JJ Grey Discusses the Inspiration for His First New Studio Album in 9 Years

Singer-songwriter performs on March 29 at the Agora

JJ Grey, a singer-songwriter who spent the latter part of the ’90s playing juke joints in his native Florida, says those early shows often found him playing to hostile audiences.

But they taught him a valuable lesson — namely, how to work a crowd.

“When it’s great, it’s great. When it ain’t, it ain’t,” he says via phone from an Atlanta tour stop when asked about those early days. JJ Grey and his backing band Mofro play on Friday, March 29, at the Agora. “You play in some rough places. But we never needed the chickenwire [to separate the band from the crowd]. Nobody ever really threw stuff at us."

The club drew a range of listeners, and Grey soon learned how to keep them satisfied.

"It was near the naval air station, so you would have naval officers," he says. "You will also have rednecks, and another night, you will have bikers. With the bikers, you lean on the Steppenwolf. With the Navy guys, you can lean on Steppenwolf too. With the rednecks, you make sure there is Skynyrd in there. You don’t want to go there and play a song by the Cure, which is a band I also love a lot. U2 was about the limit.”

After cutting his musical teeth on the club circuit, Grey made his recording debut in 2001 with Blackwater and followed it up in 2004 with Lochloosa . Both albums were released on the Fog City label under the name Mofro, a moniker Grey chose to describe his music and sound while still working his day job at a lumberyard. In the wake of those releases, Grey steadily released new music, but 2015's Ol’ Glory represents his last studio album.

Grey says the songs on his new effort Olustee, his first studio album in nine years, started to come together in 2016.

“It was about a year and a half after Ol' Glory came out,” he says. “The rest of them I picked up here and there along the way. I was in no rush. And thank God I wasn’t in a rush. I wasn’t even paying attention to that. I wasn’t really aware that that much time had passed. I’m sure the label was sweating it."

"Free High," "Starry Night" and "Top of the World" were the first three songs he wrote. He took his home demos to the studio and made studio demos that he thought he'd re-record, but the first time in the studio, "it just worked."

"That’s how I wound up being self-produced," he says.

On the album, Grey relates stories from both his past and his grandfather's past in the title track, a song about getting caught in a forest fire that also references the town near where his grandfather grew up.

“I did the music for that song instrumentally at the house,” he says. “It sounds like a forest fire. It reminded me of a story my grandfather told me, and it is also about how I was caught in one a few different times. I had a neighbor who almost got us all killed. It just ended up in the song. The music conjures that image up in my head.”

He recorded the bulk of the album in the same Retrophonics Recording Studio in St. Augustine where he's recorded his other albums. He did most of the vocals in his own studio, and he enlisted a symphony to record strings in Budapest.

Many of the songs also include spirited horn arrangements, giving the tunes an old school soul/R&B feel.

“I’ve wanted horns on every album, even my first two albums,” says Grey. “But my buddy Dan [Prothero], who produced those oldest records with me, said, 'Don’t write a check in the studio that you can’t cash.' As a result, I didn't use horns early on even though I love horns. They’re a big part of all the music that I really love. I love having them, and the guys on the album crushed it.”

The opening song, “The Sea,” features soulful vocals as Grey sings about his love for the ocean while using poetic imagery.

“I played that music on acoustic guitar, and the chorus just came up,” he explains when asked about the track. “The chorus ‘I belong to the sea’ just came up. When that popped into my head, I could see visions of surfing and fishing along the ocean where I live. It also conjured up the whole concept of sailing ships around the world back in the day. There’s this thing that gets into you. Mountains do the same thing. These things have a way of making you feel small and wonderful at the same time.”

With an expanded band backing him for the current tour, Grey says the live show will draw heavily from the new album.

“We play about seven or eight from the new record,” he says. “I have an 11-piece band. It’s almost 50 percent bigger than in the past. It’s great. Everyone is killing it. I just have to show up and not blow it when I’m up there. We have played two shows so far, and it’s been great.”

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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