Interview: JJ Grey
JJ Grey is a soulful vocalist who creates songs that simmer with backwoods funk and come from his heart. JJ Grey and Mofro have developed a passionate fanbase worldwide.
The Floria-based band’s latest release is the excellent “Georgia Warhorse.” They are playing at this year’s Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama. JJ recently called to discuss how writing songs has helped him learn about life, working on his harmonica skills while delivering flowers, and the evolution of his live show.
McClain Johnson: How does your songwriting process work?
JJ Grey: You know, it’s so loose, I can’t even really call it a process man. It just happens. Walking along, riding along, and maybe a beat comes into your head and I’m humming the melody. Or maybe some lyrics, words happen. It just happens. Then, from there, the process might be, I go to my home studio. I start playing with different instruments, flesh it out, and turn it into a song. And then after that, if I’m satisfied with it, later on, I’ll take it down to the studio, big studio, and try to do the same thing again. Bring in guys to play on it.
McClain Johnson: You basically just start off and then you try to flesh out the sound?
JJ Grey: Yeah, exactly.
McClain Johnson: Onstage, you’ll be jumping from guitar to harmonica to keyboard. What was the first thing you learned how to play?
JJ Grey: I guess guitar was the first instrument I learned how to play. I played it for awhile there and never really learned how to play and sing. I didn’t start doing that until around 2001, playing and singing at the same time onstage, so that was kind of tricky. Same way with keys, 2001 was when I started playing keys. Before that, I could play a little bit, just to write tunes with. Harmonica, I’ve played off and on for years. I used to deliver flowers for a friend of mine. He had a flower shop. I would help him deliver flowers on those big flower holidays, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day. I’d just carry a harmonica with me, I don’t know why. I used to sit there playing it in the car. Try to play any song it was in the key of.
McClain Johnson: It was good you were able to build up your skills in the flower truck.
JJ Grey: Yeah, exactly.
McClain Johnson: I love the way that throughout all your albums, your soul always comes through. Whatever style you’re doing, it always has your sound and your stamp on it.
JJ Grey: That’s something that, honestly I can say, I don’t even try to do. I guess if I tried to, it wouldn’t have that on it. It’s sort of like just how you walk. You don’t think about how you walk, you just walk. It’s sort of the same thing for me with it. You just sort of do it. If you tried to walk, say like the Fonz, people might look at you like you’re ridiculous because you’re not pulling it off. For me, it’s sort of like that with music and everything. I just do what I do. I’ve tried to do what I thought I should do years ago, many years ago. It just didn’t work for me. I didn’t feel good about it. I just do what I do and kind of let the chips fall where they may. I’ve enjoyed it since then.
McClain Johnson: On your albums too, that organic quality comes out. They never sound overproduced. It sounds like you’re trying to make something that comes purely from yourself.
JJ Grey: It does. That’s the way I want it to be. The less I’m involved with the process of writing a song, mentally involved I should say, the better. It comes from someplace way deeper than what I think. Thinking is kind of shallow compared to that. Words or labels are shallow compared to what they talk about. I always compare it to like making a map. It’s like map making, so to speak. Here’s the Grand Canyon on a map. Well, that’s not the real Grand Canyon. The real Grand Canyon is when you see it. It’s so much more than the word Grand Canyon or the picture of the Grand Canyon on a map. It’s sort of the same thing with all of life for me. Same way with songs. In other words, the less I stay out of the label side, the thinking side, the more I stay in the soul side of it, if you will. It just happens.
In all honesty, I can’t take credit for any of that. It just happens. It’s kind of like taking credit for digesting food. I really don’t have anything to do with it. It’s no great effort. Actually, saying that, if you eat a huge steak dinner and a bunch of potatoes, you probably would take a lot of effort.
McClain Johnson: You seem really inspired by your home and the environment. Lyrically, what inspires you?
JJ Grey: Anything can, but a lot of those things didn’t immediately. At the time, I was asleep at the wheel in life in general and not really paying attention to the things that mattered. Not looking at the things that were important. It helps to be grounded, grounded to the dirt you live on. It helps to be centered.
You’re not getting blown every little direction. Every little thing is not blowing you around, causing turmoil, so to speak, in your life. You can’t be grounded by faking your way into being grounded. You’re either grounded or you’re not. I didn’t realize that. Grounding yourself is a process and that whole process is what we’re all going through, everybody. That just inspires itself. It inspires everything out of that. It inspires music you do. It inspires anything you do, no matter what it is. No matter who you are. There’s creativity everywhere. I was talking with a guy yesterday, someone playing basketball. There’s rules, so to speak. There’s guidelines, there are all these things. Then, when somebody like Derrick Rose or Michael Jordan, Dwayne Wade or whomever, goes to the basket, that’s when they improv. It’s inspired playing, and that’s when it’s creative. It’s the same way with music. There’s sort of guidelines.
The whole band is playing on the same page and the audience has an expectation of what’s going to happen. Inside that, there’s going to be times where people improv, things happen, and things become creative. Balancing out all those worlds, that’s what centers somebody. Ultimately, where my inspiration comes from is from somewhere beyond what I can think about, what I can name, what I can call it. It comes from those places. Your thoughts might be about those things and then you’re inspired by those things.
McClain Johnson: It’s important to get the word out about those things. As the environment changes, as suburbia creeps in, all these old time things are being destroyed. It’s important to raise awareness in your own way.
JJ Grey: That’s exactly what I was doing to myself. The old saying, you teach best what you most need to learn. I was sort of preaching best what I most needed to learn. So many of those songs about that particular subject were songs I was writing to myself. They’re like memoirs, dairies, where you’re reminding yourself what is important. That’s what I was doing with those songs. I was asleep at the wheel. I was not paying attention to what was going on right there at home and what I was a part of as well. What I’m still a part of. What we’re all still a part of.
In life, there’s a smart way to do things, and there’s a stupid way to do things sometimes. We’re all faced with those choices. A song like “Florida” or “Lochloosa,” any ones of those songs came about to remind me I’ve got to remember what’s important.
McClain Johnson: Through your own songwriting, and the process of doing it, that helped you tap back in?
JJ Grey: I shouldn’t even say what’s important, because in the grand scheme of things, nothing’s important. At the same time, every-thing’s important. I guess I should say, things that I should honor. Things that are greater than me in some form or fashion. Those are the things I should honor. That’s my process of learning. My process of developing.
McClain Johnson: Your music connects with so many people because it comes from a real space. No matter where you go, folks get it now.
JJ Grey: That’s a wonderful thing. It pulls me into the moment because all these people are there, ready to let go. They make you let go, and that makes them let go. It’s this dance that you do. You can do it with one person or you can do it with 10,000 people. It doesn’t matter. It’s an energy. It feels great. It happens at concerts. Lots of times, the band onstage or the artist up there are the one responsible for that happening, but they’re not. It’s everybody’s equal responsibility. It just happens. It’s a collective thing. Everybody gets together and chips in to have a party, by buying a ticket. Then we all get there, and we all try to get to this point together.
The best way to do it is to not try at all. Just show up and let the night be what it is. Do what you do. The next thing you know, you’re there. The audience is always a huge part of that.
McClain Johnson: What have been some of your favorite shows over the years?
JJ Grey: Oh man. Too many too count. Lately, it’s been every show. It used to be, when I started out of St. Jeff, I did 20 shows. One of them, I’d be in the zone. Time stands still, there is no time, everything is wonderful, and everything falls together perfectly. Then, I’d maybe have 10 shows out of that, that I was partially in the zone. In and out of the zone during the show. Then I might have 6-7 shows in the zone every now and again Then 1-2 shows where I never even got there.
Now, I feel like I’m in the zone 19 times out of 20 for the entire show. Then the one show every now and again, I’m in and out of the zone still. That’s a lot to do with just finding your way back in there. No matter what is going on. No matter what’s going on with the audience, no matter what’s going on with your own playing.
The only block between the show always being that way and not is your own mind. It’s just learning to turn it off. Just shut the faucet off and take in what’s going on around you. The audience can always help you find your way back too. You can get up there and be thinking about, “I’m not playing good. The sound is not right.” There’s a myriad of pitfalls.
All these issues you can get up onstage and think about. A lot of times, great audiences, they’ll reach out, grab you by the head, and pull you back into the show again. Back into reality and out of the non-reality of your mind, where you’re thinking about problems onstage. It’s a wonderful thing. I feel that every night, we’re there and we make it there.
McClain Johnson: You guys have gotten to this point where you’re bringing the heat all the time. A few years ago, you got this fuller sound and everything just stepped up to another level.
JJ Grey: A large part of that was I just wanted to go back to singing again. That’s what I’ve done for most of my life up to that point. I’ve played instruments to write tunes, not to play in front of people. Not to perform in front of people. Like I said, I’d never really performed and sang in front of people at the same time. Until 2001, my first tour, Blackwater, I’d never even practiced it. Dan Prothero, our producer, sad, “You need to play. With what you’re doing right now, you need to be playing onstage. Establish where the groove is with the guys you’re playing with.”
Over a period of time, the band has changed many, many times. Everybody I’ve played with has been great. These guys I’m playing with now, they’re students of the same musical world, maybe slightly different angles. They understand it. I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can just sing. I don’t need to think about if I need to establish this or establish that. They learn the tunes, it gets established, and I’m just free to sing.
When I’m free to sing, for me, that’s when it just gets better and better. The more fun I’m having, the more fun the people around me are having. It’s just a different show than if you’re having to think about stuff. The guys I’m playing with, they’re an amazing part of that. They make it easy. They make it real easy for me.
McClain Johnson: When you get into it, it’s like everybody gets it. You’ve always done your own thing and done it with your own style.
JJ Grey: Thanks. Like I say, I just do it and hope I don’t trip over my own bullshit getting there.
McClain Johnson: Do you change up the setlist every night?
JJ Grey: I change it up somewhat. I filter in and out songs. Right now, we’re still supporting “Georgia Warhorse,” so I’m playing a lot of the stuff off of it. We get into a groove, “Man, this song is really happening.” You just play it. Maybe play it every night until it starts to lose it’s luster a little bit. Then I grab a different one and then go with that one. Let the songs just sort of morph as you go. Some songs you play the same every time. I enjoy it either way. I don’t care. I just enjoy doing it. I never get tired of it. What I’m looking for is what everybody is looking for, is to get in that zone.
If you’re in the zone every night, you could play the same set every night. It doesn’t matter. It’ll be new, fresh and awesome every single night. I learned that from watching the older generation of soul singers. They did the same show every time, like Otis. But I could tell, every time is brand new. It’s not because they try to make it brand new. The only way it’s the same thing is if you’re thinking about it, “Oh, this is the same thing.” No, it’s not the same thing. This is a different day. This is a different night. This is a different place. This is a different time. I generally move songs around, move songs in and out every night. When we get done with this “Georgia Warhorse” run, which won’t be much longer. Close to a year is about what I give it. Then I’m going to make them bring out some older tunes. We’re doing some of them in soundcheck now. I want to get them just right before we go crazy on them out in front of everybody. A lot of the guys I play with now have never played any of these songs.
McClain Johnson: Are you having fun digging out some of those tunes?
JJ Grey: Yeah.
McClain Johnson: What are you trying out?
JJ Grey: We’re going to work on “Whitehouse,” some of those tunes. Maybe bring up “Nare Sugar” again. A few other ones, different kinds. Some of the other ones we just ain’t played. Some of the ones that the guys with me now have never played.
McClain Johnson: What advice would you have for artists just starting out?
JJ Grey: You’ve got to have the passion to do it. It’s not going to happen the way you daydream it’s going to happen. Don’t worry about daydreaming. Dream the idea and go do it. While it’s happening, just let go and enjoy it the whole time. It won’t happen the way you think it will happen. That’s what discourages a lot of artists when they get going. They think that it should happen this way, you get this record deal or something. Most people know those days are over like that. I should be here. It should be like this, and it’s not. Life is never that way. That’s what life is always trying to teach you is that it ain’t ever going to bow to your whim.
When you learn that, then you’re halfway home to doing what you really want to do and doing what you’re supposed to do. That’s the advice I would give people.
A lot of people don’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to hear that. I wouldn’t want to hear that either if I was starting out. I’d want to hear, “All you got to do is get a manager, then all your problems are solved.” It’s like winning the lottery. All you’ve got to do is win the lottery and everything will be fine. People that win the lottery still have problems too. Just enjoy what happens, let go and be there when you do. It will be awesome.
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