two sessions a day, five days a week.
What’s in your tapedeck?
I’ve been taking a dive back towards bluegrass. I was really into bluegrass in high school and college, and I’ve gotten back into that a bit. Also, I was late to the game as far as realizing the greatness of Toots and The Maytals, and this year I’ve been rocking Funky Kingston. It might be my favorite album of all time. Also, this guy Ian Noe, from Kentucky. It’s so good, so brutal, dark and honest. Really well written. I’ve been really loving his stuff. Oh…I’ve been kind of filtering between the same few records at my house trying to expose my young daughter to Cat Power and Calypso music.
You’ve got one lucky kid.
Catch SUSTO live tomorrow, October 11th at 8:30PM ET via Whispering Beard’s Summer Safety Sessions, presented by Fans.com and Rouge Origin.