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Jookhouse: Q&A with soul singer JJ Grey

Host Vince Meserko talks over a long, and still-going-strong, career.

Vince Meserko: I’ll ask you to start from the beginning – how you started playing music and what you were listening to in those formative years.

JJ Grey: I grew up in a little place called Whitehouse, right outside Jacksonville, Florida. My dad listened to the radio when we were kids. Kids were sneaking around listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd and disco stuff. There were a couple of jook joints around there where people played. There was always music around. Some of it you weren’t supposed to listen to.

VM: How did you get hooked up with Fog City Records to put out your first record, Blackwater?

JG: That was when I was in London. London had always had a big DJ scene. The indie rock scene really took off 10, 12 years ago. It’s all about indie rock, what people call indie rock now. I dig that stuff, but that ain’t what I do. I got fed up with it. I just contacted a couple of labels that I thought were cool. Fog City was one of them and Dan (Prothero) and I really hit it off and have been working together ever since.

VM: How has the band evolved musically, not only who comprises the band, but musically how has it changed from Blackwater through Georgia Warhorse?

JG: There’s been so many people in this band, but musically it hasn’t changed at all in my opinion because I just write and arrange things as they come. The one thing that has evolved is the level of players. It’s gotten better and better and better. It’s more suited to what I want to hear anyway because all of the guys I’ve played with have all been great. I don’t really know. It’s kind of like asking people how they’ve changed personally. I live it (my music). It’s hard for me to say what it’s done and what it hasn’t done. I’ll leave that to other people.

VM: How about your own role in the band. How has it changed?

JG: It hasn’t changed at all. I just chose not to play keys on stage for right now. On stage, I just said ‘I’m going to retire keys for awhile.’ I don’t really have a role. I just jam. I just play.

VM: How about your own guitar playing. I’ve seen you guys almost 15 times. Your guitar playing has become a bigger part of the sound. You can flat out rip now. Maybe that wasn’t as much a part of the sound early on?

Vince & JJ (left). Credit: Dennis Marion

JG: I never really wanted to play guitar. I just wanted to sing. That’s what I did for the first 15 years. Dan Prothero [producer and owner of Fog City Records] has always been adamant about me playing. He’s always saying ‘you gotta play, play, play.’ I’ve definitely gotten better. All this stuff is like a bodybuilder who takes 20 years to get huge muscles. They don’t even notice and still think they’re small. They don’t even notice, but everyone else does and they say ‘wow what’s it like now.’ I don’t even notice the difference between me then and me now. I couldn’t even tell you.

VM: In terms of songwriting, where you come from makes up such a huge part of the sound of the band, and you don’t have to be from the part of the country you’re from necessarily to be able to connect with the sentiment that you’re expressing. How do you make sure you keep it universal so that everyone can relate to it and also sing about where you come from?

JG: The first I’d do is avoid trying to make sure I do anything. If you ‘make sure’ of something then it’s going to be caricature or cartoonish. I’m like a salmon swimming upstream, man, I don’t know why. I just do it.

VM: I noticed on all of your albums it’s a really strong mix between the slower ballad-type stuff and the uptempo funkier stuff. These are songs that even someone who has no rhythm like me can dance to. How do you balance those elements?

JG: I want a record to feel like a good movie. Happy moments, sad moments, dance moments. It’s kind of like putting together a set. I won’t necessarily  sit down and say ‘ok, I’ve got a bunch of ballads. Now I really need to write a bunch of dance tunes.’ I’ve tried that, and I’ve failed miserably. I just write what comes.

VM: I know a lot of people have a hard time figuring out what kind of band you are. It’s swamp-funk, swamp-rock, swamp-soul, Southern rock. The word “swamp” gets thrown around a lot. I was wondering if you had any idea why that label is so often attached.

JG: I don’t really know what it means. I don’t really think anybody else does either. It’s more of a feel, I guess. It feels that way. Jerry Reed feels swampy. I couldn’t tell you what made it feel that way, but it does. Same for Tony Joe White. Something about it is swampy, but I’m not sure what. On the other side of the coin, there’s something swampy about the Meters. I can’t tell you what it is.

VM: I have to ask about the phrase that gets thrown around a lot, especially when you start doing the festival circuit. The jam band label, which is just a meaningless term in my opinion.

JG: I don’t mind it. I think it’s just another phrase that doesn’t mean anything. The closest thing that it could mean is a ‘jam fan.’ Basically, they go to a show, and it means that they’ll listen to just about anything as long as it’s not overly rehearsed, staring at your tennis shoes. It’s about, are you playing to the audience, to the moment, or are you just blitzing through 20 songs as fast as you can? I’m not really familiar with the official jam band scene. We play a lot of the festivals, and I think the fans are great. I don’t know what the big deal is. Most of the groups I like that have influenced me would all be considered jam bands now, from Jimi Hendrix to the Allman Brothers. Even The Beatles in some ways. When you got beyond their pop stuff when you get into their crazy records.

VM: Aretha Franklin jammed.

JG: Yeah. Everybody did back in the day. ‘Ah James Brown, that’s just a jam band’. What are you going to do? Everyone’s got their own stroke. A fad is a fad. The worst thing that you can do is try to navigate all that shit.

VM: Almost every album you put out gets 4 or 5 stars. Is that something you pay attention to? The reviews have been so positive for most of your records.

JG: I guess it’s nice. I don’t really read it. I learned my lesson. For most people, man, you can read 10,000 reviews that say you’re great. All it takes is one bad one and you feel bad about it. It’s silly, but it’s human nature in a way.

VM: It seems like there’s been a bit of a revival in soul music with the Daptone label and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. I was wondering where you saw yourself fitting in to that.

JG: Nah. No. It’s all cool. I’m just influenced by the people I’m influenced by. I make no concerted effort to sound like I’m from a certain era.

VM: Well, how about some of those influences. People that influenced you vocally and instrumentally.

JG: Everybody from Stevie Wonder to Otis Redding, Toots Hibbert. Toots and Otis are my two favorites of all time. Jerry Reed and his guitar playing are phenomenal. Donnie Hathaway is another one of my favorite singers. I love Stevie Ray Vaughan’s singing as much as his guitar playing.

VM: Let’s talk about Georgia Warhorse, your newest album. There seems to be more acoustic guitars on this album. Do you have any intentions coming up to do a solo album?

JG: I don’t know. To me, all of these records are solo records. I don’t know what I would differently other than play every instrument, and I wouldn’t want to hear that crap. It’s a band. I’ve got a great band. I don’t know what I would do differently.

VM: One of my favorite songs on the new album is Gotta Know. I’ve heard bootlegs where you’ve played that from awhile ago. What made you want to record it for this album?

JG: I’ve recorded it on every record. I wrote it a long time ago. It just didn’t make it on there for whatever reason. The only thing different about this version compared to all the other versions it the line ‘I finally understand, it can’t be understood’ at the end, and that was it. Plus these guys just nailed it in the studio. It just came together. You never know why sometimes things come together. The song is my own stab at myself and the scientific part of my mind that just has to know everything.

VM: Looking towards the future, where do you see the band next year or in 40 years?

JG: I have no idea, man. I don’t think about the future. I don’t dwell on the past too much. I don’t really think about either one. If I can play music, I want to play music. If I can’t or if I don’t want to, then I won’t do it. You can say the same for any of the guys. They may get better gigs, hopefully. Maybe a bigshot gig and get us to open up for them. [Laughs.]

Jookhouse airs every Saturday from 4 to 6 p.m.