Lightning In a Smile: An Interview with Justin Golden

by | Jun 9, 2022 | MUSIC

Justin Golden has been a mainstay in the Richmond music scene for years now; his strong guitar chops and blues fundamentals made him RVA’s best-kept secret for quite a while. But his debut record, Hard Times And A Woman, is starting to make waves outside the city. Despite the fact that it’s his debut, it does not feel like a first project, but a portrait of an artist solidifying his songwriting craft and making his own way as part of an emerging new wave of blues musicians. Kelli Strawbridge talks to Justin about the conception of the record, how his influences led him there, and not being the lead guitar guy.

Kelli Strawbridge: Let’s see, where do we start? You know what, I’ll start with this question: how long have you been writing this new album?

Justin Golden: Since May of 2019. I went on a trip, and the goal of the trip was a few different things, but I had time for once to sit down and actually write songs. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do do this really cool.’ Basically the whole east coast — do some shows, go see some shows, have time to myself… I’m gonna have a coming-of-age story and write this freaking record, you know? So that’s when I started; I wrote “Can’t Get Right” on that trip. I basically wrote version one on the trip, with the hook and the little riff, and then that got rewritten at the very end. That was the last thing I finished for the record too. So, first and last thing I did. 

Kelli: Okay. That makes a ton of sense, because that record has that vibe of sounding like either the first record that you recorded or the last record. Because after listening to the rest of the record, I was like, “Oh he’s coming with this,” for this song. But you know, the rest of the record is not really in that vibe. I feel like it’s a definite statement. So you recorded that last?

Justin: Well, I wrote it first. Afterwards, I cut all the demos with Chip [Hale]. It was the last demo I brought to Chip, because I just didn’t feel like it was ready. I basically streamlined my technique, my process for how to write and how to record music, doing demos with Chip at his house a couple times a week. We started that in September of 2020, and then in December 2021, we finished that. I remember it was, like, a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon. It was like two, three o’clock. I poured myself a whiskey and I rewrote “Can’t Get Right” from top to bottom, except for the hook. There were things I liked about it, but I was like, “This story is not driving with me anymore.” So I sat down and took me, like, three hours to get all the verses together. And I thought, “Man, I’m on one right now, I’m doing something.” [laughs]

Kelli: I feel like that’s the hardest thing, to sit down and just, as a project, go, “Okay, I need to finish this song.” It’s not something that comes easy to me. So does that come natural to you? To sit down and just go, I need to finish this?

Justin: I definitely work better with the deadline, but I need the idea to be there, and I need a spark. I had all the bones. I just had to plug in something that was better than what I had, and I worked and worked. I don’t know what happened that day. I guess it was really just the grind of this whole thing. It just came together. Having the focus. So the song, the reason I have it first is like, that song is literally Hard Times and a Woman. It is the album. Everything, top to bottom. The person in the song loses his girl, because he lost all his money, because he got drunk or whatever, you know? And a lot of it is not his fault. I don’t know, it just flowed out. Took three hours. I remember it was dark in my apartment by the time I finished, and I hadn’t turned on any lights, because I was just working.

Kelli: When you put out the artwork with that, I felt like it matched. When I saw the artwork and then I heard that song, I’m like, “This is a marriage.” You know? So what were the ideas behind the artwork? 

Justin: I wanted something that was really simple and bold, but also took classic blues iconography and turned it into something that was mine. And without it being super obvious. Like, all of those are different symbols of good luck and bad luck, you know? So a little bit of a balance. The empty frame is a sense of belonging, but I didn’t wanna just have it right in front of you, like a rabbit’s foot or something. That’s lame. It’s lame as fuck. [laughs] So I spent a lot of time. I actually took a while on that step, to get the graphic designer really dialed into what I was looking for. Because that is an actual photo that he did there. He set up that scene, then shot a photo and did some other stuff to it. 

Kelli: Okay, well that’s even cooler. What were your inspirations musically for this album?

Justin: That’s such a tough question. It’s such a long answer is what it is. [laughs] 

Kelli: I know! I mean, I made these questions myself, but I kind of hate these questions. [laughs] But again, I feel like you’re kind of making a statement with this record. I feel like, with your singles [“Arm’s Length” and “It Ain’t Much”] and EP [Idle Hands, all three released in 2021], you’ve really been building up. I was wondering what you were really shooting for musically, with this record. 

Justin: I think the answer is, like, two different tracks: one is the songs I was listening to, to come up with the music — the techniques and stuff. And then there’s also the actual sound and texture of the record. Those are two things I nitpicked really, really carefully. And I mean, as far as inspirations of other artists — like, Daniel Norgren, if you’re familiar with him at all. Swedish guy. Low-key blues and different types of folk. But for me, a lot of his his albums are hit or miss, but the ones that hit are just amazing. In 2019 he released a record which was just fantastic. It’s called Wooh Dang. The sound of it was really cool, and it was all live. I think they cut it all [as] live takes in one day. I’d already been listening to him — like, I learned finger-style, [and] that was one of my major influences, finger-style guitar playing to his YouTube videos ten years ago.

[Also,] early Black Keys, Hiss Golden Messenger, Phil Cook, the more contemporary ones. Then you got Taj Mahal, Howlin’ Wolf. I made a long playlist of things like Magic Sam, just really cool 60s-era blues. Because man, I heard the Taj Mahal album, his first one, with a lot of the hits that the Allman Brothers did, and stuff like that. I was like, “I haven’t heard a blues album like this, really, since that.” It was some groove stuff, you know? No one’s playing blues in those ways anymore. It’s always just smokey, dusty. I wanted something like that. I don’t think I quite got there with this [album], because the songs weren’t the same, but that was a major influence for me. 

Kelli: You’re hitting it right on the head. I felt that you’re cultivating a different, kind of a new blues thing. You’re dressing it up, but it’s not dressing it up. It’s just maybe making it dirtier and a little more real, back to the singer-songwriter thing. Because maybe the virtuosic thing, where it’s it’s about the guitar player and the guy’s got a singer, it’s not really about the singer-songwriter thing anymore. But it seems like you’re going back to that. Were you trying to go for a newer sound with this record?

Justin: When I started writing this record, I was watching an interview with one of my friends, Jontavious Willis, who’s a Grammy nominated Blues [musician], and I’ve known him for a number of years. He used to do these interviews with older bluesmen that are [still] around, because they’re basically unsung. In one of them, the guy states something like, “the blues ain’t nothing but bad times and a woman,” you know? And that specifically hit me, because I’m not the guitar-player blues person. I’m not the lead guy. And I don’t really wanna be, to be honest. Like, it’s cool to do that sometimes. But I like writing songs, you know? And I like learning songs. So it’s been tough to be in a blues box and not be a real lead player.

When I heard that statement, I was like, “Okay, so the blues can be more than just 12 bars. It can be whatever I want it to be, as long as the content is there.” It all is coming from the same place, and I wanted to honor the tradition. That’s why I have eight-bar blues up there. I have 12-bar blues. I have country blues. “Lightning When She Smiles” is a country blues song, at least the way that I wrote it originally. And it’s still played the same way, just with better production. So this record is me reconciling all those influences I have, trying to do a blues album in content, and then something modern at the same time. 

Kelli: Right. Right. It really hits those marks to me, for sure. What is the guitar that you mostly used on the record? Did you use the same guitar, or did you switch it up a lot? What was your axe of choice on the record? 

Justin: So anytime you hear me finger-picking, it’s probably my Airline, which is a Harmony Rocket reissue, with fixed strings on it. That’s a semi-hollow body, and it’s really thumping. That’s what you hear on “The Gator” and “Ain’t Just Luck,” stuff like that. Acoustic [guitar], it’s probably my Yamaha, but we also used a Martin. And then my resonator [guitar] is up there too. I have a Recording King resonator, which was unplugged.

Kelli: Can you talk about the musicians on the record? They, are they mostly your band, right?

Justin: For the most part, yeah. And I really wanted it to be mostly Richmond people. That was something I was really adamant about. And as many Black musicians as I could get too, but it was COVID, and it was very limited [due] to that. I wanted to keep the circle small. The main features — like getting Ben Hunter on fiddle from Seattle, who I’ve known for years — that was really significant for me. And getting Andrew Alli, who largely… I probably wouldn’t be who I am in Richmond, or even in the blues scene around, if it wasn’t for knowing Andrew. So, it was great to get them both on it. Otherwise it’s just people in my band, and then Tommy Booker [of Jackass Flats and The Southern Belles], who was a hired gun. And that was an awesome addition. I wanted keys all over this thing, and I was like, “I need a killer keys player that can just sit down and just rip this thing.” 

But for the band, we got Chip on bass, and he played a number of instruments; acoustic guitar on some stuff, lots of percussion and backing vocals. Tyler Meacham — I think another thing that really changes the sound on the record was having Tyler handle all the backing vocal arrangements. So anything that’s not just me singing, if you hear her voice on there, she arranged the backing vocals for that, after a short meeting with me. 

Kelli: It’s very nice. She pops up and I’m like, “This is probably Tyler.” She sounded perfect.

Justin: And it was new for me. I’ve never given that big of a job to someone else. Usually I would nitpick that, and say, “This is what I want.” And sometimes we had a meeting beforehand and I said, “This is what I want on specific songs, more or less what you do with it. I believe in you, because I know you’re good.” And then some songs like “Lightning,” I was like, “I don’t know what I want. If you feel something, you do it, and then we’ll listen back.” And that’s one of my favorite tracks on the record, because it’s got some moments. 

Kelli: I agree. I have to say, the lyrics on the record are just fantastic. I really feel like you hit it out of the park. Were there any specific lyrical inspirations for this record? Anyone in particular?

Justin: I don’t know. I listened to so much old pre-war blues, and I think that was the major inspiration for some of the lines. Like “lightning when she smiles” is an old blues line from a song a hundred years ago. I was like, “I’ve never heard anyone else use this in a song before.” And immediately — that was another one I basically wrote top to bottom in one go, using that [line] as a guide. And then it’s a lot of churchy language in there. Stuff like “Must Be Honey.” That’s sometimes what I go for, but I don’t think any one person [inspired that], other than maybe Taj Mahal, because he uses a lot of those lines too. But once I get the idea for the song, then I’m like, “Okay, it’d be cool to add something from a song, an obscure line from something else.” You know, if possible.

Kelli: Very cool. How about favorite songs or records right now in general? Is there anything that you’re really into right now, or anything that started your year off right? Other than your record.

Justin: Like I said, I kind of exist in two worlds, one foot in like the fifties and one foot in now. But…

Kelli: And postwar, anything postwar. [laughs] 

Justin: I’ve really been digging this group called Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno. Their record is out through Free Dirt Records, who is doing my promotion. I met Riley at a thing down in North Carolina last fall, and I’m really loving that record. They’re from kind of an old-time [style], but they’re also just killer songwriters and players. So that’s a really great one. I’ve been listening to a good amount of Allen Stone and Yola, who I really didn’t listen to too much until this past year. But Yola, that’s another Dan Auerbach joint. [Black Keys guitarist Auerbach produced Yola’s 2021 LP, Stand For Myself. -ed.]

Something else I really wanted to highlight, and you notice in a lot of the interviews, [was for me] to make sure people know that Chip was behind this [album], because he had a huge direction for the sounds. I definitely couldn’t have pulled it off the way that it sounds now without Chip’s directions. I was like, “This will hopefully put you on the map as a producer.” I’ve known Chip since college, so this is what he really wants to do. And I think it sounded great. 

Kelli: I could hear that you guys still worked pretty closely together [during COVID], and once you guys figured out how to do it, as far as recording through the pandemic, you were able to work it out, which is good. You don’t hear that [struggle] on the record, is what I’m saying. It sounds really fresh. 

Justin: Thanks, man. I felt like I leveled up at various stages through this thing. Like nailing takes to a metronome — I never really played to a metronome before, and finger-picking to a click track is not easy. [laughs] 

Kelli: I feel for anybody that has to do that. I feel for any guitar player when they do that, because it feels like you are definitely being put on the spot for that kind of shit. 

Justin: Bro. It’s so hard. Like, it’s incredibly hard.

Kelli: But I’m really excited for you. Thanks for taking the time out, man.

Justin: Man, I really appreciate you asking me. This has been a lot of fun to talk about this.

Justin Golden’s debut album, Hard Times And A Woman, is available on vinyl, CD, and mp3 format from Bandcamp, and can be found on all streaming websites.

Kelli Strawbridge

Kelli Strawbridge

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