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Slow down as you approach the gate, and have your change ready....
Austin & Erin Echo
By Dave Kerschbaum
In 1992, a young singer-songwriter named John Austin released an introspective folk-rock tour de force that caught the attention of those in the Christian music industry who heard it, and promised a long career of lyrical and musical brilliance. Ten years and four albums after The Embarrassing Young, Austin is still defining his craft, and we are the fortunate spectators. Those ten years in between have seen many momentous events for Austin, including a gang attack in Chicago that left his arm shattered, several label moves, the death of producer and friend Mark Heard, and marriage to his musical collaborator, Erin Echo, who sang on all but one of Austin's records. If nothing else, this gives a songwriter material to work with.
Austin and Echo recently moved to Atlanta from Washington D.C., where they lived near Austin's childhood stomping grounds in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia ("We were driven out," Austin quips elusively). The decision to relocate to Atlanta was made, in part, so the two could be amongst a large community of artists, many of whom appear on Austin's newest disc, Busted at the Pearly Gates. Many of the artists on the disc might not be household names to most, but are studio musicians who have direct connections to bands and artists as varied as Mr. Mister and Medeski Martin & Wood.
"Atlanta just has really great musicians," Austin explains, "I don't know why it is, but it seems that's where we keep going because all the players are down there."
Echo adds, "Everybody's connected to everybody else; they do favours for each other, so it's a really great system down there."
Austin mentions that one of the artists who appears on the new disc, Tom Gray, wrote the Cyndi Lauper song, "Money Changes Everything." So how did Austin and Echo find themselves working with such a wide talent pool? Was it six-degrees of Cyndi Lauper?
"No. The producer is an old friend of mine, Martin Kearns. He produced Erin's record (a solo disc released in 1998, for which Austin co-wrote the songs). I met him while I was recording Byzantium. He played keyboard on one of the songs. He introduced me to a lot of those people. David Labruyere played bass. We were roommates in Atlanta in the '90s. I met him when I was opening up for the Vigilantes of Love. After I got beat up they kind of nursed me back to health by letting me open up for them."
Perhaps the artist Austin has appreciated working with the most in his decade-long music career is Mark Heard, who produced Austin's debut, The Embarrassing Young. When asked about his time with Heard, Austin is quick to relate his experience.
"He was the only person in this industry who has ever referred to me seriously as an artist," Austin says, "When he introduced me to all these studio musicians [I looked up to], he would say, 'This is the artist.' So he showed me more respect than anybody in this industry. And I was just a kid, just a punk kid. So, I'll never forget that. He took my work seriously, too. He didn't have to waste his time on me, you know? He wasn't making any money off me."
Austin relates, with a laugh, a story of Heard's encouragement and humour at one time when Austin wondered if music was a worthwhile profession: "I wondered, 'Maybe I should do something meaningful.' And he said, 'Somebody's gotta have a record deal. It might as well be you.' That's a good attitude!"
Although Heard was an accomplished producer who worked with a wide variety of artists, he was best known for his own music, which was a showcase for his brilliant lyrics and prophet-like pronouncements. Austin remains a fan of Heard's music, ten years after his death.
"Part of his genius is that every time I sing his songs, there's something new. Like, there's a phrase where I'll say, 'Oh, I took that phrase for granted before. That's really great!' That happens all the time."
However, perhaps the most important advice Heard gave Austin came a long time in heeding.
"He was really impressed with Erin. In fact, he said, 'Why don't you just marry Erin?' I should have just listened to him."
"Eight years later!" Echo interjects.
Both Austin and Echo regret that their time in the studio with Heard was so rushed. The Embarrassing Young was recorded in two weeks, with Echo's background vocals completed in one day. This was not the case, however, with Austin's newest effort, Busted at the Pearly Gates, released four years after his brilliant concept album, If I Was a Latin King. What was going on during those four years?
"We were making it," Austin explains, "with no money. It takes a lot longer when you don't have any money to make a record. This is a truly independent record, so it took a little longer than most. There was no financial backing at all. It was just a labour of love, basically."
"And [the record was being made] in Atlanta, and we lived in D.C." adds Echo.
Part of the long process in making ...Pearly Gates was sifting through songs with Kearns and deciding which would make the final cut onto the album. When asked about the songs that didn't make the cut, Austin is reminded of the sheer volume of rejected songs.
"There's tons! There's like a vault of them. There were 60 songs, and we recorded 32. And only 20 made it on, just because there was no room. It was supposed to be a double record."
Indeed, with Busted at the Pearly Gates, the listener will detect a musical shift at the second half of the album. (Austin suggests that the disc needs "sectional healing.") Nevertheless, thoughtful lyrics and brilliant musicianship are abundant throughout the album; whatever labourious processes Austin et. al. went through to make this album have paid off. Still, one senses it was an overwhelming process when listening to Austin explain what he, Echo, Kearns, and the other musicians went through to make this project a reality: "We had some fun moments, but...I don't recommend making a record this way."
Every one of Austin's records to date has had its own distinct sound and feel. The accessible folk of The Embarrassing Young was followed with the stripped down, raw, and sometimes blunt Authorized Unauthorized Bootleg, which chronicled the harrowing experience of getting jumped by a gang in Chicago, and the aftermath Austin was left with. The out-of-print Byzantium followed. Sporting a fuller band sound and featuring several high-caliber musicians, Byzantium was dubbed a "do-it-yourself masterpiece" by Performing Songwriter Magazine. With If I Was a Latin King, Austin used authentic Latin rhythms and instrumentation to provide a background for his exploration of themes of forgiveness and renewal. Finally, Busted... brings the listener 20 songs and more than 70 minutes of music, straight out of the diary of the late-20th- / early-21st-century working everyman. Styles as varied as mountain folk, swampy blues, and even rock opera are explored.
One thing that has remained constant on Austin's projects, however, is his insightful lyrics, which range from the humourous to the profound, often in the same turn of phrase. It's obvious that lyrical expression is something Austin takes seriously. It's interesting to note, then, that when writing songs, Austin, who wasn't musically trained, does not start with lyrics when penning his tunes.
"Finishing a song, I think I pretty much know how to do. But I don't know where they come from."
"All I know is there are little pieces of paper all over the house." Echo adds.
"Yeah, boxes full that will never see the light of day." Austin confirms, "But basically, the music usually comes first, and then I write pages and pages, and I take one of those legal pads and I just write pages of stream of consciousness, and then I try to find a title. And if I can find a title to the song, then I know I've got something."
And the inspiration for the title of Austin's newest album, Busted at the Pearly Gates?
"It was Sunday night and I was watching television. And it just came to me. That's about it," Austin explains with a laugh. "I think it has something to do with the image of the "God is my co-pilot" bumper sticker on the totaled car," Austin continues, "It's just chilling. I can't get it out of my head.
"It can mean a lot of things. I like it a lot because it just seems restless. I can't get a hold on the title, it keeps moving around on me. But somehow television and Sunday night were involved."
Knowing Austin's propensity for writing insightful, intelligent songs, it is not surprising to note that the artists in his and Echo's CD player often fall in the singer-songwriter vein: Heard, Aimee Mann, Claire Holley, Tom Waits, and Bill Mallonee are mentioned (Austin says he is drawn to "the poetic and the blunt"). The irony is not lost on Austin that for years, he was forsaking music for talk radio.
"He stopped [listening to music]," Echo notes. "It was kind of hard for me, 'cause it was pretty much silent around the house. So I knew things were kind of turning around when he started listening again."
"I mean, I love music," Austin explains. "I grew up listening to my parents' Beatles records. My dad's a preacher, so they had to hide them. And then I discovered rock 'n' roll, and bought my own. Then I had a revival and burned my records. I went out and bought them [again] a couple weeks later. I just couldn't live without Who's Next."
It's not surprising to find that an accomplished songwriter such as Austin has a philosophy about what makes a song durable over time.
"[A good song] is not out of place in any generation. There's a song by Mark Heard called 'Everybody Loves a Holy War.' I was listening to it yesterday, and I thought, 'Man! This is like, right now.' It was written in [the early Eighties].
"There are songs by a great songwriter like Bob Dylan that I didn't care for, but there came a time when I needed the song. What's that Tom Waits lyric? 'I never heard the melody until I needed the song.' Sometimes you just have to trust these artists. You may need that song someday."
Perhaps it's this same time-enduring approach that Austin adopts for his songwriting that keeps his songs seeming fresh, insightful, and clever ten years after first finding an audience with those who have ears to hear. In this industry-driven era of glam girls, boy bands, and television jingles, it's likely Austin's penchant for subtlety and substance won't find him famous anytime soon. But that's okay with Austin. A luxury of not being famous, "unlike some of my friends who have been swept into 'fame,'" he explains, is that he is able to be real around real people.
And if nothing else, that
gives a real songwriter material to work with.