OUR INTERVIEW WITH SONGWRITER JUSTIN CROSS
Studio Manager Park Butterworth sat down with 2020’s Magic City Songwriting Contest winner Justin Cross, and his wife Amy, at the Mason Music Recording Studio to talk about their new single, “I Need A Change.”
How long have you been playing in Birmingham?
Justin: I’ve been in Birmingham since 2006, playing in one corner or another. I started playing and writing more professionally starting around 2008. I kind of cut my teeth on stuff like GreyHaven, which was run by Caleb Chancey and Corey Scogin. It was a songwriter’s round [that met] once a month.
More recently, I’ve been working on a new project called Justin Cross and the Engine Company, which my wife (Amy Cross) is in, along with a drummer named Kyle Carpenter, bassist Jordan Holsombeck and my friend Jordan Pridemore on guitar. We recently did an album live in a studio so I’ve been working on that for about two years now. Just overdubbing stuff on that.
You’ve got some great Birmingham musicians playing with you, man. That’s awesome. So Justin Cross and the Engine Company is your current project. Is there anything else musically that you’re doing or has that been the main focus for the past little bit?
Justin: I’ve been traveling to Nashville, writing with some people.
Any names you want to drop with that? Jason Isbell? (laughing)
Justin: Haha, I wish! No, I’ve been working with a friend of mine, Callie Prince, who’s a great singer/songwriter. Also an artist named Kenny P, who was on The Voice. I’m still stepping into that realm a little bit, making contacts, trying to break into that songwriting world.
How would you describe your sound? It’s very singer/songwriter to me, but I feel like there’s a lot of different influences in there.
Justin: I’ve been using Americana because it seems to be a catch-all. Specifically, blues Americana, and singer/songwriter for sure. With this song, and some of the ones I’m writing along the similar vein, it’s more R&B tinged a little bit. Soul. Honestly, for me, Americana catches all that.
Yeah, it really does. The theme of this year’s contest was “Change.” You wrote a song titled “I Need a Change.” Do you like having a songwriting prompt like that? Does that help give you direction or do you prefer more of a blank canvas, whatever comes to mind?
Justin: I really work both ways. With this one, it definitely helped to kind of focus in on something. For this song, [me and Amy] needed a change. So the idea of change and what that meant to us was a lot more on the forefront of our minds. Obviously with coronavirus and the protests, it’s already been quite a year.
Amy: We had a miscarriage earlier this year too, so it’s really been rough. It wasn’t that difficult to write a song about needing change when you’re going through that many things at one time.
Well the song is powerful and I think you guys pulled from a lot of solid inspiration to build it. The lyrics are pointed enough but also zoomed out enough that it can be applicable to a lot of situations in life. This song can speak to a lot of people.
Justin: I think that was a goal we had when we started writing. Some of the things we were going through…you don’t want to listen to a song about that specific thing.
Amy: One night in the middle of all this going on, I had a full-scale come-apart and breakdown. I lost it for a little bit. I said everything that was on my heart and everything that I was feeling. It was hard. Justin listened through all of it, while I was processing, and then the next day he wrote most of the song. It ended up perfectly capturing what I was feeling in that moment. After that, I helped him fill in the gaps and finish it. But a lot of where that song actually came from was raw emotion from dealing with a lot of things at one time and just needing something to give. Just feeling hopeless, realizing you have a lot of reasons to not be okay. And he made it a song, because that’s what you do. And we just filled in the gaps and tried to make it broad because there are a lot of people going through things. Especially this year. There are a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons, going through hard things and needing something to give. We wanted this song to be an outlet for those people.
Justin: I have a really strong background in the church and it is almost prayer-like but it’s like one of those lamentation-type moments for us. At the same time, it could almost be like screaming at the sky. I think that it’s applicable to a lot of different situations. I tend to focus on one thing and bottleneck it and write on that but [Amy] pushed to make it broader. I think the writers in Nashville helped with that too, to broaden the horizons of a song.
Do you guys co-write together often?
Amy: Unofficially. (laughs)
Justin: She is definitely my last great filter for most of my more recent songs. In that regard, she definitely comes in and puts finishing touches on a lot of stuff. With this song specifically, there was a line we were struggling with. It was the last line of the second verse. We were really struggling to figure out what we were trying to say. What we wanted to say. And she just had this moment, where she was just like “I think this is it.” And she threw it in. We’ve written a couple [of songs] together. For our anniversary two years ago, we went on a writer’s retreat, just me and her, and we ended up getting a song out of that. This is the first time we’re actually recording a song we’ve done together though.
Writing as a couple is not easy…deciding who’s gonna take the reins.
Amy: (laughs) We haven’t really struggled with that, mostly because music is Justin’s thing. My name really isn’t on anything except this [song]. I have my own non-music related career and that’s my main focus. Music is Justin’s main focus, and that’s awesome, so he is in charge.
So when you guys started writing this song, or maybe I should just say in general, what do you normally write first? The lyrics or the music?
Justin: It used to be music 100% and then I would try to fill in the blanks. Recently it’s been more of a mixed bag. With this song in particular, we had the “change” prompt and I had the first line “I stopped looking for the answers, I quit asking for the reasons why” and started with that. But it’s kind of 50/50 these days. It just really depends on what I’m doing at the time. I’m keeping my boys during the day full-time now, so I don’t really have a lot of time to sit behind a guitar or a piano. So it’s more like a melody will pop in my head or a lyric will come up and I’ll throw those down and then eventually, once we get the boys to bed, I’ll find time to go and work on it.
You mentioned the last line of the second verse being hard to figure out. Was that the most challenging part of the song to come up with?
Justin: Yeah, I’d say that was the biggest one.
Amy: A lot of the parts came together pretty quickly. It was that one line that probably went through 15 revisions and then when he was recording the demo, it just wasn’t working. We needed to change it. So we came up with what’s now there at the very last second.
Justin: Musically, there’s a part in the pre-chorus – the second chord of the pre-chorus – I struggled with that because there was a melody for “The trail might get cold” and I couldn’t find something to bed that effectively. I ended up with what’s there now after working on it for a while. So I guess that line and that one chord were the hardest parts – just finding the sweet spot.
Most musicians will agree that the second verse is probably the hardest part of songwriting.
Justin: It is! It really is. Trying to figure out how to not be redundant.
As musicians, and art in general, you oftentimes feel like you’re never really done with something, you just have to decide to stop working on it. Do you have any of those songs or moments in your musical career?
Justin: There are a couple…honestly, I’d probably say every song. In particular, there are a couple songs on my first record that I might revisit, just because…I didn’t have a lot of creative input. I still don’t feel like I have a definitive version of one of my most popular songs called “Drink the Water.” Which is fine, and most people probably don’t care, but for me it’s like there’s a vision behind that song that I feel like every live version has captured better than any studio version. It’s a never-ending quest.
We talked about how “I Need a Change” is written for many different people in different walks of life. Is there anybody that you had in mind, outside of yourselves, that you were writing this for? Anyone that you hope it lands with when we debut it on the radio?
Justin: Yeah, I think it is applicable right now with what’s happening with racial injustice. I don’t pretend to know that struggle. I’m a white guy and have definitely seen my fair share of privilege, but I think there is definitely a feeling in the air in America right now of discontentment and there’s things that just need to change. I would be 100% honored if people who are struggling with that and fighting that fight associate with this song.
I played it for my dad – he’s had a rough couple of years too – and he was just like “that’s it, that’s the feeling right now.” I think it’s kind of a universal feeling. I think we stumbled onto something that people can relate to.
I think it’s good that it’s a Birmingham-based thing too. Our city has such a history with things we’re walking through right now, and I think this is going to be a very timely released song because of what it stands for. I know that you submitted a song to our contest last year. What made you want to participate again this year?
Justin: Yeah, I heard about it last year on Birmingham Mountain Radio and I follow Mason Music on Instagram so I saw it there. I’ve got a lot of respect for Will and Mason Music coming up in this scene. The ground he has laid. So I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.
Having listened to everybody’s songs, we get a lot of great submissions. Playing to a theme or writing to a theme is not easy, but I feel like both this year and last year you came out with strong songs that were focused on the theme. Were you surprised that you won this year?
Justin: I’m a huge believer in Birmingham talent. I know how many good artists there are and you have no idea who else has submitted. One of my best friends is Wilder Adkins, and I was like if he threw one in there, I’m dead. Just forget it. So, just knowing the talent that’s in this town, I was really surprised, and really honored. We found out when we were at Amy’s parents house and we were tuning in [to BMR] on my phone.
Amy: Yeah, when they announced runner-up I was like “Okay, we’re out. I guess we didn’t place Justin.” (laughs) And then they said “I Need a Change” by us and I remember I started jumping up and down and yelled “We actually won!”
Justin: Yeah, when they announced runner-up and it wasn’t us we started walking away and then we heard our names and were just like “What!?” Which was really cool.
Have you had experience with your songs being played on the radio before?
Justin: Before Local Mash there was a show called Southbound with the Seale brothers and I had been on there a couple times with them and they’re great guys.
Amy: Local Mash played “Persuasion” the other day.
Justin: Brad Lyons from Local Mash played “Mama, Don’t You Wait,” a new single we just put out. He’s such a cool guy, and he had some really nice things to say about it.
What was it like the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
Justin: It was surreal. You listen to a song so much and then you realize other people are hearing this song in this moment too, not just me in my headphones or me in a studio. Have you ever seen “That Thing You Do?” That moment, when they hear their song on the radio for the first time and they’re just driving the car and start freaking out? Inwardly that’s what’s happening, I’m freaking out.
One tradition we’ve started this time around is that the winner of the contest becomes a judge in next year’s contest so hopefully you’ll get to be a part of selecting the winner with next year’s theme. What theme do you think we should do for next year’s contest?
Justin: It really would depend on the temperature of the room, what the culture is like, what’s going on. Y’all hit the nail on the head this year. Because for me, [this contest] was a bright spot. Just being able to work on something in a time where I wasn’t able to work on anything. Going toward a goal.
What’s your experience been like producing the song in the Mason Music Recording Studio? Do you enjoy the recording studio process or prefer live?
Justin: I used to be primarily a live guy and, honestly, being in the studio used to throw me off. But, more recently, I’ve gotten into home recording and stuff and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m becoming more of a late-era Beatles kind of person where live is fewer and fewer and studio time is more and more. Particularly with this one, being able to work with someone like Phillip [Blevins] who just gets it. He understands what we’re going for, he gets the feel of the song overall, without even having to communicate. I’m already hearing things, particularly the sound of the drums, the snare. I’m really picky about snare sounds and I didn’t have to communicate or say “let’s take that out.”
Typically people start with the drums to lay a foundation, but when you were in the studio we started with lead vocals. How do you normally like to process through the song, to get it to completion?
Justin: So, the album that we have been working on and that we’re gearing up to release we actually did live, with no click track, and kept about 70% of what we did live and then overdubbed on top of that. I loved that experience. But for like a clean, produced recording, and with this demo in particular, I programmed the drums first. Drums typically would go first for me, especially if I’m tracking individually since they have more natural dynamics, more than just a click track. And then probably bass, and then typically – which is interesting, I think we did a good job of it on this song – I typically wait until the track is almost finished and then do vocals over that. We knew with this song what we wanted.
Is there anything in the submitted track that changed in the final recording of the song that’ll be played on the radio?
Justin: We added more to the outro. In the demo it’s just me, vocally. Since Amy sings and she’s in the band, we played with other vocal parts and added choir vocals behind some of that stuff. Keeping with the less is more but filling out the space with stuff that catches the ear and surprises you a little bit.
Interested in submitting a song in Mason Music’s Magic City Songwriting Contest? Visit our contest page for all the details.
Get more music news on Mason Music’s blog.