INTERVIEW by MARIELLE OLENTINE | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of SUSAN JUSTICE
There is no mistaking the positive and resilient spirit in Susan Justice’s voice. Just as her songs seem to light up the room with their meaning and significance, her spoken words do the same. Justice, who was born into a religious sect called The Family, spent her early life traveling the world with her performing family, learning to play music from a very young age. But it was not until she embarked on her own to play music in the subways of New York City that she began truly writing music for herself. March 26th marked the release of her first studio album, Eat Dirt, the sophomore album to The Subway Recordings. Through a combination of her talent and serendipity, Justice has won her way into the hearts of many, and is currently focused on fulfilling her goal of transcending boundaries to bring people together through the universal language of music.
Hello Susan! How’ve you been? What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been so busy. Wednesday I played on a plane at Southwest Airlines for their “Live in the Vineyards” promotion, and then I flew straight back and now I’m here. Pretty busy these days, running around.
Susan Justice performs at 35,000 feet
Isn’t your new album coming out in three days? Any plans to celebrate?
Yes, it comes out on Monday the 26th! I have a show on Wednesday, so I’ll probably do my album release party after the show, that night. I’m playing at a place called The Living Room.
Before we jump in, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your relationship with music and how you got started making music, what part it played in your early life.
I grew up in a singing family, so we all sang music together and performed together and traveled around the world doing that. I started off singing and my mother taught me to play the guitar when I was about six or seven. They were really religious, so it was more Christian music. But I rediscovered music when I left my family and started playing music for myself. I started writing music, playing with other local musicians here in New York, and really rediscovering my love for music.
It’s really my whole life now, and it’s just amazing to me that I can write a song about my life and things that are going on, and then other people can relate it to their life: “That’s totally how I feel.”
Yes, it’s almost like a universal language. One thing that’s interesting for me as an artist is to hear about other artists’ creative processes. Would you mind talking a little bit about how you begin your songwriting process?
Well, for me, it always starts with a strong emotion or something I want to say, and then I write down lyrics or just start with something like a piano riff. Lately, I’ve been really getting into digital composition, so I’ve been producing my own stuff on the computer, and when I do that it’s really all about the music. The first record was all about the lyrics and what I wanted to convey. The new stuff that I’m writing is really more music-oriented, experimenting with different styles. There are just so many things to call from, classical music and other styles of music to incorporate into my sound. That’s my next goal musically.
You did your first record out of studio, so Eat Dirt is your first studio record?
Exactly. I made Eat Dirt with my producer, Toby Gad, and between the two of us we played all of the instruments, wrote all of the music and all of the lyrics. The studio is just this small room where we go to write and record everything, so it was a really homegrown kind of thing. I wasn’t in this humongous studio with multiple musicians; it was just us in there.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got your start playing in the New York City subway?
That was such an exciting time because I basically connected directly to the audience. We’d get a really big crowd and I’d play with a whole band, and it was just a really great way to get my music out there and promote my shows that way. Everyone was really interested, like, “Whoa, who’s this girl playing in the subway?” It was just different because usually different people play in the subway, and I was a bit of an anomaly.
Do you feel like that helped you gain a following for your music?
Definitely. People in New York basically know me from my subway days, and that’s how I got discovered, too. People would give me their cards and I would call them back, and that’s how people would come check me out.
Would you mind telling us in detail how you got discovered?
Well, my first record was released on Columbia Records, and that happened after they came down in the subway to watch me play. I’m signed to Capital Records now, though, and the way that that happened was I was playing at Rockwood Music Hall and my drummer cancelled thirty minutes before I was supposed to go onstage. The owner of the club asked why didn’t I just ask that dude over there to play with us. I didn’t know who he was, but he said, “Sure, cool, whatever.” He played amazingly; he didn’t even know any of the songs and was absolutely amazing. After the gig he was like, “Hey, I really like your sound,” and it turned out he was Aaron Comess, the drummer for the Spin Doctors. He was really excited and really wanted to help me.
His manager was David Sonenberg, who manages Fergie and the Black Eyed Peas, so I went up there and played for him in his office on my guitar, and he said, “Wow, this is awesome, but let’s hear how you sound on a recording.” So he introduced me to Toby Gad. The first day that I went to meet Toby, we wrote “I Wonder,” which is on my new album. He listened to it for days and days and just said, “Wow, this is amazing, I want to be your manager.”
I was so excited! And then he introduced me to EMI and Dan McCarroll, and I went up and played for them. They said, “We want to sign you and we want to produce this record.” I had been working on this record with Toby even before we knew if I had a deal from them or not. So it was all very serendipitous, and I couldn’t be happier that they signed me. They really believed in the music all the way, and it really helps to have a solid foundation of people who believe in you and who can help you get there.
I know you’ve been collaborating with the producer of your record, obviously, but have you thought about collaboration in other aspects of your music?
Absolutely. I did one track with an amazing rapper based out of LA — that’s new stuff for a new record. There is this girl, Ashley Selett, who I love to write with. She’s an indie New York artist and we were thinking of doing a duo project together. But I love collaborating; I write with whoever, you know? That to me is where I get inspiration, from other artists and people who are making exciting music.
Well, your music has been going around Daily BRINK for a while now, and we’re all really big fans of yours. One song I really love is “Eat Dirt,” after which the new album is titled. In this song you say “What doesn’t kill you makes you sick/ And if you’re sick you learn a lesson/ And with every lesson, you get wiser/ So I figured it pays to cross the line/ And eat a little dirt sometimes.” Can you talk a little about what these words mean to you and what kind of lessons you’ve learned in your own life from eating a little dirt?
I wrote that because I wanted to write a song about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” but that’s a typical cliché saying, so I wanted to switch it up a little bit and make it more interesting. So I called my album Eat Dirt. When people hear that, they say, “Okay, what does that mean?” You really have to work to understand what I’m saying, which is, “I figure it pays to cross the line, and eat a little dirt sometimes.” When I wrote that song, I was kind of wandering around New York City trying to find myself musically. I was dating this guy and living with him and it was just hell on earth, and when I’d go into the studio to write with Toby we’d talk about it. It eventually gave me the courage to leave him, and the song really is about not being afraid to take a risk and do things that are outside the box of what you would normally do, to strike out and try new things. If you fail, just get right back up; it was just an experience that you had, and you shouldn’t be so afraid of failure or doing different things.
The music video for “Eat Dirt”
Music seems to be at the center of your life right now. Are you working on projects outside of your musical career?
Not really. I do woodworking as a hobby. So I build things like furniture: tables and benches in a rustic sort of farm style, home stuff. I grew up traveling so much that I never really had a home, so now is the time in my life when I’m making that happen. It’s one of the goals in my life. I love beautiful things like home decorating and furniture, so when I’m not in the studio I try and make it to my woodshop.
Do you have any hopes for the immediate or long-term future for where you want to take your music?
I’m really looking forward to touring America because there are so many places I’ve never been to. I’d love to go to small towns in the middle of America because I’m basically a coastal city girl, grew up on the coasts, so I’d love to tap into the heart of America and tour. And obviously tour all over the world and see where this record goes in terms of bridging boundaries. I don’t want this to be a racial thing like hip hop; I want my sound to transcend race and all boundaries.
I also write fiction. When I’m in a hotel or on a plane I try to get some writing in, so I’d love to get something out there soon in terms of that. And really, just moving forward. I’ve been meeting so many amazing people, and I love getting people together and just being around people, so that’s basically my goal.
How can Daily BR!NK contribute to your success?
You guys are so sweet. I guess by just getting the word out there. I’m really big on social media and online promotion and things like that, and I’m actually thinking of cool ideas for a web series. But just keep in touch with me, and if I finish my web series, I’ll send you guys something so you can post it. I’d love for people to get acquainted with my website and Facebook page.