Susan Justice is about to happen in a big way. A singer-songwriter of genuine vision and with substantially strange experiences beyond her age, her debut album, Eat Dirt, is a strikingly mature balance of folk, pop, and genuine personality. In a frighteningly busy schedule, ahead of album release, Ms. Justice took some time out to talk with Buzzine’s Jesse Livingston to discuss her deeply personal perspectives and the broader universal themes – all with her sights set on something pretty high…
Jesse Livingston: You recently played at the Hotel Café in Los Angeles. How was the show, and what makes a Susan Justice show special to you?
Susan Justice: Beautiful show. I mean, the people in the audience were really listening to words I was singing, and that's what I think makes the shows so special -- the storytelling aspect of each of the songs. Just standing up there -- me, myself, and my guitar -- is freeing. I can do whatever I want and connect more with the audience.
JL: You've talked, on your website, about your dream of moving to L.A. What is it you love about the city, and do you have plans to move there in the near future?
SJ: I love LA because of the feeling I get when I go there. It's like a weight is lifted off my shoulders and I can breathe in peace. The weather, the trees, the ocean... I would move there in a heartbeat, although I could live without the traffic. Growing up, I never really lived anywhere for longer than a few months at a time, moving from place to place -- me, my parents, and 10 brothers and sisters (each of my brothers and sisters were born in a different place: Puerto Rico, Texas, Germany, England...you name it, we lived there).
JL: Your new album, Eat Dirt, has a lot of people excited, and you have a unique story to tell about growing up as a traveling musician and breaking away from your family's strict religious beliefs. For you, is the album mainly about examining your life up until now, or is it about looking to the future?
SJ: I was so scared for anyone to know about my background before, I thought people would look at me like I was some kind of weirdo. I mean, come on, as a kid growing up, we had a different lifestyle that I thought people couldn't relate to, so I hid a lot of that away. But my producer, Toby Gad, convinced me that it was okay to talk about my past. He said people would find it interesting and they would be able to relate. I began to see that talking about my past would be a means toward fitting, rather than trying to run away from who I was. So yeah, there's a lot about the past in some of the songs, but there is much more that reflects a positive outlook -- looking forward to the future with a sense of hope and excitement.
JL: Was it challenging to choose which songs to include on the album? Did you find yourself working with any particular themes?
SJ: It was a fresh and a brand new day every time we wrote. Toby would basically ask me what I was going through at the time, then we'd just write about it. There was always something going on -- something turbulent in my life. Breakups, being confused about a relationship, does this person really love me or not, getting rid of guilt, finding out where I wanted to live, accepting myself, accepting that it might be okay to be happy.
JL: Your song, “I Wonder,” talks about running through a hedge maze and seeing a grey wall of clay washing away; do you remember how these striking images occurred to you?
SJ: I remember this image of a huge castle with a maze of hedges. Sort of Alice in Wonderland. The grey wall of clay I imagined as this horrible outer layer and shell which hardened, trapping me inside, but at the end of the song, I imagined water coming from the sky and breaking down the clay. I saw it flowing away from me in rivulets. That was good, as then I could finally breathe.
JL: You recently recorded a version of “I Wonder” with the kids from New York City's well-known PS22 Chorus. When the kids come in on the chorus of the song, it's stunning and it lifts the music to a whole new level; they all seem really into it too, as though they've loved the song for a while. How did you get hooked up with them?
SJ: Tara Chiari, from Capitol/EMI, hooked me up with them. She worked with the kids on the Celtic Woman. She thought I'd enjoy working with them, and I’m telling you, those kids showed me so much love. They practiced those songs before I arrived. When I got there, they made me feel like I was Beyoncé. I'll never forget it. There were hugs all around after the show.
JL: How, as a solo artist, did you enjoy the group dynamic of that experience?
SJ: Coming from a big family, it was nice to be surrounded by kids again. Talented kids. And singing with them brought tears to my eyes.
JL: You performed your song, “Dear Oprah,” on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007. The lyrics came from a letter you wrote in your diary when you were 17 about feeling trapped and lost. When you later decided to turn that letter into a song, were you still trying to express your own pain and confusion, or were you thinking more about trying to connect with other young people who might be feeling the same way you once did?
SJ: I just wanted to talk about where I was coming from. I had no idea it would be turned into a song; I had no idea Oprah would hear that song and that she would ask me on the show! I was just writing for myself. But it turns out that people can relate to what I'm singing about and often say they feel the same way. That makes me feel like, no matter how different we might appear to be, we're all pretty much the same, wanting and needing the same basic things.
JL: The title track of Eat Dirt is all about learning to be your own person by making mistakes and going after things you've been told not to. You grew up making music with your family, but your family was also the source of a lot of the ideology you rebelled against. Do you ever feel conflicted about making music because of this, or do you think music is a positive force no matter the circumstances?
SJ: Growing up, I wasn't allowed to listen to any music. Not even CHRISTIAN music. Ha! Let alone The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones. Not even Classical. I had to sneak and listen to everything I could and read everything I could, but it was hard. Since we were always traveling, we'd be in close quarters for long periods of time, so it’s not like I could do what I wanted. And music then was a job. That's how we earned money to survive. Now music is so much more -- it's my expression, it's my life. It's wonderful.
JL: You started out playing your songs for people on the New York City subways. This must have been a very different world from the shows you play now. Do you ever find yourself missing those early days? If so, what did you enjoy most about them?
SJ: When I left the family, I was so wide-eyed and scared. I needed to make some money, so I did what we had always done...busk. I did it in the subway because I liked the sound of my voice echoing on the walls. I felt at peace, and people started coming around and listening. But it was still a dismal and dreary environment. I honestly don't miss it at all.
JL: You took the name Susan Justice about three years ago, when you signed with Warner Bros. What prompted that change, and why did you feel it was important?
SJ: Hey, everything in my life was changing. I just felt it was time for a name change as well. My manager told me that another one of his clients, John Legend, had changed his name. So I decided to go for it. Since Legend was taken, I opted for Justice. Seemed to fit how I was feeling.
JL: You've expressed admiration for artists like Tracy Chapman and Alanis Morissette. Is there a particular person in the music world that you'd especially like to collaborate with?
SJ: Lil Wayne, Josh Groban, Will. I. Am., and Drake. I love those guys. Would be cool to see what we might turn out together.
JL: Given that so much of your subject matter balances personal and global concerns, what worries you most about the state of the world in 2012, and what brings you the most hope?
SJ: Things are very tough right now. So many things are broken and so many people are hurting, and that makes people feel negative. But I don't think it's useful to let negativity rule, so I'm about spreading fierce optimism. Everything is changing/evolving, whether its ourselves, the industries we work in, or the devices we use in our daily lives. I like to believe that's a good thing. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I believe computers and the net are important and will help bring us together. From my perspective, the computer and the information I got on the web saved my life. Look at what that technology did for the people in the middle east. That gives me hope for the future.
JL: Are you planning a tour to support Eat Dirt? If so, where are you most looking forward to playing?
SJ: All the small towns in America where I've never been. I've been all over the world and many of the big cities in the States, but I haven't been everywhere in America. I'm dying to go.
JL: Is there a certain message or idea that you want people to take from your music more than any other?
SJ: I want people to feel something when they listen to it. I mean, I wrote these songs for myself, but it will be icing on the cake if people are able to relate it to themselves. I would hope that my songs would make people feel that they are not so alone and that they can do something to help themselves.
JL: With what words would you like this interview to end?
SJ: I've been down in the subway. Now I'm aiming for the stars!
Susan Justice's debut album, 'Eat Dirt,' will be released on March 27, 2012 on Capitol Records.