“Hang my reputation out to dry, I don’t care at all
Hand in my deadly weapons from the war path my life’s been on”
Josh T. Pearson - Straight At Me
Though he’s been a recording artist for over two decades now, and has been writing songs for thirty years, Josh T. Pearson hasn’t racked up much of a discography thus far, at least in terms of the number of albums he’s released. But then, those two albums – 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, by his group Lift To Experience, and his 2011 solo debut Last Of The Country Gentlemen – contained more substance and inspiration than most artists’ entire careers. The former was a cosmic, apocalyptic allegorical fantasy that saw Pearson try to come to terms with his faith and his intense upbringing; the latter was an agonizing, powerfully confessional account of the collapse of his marriage. You can’t rush material like that.
Lately, however, the dapper Texan gentleman has been motivated by a desire to share more Josh T. Pearson music with the world, before it’s too late. “My whole point of not putting out records was to not have to be told what to do. I’ve always intentionally limited myself. I didn’t want to be a part of the establishment. I was just trying to survive, do art, live life,” he explains. “In the last years I learned to dance, take drugs, make love… choose life. I got rid of the beard, cut my hair and started wearing colour. I burned down all my idols and realized in the process that I needed to burn down my reputation as fast as I could too. I felt constricted by the old stuff and I didn’t like being in a cage. It wasn’t letting me move on.”
“I was at the US Embassy in London when the shit went down with the presidential election in 2016,” he remembers. “It was unsettling; I’ve never seen the country so divided. A responsibility seemed to shift within me – like, where are the people really stepping up to spread joy?”
“I had artistically exhausted the depths in my explorations of despair and
had moved to a position in my life where I just wanted to make people happy and spread peace.”
It is in such a spirit that Mr. Josh T. Pearson presents you, the listener, with this waxing of his fine new songs. The Straight Hits! began as a mere creative exercise and swiftly transcended that modest intention. This is his joy. Let him spread it to you.
“I’d been reading The Conference of the Birds by Attar of Nishapur, this epic poem from the 14th Century, and it just cracked it open for me. It was August 2016 and I’d just managed to finish a batch of tunes I’d been working on for ten years [the unrecorded Bird Songs album]. I spent another month on those tunes, and this flood of long-form songs just poured out of me. By the end of it, I was in such a process that I decided to begin this writing exercise to write a bunch of songs, super-quick, within certain specific parameters.”
The “parameters” those songs had to follow, mark a transition for Pearson, a way to remove some of the crazy pressure he had put himself under during writing and gave him the freedom to write a lighter, more “straight” album. Josh T. Pearson explains that The Five Pillars run like this:
1) All songs must have a verse, a chorus and a bridge.
2) The lyrics must run 16 lines or less.
3) They must have the word ‘straight’ in the title.
4) That title must be four words or less.
5) They must submit to song above all else. (“You do as she tells you, whatever the song tells you,” Pearson explains. “You bend to her, and not her to you.”).
Three days later, Pearson had penned nine whole songs. “What can I say? I’m awesome,” he deadpans. But wait! He’s right! Because these nine songs (plus a cover of Austin Americana singer/songwriter Jonathan Terrell’s wonderful country tribute song ‘Damn Straight’) are precious evidence of Pearson’s talent, the album feeling like the calling-card of a songwriter-for-hire, showing all he’s capable of.
“The album is a departure from years of long form songwriting with tunes meant to hit straight and to the point quickly set under parameters normally convened for pop. They all had to be direct hits although I don't know if I got the 'hits' part right, but I did think it was funny calling it a 'hits' record after releasing only one solo album after a lifetime of playing music.”
And The Straight Hits! proves Pearson to be gifted in multiple different flavours of country, rock and all points in between, taking in blasts of goofy shit-kicking country-punk (opener ‘Straight To The Top!’, which Pearson conceived as “a football anthem – I was never a sports guy, but that’s the song I’d want to hear before a game, when we’re all pumping ourselves up and high-fiving each other”); cataclysmic rock’n’roll playing its romantic drama at high-stakes (‘Loved Straight To Hell’, which compresses the elemental power of Lift To Experience into five and a half minutes of symphonic turmoil); aching folksy mourn (‘Dire Straights Of Love’), and even a bona fide love song, the deliciously profound ache of ‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)‘, which Pearson admits breaks several of those Five Pillars, but obeys an unwritten Sixth Pillar: Musical rules are made to be broken.
Written fast, the tracks were cut with similar no-nonsense focus, in three days, with engineer Matt Pence (who made Mute’s 2017 reissue of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads sound so vivid) at the controls, Lift To Experience drummer Andy Young once again manning the traps, and Daniel Creamer and Scott Lee Jr. of The Texas Gentlemen on keyboards and bass guitar. The recordings were then flown to the UK to be mixed by Ben Hillier. And while the whole project was meant as a simple “exercise”, the result is some of Pearson’s finest music.
“It’s not rocket science. They’re just songs. You write them until they’re finished.
Some are finished quickly, others take half your life.”
The Straight Hits! has taught Pearson some important lessons, not least that giving the world more Josh T. Pearson music needn’t involve the painful birth ritual he might once have thought, and that greatness can come to him quicker than he might have expected. “I was operating within pop guardrails – an avant-garde to my own avant-garde,” he says. “‘A Love Song (Set Me Straight)’, though, I spent a whole day on that one, trying to write the quintessential love song.”
Josh T. Pearson has freed himself from the mythology that has surrounded him since Lift To Experience’s implosion, his subsequent years in the wilderness travelling throughout Europe and beyond, and the release of his acclaimed debut album.
This record seems to have loosened up his muse, with Pearson talking up future releases, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There’s new Josh T. Pearson music in the world, and it’s joyful, giddy, life-affirming stuff.