Published on December 2nd, 2011 | by Chase Larson0
Q&A With Justin Young
Arriving in the bustling depths of L.A. from the laid back atmosphere of Hawaii, the unassuming Justin Young has continually captivated crowds with a brand of music beyond the acoustic pop listeners are accustomed to — island influenced yet undeniably soulful. SOUND spoke with Justin about his journey from Hawaii, time on the road with Colbie Caillat, how to make it in the industry and where exactly he intends to go in the future.
SOUND: You grew up in Hawaii. What’s the music scene like there?
JUSTIN YOUNG: Music is a big part of the culture there. Everyone plays ukulele or guitar at every party. Inevitably there’s a jam session that will break out. I grew up with Hawaiian music and reggae, but when I really fell in love with music was when Boyz II Men came out. From first listen I was like, “I want to do that.” From there I discovered Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.
When did you first begin playing music?
As a junior in high school, my economics class decided to market a tape of my music for a class project. I ended up having a studio ask me if I wanted to do a full album. I released a bunch of records in Hawaii and had a good amount of success there, but I wasn’t just content playing Hawaiian stuff in Hawaii. I wanted to go beyond that.
What was the move to L.A. like? Did it affect your music at all?
I guess everything affects your music — everything you experience and your environment. I still had my Hawaiian music career so I traveled back and forth pretty frequently which made it a lot easier. Career-wise I definitely had no idea what to do, though [laughs]. I was recording demos and updating bios and trying to send them out blindly to labels producers or anyone that knew someone that knew someone. It was pretty fruitless for the most part.
What did you do to get past that plateau and try to catch a break?
I started playing at bars near my house — mostly cover songs — just to pay the bills. It actually really helped me. I knew like 12 songs on the guitar when I started [laughs]. I got more and more comfortable and slowly started finding ways to do actual sets in music venues with original music — that took another couple years. I was also in the UCLA extension entertainment studies program with Randy Jackson as one of my teachers right before he got on American Idol and Matt Wallace who was producing Maroon 5’s first record at the time. Even though it took me years and years to figure how to decode things, it was worth it.
How did you end up working with Colbie [Caillat]?
I was playing a show at the Mint in LA and a guy that had recently won the John Mayer songwriting competition happened to be on the lineup and we started talking. At the end of his night, I found out he was from Hawaii, we became friends and he invited to me to sit in with him at one of his shows. His girlfriend at the time was helping manage Colbie and when she saw me play she said, “Oh my god, you have to meet Colbie Caillat.”
No one really knew who Colbie was because she had just gotten on MySpace. I looked her up and we became mutual fans of each other and started going to each other’s shows. Within a year, she had been signed and started touring. About two months after she left they said they were looking for a guitar player who could also sing backup vocals. I auditioned and they hired me for the month. Now it’s been four years.
You’re obviously talented and get more spotlight time than most backups. How did that dynamic start?
When I first got on, it was the first tour experience for everyone in the band and we were trying to figure it out. I played rhythm guitar and just sang really high harmony parts that no one else could [laughs]. The first year I didn’t have a whole lot to do. It was cool but I felt like that wasn’t utilizing all my abilities. Slowly, I’ve been able to do more and take on a bigger role on every tour. Even now, the band has a little bit bigger role on stage because Colbie’s not this big personality that fills the whole stage with crazy movements or loud acrobatics with her voice.
What’s Colbie like to work with and as a person?
She’s completely unaffected by her success. She’s very sweet. She’s definitely grown up and matured but she’s still the same person. It’s interesting because she loves music but never spent 10 years grinding trying to become a superstar. She’s grateful for it, but since it wasn’t something she had to thirst for for so long, it hasn’t affected her in a bad way. She takes it for what it is and knows that it can come and can go. She’s wonderful to work with and so talented. I don’t know if people give her enough credit for how good a vocalist she is.
Basically, just get really good at what you do. Those 5-hour acoustic gigs I did for six or seven years really helped me grow as a player … Being visible, playing out and having a presence on the internet are all important. People can have access to your music all over the world without having a record company distribute it for you. You can have a really great sounding recording set up for a few hundred dollars set up on your laptop.
Who are you listening to right now?
That’s always a hard question to answer on the spot. I can tell you some of the people I’m always listening to — people like Amos Lee. David Ryan Harris is one of my favorite artists. He plays guitar for John Mayer but is just incredible. I bought Boyz II Men’s new album just to keep that connection to my childhood [laughs]. D’Angelo’s Voodoo record is something I always go back to.
Is your music affected by those soulful influences?
I’ve been working with different producers but for me it’s about finding a balance between the singer songwriter thing, the soulful thing and the pop thing. I grew up loving R&B but the songs just don’t have the substance that I was wanting, so I gravitated back to the acoustic singer-songwriter thing. But I miss the vibe of the soul music.
I’m with you on that. Maybe John Legend fills the hole a little, but you just don’t have people like Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway or Al Green as much anymore.
Oh man, Al Green’s latest record that ?uestlove produced with James Poyser is one of my favorite records too. But yeah, John Legend is a great example. He writes real songs but they’re still hip. I think John Legend and Alicia Keys are fantastic artists.
After you finish touring, what projects are you looking to take on?
I’ve been working on a record for two years in my free time with a friend of mine, [producer] Eric Robinson. It’s been a while since I’ve put out any new music … and I’m excited to share it. It’s been great to be on tour with Colbie and really helpful, but I think it’s time for me to kind of focus on my own thing too. ♦ ♦ ♦