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Music Is Meant To Inspire: How Brothers Osborne Created The Sprawling 'Port Saint Joe'

Friday, 04 May 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

The notion of genre as insular and self-contained is eroding. In a way that reflects our increasingly interconnected global community, exposure to a wider variety of influences means that fewer artists will stick devoutly to one style. Stuffy traditionalists will complain, but on their sophomore record ‘Port Saint Joe’ the Brothers Osborne show exactly why such an eclectic approach can reboot venerable musical forms in a fresh and exciting way.

It’s not easy to adopt this forward-thinking stance when your background is predominantly in country music. A historically conservative genre (to say the least), progress isn’t always welcomed with open arms in Nashville. Yet over the last two decades, sometimes for better, sometimes for much worse, country has evolved beyond its roots and been infected and/or enriched by a bevy of outside influences.

Featuring hard-hitting southern rock ‘n’ roll, blues, funk and soul, vocalist T.J Osborne and his guitar playing sibling John have laid down a marker as one of the most interesting acts on the scene with ‘Port Saint Joe’. Building on the success of their 2016 debut ‘Pawn Shop’, it finds the duo’s wilful artistic side superseding any deliberate commercial moves. In conjunction with their desire to speak out on subjects most country artists wouldn’t dare go near, it’s a mix that marks the brothers out as the real deal.  

Ahead of their UK and Ireland tour, we spoke to T.J about recording their new album in an earthly utopia, why he doesn’t care about country music being infiltrated by pop stars and why they believe it's important to speak their mind.

Your new album was recorded at producer Jay Joyce’s beach house. Can you paint us a picture of what it was like there?

His house is located at the end of this cape on the coast of Florida and it’s more blue collar there than people living this kind of luxurious lifestyle. So we were surrounded by hard-working people that happened to live in paradise without even realising it. We wanted people to get some sort of feeling of being there, which is why we named the record ‘Port Saint Joe’.

There was a kitchen, living room and a dining room at the centre of this home and we put a mixing console, everything, in the same room. Sometimes you record at studios here [in Nashville] and it feels uptight and uncomfortable. Down there it was like I was sitting in my living room jamming. Just having fun. We’d walk out to the beach any time it started getting stressful or opinions started running around and tempers got a little testy. We’d just walk out to the water and it would just defuse us in seconds.

Was being away from Nashville beneficial because it effectively cut you off from outside interferences?

I think that, in particular, is the biggest thing. In Nashville you have people stopping by and checking in on you. The label wants to know how many songs you’ve recorded. The publishers want to know what songs you’ve recorded. Everyone’s all up in your business and distracting you, whereas we were left to our own devices there. Another thing with Port Saint Joe being predominantly blue collar, we were surrounded by people that we would ultimately be wanting to perform music to and it kept our heads on straight. As to ‘Hey, we’re not recording this for the music execs and suits in Nashville. We’re recording this for the people.’

After the success of ‘Pawn Shop’, which turned gold and won numerous awards, some may have expected you to write big hit songs in order to cement your position. Instead you’ve gone in the other direction and indulged your artistry.

Yeah, you nailed it on the head. Being recognised and winning those awards added some pressure, but also took pressure off. We were able to genuinely focus on making good music and said to ourselves ‘What was it that got us these awards?’ It was staying true to who we are and doubling down on the music we were creating. You think of everyone else that was in the category [vocal duo of the year]; there were people that had a lot more radio success. Dan + Shay and Florida Georgia Line and, at the ACM’s, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. I thought ‘Man, this is going to be a tough thing to win.’ I was a little surprised but I think we’ve been rewarded for not doing any cheap tricks to try to have success.

John said: “‘Port Saint Joe’ is a sonic representation of who we’ve become, not only as a band but as people.” What did he mean by that?

When you first come on the scene you’re thinking ‘Man, I want a hit song’. You’re not sure who your fanbase is and you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to have this great opportunity and lose it so soon. What do I have to do to keep this?’ And then you go out and perform and start making a fanbase and realise you were thinking about it wrong the whole time. So being able to tour, get beat around and have some success, have a song do very well, and have songs that didn’t do well, it really helped us see the commonality that’s constant in what we’re doing. That’s people relating to music.  

There’s a lot of people out here that aren’t hearing music they want to hear.  Everyone’s so scared of not getting their songs played that they all pander, as much as possible, to get them on the radio. Which ultimately alienates a lot of critical musical lovers. So, for John and I, we’re like ‘Man, let’s try to do both’. It’s easy to say ‘Fuck you, radio.’ Easy to say, ‘I’ll do any shortcut to get on the radio.’

What’s hard is to say ‘Man, I want to have critical acclaim but I also want my songs to be popular and on the radio.’ That’s challenging and where we’ve tried to bob and weave in and out of. We’re not always successful at either but that’s our goal. We want to make music that can be commercially successful but that, when I look back 10 years from now, I’ll still be proud of.  

Shoot Me Straight is a great song and I love the extended jam at the end. You really captured your live sound.

I’ll tell you a story about that. John and I feel like we are best live. It’s really difficult to do what you do live on an album. It’s a struggle a lot of people have. So in this instance we were like ‘Let’s try to have that live feeling.’ Jay Joyce is perfect for that and, in regard to Shoot Me Straight, we recorded that three times over two weeks.

The first time it turned out OK. We did it a second time and I thought it was good. And then we had some people over towards the end of our stay, some friends, locals who cooked a bunch of food for us, and Jay said ‘Man, let’s bring everyone into the studio and perform it to them.’ So that recording of Shoot Me Straight on the record is us performing it to people in the studio with us. It gave it that live feeling.

Was it a conscious decision to bring John’s guitar work to the fore on this record?

It was very conscious. We’re a duo, and the duo is comprised of me as the singer and my brother as the guitar player. I get to sing a lot on every song and sometimes the song is mostly singing. We thought ‘We gotta have these moments where John shines as much as the lead vocalist.’ Even some of the shorter songs, we try to figure out ways to get his guitar involved because that’s what separates us from a lot of other people out there. Not that no one’s ever done it before, but that’s the one thing that is unique to us. One thing that should be synonymous with us is having a singer and guitar player. So we tried diligently to get those done.

Weed, Willie and Whiskey is a very traditional country song. It’s been said country isn’t a style of music, it’s a feeling. Can you explain what that feeling is?

That’s the same with rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a mindset, not necessarily a style of music. Some of the most country people of all time, to me, are the most rock ‘n’ roll. Like Hank Williams Senior and Hank Jr, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Those guys are rock ‘n’ roll but also stone cold country. I heard an artist once say country isn’t what you sound like, it’s what you are. I think that’s the same.

With you playing lots of different styles, is there something that gels everything together?

Yeah, it’s my brother and I. What you don’t want is every song to sound like the next but there was definitely a moment where we were like ‘Hey, there are songs on here that are more rock ‘n’ roll sounding, more traditional country. There’s stuff that’s bluesy, some that’s kind of New Orleans feeling.’ The further the songs were apart musically, at least in my mind, only made what we are more obvious considering the one thing that doesn’t change is what John and I do.

Talking of integrating different styles, what do you think about the increased pop influence in country music? For example, Bebe Rexha caused a  storm recently by saying she hopes she’s paved the way for other pop artists to jump into country because of the success of her poppy song Meant To Be.

Well, I have different minds about it. I think, one, it’s just music. We get caught up in what genres are so much it distracts us from what music was meant for and that’s to escape or have an experience or transcend. Even the type of music I play, I don’t do it consciously and if it goes where it goes, or makes people feel something, that’s what music’s for. Who is any one person to say what does and doesn’t belong in a genre?  If Bebe Rexha is the thing that makes people have this emotional reaction or escape from the weight of this world then that’s awesome. That’s beautiful and why I started playing music in the first place.

When I was a kid I used to only think of it as good and bad music. I didn’t even know what genres were until later on. Embarrassingly later in my life. I still think it should be that way. We get called on what’s country and what isn’t country and lose sight of the things that are really inspiring.  As a person in country music I listen to it all. It could be Danny Gatton or Prince. Music is meant to inspire.

You guys always say exactly what you think in interviews and on Twitter. Why don’t you fear the backlash that’s greeted other artists who’ve spoken out on polarising subjects?

We intentionally try to do it in a way that’s not necessarily polarising. We’re just trying to maybe enlighten someone to another opinion or stick up for someone who doesn’t have a voice. John and I came from a town that’s very conservative and we aren’t. We’re very aware, especially being in country music, how conservative people think. I respect it, even though it’s different than mine. So we just go from a perspective of ‘No one’s really right or wrong, but hey what about this?’

Occasionally there is something that’s just morally wrong and we stand up for that.  John and I, growing up, were not cool kids. We were picked on a lot all the way until high school. So once we got big...that’s why [the lyric on] Shoot Me Straight is ‘Lay my 6’ 4” ass out on the ground.’ We are six foot four and until we got that big people fucked with us all the time. So we feel we have to stick up for people that don’t have anyone in their corner.   

Just out of interest, who posts all your witty tweets?

Those are predominantly my brothers. I try to stay as detached from the social media stuff as possible. Only for all haters out there. I don’t want them entering my life.  But John is really good at sending some of those and, every once in a while when it’s some of the racier stuff, we’ll get together and be like ‘Shall we post this?’ Sometimes I’m like ‘No, we’re not gonna say that. That’s ridiculous’. Sometimes it’s like ‘Hell yeah, let’s put it out there and see what happens.’

You’ve also given your views on gun control, which is a subject that terrifies a lot of country artists. Do you feel in the wake of recent events like the National School Walkout that a change might finally be on the horizon?

For the first time I can remember everyone agrees, for the most part, that change is absolutely needed. The difficult part comes in what that change is. John and I have definitely, once again, spoken up in the sense of ‘Come on y’all, this is a little ridiculous.’ There’s a lot of people in country music that have been very pro-gun, have songs about it, are very outspoken, and no one has said anything to them.

But the moment we say ‘Hey, maybe we should look at our gun laws’ everyone barks at us ‘Hey, stay out of politics’. Which is so funny because I think every person should be involved in politics. One of the best rights we have, living in a free country, is the ability to be involved in politics. A lot of people have died for us to have that right. I intend on exercising that, whether it helps or hurts me.  

But I think we have definitely woken up here. You’d have to be living under a rock to think that things are okay as far as our gun laws are concerned. We’ll see what happens, but we have a very unique thing in this country. A lot of people are proud of the fact they have the right to own guns, but I think most people agree it’s got out of hand.

You’re about to embark on a UK and Ireland tour that’s pretty much sold out, which is good considering it’s your first headline tour here. Are you surprised by your popularity?

Yeah. it’s a lot better than I thought it would be. One of the biggest surprises was when we came over there for the first time for C2C and followed it up supporting the Cadillac Three. We could see people were not only singing our radio hits, but singing songs that were never close to being on the radio. They were singing them at the top of their lungs.

I was like, ‘Holy cow this is awesome. This is a totally different experience.’ I had no idea what to expect, especially going into another country. So when it came time for our headline tour we thought ‘Man, we’re definitely ready.’ It surprised all of us, to some degree, how well it did and how fast. You can see that by us having to change some of the venues. Having, in some instances, to almost double the capacity has been like ‘Holy shit.’ We’re so excited to get over there.

'Port Saint Joe' is out now.

Brothers Osborne Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri May 04 2018 - DUBLIN Academy
Sat May 05 2018 - BELFAST Limelight
Mon May 07 2018 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Tue May 08 2018 - BRIGHTON Brighton Concorde 2
Wed May 09 2018 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Academy Birmingham
Fri May 11 2018 - LONDON KOKO
Sat May 12 2018 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz
Sun May 13 2018 - GLASGOW O2 ABC
Sun November 25 2018 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
Tue November 27 2018 - NEWCASTLE O2 Academy Newcastle
Wed November 28 2018 - MANCHESTER Academy
Fri November 30 2018 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
Sun December 02 2018 - LONDON O2 Forum

Click here to compare & buy Brothers Osborne Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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