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Justin Lewis

The Kid With the Old Soul Looks Forward

By Kevin Gibson

He's only 22, but Justin Lewis looks worn out on this evening. He's arrived later than expected for an opening set at a local tavern, and he's busy talking with the headlining act and also being accosted by a stranger who wants his attention.

But he handles the situation with patience and explains to the newcomer that the folks in charge of the show he had just left had asked him to play over, and he agreed to. This threw him later than he had hoped, and thus he ended up playing only a few songs before the headlining act, Hambone, took the stage.

"I think my schedule is catching up with me," Lewis later admitted.

Justin Lewis is a young man in demand. He's been playing crazy amounts of gigs and has a new album out titled, appropriately, Man in Motion, which will be officially released October 9 at Stevie Ray's.

Justin Lewis

This young man, a relatively slight fellow who likes to perform barefoot and sports what looks like a half-mown beard, is in demand right now. This is the case largely because he's doing things people don't naturally expect him to do based on his appearance and age -- things like sing John Mayer songs or dump his angst into over-compressed pop tunes.

No, when this guy grabs an acoustic guitar and starts to sing, you picture an elderly man, his soul darkened by years of tough breaks. Close your eyes and you're in Memphis on a street corner searching for some change to dribble into the old man's tattered guitar case.

"I don't know where it comes from," he said. "People ask me that sometimes. It's an old blues man voice."

Justin Lewis

He said the first comparison he heard was to the voice of Tom Waits. He's also heard Ray LaMontagne and even Mayer.

"I hate the John Mayer reference," Lewis said. "I don't think I sound anything like John Mayer. I think it's because I'm a young guy with an acoustic guitar. I've heard Louis Armstrong a lot, which I was really happy about."

He's actually been accused of faking his deep, throaty delivery; he even admits that perhaps, early on, he was trying a bit too hard to mimic the singers he loved. This didn't win him any friends in the choir while he was first getting into music at DeSales High School.

"I definitely grew up on bluegrass and old blues -- Robert Johnson, Stevie Ray Vaughn. I got into Louis Armstrong in high school. I didn't say much about it then because I went to an all-guy high school. It was like, ‘What, you don't listen to Metallica?'"

He even admits that he was a bit tone deaf at that point, which wasn't helping. But ultimately his voice was influence meeting nature halfway. He said he gets less and less conscious of his delivery as time goes by, and comparing his live act with his recording (which has been in the can for a while) reveals truth in this.

"I think the [sound of the] old recordings is what I was trying to sing," he said. "I was trying to be somebody that I wasn't. I was trying to sing a totally different way."

He's had to defend the fact that he has settled into a natural delivery that still sounds a lot like the old Memphis blues singer; he entered a Beatles singing contest at Abbey Road on the River back in May and didn't make it past the first round because one of the judges thought he was faking his voice when he sang "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)."

He conferred with other judges and defended his case that he was simply a blues singer, and that's just how he sounds. Something he said worked, because that evening he received an e-mail inviting him back for the next round.

"I came back the next day and made it to the finals, and the judge realized I wasn't really faking it," he said.

Lewis's friend and mentor, Leigh Ann Yost, another Louisville singer-songwriter, even had to get through initial disbelief, even though she immediately liked Lewis and his music.

He sounds like a 70-year-old man," Yost said. "At first, I thought he was pushing it out, but after I have known him for so long now and see him for his whole person, he's singing with feeling. He is an old soul. He has the grace of a seasoned musician, and he is one of the most genuine people I have ever met."

ON THE RISE

Lewis is a guy who makes friends fast. Ask anybody, because, well, chances are they are his friend. Musically speaking, it started with a teacher. Hank Sinatra not only taught Lewis the sciences in high school but he directed the pep band and the pep band played rock 'n' roll. It wasn't long before Lewis had found a friend in Sinatra.

"I was a sophomore," Lewis said. "This was before I ever bought a guitar or anything. I had an astronomy class [taught by Lewis], and I was obsessed with the guy; he was so cool. I told him, ‘I'm going to join the pep band next year.' I knew like one chord."

Lewis said that while Sinatra was a friend and mentor, it wasn't that his teacher sat down and taught him directly; it was by example that Lewis learned. Lewis played rhythm guitar in the pep band his junior year, and he learned partly by watching Sinatra play.

"I idolized him," Lewis said. "He definitely inspired me."

And it wasn't because of what he was learning in class, either.

"I wasn't very good at chemistry," he said. "I hated it. I would be sitting in his class reading guitar magazines."

Lewis decided he wanted to play lead in the band as a senior. And he spent hours and hours a day learning Led Zeppelin songs, learning to play lead guitar, learning to play everything exactly right, just like his idol. His work paid off he played lead and turned into the guitar player he wanted to be.

Sinatra recalls meeting Lewis as a sophomore and his return as a rhythm guitar player as a junior; he notes it was "nothing special."

"But the Justin that came back for his senior year was amazing," Sinatra said. "I've never seen someone improve so much over three months."

And then Lewis graduated. No more pep band.

"I didn't know what to do," he said. So he decided to start writing songs something he said he also partially owes to Sinatra's influence.

"One time at pep band practice he was going through some tunes on his laptop," Lewis said. "He played a song and said, ‘This is one of my songs from a band I was in.' That's when it hit me that, oh, songwriting is where it's at."

And this was also a seminal time for Lewis, because his affinity for the acoustic guitar began to truly emerge. When playing rock covers in the pep band, you have to play electric to get the right sounds and to make sure you can be heard over the tuba. But if you're going to sit down and write a song, well, it's a different story. No need for an amp if you're in a room alone. And there certainly is no tuba to contend with.

He had an acoustic and an electric, but he found himself playing unplugged more and more.

"There was something about acoustic guitar," Lewis said.

Initially, he had an ambition to be a studio guitar player. But he started listening to more and more singer-songwriters, people like Nick Drake, and a new direction emerged. That's what led him to start poking his head in at open-mic nights, and that's when he started meeting the friends and mentors who continue to help him out today.

ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING

When you show up at an open-mic night with a polished delivery, a great voice and a batch of good songs, you're going to get a good welcome from not only the audience, but the host. If you show up with a positive attitude and genuine demeanor, you're going to make friends.

Singer-songwriter Butch Rice jammed with Lewis at a Stevie Ray's open-mic night and then officially met him later on. He was not only impressed with Lewis' chops, but his personality.

"Justin is genuine and kind sincere," Rice said. "He really seems to care about folks. That's a rare thing. It shows in his lyrics and performance. You can feel it as you watch him slip into the moment of a song, closing his eyes, stomping his feet in rhythm."

Yost liked him enough after meeting him under similar circumstances that she has since helped Lewis promote himself and get his music heard.

"I've kind of passed a prime -- I'll be 40 next year -- so it makes sense to me to help younger generations navigate the system," Yost said. "There's definitely a science in Louisville as to how to release your debut CD. … Justin is the most grateful person I have ever met."

"I did an open mic with Leigh Ann and I said, ‘Holy shit, who is this woman?'" Lewis said. "I was star struck. She got me to go to Stevie Ray's open mic, and that's where I met Teneia (Sanders). She's the one who told me to keep it up, her and Danny Flanigan. They've given me inspiration."

Lewis had met the latter when he sold Flanigan some shoes at Swags in south Louisville, where Lewis has worked for nearly seven years. It isn't always about the open-mic night but about your attitude.

Sanders, who has since moved out of town, said Lewis showed up at one of her open-mic gigs "wide eyed, kind and eager to play and listen. He was such a sweet guy, we immediately became friends. He's like a brother to me."

BUT CRAFT COUNTS TOO

Now promoting an album, playing regionally and looking toward a promising future making music on a grander scale, Lewis says things have actually progressed already in terms of his songwriting methods.

He has a strong array of cover tunes he can readily perform he does a startlingly good version of "Fire and Rain" and also has an affinity for the Beatles' "Across the Universe" -- but said he wants to move forward with his own compositions.

"I've been trying to stay out of the cover song scene," he said. "I know cover songs are where the money is, but my goal is to really focus on the original stuff."

And for good reason; WFPK is playing his new CD, and all the support he is getting from his peers speaks volumes. And this is a guy who is just getting started. Old soul, indeed.

"Justin's greatest strength to me, musically, is the way he can rope in an audience by playing just one measure of a song," Yost said. "He plays with as much rhythm as he does melody. I think that's so cool. I think people are most surprised by his young, boyish looks, and that uncharacteristic soulful voice that comes out. He's got a great love of the trade, and it shows with every song he plays."

Sanders gushes similarly: "What I like about Justin's music is he is so passionate. He is an observer, and I think the things that he's loved growing up shows up in the way he gets his songs across -- which is refreshing because there are so many genres that he loves."

She notes also that this passion is backed by his talent as a guitar player.

Man in Motion is filled with descriptive, melodic songs that clearly come from the songwriter's gut. His vocal delivery and natural melodic songwriting style underscore the lyrics he puts down.

"As a songwriter," Sanders said, "Justin is very real and simple. He can tell a story and take you on a journey with him and that's what is special about his writing. He doesn't complicate things lyrically; he just leads you with his songs like it's a conversation with a friend."

The CD was recorded in a friend's home studio in Breckinridge County, and he said the vocals were actually recorded quite some time ago the album apparently was originally meant to be released earlier this year.

"It's been a long time coming," he said. "I'm really happy with the production quality. Justin Spencer did it in his house, and he did a splendid job."

The musicianship and vocal accompaniment also help lift the project up and bring Lewis' songs forth in a captivating way. However, he said his songwriting is already evolving from when the songs on the album were composed.

"I'm working more lyrically," he said. "I'm learning the science behind [songwriting]. All the songs on the CD I just wrote on a whim. But I've been studying a lot about the science of songwriting -- not commercially, but how to construct songs."

He expects his next effort to be more stripped down, more in the traditional singer-songwriter vein. The current songs, he said, sprang from his time trying to learn how to be a songwriter. He points to "Kane," the album's opener, as one of his favorites.

"For a long time, I was overly trying to be a songwriter, trying to be so deep," he said. "But I got frustrated and that's when ‘Kane' came about. Around that time I was trying to stay away from love songs and that ended up being love song-esque, I guess. But I play it in every set now."

He also points to "Break My Fall," which is a bit more metaphorical than many of his early tunes. "There's one line where I talk about a three-story apartment. I guess the feeling I was having then was like I was falling.

"To be honest, all these songs I wrote pretty unconsciously. I didn't put much thought into it until after I wrote it. Then I was like, ‘What does this all mean?' Now I'm thinking about it word for word, ahead of time."

But now, he said he writes songs and song snippets almost constantly or at least every chance he gets. School (he's a sociology major at U of L), a part-time job and a busy performing schedule can compromise opportunity. But they can't compromise function.

"Before school started up I was starting to write like crazy," he said. "Some people get massages and eat expensive meals for their treats, and I turn to songwriting. I use my cell phone and talk into it about song ideas. Some of it doesn't even make sense when I listen to it months later."

He also said he is going to chart out the next album; whereas Man in Motion is primarily just a collection of random songs, he wants a theme in the next one. And his current run of creativity, he hopes, means he can release another one in 2010.

"Next time I'm going to write as much as I can," he said. "I think on the next record I'll be a lot more happy with it lyrically."

That's if his schedule doesn't kill him first. Thing is, he isn't complaining. He's getting local radio play, he's getting plenty of offers and he has the support of a town full of musical friends. He's also starting to look farther down the road than he used to.

While it is tiring to keep pushing forward he played five shows during one week in August he's getting a great response, which keeps him going. "I've been really struck with how many shows I've played, and the reception I've been getting."

But he is quick to point out that his primary driver is the fact that he enjoys making music so much.

"It's now coming to the point where this could possibly be business for me, but it's going to be fun too," he said. "I never thought this would be a job until probably this month. I thought ‘Wow, this is a business.' I'm making a little bit of headway, and I'm rally enjoying it."