JJ Grey & Mofro’s Ol’ Glory rocks (“Everything Is a Song”) and rolls (“The Hurricane”) with welterweight fury. CMT Edge spoke with the Florida native about being a father, his songwriting process and the buoyant new collection.
“I’d been messing around and writing songs for a while beforehand,” Grey says. “I just roll with it. When I felt like I had enough material together, I had already set aside studio time in May this past year. It was like, ‘All right, let’s get this thing.’ We just hit it and let it happen.”
CMT Edge: Tell the story behind writing “Everything Is a Song.”
Grey: It’s funny. I was coming home from Target and my daughter was in the backseat. She didn’t have a complete grasp of English yet, so she just started singing in her own language, making something up and making up her own melodies. It just struck a chord with me.
I had one of those moments where you almost feel high for a second. The sky got bluer and the trees got greener and that whole thing. It felt like as she was singing to us that everything was singing. She was just singing for the joy of singing. There were no strings attached. No, “I hope to impress somebody. I hope I don’t mess up. I hope this can turn into a career.”
How does being a father generally impact you as a songwriter?
I’ve gotten perspective. You can’t help that the longer you live, the more perspective you get. You can ignore it or you can embrace it. If you ignore it, you’re doing it at your own peril. I learned that the hard way and I’m still learning it the hard way sometimes. I try to embrace the good that comes with that. I have a son who’s much older who I had when I was much younger and dumber, but by having her come along, I feel like she came in a perfect time to put things in perspective for me.
Explain the album’s common lyrical theme.
The basic thing that I see is that I’m just enjoying it. The lyrics have always written themselves. I feel weird taking credit for writing my music and lyrics. I don’t feel like they’re mine. At one point, I felt like the songs were Post-It notes to myself to remind me what’s important and for me to wake up to this, wake up to life before it goes! You blink your eye and it goes by. If you live it and you enjoy all of it, it doesn’t go by like that. I made a vow and a decision to make a decision and that changed everything.
So, if you’re not writing the songs, where are they coming from?
Well, you know, out of thin air. Conversations. It’s like you and me talking right now. You might have a list of questions and ideas of what you want to talk about. You ask them and maybe something changes your game plan and that might trigger another idea. “Where did that question come from?” “I don’t know, it just popped into my head.” I can’t testify where any of it comes from. I just know that if you’re still long enough, it comes. I’m sure you’ve experienced the same thing as a writer. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth. You’re always waiting for that muse to show up and pave the way. I always feel like my lyrics and music as well are just conversations. A lot of what we do is improv.
Name an example.
“Old Glory.” That’s all improv. To me, it’s like you’re in a sailboat. You’re not really in charge of the wind or the current. It is what it is. You just man the rudder and steer it. You don’t want to steer it too much because you’ll oversteer. You don’t want to steer too little because you’ll never get anywhere. I try to balance it out. For me, the best way to balance it is to ignore it.
My take is that if you stick to the same questions, it’s gonna be pretty boring.
Exactly! Same way with music. You start out with that guideline and then you let it go where it goes. You have your ideas and if all else fails, you can fall back on them, but you always hope it goes somewhere. That’s great conversation like this. You’re free-flowing. I feel the same way about music.
Explain how “The Island” came to you.
I had the idea for a while. I had about 95 percent of the lyrics done. The song is about a place in north Florida where I’m from, one of the shell mound islands. It has its own extremely deep history like every place does. It has a history with me since I was a little kid bumming rides with neighbors to go surfing. Doing that loop on the island always blew me away. It’s a powerful place and I guess everybody has their version of that. When things go right or things go wrong, you can always go there and put the level between the two lines and get right again.
You still live on a farm, right?
I do. It’s 26 acres west of Jacksonville, about a third of the way between Gainesville and Jacksonville.
Working with the land and animals must spark your brain as a songwriter.
Oh, 100 percent. Whether I know it and whether I like it or not, you’re affected by everything. I’m certainly affected by that. For me, there’s far more power than I can pick up on in that setting, the quiet still thing and with animals in general. Of course, we used to have thousands and thousands of chickens, but we don’t have those anymore. My grandparents got out of that business before they passed away, but I was always used to being around that. We always had about a dozen cows and two hogs. We made our own food out of that stuff when I was a kid. I’m glad I went through that. A lot of my friends didn’t. They grew up thinking everything comes from the supermarket.
Do you ever write songs while you’re actually out there working on the farm?
It happens. Some songs completely write themselves and I tend to find that those are the ones that resonate the deepest with me. Some songs I work with a little bit, but that can happen anywhere. I do usually wait until I get home to write. I’ll just use my pocket recorder when I’m out because I have a terrible memory. (laughs) I have everything in my studio set up where I can jump from thing to thing and work and have fun.