“Life has a way of taking things away from you periodically to show you what really matters. That's what happened to me,” JJ Grey said about his maturation as a singer, and about life. “I'm sure its happened to every singer. They never quite do technically what they wanted to do. In some ways, what they wind up doing is better.”
Grey, who performs Sunday, 11.28 at the Pearl Street Ballroom in Northampton with his band, JJ Grey & Mofro, talks like an Everyman. His singing is comfortable and soulful, with a raspy, honey-soaked delivery. His songs are fun and unforced, born of a working man's ethos and a rustic approach to making music that can include spare arrangements or animated horns or '70s-era keys. His new album, “Georgia Warhorse,” has a salt-of-the-earth sensibility that shuffles through rock and blues, recalling acts like Joe Cocker or Sly & The Family Stone.
Back home in Florida, near Jacksonville, where he lives with his family on 20 acres of land, he's like any dad – fixing things around the house, fishing or surfing. His only regret?
“There's never any waves when I come off the road,” the singer said with a laugh. “As soon I leave a swell comes. Soon as I get home it turns off.”
“Georgia Warhorse,” named after the resilient grasshopper, seems apropos of Grey's work ethic and longevity. Years of making music has taught him to get out of his own way, especially when he begins to over-think songs. He said he's much happier with his voice than he was 10 years ago, when it wasn't much more than the sum total of his influences. Singer John Fogerty has said he went in the woods and screamed until he found his voice. Tesla's Jeff Keith practiced behind the wheel of a bulldozer until finding his. For Grey, it was playing show after show.
“And failure after failure,” he said. “I don't mean every night. I mean in little tiny ways.”
Grey's songs will linger before landing on an album. “Gotta Know” took years to get right, he said, before a cold finally made it happen.
“All the guys played the song well, something just wasn't working for me,” Grey said. “I like it better with the cold bringing me down. Somehow it made it a little more real for me.”
The lyrics use a circus bear to mirror humanity. Grey sings, “We all laughed because we knew he couldn't do it / We asked the questions and make our own answers up.”
“Some part of our nature thinks it's funny the bear is trying to be as smart as we are and we laugh at it,” Grey said. “We're smart because we can ask questions and the bear doesn't. Then we make up our own answers anyway. They're not necessarily the truth.”
Grey stays busy with other gigs, like studying online to be a master herbalist. If not a musician, he'd likely be working with diesel engines (“there's good bread in that”) or trying to learn to restore old cars. He's also a big believer in letting go.
“The problem is we think too much,” Grey said. “It's usually a recipe for disaster or failure. You learn to let go or you'll fail enough times at it until you let go and then you can finally do it. Who knows? You could have been able to do it from the minute you started.” -Brian Tucker
Tickets for JJ Grey and Mofro at the Pearl Street Ballroom, Sunday, November 28th are $15 and available at the Northampton Box Office, 76 Main Street, 413-586-8686, and online at IHEG.com.