By DAVID DUPONT
BG Independent News
No sooner had Justin Payne released his second recording, he headed out of town.
This fall, the Bowling Green-based singer songwriter embarked on a five-week solo with company tour that took him to points west and east including his first show in New York City. Accompanying him on the tour was fellow singer-songwriter Zach Wilson. They played solo and accompanied each other for a few numbers.
The two singer-songwriters will present a double CD release party Friday, Nov. 24, at Howard’s Club H. The 8 p.m. show will feature sets by each of them, then a set by Corduroy Road, culminating in some “beer-brined” jamming at the end. Wilson, who plays bass with the Justin Payne and Co. band on “High Water,” will mark the release of “Send Scenery.”
The show reunites Payne with the quartet that played on “High Water,” which also includes guitarist Calvin Cordy, who also engineered the recording, and drummer Adam Rice.
The session was collaborative and inclusive. “Most of the stuff I like about the project was brought by my collaborators,” Payne said. The recording was also inspired by the space in which it was made. Payne said he spent the summer cleaning out his late mother-in-law’s barn. When the hay loft was finally empty he realized that “it’s a picture perfect recording environment. If you’re going for a rootsy sound that’s the room you want to use.”
Payne grew up in Newark. His grandparents encouraged him to play violin when he was about 4, though his parents were not as enamored of those early screeches. He went on to play in his school orchestra as well as acting in musical theater. He came to Bowling Green to study violin and composition at the College of Musical Arts. He played in the Bowling Green Philharmonia for a couple years and gigged with civic orchestras in the area. He grew disillusioned with the life of an orchestral violinist, and didn’t see much future in it. Payne ended up getting degrees in History and Philosophy.
While his violin took a back seat, his guitar came to the fore. He got his first electric guitar when he was 12. He was enamored of heavy metal and hardcore punk. Now his parents had to contend with “distorted raunchy trash coming from my bedroom.” Payne said that early experience still makes itself felt in particular way – he’s always breaking strings on his acoustic guitar.
Payne had been writing for a long time. As a college student he earned money editing his fellow students’ papers. He even penned verses for classical art songs.
He spent three years cooking at the Corner Grill, and that’s when the music and words started connecting after “accumulating a lot of life experience karma.” He credits his grandparents for his love of Hank Williams, and the Grill’s owner Larry Cain for introducing him to high quality blues, particularly Howlin’ Wolf.
Working at the Grill also helped open him up emotionally, exposing him to the lives and stories of customers. “You get locked up in your own drama and trials and tribulations. … It was an eye-opening experience for me.”
He credits the Polar Vortex of several years ago with finally launching him seriously into music. He was spending his nights at the Grill when it was too cold for customers to come out, so he had lots of time to write. And otherwise he was in a freezing apartment with a broken window that let the elements in.
He headed to North Carolina for a while. Back in Bowling Green, he became a presence on the local scene, but also took his show on the road. It was on a previous tour that he saw a phone video of himself taken by a fan. At first he didn’t recognize himself. “That’s good,” he said before recognizing himself. That was the moment when he realized he’d developed his own style.
He sings unapologetically with a raw passion, slashing away at the raw nerves of his guitar strings.
This fall’s tour was his third, and his first with a partner. He said he was excited to have Wilson along because he loved his songs and wanted to sing harmony on them. They found that when they performed together they held the crowd more and drew more listeners in than they did when performing solo.
The tour had its ups and downs. The first show in New York City was a bust. They were in a popular Manhattan bar, but in a side room behind a curtain. That’s where you’d expect the wait staff or kitchen to be, Payne said. They’d also made the costly mistake of driving their car into the city. That meant after the gig driving around the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for two hours looking for a parking place.
A week later, though, they returned to the city, this time to a club in Brooklyn. They drew an enthusiastic crowd, sold a lot of merchandise and found new online fans.
Two shows in New England fell through, leaving them short the travel and food money they needed.
“The biggest takeaway is I’ve definitely learned how to write and play and sing, the performative aspect of the gig, but when it comes to the business I have more to learn.”
And though their show in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fell through, Wilson and Payne did a house concert in rural Cambridge, Illinois. It was one of a number of high points of the tour.
The village has a population of about 2,000 people with no bars or other venues. So John Taylor hosts concerts, which Payne described as “half potluck, half family reunion.”
“It was strange in the best way possible.”
People offered to send them off with food for the road, or put them up for the night.
“I love playing for people I don’t know,” Payne said. “More than playing for people who know me. It’s so intimidating playing for friends. … I prefer playing for people who have no investment in the work. That’s the true litmus test.” That’s true even when it’s a guy after a show telling him one of his songs is “absolute garbage.” He appreciates “the honesty,” something that he cultivates in his own work.
Payne hasn’t been taking it easy since getting back home. He’s finished and recorded a new song that reflects the political climate and some of what he experienced while traveling.
He plays to put it out as a vinyl single with Wilson providing the flip side. It’s a merchandise idea he picked up from other bands.
The group on that recording has a different sound than on “High Water” with a mix of electric piano and synthesizer. Payne expects for the near future he’ll concentrate on releasing singles rather than aiming for “the grander statement” of an album. He’s not interested in being tied down to a particular instrumentation or genre. He wants to go where the songs take him. “There’s more liberty in that.”