Whether it has to do with lyrics or song sequencing, Justin Currie puts a lot of thought into his work.
Currie, the former Del Amitri leader (and the voice behind the band’s U.S. hits such as “Always the Last to Know” and “Roll to Me”), released his second solo effort, The Great War (Rykodisc), last month. He recently checked in with Medleyville.us to discuss (with dry humor and specific detail) his latest solo album as well as the aforementioned topics.
Medleyville.us: With The Great War, you didn’t want to repeat what you did on What Is Love For. But at the same time, all musicians have their patterns and bags of tricks – basically, you write what you know, sing in ways that sound and feel the best and play to serve the song. So what did you go through in order to make The Great War different as well as “much brighter and more accessible,” as you say in the press materials?
Justin Currie: “I slapped myself across the back of my hands with a spanner every time I approached the piano with a cloud of black mist around my head. I tried writing standing up and whilst walking up stairs. I spent days listening to Christian rock, and months reading books bought in airports about how to maximize one’s inner optimist. I watched Walt Disney and The Waltons and threw away all my black clothes. I reverse engineered The Beach Boys‘ All Summer Long and reconstructed it on an acoustic guitar in a park in the rancid yellow sunshine.”
Your new album has strings on a few songs. What inspired that decision, who recruited the string players and what kind of coaching, if any, did you provide the musicians prior to recording?
Currie: “When you’re doing solo records after being in a band, the first thing you notice is the absence of second and third voices in the sound. In Del Amitri, there were always one or two guitarists playing a counter-melody to what I was doing — not complementing the top line so much as competing with it. That tension is what makes collaborative music so great.
“Jote Osahn, who has arranged all the string parts on both solo records, adds that other voice. I send her the songs — sometimes with rudimentary string sample parts, sometimes not — have a brief discussion about the flavor I’m looking for and she comes back with these fabulously original takes on what the songs are about. She moves them somewhere else. Her arrangements are not servants to the song; they are more like builders knocking stuff down and moving it around leaving the interior of the thing looking completely different. Her parts often bring out meanings in a song that I hardly knew existed and make me sing them in another way.”
Talk about the relationship going on in the song “You’ll Always Walk Alone.” The line “our cover’s blown/now it’s all talk” is an “A ha!” kind of moment that reminded me of Del Amitri’s “Not Where It’s At,” in which the female object of the male narrator’s affection prefers women over men.
Currie: “That’s an interesting take on ‘Not Where It’s At’! … Maybe that’s what I meant: I have always had more time for lesbians than straight women.
“On the first solo album I left a lot of ambiguity in the lyrics — does this guy singing really think this [stuff] or is he self-deluded? Not many people keyed in to that, which I didn’t expect them to. So on this album I inserted ‘punch-lines’ to expose the real position of the singer. ‘You’ll Always Walk Alone’ has a very happy ending, as do ‘Can’t Let Go of Her Now’ and ‘Baby, You Survived,’ which makes a change from the old days when I quite often stuck car crashes at the end of love songs just so I wouldn’t come across sounding like a sap.”
The Great War contains three bonus tracks. In this era of CDs and digital downloads, what’s the point of bonus tracks when the standard tangible format is the CD? Are the bonus tracks simply some extra songs that don’t exactly fit in with the feel or theme of the proper album?
Currie: “I hate bonus tracks — hate them. Every time you finish an album now, sequence it to within an inch of its life and have it mastered, some bright spark from marketing demands you produce extra tracks, which completely [screws] up the integrity of the album. There is a damn good reason why you choose the final cuts that you choose and sequence them the way that you do.
“So, for me, this album is 11 songs, which start with ‘A Man With Nothing to Do’ and end with ‘Baby, You Survived.’ The other critical thing about sequencing an album is that the first and last numbers have to have a sort of dialogue. I always work out how it functions as a loop because when you find an album that you love, the really big moment is when you get to the end, take a breath and then put the ‘needle’ back onto song one, side one and start again. The way that first song sounds after that little pause at the end of the final track is crucial.”
When you’re out in public, what is your typical response when someone happens to say to you, “Hey Justin, when is Del Amitri getting back together?”
Currie: “I just tell them the truth: ‘When your rich daddy remarries and offers [us] two hundred grand to play at his wedding in the Maldives.’ ”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Justin Currie on tour (schedule subject to change):
* June 10: Lincoln Hall – Chicago
* June 11: Fine Line – Minneapolis
* June 12: Toad Tavern – Denver
* June 13: Café du Nord – San Francisco
* June 15: Troubadour – Los Angeles
* June 17: Joe’s Pub – New York
* June 18: Paradise – Boston
* June 19: Tin Angel – Philadelphia
* June 20: Jammin Java – Vienna, Va.
Photo by Alan Dimmick