Q&A: JJ Grey on His New Album & Upcoming Show at NYC’s Terminal 5

Photo by Jim Arbogast

On February 24th, Jacksonville-based JJ Grey & Mofro will release their seventh studio album, Ol’ Glory (Amazon, WSJ Speakeasy). Hailing from the same hometown as The Allman Brothers, Grey and his band have taken their blend of soulful blues and southern rock around the world for more than a decade. They’ve been grouped in all kinds of genres, but have mostly been defined by Grey’s down-home songwriting and stand out voice – not to mention Mofro’s massive stage presence on the festival circuit. While the band’s sound falls somewhat outside of the normal parameters of this blog, it’s that voice, that stage presence and the authenticity of album that really drew me in.

This Saturday, Grey & Mofro perform at Terminal 5 with Marc Broussard. I chatted with JJ by phone from his home a few weeks back about the new album and upcoming show.

You’ve previously talked a lot about the way your hometown and the land you live on come through in your writing. How did that play out on Ol’ Glory?

I think it shines through in its own way and its own time. It effects me whether I realize it or I don’t – even if I’m not even singing about it. A song like “The Island” is about a place right near my home that I love. And then the song, “The Hurricane,” is about standing outside and seeing it happen. It’s kind of like, you can feel the wind but you can’t see it. I think this place does that to you – every aspect of my life. I’m breathing it in and it’s always affecting me.

olgloryMore specifically, I put the deer and the persimmon tree on the album cover with the sun behind it. For me, that was my own little ode to this place…and life itself. There’s this glory shining through all of these things and speaking to me – as long as I’ve got my ears open.

It seems like this album captures the experience of your live performances better than your previous records. Why do you think that is?

I think it does a little bit more. Not to sell everything else I’ve done short, because that wouldn’t be true either, but this feels more lived in. In the past, I’d go into the studio with my songs demoed and I’d sent the songs to all the musicians. This time i revisited my tunes over and over during the sessions – something that normal people do that aren’t lazy like I was. Sometimes when I listen to some of my older stuff, I think, “damn, I wish I could re-record that.”

My friends that are the biggest fans of yours are all jam band kind of folks. Is that representative of your fan base or is it broader?

This might sound self-serving, but it’s honestly a lot broader. I’ve never had any experience with the jam world. I put out Blackwater, my first record, with Dan Prothero at Fog City Records and he was working Galactic, which isn’t really a jam band either, but we both were invited to play were at those types of festivals. I still have never figured out what a jam band is, but do think there are jam fans.

When I signed with Alligator we instantaneously became a blues act. I had never had anyone call us a blues act. They had said we were bluesy, but that’s it. Everybody’s got an idea of what something is and it’s all personal. I feel like tomorrow if I sign with a big time indie rock label – and it’s way to late for that and that’s not going to happen anyway – but if we became Pitchfork darlings then we’d be an indie rock band.

This happens to all bands. Everyone tries to figure out what they’re listening to so they can describe it to their friends. That’s fair enough. I don’t mind either way.

Are you doing the same thing you’ve always done? Do you feel like your genre has changed over the years?

No. I’m not into genres. I don’t set out to sound like one genre. It’s just like talking. I just open my mouth and talk. I don’t try to make it more funky or bluesy. I just do it.

How do you like playing New York?

I love it. The first time I went there I felt like Levon Helm in “The Last Waltz.” You go into New York, get your ass kicked and leave so it heals up, then you come back and eventually you fall in love with it. When I visit, I can feel the electricity in between people and in the life there.

The first time I played New York was on my first tour back in 1990 and it was a different place. I was a really young kid. It was rough. I didn’t mind the grit and dirt, but it wasn’t fun for someone who had never been to a big city. Later I moved to London and got used to to the city and being around people. Now I can come to New York and relax and I love being there.

Marc Broussard is opening up for you on this tour. That’s a lot of soul for one stage. Have you guys crossed paths before?

We’re really good friends. We do Southern Soul Assembly together with Anders Osborne and Luther Dickenson where we just get in a circle with our acoustic guitars and go around each playing our songs, and tell stories about each of the songs.

The first time we did that, I’d never heard Marc live. When I heard him, I was floored. I told him that he was the best singer I’d ever been on stage with. I mean, he can sing. So, he’s joining us at Terminal 5, then a show in Boston and then we’re touring Europe with us.

Tickets for the Terminal 5 show are still available. Check out the full tour schedule here.