Jeff Austin is a mandolin player known for his passionate songwriting and energetic live shows. He has recently left Yonder Mountain String Band to focus on his solo career. Austin is touring with Danny Barnes, Eric Thorin, and Ross Martin this spring.
Jeff recently discussed his approach to songwriting, the mix of truth and illusion that helps make a great live show, and his worst job.
How did you first become interested in playing the mandolin? How did it come together?
I really liked the tonality of the instrument. When I first started noodling around with it, there weren’t a million mandolin players. I never went into it with the intention of being a soloist. I went into it wanting to be a rhythmic player. As I stood around while people were soloing and passing around solos, that part of it really seemed fun. I started to mess around with it. I was surrounded by encouraging people, who didn’t give you a lot of grief if you weren’t that good. It was a nice way to start.
How did you guys go about developing your own style of bluegrass? On your solo stuff, you take a really different approach.
It’s nice, because it allows me to draw a line and do one thing over here and one thing over there. I can have different ideas with two different groups of people.
Do you approach songwriting differently?
Yeah, I would say that I do. A lot of times, I sit down to write and I just write. I don’t try and give it an identity. I don’t say, “I need to write a song for this situation with this group.” Then, there are times when that happens. “I could do something in A in the repertoire that could be kind of fast.” Sometimes, my brain does categorize like that. It seems to become quickly apparent, as I’m writing something,whether it’s going to work in a Yonder show or in a show with the other guys. It makes itself pretty apparent as the song develops.
When you’re writing, do you start off with melodies first or lyrics first? Is there a certain process?
It’s a great question. It can come pretty 50/50. I may be listening to people talk. I may be reading something. I may be talking to somebody. I’ll hear something I’ll really like and I’ll go and write it down. I’ve got a book full of different things that I write down as I hear them during the day. I’ll go back and see if it strikes a nerve. If I have a phrase that really sticks with me, the melody seems to come quickly behind it. It really goes even the other way too. I’ll get a grouping of notes in my head that I really like. I just made a record in March, with Danny Barnes and Ross Martin. A lot of those songs that are on that record started as melodies. I heard the melodies in my head, refined them and worked through them. For me, if I get a melody or a hook I really like, the words will come pretty quickly. The story is kind of sitting in front of you and you just have to refine it.
That’s interesting to take different ideas and write them down. It’s nice to be able to come back to them later and expand on them.
It’s an exercise that I found really works for me. Over the last year-and-a-half, I’ve had a fanatic, story-like, email exchange with a good friend of mine. We have topics that we like to discuss and the discussions have become pretty fluid. If I’m on tour and I can’t sleep at 3 in the morning, I’ll write down something and send it to him. At one point last year, I sent him something. He wrote me back the next day and said, “These email are like poetry.” I went home and I pulled up the email chain, from the last 19 months. I pulled it up and looked back. There were lines just jumping off of those pages. I thought I should go print these out and go through them, see if a song jumped out. It was a weird thing that just kind of happened.
What sorts of topics were you talking about?
I think we ended up on the topic of happiness and life. In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve had a ton of stuff happen. I got married, had a baby, changed a lot of habits of mine, got rid of a lot of static stuff in my life. It was someone I was confiding in. We’d gone through the same kind of stuff, discovering what really makes you happy in life and everything It was really a cool process. It was someone I really admire and look up to. He gave me a no-bullshit ear to go to. He was able to really give me some honest feedback. It was great. That kind of change is intense. It’s pretty heavy duty stuff. Those were really the kinds of topics. I love writing two kinds of songs. I love writing story songs, telling the story of him, her, or it. I also really like having some personal shit. As I was looking through those emails, I was looking at what the theme was, the topics. There’s some shit in here that’s some pretty personal stuff. I’m not afraid to show it. Maybe it’s time to let that side fly a little bit.
Doing something like that gives you a really honest viewpoint of yourself. It helps you to be able to look back on it and really craft some songs.
Exactly. What a cool time that we live in, because it can take a lot of fortitude to sit and write a diary. It’s an amazing thing to do, because it gives you something to look back on. We live in a time when you can send text messages to somebody going through a hard time. You look back at them six months later, if you save them, and go, “There’s some content in here.” I’m just trying to relate that human story to people.
It’s interesting to be able to have that instant access and a catalog of ideas.
It’s amazing to be on this very phone, pull up all of those emails, and write down those lines. The way that all of that stuff is developing, it’s reducing the excuses people are able to have. “I lost it!” “No, you didn’t lose it, it’s in your phone.” I used to be the king of freaking excuses. It’s one of the things I’m trying to remove from my life. I was sitting and not taking action on things. I think you see it in the songwriting that’s happening. Whether it is written down in a book or typed out in an email at three in the morning when you’re sleep-deprived and tired. You see it in the songwriting that’s out there.
You tour a ton. Do you try and change up the setlist every time you play?
When I’m out there playing with the Yonder crew, we have a catalog of over 400 songs. A lot of them are covers, but a lot of them are originals too. It’s kind of it’s own scene. When I’m out there doing my own stuff, there might be stuff that gets played every night. It’s mainly for me to work through that material, for me to try different things live with the songs. They don’t get to live all year round. It’s fun. One of the big things I try to do is I don’t want to be the guy who goes out and does a solo show of all Yonder material.
To me, that’s just not what I want to do. I don’t want the entire show to be all songs I play with Yonder. I don’t think that makes sense. Out of a 25 song show, there might be three songs people recognize. I think it’s good for the listener, because it keeps then engaged. I tend to want to play different stuff.
It’s got to be fun to explore these songs more, jam them out.
It is. For a long time, whether it was substances or sleep deprivation, I spent a lot of time losing sight of what I wanted to do. I grew up singing other people’s songs. Now, I have my own stuff. The record I just did, there’s not one mandolin solo on the whole thing. It’s fun for me, because I get to play electric rhythm guitar. I said that to the engineer and he said, “I’m not sure anyone has every dreamed of being an electric rhythm guitarist.”
There are worse things to do.
I’ve worked in a mall. I’ve sold tuxedos. I’ve worked in some bad kitchens.
Oh God. That would be a four hour, feature article on all the bad jobs I’ve had.
Maybe we need to talk about these. What have been some of your worst jobs?
Oh sweet God. Very rarely, do people go, “I’m going to be a musician,” and the next thing they on the cover of Rolling Stone. “Yay! I’m successful!” I’ve been doing this with Yonder for over 15 years. Everyone is like, “You’re in a tour bus. It must be so great.” I’ve slept on a lot of floors. I’ve slept behind a lot of gas stations in an RV. It doesn’t happen overnight. I think with all musicians, there is one job and it’s so bad that you’re willing to starve for 10 years. Anything is better than that bad job. When people go, “There is no way I can be a musician. I have rent to pay. I’ve got to go get this job.” They stand in that job and they go, “Fuck this job. I’d rather be poor and playing music.” I worked in a tuxedo rental place. It was so bad. When I first met Dave, back in Campaign in the mid-90s, I needed a job bad. I worked in an off-campus, it was at U of I, tuxedo rental place. It was horrendous. It was a husband and wife who owned it, I never met the husband. I met the wife. She seemed like a nice lady. I was this total hippie guy with super long hair, I was vegan, all this and that. What I did with my day, all of the fraternities would come in and I would stand there and measure them all. They were just the meanest fucking people. There were nice people at the job, but the majority of the people looked at me like, “What’s up hippie kid,” or they were super-stressed out guys putting together their wedding party. Their wife-to-be is yelling at them.
Oh, good. That is a low pressure situation.
It gets better. Then, I meet the husband, right. I can’t even remember his name. I think part of my addictions were to wipe out memories of this fucking job. He was coming in and everyone had this weird vibe. Everyone was all weirded out. He came in and he was mostly blind. He had about 10 percent of his vision. I’m going, “This can’t be why people are so freaked out. That would be a terrible reason to be freaked out.” He’s blind, there’s no big deal about that. I met him,and he seemed a little aggressive and gruff. I figured he’s a Midwest guy, this is his business. He probably had a lot of hard work to go behind it. He’s probably had a lot of obstacles, but he’s overcome them. I went in this back room and we were sorting things out. He said, “I need some help. I’m going to hand you stuff, you just read it off, and we’ll get it marked down.” Out of absolutely nowhere came the most racist, homophobic rant you could ever imagine. I kind of went, “Oh, oh, oh no!”
That’s what it is.
Now I get it. You’re a racist, homophobic asshole who owns a tuxedo shop. I know why everyone hates you I’m standing there. The guy is blind. He couldn’t know that I was completely mortified of what he was saying. I don’t abide my any of that shit. You can take that shit and jump off a bridge with that stuff. I’m standing there going, “Well, I guess I’m quitting this job.” I went home and I never came back in. The woman called me. I didn’t come in the next day. “I can’t make it.”
I didn’t come in the next day. She goes, “You’re not in again.” I said, “You know what? I don’t want this job.” I think I’d rather be hungry than deal with people like this. It was awful. I had a girlfriend at the time, and I had to call her and tell her I’m not working there anymore. She goes, “What happened?” I told her the story. She says, “I don’t think you should go back there.” “No, no there’s not a chance.” I’m pretty sure it’s owned by a Klan member. As you sit and talk to people who play music, they tend to have that story. I was a bouncer at a bar, or I was working at a restaurant, or I was parking cars. That seems to be a theme amongst people who say, “Fuck it. I’d rather eat ramen noodles every day than deal with this shit.”
You’ve always tried to push yourself creatively. It’s interesting to see that it was the tipping point for you. It’s what made it happen.
Those were the real early days. It’s something that I’ve always held on to. I was the hippie in junior high. I would get blatantly pushed into lockers. As much as I thought of myself as a wimpy kid, my mom was like, “Fuck no. you’re the toughest kid.” She just didn’t give a shit. This is who I am, this is what I am. I think that comes from being surrounded by a mom who was always supportive. When I would fall down, she wouldn’t say I told you so.” She always showed me why. She still does that to this day, and I’m almost 40 years old. I do that to my kids. We make a real point in our house that there is never an “I told you so.” It never comes out of our mouths. I try to carry that into this. That’s why I do all of this extra stuff. It pushes me. The recording session I did with Cody Dickinson, Eric Thorin, Ross Martin, and Danny Barnes, it was 10 days. I felt like I was in college. The stuff that I learned, I brought into this tour I am on now. I find myself trying to relate it to what I’m doing now. One thing inspires another thing. It’s the way that I like to see it.
You want to keep learning and growing.
I hit a pretty decent, 10-year road bump, with too many drugs, too much drinking and just not being the best fucking person. I’ve made it a point over the last two years to not only quit all that shit, but to learn from it and become a better listener, supporting partner, better this and a better that. In speaking to friends of mine, I’ll ask for advice. The service that you can give in music by being a better rhythmic player will translate to every part of your life. It helps me be a better partner to my wife, a better friend, a better listener. I had a long time where all I did was talk. I’ve really made a point to try and really listen. That can go way deeper than just listening onstage. I’ve been listening to my daughter, listening to what the needs are out of my household, listening to what my mom needs as she gets a little bit older. I think a lot of that comes with putting aside a lot of shit that derailed my ability to be a good co-conspirator. That realization brings me to where I am at now. I’m wanting to find happiness in everything that I do and not settling for anything else.
It’s interesting the way everything is so connected.
Oh yeah. I stand onstage and I relate some of myself to people. There is, I believe, an illusion. People buy a ticket, they walk into a dark theater, the lights go down, and a performer comes out. There’s still going to be honesty, but there’s going to be a little bit of fog machine and flashing lights. When you can combine those two things, that’s when you get great moments. I’ll say something onstage that’s completely made up and people will think that it’s totally true.
I was at a festival last year. We had to leave. To keep my head where I want it these days, what I do is I play the show, the minute that the show is over, I put my stuff away. My tour manager walks me to the tour bus, I put on pajamas, I call my wife, I watch cartoons for about an hour, and I go to bed. My raging these days is watching HGTV before the show. I love doing that and reading baseball news. It’s so contradictory to what people would think I do before and after concerts. We were somewhere last summer. I said something like, “Of course we’ll be out there raging with you all.” It was a statement. I wasn’t lying. We were there, raging with them. The bus had to leave. About a month later, I was back on the road. Somebody said, “What was that all about?”
Calling you out.
“Everyone thought you would be at this late-night concert raging.” I said, “We were raging. We played like a two-and-a-half hour set. I thought it was pretty good. We all raged together.” He said something to the extent of, “I can’t believe you said something from stage that wasn’t kind of true.” I said, “I don’t want to be rude, but do you go to the musical Oklahoma and actually think those fucking people are cowboys? Do you go watch South Pacific and go “Man, how do those sailors get time off to do that musical?’ I don’t want to be weird about this, but there is something you might be missing. You might have missed that there is a performance going on. When you go see My Morning Jacket, do you think Jim James wears a cape all of the time? You go to that seeking an honesty, but sometimes that honesty comes through an illusion.
Yeah, connecting with the crowd at that moment. It’s funny for someone to call you out on that.
There’s a beauty of that illusion that brings something out of people. It was really funny. I don’t know what else I could have done. I’m not going to be out on the campground until dawn. Those days are over. If you missed them, it was a pretty good time. Those days are over, that ain’t happening no more.
You figure after 15 years, you’ve had your fill of raging.
My good idea of raging these days is filling up the kiddie pool and splashing around with my kids. I’ve never wanted to miss something. I thought that if I left something early, I was going to miss something. I thought that if I didn’t hang out with these people and do the wrong thing, I was going to miss something. What finally hit me was, not only is it going to be better for your health, you’re not missing anything. You’re not missing anything because you are in control of what you create. There are things when you’ll go, I’m so glad I was here when that happened. It was awesome. When you are the one who is in control of those good times that you create, it makes them resonate deeper with you. It might sound ridiculous, but when people ask me if I’m going to the bars. Nope, absolutely not. I don’t know if you’ve missed the memo of what I’ve been talking about in every interview I’ve done in the past two years. It doesn’t have a place in my life. I’m going to be on the bus, talking to my wife about what our baby daughter is doing. No offense to anybody, but for me to be able to get onstage and give that combo of truth with illusion. It’s what I need to do to be able to get onstage and give that combo of truth and illusion. The direct truth is hard to swallow sometimes, but it’s easier to take if you sugarcoat it with a little bit of performance. People can take it a little bit easier.
You’re always striving to find that perfect balance onstage between truth and illusion.
I, in particular, love to go watch Jeff Tweedy play solo. I love what Wilco does. I’ve been a fan of his since Uncle Tupelo. I like to watch him play solo, because the guy just stands there and pours it out. He has amazing songs, a great voice and I love the way he plays guitar. He plays these amazing songs that people are going to remember 50 years from now. In-between his songs, he will have this weird banter. If somebody says something in the crowd, he immediately grabs it and talks about it. If you heckle him, good luck to the person who decided to say that.
Do not heckle Tweedy.
You’ve got five minutes of this heavy duty, very personal musing that’s not beating around the bush. He’ll talk about what some dumbass said about a guitar. Even if it is uncomfortable, people get that moment of relief. When they get that moment of relief, they are able to easier take that heavy fucking truth. It’s why I like the songwriting of Danny Barnes. He lets his songs speak to people. Everybody has lived that, everyone has been through that. One way or another, young or old. His song called “Pizza Box,” there is no brow-beating because of the way that he puts it. You open up and you accept it. The way that he says things. The way that he puts it. I’ve been really deep into his stuff for a long, long time. I’ve gotten to know him as a musician and as a friend. I can go to him to help keep my head straight and ask personal advice. It’s performers like that who give you something to reach for.
It’s got to be so nice to play with someone like that who can keep you focused and inspired.
He keeps me grounded in every possible way I could imagine. I realized it when we were making the record. The first time I went out to do some solo stuff, I brought Danny. We’ve been doing a number of shows and a number of runs for 10 years. That’s a fucking while. I’ve been in a band with these guys, Yonder, for 15 years. Eric Thorin who plays bass on this project, realized the same thing too. It’s been wild.
It’s cool to have a mix of so many different styles of playing on the album. Cody Dickinson is a beast too.
He is like my rhythmic muse. I believe we were separated at birth at some point. He’s an inspiration in so many different ways.
Thanks so much for doing this interview. It’s really interesting to be able to hear your insight. Your music comes from a real place.
I appreciate that. I’m a big fan of James Murphy, from LCD Soundsystem. In the movie Shut Up and Play the Hits, he says something like that. He said, “I like songs that are about a place.” When I first saw that movie, a few years ago when it came out, that really hit me hard. If you can work and try to even get close to that, it makes people invested in a very different way. Even just writing a story about a person that’s been totally created in my mind. The listener is invested in a different way when you’re writing about a place.