Originally from Georgia, Justin Cross has become ingrained in the fabric of Birmingham’s rich songwriting legacy for over a decade. From the gentle chords that open 2012’s Another Winter EP to the electricity crackling through 2020’s The Rock and the Roll, each new release delivers another facet of his musical, lyrical and melodic abilities. With this year’s To The Light, Cross continues his evolution by being simultaneously thematically intimate and sonically expansive.
We spoke with Justin Cross about writing the new album, implementing a mixture of digital and analog equipment in the recording, weaving autobiography into storytelling, and expanding himself sonically.
Chris K. Davidson for Magic City Bands: Your last album, The Rock and The Roll, was under the name Justin Cross and the Engine Co. This album seems to shed the full band for a more intimate affair. Can you talk about that decision?
Justin Cross: It’s definitely a totally different thing this time around. The Rock and The Roll had been a few years in the making once it was released and I had a pretty solid idea of what I wanted that album to be early in writing for it. It was always going to be a full-band rock record.
Honestly, the new record kind of happened accidentally. I had some songs that I had written to help me process a lot of grief and loss that my family and I had experienced in the last few years, and I never even planned on letting other people hear them, much less compile them into an album.
Back in April, I had a few nights to myself and decided to mess around with an old Tascam 414 cassette recorder. I started off just recording a cover of an old Lyle Lovett song. Then while I was playing around with the mic and got a pretty decent sound in my headphones, I started playing a little improvised instrumental and I realized it would go pretty smoothly into one of those songs that I had pretty much shelved at that point, a song called “Keeping Up.” So, I just went from the instrumental straight into the song, and by then end of the night I had recorded the main vocal and guitar performances of nine of those songs that I never planned on doing anything with to the first track on the tape.
I listened back the next morning and realized that I might have just recorded something pretty solid, so I decided to produce around those first tracks that next night. I thought it was pretty good, but a lot of the songs are really personal so I showed them to my wife. When she loved it, I knew I had something and decided to release it as an album. I think it was just really cathartic to get some of these thoughts and feelings off my chest, and recording and releasing this album just accidentally became how I did that.
MCB: Why did you decide to start off the album with an instrumental?
JC: It really just felt right to me. The instrumental that starts the album is actually the improvised song that I mentioned earlier. It happened really naturally and once I realized this was going to be an album, I knew the instrumental had to be the first song. This whole album still just feels like one single night of my life to me, and that song was how that night started. I also gave it the title “Quiet Morning Hours” because it is a sort of calm-before-the-storm moment. The rest of the album gets into some pretty hard themes, and I thought it was nice to have a moment of peace and beauty before the heaviness kicks in.
The second song, “Keeping Up” is about my experiences of being a stay-at-home dad for the last few years. It’s a lighter song about what I have discovered to be a really difficult (and fulfilling) job, and keeping up with things is something that is always weighing on me. Sometimes, though, there are these mornings before the kids wake up and things get going where I can just sit in the quiet with some coffee and breathe and those moments really recharge me and give me energy for the day. The instrumental gave me that same feeling, so that’s where the title comes from.
MCB: You made several posts about the making of the new album, which showcased working with both analog and digital equipment. How did that factor into your songwriting this go-around?
JC: Yeah, this is where the “gear nerd” in me really comes alive. I wouldn’t say any of it really factored in to the songwriting this time at all, but it definitely made the album what it is.
The centerpiece of the album, sonically, is the Tascam recorder. I don’t think this album would have worked as well without the character that thing gives you. It just has a warmth and glues everything together in a really cool way. I used one mic into outboard preamps straight to the recorder. The Tascam preamps also have this really cool effect when you push them to distort and they will give you some really cool grit, which I used on some songs.
I also borrowed a Teenage Engineering OP-1 from a friend of mine and put that into a bunch of pedals to make the drums and atmospherics for the record. The gear was really important on that second night when I produced around the bare vocal/acoustic tracks. I used the OP-1 into a few Strymon pedals I have and was able to turn knobs and get them to do things I didn’t know they were capable of doing. I could go for hours on this topic, but that would probably bore everyone, so…
MCB: How far back do these songs go as far as the writing is concerned?
JC: The earliest one I wrote, “Sons and Fathers” was written before the birth of my first son over nine years ago. That one is the outlier. The rest of them were written in the last year or two during a really tough time for me and my family. They were my way of processing some hard situations we were navigating. The most recent song is “Easier With Time.” It was actually finished the night I recorded it. I really wanted to record it, but hadn’t finalized the chorus and second verse, so I sat with it for a few minutes and ended up finishing it right before I put it down to tape. That is definitely something I don’t usually do.
Ultimately, each of these songs are about the same things though: grief, loss, family, and how those things often interweave in good and bad ways to shape people. I think that, even though my situation was pretty personal and specific, we all go through or have gone through grief and loss and have to deal with the aftermath of those things in ourselves and in our relationships and that can get really complicated sometimes.
MCB: The title track talks a lot about exposure and self-reflection. Can you talk about that song and why you wanted to make that the title of the album?
JC: Man, good question. That song is really the thesis statement of the album to me. It’s got kind of a double meaning. On one hand, and how it relates to being the title of the album, it is me saying that this weight that my family and I have been carrying alone—now it’s time for me to let folks know how I feel about it. I’m bringing my thoughts and feeling to the light. Not necessarily the ins-and-outs of the events and people involved, because that’s not really the point, but how I am processing them. And maybe in that light, my processing might be able to help folks going through loss be able to cope or find that they aren’t alone in feeling that way.
It’s also me saying that, in spite of all that I’ve gone through, I want to be able to stand tall through it and able to hold my head high. The other songs on the album are me getting this weight off my chest, but this one is me saying to all the people involved that, while I’m doing that, I still love them and care for them and want to honor them, and I want to still be dignified through all of it. The chorus is really just saying “hold me to the light, inspect me, show me where I might be falling short, because I really want to get this right.” To me, when it comes to relationships, especially family relationships, you have to be able to toe a line between honoring and respecting them but also taking care of yourself. It’s a hard thing to balance.
MCB: With two songs named after a type of family member, some might be curious how autobiographical these songs are. Are they or are more composite character sketches of people you know?
JC: This whole album is very personal, but I tend to write with listeners in mind by default, even if I don’t intend for a song to be released. You never know what could come of a song if you imagine the audience it might be able to reach, so I try to keep even my most personal songs somewhat accessible. That being said, sometimes I do enjoy writing with certain scenarios in mind. The song “Brothers” is me imagining my sons grown up and visiting each other and their mom after a long time apart.
“Sons and Fathers” is as honest to my life as any song I’ve written. I wrote it right after I found out I was going to be a dad. It’s all about my hopes and fears going into being a parent, and how I really can’t control every little aspect of who my kids are and who they become. Still holds true and I still love that song even after all this time.
MCB: How do you think a songwriter can balance fictional storytelling and universal truth-telling in their work?
JC: I think what’s most important is nailing the tone of what you are saying and really believing it, whether it’s a confessional or story song or any other type of song. Whether you lived it firsthand or not. I think about Johnny Cash and how he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues,” not from experience but after watching a movie that inspired him to write from the perspective of a prisoner. And every time he sang that song, he believed it to his core and you can really tell. It makes the listener believe it too. I think the best artists and storytellers have an innate knack for that. That’s the balance to strike in my opinion, tone and believability. You nail those and everything else kind of follows in behind.
MCB: “Easier with Time” and “White Water” seem like new territory for you sonically. How did those songs come about?
JC: I think they were really just an outpouring of a feeling that just happened to have a different style than I typically use. Like I mentioned earlier, I never intended for these songs to see the light of day, so I wasn’t really adherent to what makes a “Justin Cross” song when I was writing them. The difference in those songs were mainly from the fact that, most of the time, I write to process and I was processing something new that I had never had to deal with before.
Both of those are actually from personal experiences and how I processed through them. “Easier With Time” is about the loss of my childhood home to a tornado and subsequent flood, and about how life can change in an instant. “White Water” is about getting lost when I was a kid, and how that feeling of being lost can also be present in seasons of grief or depression.
MCB: Where can people get the album? Any shows planned?
JC: The album is streaming everywhere on June 30, and we are currently planning an album release show for July 29 at Woodlawn Theatre.
You can listen to Justin Cross’ To The Light on Bandcamp.
Photos courtesy of Justin Cross. Chris K. Davidson is a writer and musician. He sings in the band Waterwells.