JJ Grey explores his soul to create music

JJ GreyJJ Grey and his Mofro bandmates have been putting out some of the most consistently great albums for the past 15 years. Their music pairs Grey’s honest lyrics and captivating singing with his group’s soulful arrangements and playing into a ripe concoction that continues to floor audiences.

It is no wonder that the band’s best album always seems to be its most recent offering, and its latest “Ol’ Glory” is wearing the crown now. The album captures the band channeling the sounds of Muscle Shoals, Otis Redding and ’60s and ’70s soul in higher definition than in past records. Grey contributed this to a lifelong journey toward honesty and self-acceptance when he talked to Tahoe Onstage about the new record and his approach to live music in preparation for his Friday, May 22 stop at Cargo in Reno.

“For me to listen to (“Ol’ Glory”) is like hearing yourself on someone else’s answering machine leaving a message. To be honest with you, I’ve been trying to make every record sound like that for years. This is the first one,” said Grey, going on to point out how he grew up on the music of the ’60s and ’70s and prefers the way music was arranged, recorded and played then. This has led to a natural comparison between Mofro and the sounds of that era.

But Grey is not trying to recreate something from the past. He is just showing up for work with an open mind and seeing where it leads. He noted he sees his process for making music as having two components. One component was putting in the time and hard work of practicing your craft and exercising your talents. The second, more important component, was being present in the moment and allowing yourself the space to open up to possibilities.

“There is nothing that I set out specifically to do. … I liken it to going out for an evening to have fun with some friends. If everything is so specific like, ‘OK we’re going to go to this restaurant and meet at 7 p.m., and we are going to have this for dinner, and then we are going to leave here and have three drinks at this place, and then drinks at this place, and then I am going to say this and you are going to say that,’ you know it wouldn’t be fun at all. The idea is that let’s just meet at 7 p.m. and see what happens. I see music the same way,” Grey said.

JJ GreyHowever, Grey has found that being present is not possible until you can accept who you are, something that he admitted has been something he has had to work on. It is an ongoing journey toward honesty and self-acceptance.

“All these things are elusive only because I get in my own way and stop it from happening, it must be the same for everybody,” Grey said. “It is always there, a good time, or a good feeling, or something that you want to do, it is always there. All you got to do is be you. But so often we are not always ourselves, we are the idea of ourselves, we are the caricatures of ourselves. If you get caught up in that, it is a prison. I feel fortunate that I’ve become aware of that and I try to avoid it.”

Grey took his struggle of self-acceptance and put it to tape in the uplifting “Every Minute” off his latest album, which opens up with him singing, “I tried so hard to be the person everybody thought I was.” Grey said the inspiration for the song came when he was having breakfast on Jam Cruise, a three-day musical festival set on a cruise ship bound for Jamaica. As he put it, he had come on the ship with a chip on his shoulder and a head full of problems. But after taking in the fact he was basking in the sun on the deck of a cruise ship off Jamaica, having breakfast with his friends from Galactic, Grey said he had a moment of clarity in which he realized all of his energy was being directed toward made-up problems in his head instead of focusing on the wonderful moment he was living in.

The emotional honesty Grey’s lyrics convey in “Every Minute” and the rest of his catalog is part of a grander search for a true connection between people. Grey believes the root of the concert experience is not to be blown away by the talent or spectacle you see in whirring guitar solos or psychedelic light shows, but rather sharing an honest moment with others.

“I want a show to be conversation,” he said. “Two people really meeting, instead of a used car salesman or somebody yelling at you over and over again to try and trick you into thinking more happened than it actually did.

“You go to a show and you forget about yourself, you forget about the idea of yourself, you forget about the idea of everything. It doesn’t happen at every show, but you let go and there you are. It’s real and you enjoy it and you share it with everybody in the world, and everybody in the room, and everybody on stage. And that is the reason I do music and I want an album to feel like that.”

Grey will have the chance to have a lot of conversations with audiences as he continues to support “Ol’ Glory” with a tour across the West Coast at festivals and clubs through May and a European tour in July. With the success of “Ol’ Glory” and a bevy of songs to choose from across six albums, JJ Grey and Mofro will have a lot to say.

  • JJ Grey and Mofro
    Opener: Mark Sexton Band
    When: 8 p.m. Friday, May 22; doors open at 7
    Where: Cargo in the Whitney Peak Hotel, Reno
    Tickets: $25, general admission
    Purchase: LINK

About Garrett Bethmann

Garrett Bethmann is a graduate of University of Mary Washington with a degree in English. He moved to Lake Tahoe in summer 2012.

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