Justin Paul Lewis a Louisville, KY-born and based singer-songwriter who fuses Americana and soul (check out his Daytotter session for a taste). Rinse, Repeat, Rewind is his new recording, which is a collaboration with cellist/ producer Ben Sollee. Justin connected with Ben while he was working with Daniel Martin Moore and Jim James (My Morning Jacket) on their Dear Companion album (2010). Since then, Justin and Ben remained friends, awaiting the right opportunity to work together.
To coincide with the release of Rinse, Repeat, Rewind, Justin and I had the opportunity to discuss his musical trajectory, up to and including the making of the new recording with Ben.
Before we dig into your new recording, Rinse, Repeat, Rewind, I'd like to ask you if you could start at your musical beginnings, and describe when you began learning and playing music.
Justin Paul Lewis: Sure. I began learning to enjoy music at a very young age. I gravitated to my dad's massive record collection the second I learned how to walk. It has every genre shoved in it and blows my mind every time I look through it. I grew up to him spinning records by the Allman Brothers, Bill Monroe, and the Funkadelics.
I picked up the guitar my junior year of high school because of something we had called "The World's Most Dangerous High School Pep Band." The band would play all of the home basketball games crammed into the corner of the gymnasium playing everything from Tom Petty to Led Zeppelin during halftime. After watching them for a few years, I got the itch to play lead guitar. I spent at least 8 hours a day for a year working with that guitar.
In college, I decided to become a songwriter. I am not exactly sure where and when it started, but I know that I struggled for a few years. I was trying to be someone I was not. I was a very different performer and writer than I am now. It is something I look back on and very much appreciate though. I had to make a fool of myself in order to get to the comfort level in the craft that I am in today.
Which artists were significantly inspiring to you as you began writing your own music?
Justin: Bill Withers, Neil Young, and Louis Armstrong. Bill Withers inspired me to bring a ton of energy into performances. Neil Young inspired me to be honest in the words that are jotted down. And Louis Armstrong was just plain happy.
Can you discuss how your musical direction and deeper development took shape?
Justin: I get asked to discuss this a lot from family and friends. I feel like maybe this is a typical answer from a lot of artists, but it has a good foundation in being a true answer. Things have really progressed over the years, especially in the past few months, and a lot of them have been trying to wrap there heads around why I would be touring and sitting at my computer typing emails for hours. I just really enjoy getting the songs and performances out into the world. It is not a matter of wanting fame or fortune, but more a matter of community. To be able to communicate with people.
With that said, I have been working very hard lately. I have had a good handful of "music folks" reaching out about the new EP and possible trails that it could lead to. It has been very motivational. I am going to keep going with these conversations and more importantly keep writing and communicating.
How did your Daytrotter session come together?
Paul: Ah, Daytrotter was just great. Those guys do such good work. Their site truly is an amazing concept. I had admired what they do for a long time, so I decided to reach out to Sean about doing a session. I sent him the rough mixes of the album and he graciously opened his studio to me. The day after playing a show in St. Louis, my pal Chris and I made the trek to Rock Island, IL. It was something I wanted to do for a long time.
I like that there was no pressure. One thing I have always hated about (some) studio work is the pressure to sound exact and put it all together one piece at a time. At Daytrotter, you just go in, sing your song, and move on to the next. I can't wait to have the chance to do it again.
You just finished a new EP with Ben Sollee called Rinse, Repeat, Rewind. First, can you talk about how you two met and what drew you together?
Justin: Ben and I officially met at a pizza joint in Louisville, KY. I had just finished playing cover songs for 3 hours trying to make a few extra bucks when a buddy of mine told me that Ben had just stopped in. I had wanted to meet Ben for a while not only because I admired his work but also because we had so many close mutual, almost family, friends. We chatted for a second and that was that for a while. A few months later we ran in to each other again, and then again, and then by that point I think we officially became pretty great friends.
Justin: In 2010, Ben and Daniel Martin Moore collaborated and came out with a beautiful record called Dear Companion, and it was produced by Louisville favorite, Jim James (My Morning Jacket). At that time I did not really understand what Jim's role was for the record. Initially, Jim was the arranger, or what I like to call the "molder," of the songs. Ben and Daniel would hand him a draft or an idea, and Jim would help say what needed to stay, what needed to go where, and how it needed to sound. I was so enthralled. The concept of handing another songwriter your work and having them help help push it to greater heights is so eye opening and vulnerable.
That is when I decided to approach Ben about possibly doing what Jim did for him, for me. Ben was the only person that came to mind for this collaboration. I not only wanted to work with him because of his knowledge of arranging, but also because we just equally "get it." We both have a good sense for community and family, being able to "click" like that is important with this type of process.
Can you discuss your songwriting process?
Justin: It is always different. There is no telling how many voice memos I have on my IPhone, or how many scribbly spiral notebooks I have just full of stuff. For a while I was reading book after book on song structures and how to go about writing, but I ended up putting them down to give my brain a rest.
I feel as if my favorite songs that I write come out pretty quickly. The ones that I hum into the phone or jot down in the notebook never seem to see the light of day. But I also do not think those quick ones could blossom with out the process of writing random shit down on paper that I will never remember to look at again.
Can you discuss your collaborative process(es) with Ben?
Justin: I will never forget this. "Salt" was the first song Ben and I worked on together. I had been playing it out at shows for a few months and was really starting to build a relationship with it. We wrote it out on a huge poster board to look over the words and the structure. By the end of the session, the poster board was cut in half and my instincts were shot when trying to remember the new format in the sound booth.
It was a learning curve for both of us. Ben was scared to touch what I had written in fear of trampling over my sound, and I was still simply learning and absorbing the process. After a few similar sessions, Ben and I went on the road together. After coming back from that, we had a new groove, a new system. It was a lot more natural and open to each others ideas.
Was there a tune that set the course for Rinse, Repeat, Rewind?
Justin: While we were on the road we did a lot of listening. "Obvious Child" by Paul Simon was a good example of us hearing a song and realizing that we needed to have that attitude going into the studio. You can almost hear Paul Simon smiling when we sings that song.
How did the EP all come together?
Justin: It was a totally song by song accumulation. We had a big batch of songs to choose from, but because of time and life getting in the way we cut it down to just the four. Each song has its own message and individuality, but somehow, in the end, it comes out to be one fluid EP. I am really happy with how we approached each song.
We recorded the album at Shangri-La Studios in Lexington, KY. Duane Lundy is the head engineer and dojo master of the studio. He is one of the best at getting a high quality sound, and just an all around great guy. He and Ben introduced me to one hell of a great Mediterranean buffet a few miles away from the studio. It basically destroyed any possible negative vibes recording these songs, not that there would be with those two anyway.
Now that the EP is out, what's next for you?
Justin:. I am really excited about some of the things we are cooking up for the digital release and spreading the songs around. There are so many possibilities for the rest of the year right now, but I know it will be a busy one. I will definitely be touring and writing a ton.