Karl has been a freelance writer for over 10 years. He's passionate about music, art, and writing!
In a phone interview, I talked to Alberta roots singer-songwriter Justine Vandergrift about her musical background, her approach to song craft, and how she finds creative inspiration.
Music has never really been absent from Justine’s life. As a child, she sang in church choir and played piano. She started to play guitar when she was in grade 7 and writing songs soon after. She continues, “It was always a natural thing for me to gravitate towards creating music. In grades 7 and 8, I really took my guitar studies seriously and from then on I started to write and record myself. I finished my degree in social science from Queen’s University in Edmonton. During that time, I was performing a little bit and signing in choirs and honing my craft. When I finished my degree in 2011, I recorded and released my first album.”
There are a plethora of musicians who’ve been influential on her music. Justine says, “I’m a huge fan of Patti Griffin, Dar Williams and Bonnie Raitt. I have a lot of male influences too like Paul Simon and old alt-country stuff like Johnny Cash. I listen to a lot of blues and a lot of folk music. When I was in Edmonton, in order to pay off my student loans, I was playing these gigs where I had to learn all of the classic country music. All of those influences play into my personal style.”
Most of Justine’s songs start with a hook that’s either a vocal hook or something on guitar. She explains, “If I’m rehearsing, I’ll just come up with a hook or a sound that I really like and one that sounds new to me. I’ll often form a song around that. It also happens that I’ll be driving or I’ll be on tour and I’ll come up with a hook.The songs that come from nowhere are often the ones that make it. If I sit down and say, ‘Now I’m going to write a song about this’ it doesn’t work.”
The last album that she released is entitled Sailor and was recorded live off the floor with her band although that wasn’t the original intention for it. Justine elaborates, “It was supposed to be a full studio album recorded to click track but it wasn’t feeling raw like I wanted it to. It was kind of a heavy hearted, sad breakup album because that’s what I felt at the time. What you hear on the record is what you’d have heard in the live performances at the time. I like recording that way because you have a real band kind of vibe. You have a really honest moment rather than something which sounds manufactured and produced.”
The current album she’s working on is still untitled but Justine says it will have a different feeling. She says, “It’s going to have something to do with Achilles because I tore my Achilles’ tendon in January so I’ve been a little bit laid up and writing a lot. I’m hoping to release it some time next year. It’s going to be a fully produced album that has some soul and pop flavours. It’s going to be more danceable and make you want to move, but of course with my rootsy songwriting.”
Thinking strategically about one’s career is something that she feels is important for musicians. Justine points out, “The music industry isn’t easy to navigate especially as a solo singer/songwriter. You really have to be strategic about where you invest your time and your energy as well as where you play. There are venues and places that don’t really value the artist and I’m learning how to navigate that world and find the place that make it worth my time financially, artistically and musically.”
Roots music in Canada is something about which Justine is quite proud. She explains, “The roots artists that I know are tapped into what’s going on around them and they’re writing about real and honest topics. Their music is new, but it doesn't sound manufactured.”
In her own case, she keeps her music grounded in the world around her. Justine says, “It’s about keeping positive messages but not being in denial about what’s going on around us and the bigger issues for society. I think roots music is a really great way to be honest as an artist.”
In the long term, Justine wants to continue to make a living playing music. She says, “I want to tour internationally and I want to make music that’s really enjoyable for people to listen to. I’m really excited about the new album because the songs are really fun to sing and share with people. I see my next album as being a really good jumping off point for my tours and performances.”
She has several sources of inspiration that help keep her creative batteries recharged. Justine says, “I want to challenge myself to learn new stuff. I like to do co-writes with some of my friends. I’ve got a lot of great connections in Edmonton with people like my friend Joe Nolan. I really like working with Brady Ensland who’s also in my side project called The Griffins. We write together a lot. I like singing and working with Mariel Buckley, so working with other artists has been really inspiring to me.’’
She continues, “I also like going back to Lacombe and hanging out at my folks place, working in the garden and slowing down. I try get into a space that’s grounded and focus on putting what I want out into the world. I also teach for the Legacies Foundation which is an organization that provides music lessons for underprivileged youth. They have me going to schools a couple of times a week. I teach half hour guitar lessons and I teach songwriting and singing. The kids are great, so I also find that quite inspiring.”