JJ Grey & Mofro: Move It On
Compared to Blackwater, MOFRO’s 2001 studio debut, Orange Blossoms has a much more refined sound that gets closer to the point and distills the essence in a quicker manner. However, when JamBase spoke with Grey about the album, he didn’t exactly agree with the “refined” idea.
“Contrary to some of the opinions so far – mind you, nobody said this in a bad way – but people feel like this album is really well produced, but it’s definitely the least produced of any of the records we’ve done. I spent a little more time at home recording this record. We went into my house, and it really made itself. It came together real easy. There wasn’t a whole lot of post-production or anything. It just came together,” says Grey. “I tell people who say Blackwater is raw and the least produced, ‘Bullshit.’ It’s the other way around. Blackwater is the most produced of any of them. But, it’s gotten easier each record since. I’ve relaxed more in the studio and don’t put all the pressure on the producer to make studio magic happen. This was the least studio magic record yet. This was the most straight performance record of all of them.”
“I think one of the things is that the parts fit together a little better. I’m still playing the same guitar amps and the same gear as the first record – same microphones, same records. The only thing that’s added to this equation that’s different, the only outside element brought in really, is that I played reverb,” continues Grey. “This album was recorded and mixed at the same studio that we recorded all my other albums at, and we got to use this old reverb and it gives it a little more rich, early ’70s Nashville, Muscle Shoals sound. Other than that, I worked a little more early so the arrangements fit together and that’s about it. Other than that, I didn’t try to make this record any different than any others in the past. I don’t like to try to do anything. You just do it, and if it works, it works. And if it don’t, go do something else and come back and hit it later and see what happens.”
“Each one of those [new] songs is about stuff I’ve seen growing up where I live. People might think, ‘He’s not singing about Florida.’ Bullshit,” observes Grey succinctly. “Every song is about where I grew up and the things I see. I don’t have to call out different names every time. It’s all about where I’m from.”
Grey has always had a powerful voice that radiates throughout any room, but over the years he has gradually developed as both a songwriter and a performer. As far as his showmanship goes, Grey feels his evolution is just as significant as that of his musicianship.
“That’s the biggest evolution for anyone in this biz. You play 100 shows a year, I don’t care who you are, and it will make you a better performer. I was telling a friend of mine who’s a great musician and singer but hasn’t been on the road yet [that]. He’s trying to look for his voice and I told him, in my opinion, you don’t find your voice until you lose it. Once you go on the road, you get beat down and eventually loose your voice for some reason,” says Grey. “I lost my voice and it had nothing to do with the road. I got pneumonia, and I still went out and sang and almost did irreparable damage to myself. It’s at that point you wake up from it and find your voice. Then, when you get well, you can expand upon it. When I really got torn down is when I really found out who I was and what I was made of.”
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After a few years of consistent touring and a gradual development of recognition amongst the jam band scene, 2007’s Country Ghetto saw a wider appeal than Grey’s previous works, and brought with it more mainstream recognition, in addition to more prominence on festival bills.
“I honestly believe [Country Ghetto got wider recognition] because Alligator Records was working it. Nobody had ever worked the other records, and not that it’s a fair statement between the records. I feel they’re all great. I’m happy with all of them, but Alligator pushed it and worked it and they deserve the credit for the next step,” says Grey. “Sure, we go out and play shows, and that’s a big part of it. Just keep playing and you’ll get somewhere. And thankfully there’s bands who helped us make that happen, from Galactic, to North Mississippi Allstars, and even big bands like Widespread Panic, who paved the way by showing that with determination and touring you can do it. It’s a little bit of all that, but Alligator was a huge piece of that puzzle.”
“I definitely care most about the quality of a record,” says Grey. “There’s a million ways to make a livin’, and I could make a livin’ doing anything else. I don’t have to do this for money. Not ‘cus I’m rich, but there’s a million ways I could support myself.”
Throughout his years on the road, Grey has come across quite a few bumps that would be enough to halt anyone in their tracks.
“One [challenge] is learning how to sing so I can sing every night with full intensity. I remember when I was young, I would blow my voice out from over-singin’, and I was always like, ‘I can’t do it tonight.’ And I’d hear, ‘Just don’t sing too hard.’ But I didn’t think there was any such thing,” recalls Grey. “Then I learned how to sing hard without killing myself. I kill myself a little bit, but the main thing is if you enjoy it you can do anything to yourself and be okay. That’s one thing that was tough, but like I said, when I lost my voice and then found it, I felt great.”
“As strange as it sounds, at the end of the day I hope people get an honest take at the show,” continues Grey. “This guy who produced our records [Dan Prothero of Fog City Records] called it front porch soul a long time ago, and I always liked that. It’s cool enough for me. It’s kind of a box, but it’s a box I’ll hang around in until something else happens. At this point, I’m at least half honest and people will get an honest take at a show. I’m not going to pretend.”
Regarding the future, Grey has very modest ambitions that stem from his upbringing and do not cater towards the iconic reaches of many of today’s leading artists. In fact, Grey doesn’t even care whether his music carries on after he’s gone.
“I don’t give a shit if I’m ever remembered. Here again, perception is such a crazy thing – how I’m perceived or how I’m remembered. I don’t mind if I’m not remembered, to be honest. The universe is way too big and it’s doing fine. It will do just fine without me being here. While I’m here, I’ll do what I do and try to live up to what I think I should live up to, the code I was brought up around, around the grown men I was brought up around. Other than that, whatever happens happens.”
JJ Grey & MOFRO are on tour now, dates available here.
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