Sitting down and listening to Josh T. Pearson’s incandescent début solo record, The Last of the Country Gentlemen, a clear picture of the Texan country musician forms in your mind: a brooding artist whose gaze is as intense as his speech, whose dialogue is as impenetrable and tangled as his vast beard. …Country Gentlemen contains what Pearson refers to as “ten-minute long break-up songs” which have touched many a fragile psyche, and doubtlessly soothed many an aching heart.
Laying his soul bare on record, Pearson’s haunting, incantatory vocals and nuanced acoustic guitar parts drift and swirl with each other like waves, endlessly ebbing and flowing, lapping up against emotional shores and retreating, confronting demons and then vanquishing them. It’s the most emotional album you’ll hear anywhere this year, at times creaking under the weight of its lamentations as Pearson’s voice nearly breaks, but never does: it’s more important to tell these stories than to bottle them up, you sense.
But any preconceptions about the Texas songwriter that seem well-founded are washed away within minutes of meeting his engaging gaze. Sitting down with Pearson in a quiet pub in West London, you immediately find him to be candid and honest, with a somewhat surprising, sly sense of humour. Whatever you think you know about Josh T. Pearson, forget it straightaway.
“Yes, I am single,” comes the answer to our half-finished first question, accompanied by a chuckle from the songwriter whose all-black attire and attitudes toward country music call to mind the original Man in Black, Johnny Cash.
Yet you wonder where he’s been, too. Ten years after The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, the album he made while fronting the short-lived cult icons Lift To Experience, Pearson is back making music. Why the long wait?
“I rounded a certain point in my own songcraft,” Pearson recalls. “That, coupled with a feeling of relief, like it was time, and it was OK to put them [songs] out there, and a compulsion that made me feel that it’d be important to the world, in some small sense. A microscopic scale… Just a tiny little sliver in the fabric of society. But even from that tiny sliver it felt like it could have a positive effect, brighten someone’s day. I hope it has.”
Paradoxically, Pearson’s album appears to have done just that despite its patently painful content. He’s been personally thanked by fans, sometimes in tears, after live shows, and catharsis is a huge part of what makes …Country Gentlemen so tender and tragic. “It’s definitely important, that’s one of the reasons I began playing music, just to get it out, just to survive and stay sane, like so many other people that need to let that energy [out] somewhere,” the long-haired singer opines. “I tend to keep things locked in, all the energy in my body, so much so that I’ve suffered from severe back pains for 8 years or so now, and I can’t sleep at night and all that normal crap because of just locking it in. I often need to have a good stretch and do little yoga exercises just to not weep when I sleep, because I just lock it inside.”
Regarding how he might release this energy in other forms, Pearson jokes “I’m not much of an interpretative dancer. Not yet! Hopefully in my 50s I’ll move to Berlin and explore my techno side in the nightclubs in the dark, reaching through the little holes in the wall and seeing what’s on the other side.”
This contrast between Pearson’s contemplative reflections and self-deprecating witticisms is a recurring theme in our conversation, and contrast itself is another crucial component of …Country Gentlemen’s fragile emotional equation. Raised a devout Christian, (“I took to it like a fish to whatever for whatever reason. We kept going to church, and I just loved it”) Pearson’s lyrics often walk the lines between religion and sin, from the adulterous backstory of ‘Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her’ – “I’m in love with an amazing woman / She just is not my wife,” Pearson bemoans – to the New Testament-referencing titles of the first and last tracks, ‘Thou Art Loosed’ and ‘Drive Her Out!’:
“‘Thou Art Loosed’ is a New Testament reference,” the 36 year-old reveals, “when Christ delivers a woman from her demon and says “woman, thou art loosed”. I like the play on words, because of the simple meaning of the word ‘art’ in the old English, [against] ‘Thou Art Loosed’: like, the art is free, you can go do it… So when you get to the end, to ‘Drive Her Out!’, that’s another New Testament reference to driving out the devils.”
With his mournful vocals eking out such religious content, The Bible itself seems a clear influence, as does poetry. “In my 20s I read quite a bit [of poetry]. It really ended with Whitman as the great American and Milton as the great Englishman. Those two are still my favourites. You can just open a book and read anywhere… I should read more, but I don’t. I try to read poets whenever I’m in the bookstore, but it’s pretty boring! I’m not clever enough to get it. But I like Milton and Whitman for the sounds of the words. It’s like a jazz trumpet, y’know?”
The metre and meaning of the words themselves, however, often comes as a direct result of reading the Good Book (“King James version”) as a child. “I read the Bible as much as I could, all the time growing up. I’d wake up in the middle of the night just to read the Bible. And it’s by its nature very poetic: it was written as such, written to be memorised, written in a way that people could take it in and hold onto it, and it’d give power to the people. I just loved God, and the idea of being loved by a creator enough that he would send his own son in the flesh to die for mankind, that they might have a life and love, and be kind to one another and respect one another, and turn the other cheek and pray for one another and all those sorts of things.”
“There’s no escaping your past, but I mean I definitely use it as a tool,” Pearson reflects.
Listening to him speak, or sing, it’s easy to think of his speech as a preacher’s counsel, simultaneously urging caution and passion in love. There’s a subconscious poetry in Pearson’s words reminiscent of a sermon or even the Bible itself, a timeless wisdom which seems to echo down through the decades and out in his lilting Texan drawl. There’s a clarity to his speech which is uncommon in artists of any creed, a straightforward articulation of the experiences from which the deepest pains and pleasures well up. “I think the best creative art in the world, at least my personal favourites, always come from people that’ve experienced it first hand, whether it be a novel or play or book or song or anything. The stories you know the best are your own personal ones.”
Does the pain of playing these potent, personal songs diminish with time? “It’s definitely helped that it’s touched people,” he says. “And then there’s the distance, further away from the wound, it’s just a little easier, a bit. And it’s definitely helped that it’s given some solace, it’s given some comfort to that small margin, that thin sliver of the world. Every little interview’s a reminder that the word’s going out there somewhere and it’s comforting in some regard. We like to know we’re not alone. You weep with us. It’s like a hug. And that helps.”
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of The Line of Best Fit’s interview with Josh T. Pearson.