Our interview with Max Jury

Northern Transmissions' interview with Max Jury, by Alice severin.

Max Jury is an old soul. There’s something about his music that conjures up a sense of time and space, fading photographs and late-night diary entries. Call it the measure of things lost, or the sonic equivalent of broken down signposts on an empty highway running through a landscape that no one visits anymore. But the songs aren’t about the past. At age 23, Jury reveals a restlessness and a sharp new vantage point on emotions that hurtle through us in life like love, loneliness, and confusion. Winning praise for his careful weaving of melody and lyricism, Jury has been touring the US and Europe, supporting musicians like Lana Del Rey. Now his first full self-titled solo album is coming out in June. It’s a collection of intimate songs, describing a view of the world that’s both bruised and hopeful, born out of the experiences and observations of the Iowa-raised Jury. Northern Transmissions was able to catch up with the singer-songwriter as he began a tour of the UK and Europe. Alice Severin talked to Max Jury about songwriting, recording, and finding inspiration.

Northern Transmissions: How are you and where are you?

Max Jury: Good. I’m in London. I got back, maybe about a week ago? I can’t remember, it’s all blurred together, but yeah, I’ve been here for about a week.

NT: And you are based over there now?

MJ: I mean, kind of. I’m stationed here for the time being, at least for the next couple of months. Just while I’m touring the UK and Europe. I’m just renting a room right now, kind of living the transient life a little bit.

NT: And you’re heading over to Paris as well.

MJ: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.

NT: And the new album is out June 3. How are you feeling?

MJ: Good, you know. I’m happy that it’s finally done, and finally getting out there. It’s been kind of a long time coming. I’ve had the idea to cut this record for probably three or four years. So it’s surreal, that the whole process is wrapping up and about to enter the world, and be open to, you know, all the various praises and criticisms. (laughing) Yeah, it’s exciting though.

NT: You released a couple of EPs before. And you’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback. You have this wonderful sound. I’m not going to say the word retro, I’m throwing that out.

MJ: Oh, thanks. You can say whatever you want. (laughing)

NT: There’s a really lovely spaciousness to the sound, which is a wonderful thing, because so many albums are just so…excessively produced.

MJ: Well, thank you.

NT: Do you think about production and finding space? Is it something that comes naturally to you, or is it part of the way you write songs?

MJ: Yeah, that’s a great question. And absolutely. I think, ever since I started writing, when I first started writing, I always liked playing with space. And not necessarily emptiness, but leaving things open and giving certain instruments and certain lyrics and certain melodies a chance to breathe and shine. So I guess when I am in the studio, I am very cautious not to overdo it or produce it. I tend to think that the simpler is better, and then add things on until it sounds right, as opposed to just trying to put everything you possibly can into it. I like music that is sort of, I don’t want to say basic, but just well-performed and very emotional, but not too busy. That’s the kind of music I grew up listening to and loving, and I guess I wanted to reflect that in my record a little bit. So yeah, totally.

NT: The album does have this soulful feel. And you started out recording it at Electric Lady Studios in NYC, but I guess there was a bit of a mishap there?

MJ: Yeah, there was a minor hiccup. Yeah, something like that. We had a candle wax incident. But you know, it ended up turning out all right. I think in the end, it was probably for the best. I think the time I spent there was certainly really inspiring, and I guess I just learned so much about, I don’t know, the production process, and I guess I was able to take that with me, take it home to finish the record. But that was a great experience, just to be in a studio with all that history, all that musical heritage, and just like, you know, stand on the same floor as some of your heroes. That was really cool, and something I never thought would really happen.

NT: That’s true – so many amazing musicians have worked there. But then you went to North Carolina, and you met up with these local musicians, who seemed to give you a lot of inspiration.

MJ: Yeah, yeah – it’s a funny story, actually. So basically, we had four or five songs from Electric Lady, and we were going to go do it in North Carolina, because my friend and bass player, Stacy, he has a home set up there. And it’s a really nice home set up, you know, I don’t want to undersell it, because his dad is an avid musician himself, in his free time, and he’s recently retired. And his retirement project was setting up this home studio, so he could play around and record some stuff. So they opened their doors to me and I went down there. You know, I can play piano, and a little bit of guitar, and Stacy can play drums and bass, and all these things, but we really couldn’t finish the record just the two of us, you know. We didn’t have, I guess, everything we needed. We couldn’t pull that off.

So we were looking on YouTube for just like random people in the area who might be able to help. And we came across this guy named Jackson Russell, who basically was the musical director of a local church just outside of town, in a really small town. And we saw him play guitar and sing, and it was very religious music, but you know, he was really amazing. So we reached out and were like, would you want to come and maybe play around a bit and see if this is something you’re interested in and we’re interested in, and maybe we can schedule some time. So he came over, and played guitar, and we were blown away. And then he was just playing around, and he gets on the drums, and wow, he’s really good at drums too – a lot better than Stacy – shoot. And then he gets on the piano, and it’s like, oh shit, he’s really really good at piano, a lot better than me, maybe he should just play everything. (laughing) But he came and he really helped tie the album together and play the parts we couldn’t quite figure out. And he’s like, yeah, I’ve got a couple of cousins too, do you want them to come sing? So he came with his two cousins, and together we worked on arranging some vocal harmony parts and they just really glued the record together. You know, I think without him it certainly wouldn’t have been possible to make sense of what we did at Electric Lady and then what we did in North Carolina, so it was just a lucky thing.

It’s funny – it’s really fascinating to me, that obviously at Electric Lady, if you hire session musicians or whatever that they recommend, they’re going to be top notch players, but you know at the same time, there’s just this guy who’s a musical director at a church in small town North Carolina, and he’s just as good, and probably better. It’s just kind of crazy that people like that exist outside the limelight. He was just such a force, you know, he just lived and breathed music. It was really inspiring to work with him, so that was a real treat.

NT: That’s a brilliant story. I think it really underlines something so true, that anything creative, particularly things like music, it’s a different set of skills than what it may take to get ahead. So it’s not necessarily the case that the best musicians are always the ones in city centers, though that frequently is the case.

MJ: Yeah, exactly. That’s kind of why I thought it was interesting too. It’s like – he just has it in him. And maybe he doesn’t have it in him to go play guitar with John Mayer, but he’s definitely the best musician I’ve ever worked with. It was amazing.

NT: You had musical training – you went to Berklee. But apparently you were also thinking about being a writer, and that seems to come up in the lyrics. Do you think you approach the lyrics differently because of that background? There is a line in “Grace” that I really liked: “Stuck yourself in a world that doesn’t care for you” a way of shaping something that a lot of people experience.

MJ: Well, thanks.

NT: What comes first, the lyrics or the music?

MJ: You know, sometimes the lyrics come first, and sometimes the instrumentation or the melody comes first. I feel like, I don’t want to say the really good ones, but the ones I feel most proud of, kind of all happen at the same time. They feel a bit more like a gift than something you had to work on. That’s the best feeling. I wish I knew what caused that, I’d do it more often. But that’s the best feeling. And I think, I’m pretty particular, I guess, with my lyrics. I definitely spend the most time on them, revising them, and making sure that for me at least, personally, that they sound right. That they roll off the tongue nicely, but that they also have, you know, some sort of depth, or are attempting to be kind of poetic. I don’t know, you know, just doing my best. But definitely that’s where I focus a lot of my energy. And I guess I don’t think a song’s finished until I’m really happy with the lyrics. So I definitely approach songwriting, I think, from a lyrical perspective. Because, you know, a lot of my favorite songs, even if it’s something like “Idiot Wind” by Bob Dylan – which I’ve been listening to a lot lately – it’s just 8 minutes of lyrics. I think my favorite part of songs are the lyrics, definitely.

NT: You talked about Joni Mitchell being one of your favorites as well.

MJ: Yeah, she is one of my heroes. I love her writing style, and I love the way she kind of shifted from Laurel Canyon kind of folkie in the early 70s, then she got jazz fusion-y and then on The Hissing of Summer Lawns she got weird a little bit. And I really like that. And lyrically – I idolize her. Amazing.

NT: There’s a real intelligence in your lyrics that is a bit rare nowadays.

MJ: Well, thank you, that’s nice of you to say. I do think about it a lot, so that’s nice to hear.

NT: I know I’m one of those people who listens to something, and I may like the song, but then I’ve got to close my ears to some of the lyrics.

MJ: Yeah, totally. I think that’s what I was trying to say earlier. Maybe the chords aren’t right, or whatever, but if the lyrics strike you as off, or wrong, it can turn you off immediately. Totally.

NT: You are going to be doing a lot of touring. How do you like playing live, and what is your setup for the tour?

MJ: The set up varies, but for this tour it’s mostly a four piece, so I’ll be on keys, and acoustic, and I’ll have an electric guitar player and a drummer and a bass player. And then on some of shows in the bigger cities, like London and Paris, I think we’re going to have some background singers too. So that’s going to be the setup for the full tour in May. But I play shows every once in a while by myself. Like last night I played with Big Moon and Mystery Jets. Just went up by myself and started things off for them, which was really fun, you know? Both really great bands. So I do both, it depends on the situation and all that.

NT: What made you start playing piano? There’s something about piano that has both rhythm and melody that makes it the perfect solo instrument.

MJ: Yeah, yeah, I agree. I started, you know, because my parents made me as a kid, and I probably wanted to be doing something else, like playing basketball, or going to the mall or something. But they made me, and I reluctantly did it in my childhood, and then when I turned 13 or 14, I was getting a bit moodier – I really want to be a songwriter. I fell back on that. So I’m really grateful that they made me do that. I can’t read music, so I always struggled taking piano lessons as a kid, because my brain didn’t really work that way, so I always felt I wasn’t very good or I was behind because I just couldn’t read music for whatever reason, and the other kids could read music. And then I guess I discovered this concept of learning by ear, chords and jazz lead sheets, and kind of figuring out melodies by ear, and learning different chord charts, and how to accompany yourself if you’re writing a song. For whatever reason, that connected with my brain more, and I was able to pick that style of learning and playing up a lot quicker.

NT: If you don’t read music, then obviously you’ve got a fantastic ear. In some ways, maybe that’s better – because you’re listening all the time, rather than reading.

MJ: Yeah, a lot of listening and studying songwriters, and their little tricks. How they build songs from a structural standpoint.

NT: You grew up in the Midwest. Two questions really – what do you think influenced you in a good way from growing up there, and do you think your next record is going to reflect more of the changes and travelling you’ve been able to do?

MJ: Oh, cool questions, yeah. Yeah, I think the first record is influenced by where I grew up and the kind of music I was surrounded by. Whether it was the kind of bands I was playing with, or sort of the people I looked up to on the local scene, you know, just a lot of Rolling Stones, early Bruce Springsteen, The Byrds, it’s just what was going on and what was popular and what I was influenced by. And also, you know, maybe even geographically a little bit. We talked about spacing earlier, and there’s just so much, where I’m from, open space and nothingness in Iowa. And if I want to get a little cheesy, it could get into the music a bit. That bareness of the landscape. And the second part of your question about the next record – I’ve started writing a little bit, but I think it will sound different. I think it’s just inevitable. You hear different kinds of music, you’re with different kinds of people. I think at the core it will be similar, still be my voice and my style, but I think it will be different. I don’t know how yet, but.

NT: You’ve got a great vocal range. And at times it sounds as though it could be male, it could be female, which is really interesting.

MJ: Thanks. Yeah, it is kind of androgynous. You should have heard me before I went through puberty (laughing) I sounded like a little school girl. Yeah, I’ve always had a higher voice. I don’t know why that is, but I guess I’ve tried to embrace it, you know, and not try to sing like the guy from the Crash Test Dummies or something. (laughing)

NT: Your voice seems to match what you are singing about lyrically too. It follows it musically, lyrically. When it’s vulnerable, your voice sounds vulnerable, and things that seem more serious, or harder edged, or that deal with suffering, your voice seems deeper, lower.

MJ: Yeah, I guess I think about that a little bit, and try to suit the content of the lyrics with how I sing. And that’s something I felt I hadn’t done a very good job of up until the record – dynamics within the recording, and I wanted to make sure that this record had a large range of dynamics, both in volume and in tempo too as well.

NT: Are you going to come back and do some touring in the States?

MJ: Yeah, I think so. I think we’re doing stuff in September, and possibly a few things this summer, like residencies or showcases in New York and LA, but definitely September we are planning on a US tour.

NT: And five albums that you return to.

MJ: Blood on the Tracks – Bob Dylan. That’s definitely one that’s really important.
Call Me – Al Green.
Court and Spark – Joni Mitchell. It’s hard to pick a certain record, but if I had to pick one it would probably be that one. It’s one of my favorites.
After the Gold Rush – Neil Young.
Talking Book – Stevie Wonder. Or just that period of Stevie Wonder in general. It’s something I could listen to all day and never get tired of.

Interview by Alice Severin