Justin Osborne of SUSTO brings a worldliness to Americana music

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Justin Osborne. Charleston, South Carolina.

The definition of American music is always changing. In the early 1900s, the birth of jazz characterized the country musically; the 1950s saw the rise of rock and roll and out of the 1970s came the creation of hip hop. In today’s world, the definition of American music seems to be much more inclusive than the narrow genre categories of the past. Charleston-based band SUSTO most certainly seems to embody this with their genre-defying records, meaningful lyrics and ability to adapt to a constantly shifting musical landscape while still maintaining their unique sound.

SUSTO was created in 2012 and has been making thought-provoking records ever since. The band developed originally out of a solo project, as front man Justin Osborne described.

“I had been in this other band for a long time, around 2008 to 2012, and I was ready to quit that,” Osborne said. “I had these new songs and started working on a solo side project. I started playing with people (through that) and that’s how we started doing some of my first shows and made the first album. Different people had been in and out of the band along the way, kind of helping me out, kind of jumping on and off the train. To describe the dynamic of the band, it’s like my project with different people coming in and out but with a steady cast.”

Osborne has been fascinated with music from a young age. When he was 14 years old he began writing songs, and his interest in singing, songwriting and performing continued from there. Growing up in South Carolina influenced Osborne both musically and personally.

“The approach (to our music) of storytelling and true narratives (is influenced by the South),” Osborne said. “All of our songs are autobiographical, or they’re about something that I’ve experienced through someone I know or my background. Just on our last record there were some social topics that we were addressing that were particularly about growing up in the South.”

“I think musically, too, as children we were just surrounded by a lot of great music. Growing up, music was very important,” Osborne continued. “We were always playing music on the radio. I think that has definitely been an influence. At the same time, I don’t feel like we’re a Southern rock band. Living in Charleston and being by the beach I think might have even more of an influence sonically, just because we also have that beach vibe.”

This mix of rock, country, beach and countless other vibes can easily be explained by Osborne’s wide range of musical influences. From Bob Marley to Cat Powers to even more recent indie bands like The War on Drugs and Phosphorescent, it’s clear that the variation in what Osborne listens to most certainly influences the variation in his own work.

“I never felt like I’m a country singer or I’m a rock-and-roller or I’m a DJ. It always felt like I was kind of in the middle of a bunch of things, in terms of what style I had and what I wanted to create. I think a lot of those influences would come together whenever I was creating,” Osborne explained in regard to SUSTO’s genre-defying nature. “When I write songs, I don’t really think too much about how it’s going to sound genre-wise, I just write the songs on my piano or guitar. When I get in the studio, we figure out how to make the songs feel cool by taking and mixing them through all these different, kind of funny landscapes, like listening to a punk song and mixing a slow ballad.”

“For me that’s what makes a record interesting,” Osborne said. “If every song sounds the same, you’re less likely to listen through all 12 songs. But if (the songs) are different and take you on an interesting trip, you’re more likely to enjoy the duration of the record. I think if you make the same type of album over and over and over, it’s gonna lose appeal. We’re always trying to reinvent ourselves a little bit, like using the same palette but creating a different painting or making a different mood.”

This reinvention is set to happen again with the release of SUSTO’s newest LP, entitled “Ever Since I Lost My Mind,” out on Feb. 22 via Rounder Records. Two teaser tracks for the upcoming album, “If I Was” and “Esta Bien,” already provide a preview of an exciting array of musical and lyrical content.

Travel has always been an important influence in both Osborne’s personal and musical life, and this theme comes out in the track “Esta Bien,” written and sung entirely in Spanish.

“When I started the band, I was living in Havana, (Cuba), so Latin countries are an important market for me. At the same time, I’m American, so I’m not just going to be writing (everything) in Spanish, but I thought it would be cool to do one song,” Osborne said.

This track, in addition to the upcoming LP as a whole, has a slightly political slant to it. “The message of the song is very much about friendship and being there for each other. All of this stuff was (inspired) by the Trump era,” Osborne described. “So, for me I wanted to be a gringo coming to the table, singing this song just to show that the culture and the people outside of the United States matter to me. I grew up with a lot of people saying (negative things) and I just wanted to put that song out there in the world to create a different narrative. I know that narrative is already out there, but I wanted to add my voice to it. We’re not all saying ‘build a wall.’”

The themes of the album itself have to do with the ideas of acceptance, multicultural understanding and travel introduced in “Esta Bien.”

“Ever Since I Lost My Mind” was created in a different manner than past SUSTO records. The album was produced by Ian Fitchuk, who has worked with Kacey Musgraves.

“Because we had a label behind us and a producer and a studio, I feel like we were more prepared than I’d ever been to make a record,” Osborne said. “I already had a lot of songs written and I feel like there’s a cohesive storyline going on; or not exactly a story but a vibe. I’ve been writing songs for a very long time, like over half my life, and it feels like (this record) is a moment I’ve been working towards creatively and so I’m really excited to share it with the world.”

“I don’t really make music for other people. I’m lucky that other people are listening to it because it allows me to do it, but I make it for myself,” Osborne said. “Once it’s out there, I hope people enjoy it and that it maybe uplifts people. (I hope it) gives them some hope to know that there are people out there feeling the same way they are. I want people to know me, I want to put myself out there and for people to hear what I’m saying.”

We certainly hear Justin Osborne and the rest of SUSTO, and we like what we hear.


Lucie Turkel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lucie.turkel@uconn.edu.

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