Interview: John Paul Keith on Memphis Sounds, Dual Albums, and Honesty


When John Paul Keith called Americana Highways on the phone, he was in Austin for South by Southwest, where he reports that he saw a horse and a mule tied up out in front of his first gig. People rode them to the gig. “Maybe you can’t get a DUI on one of those,” he quipped. How has SXSW been this year, I asked him. “It’s been great, we had a lot of chances to play in front of people, we are on our way to Richardson, Texas then Oklahoma City, and then back to SXSW again at the end of the week.”

John Paul Keith has achieved the rare feat of twin delivery; he has two albums both coming out today. As a member of Motel Mirrors, with Amy LaVere and Will Sexton, and Shawn Zorn on drums, he’s releasing In the Meantime along with his own solo album Heart Shaped Shadow.  “We recorded the Motel Mirrors record first, it’s been waiting to be released, and the plan was to record it and then find a label. Because of our tour schedules and, just, our lives, it took way too long but in the interim, I went ahead and made my new one. We did my solo album in the same studio we had recorded the Motel Mirrors album, with Will Sexton producing, and the same drummer, Shawn Zorn, and Amy played bass on a couple of my tracks. Same studio, same engineer. But they are very different records.”

“Maybe my solo album could have been called “In the Meantime” instead (laughs). It’s a little unorthodox, but neither of us have had a release since 2013, we decided to put them both out at the same time on Last Chance Records.”

Keith’s tone waxes confidential, as he says some of the reason it takes so long is physical production time. “If people didn’t care about vinyl, I could put out more records, it’s expensive and it’s extremely labor intensive. The process for making vinyl is so complicated. The first plant we used sent the plates to Eastern Europe to be pressed. If you could just do digital downloads and print cds it’d be a lot faster and more efficient.“

“There are some dirty little secrets about modern vinyl: it doesn’t matter that it’s been recorded on vinyl, it’s been digitized along the way. Either the artist recorded it digitally – that’s 90 percent of artists — or even if you do record them on analogue– we recorded our album completely on 1 inch 8-track tape and they were mixed to ¼ inch so we didn’t use a computer at all — but when you get to mastering you will still have to digitize them. There are only a handful of people in the country who can master analogue to analogue and to the lathe for vinyl; so the vinyl was still digitized during the mastering process.“

“I love vinyl and I listen on vinyl, so I totally understand the appeal. It’s a physical object, it’s a totem, the artwork is way cooler. It’s more about the aesthetic ritual of playing the vinyl. But I will say I can hear surface noise on vinyl a lot of the time. I’m not even talking about the crackly sound. The 12 inchers seem to have them. The 10 inchers seems to sound better, I think maybe the machine used to press the 10 inch ones isn’t used as often and was in better condition. Old records back in the day, of course were warmer.”

“This is why I’m a little cynical about vinyl nowadays, it’s a catch-22. I could put out more music faster without everything the vinyl requires and the length of time that it takes to make, ship, etcetera. It’s fun, but not so much when you’re impatient, but then it’s cool when it’s finished.” (laughs)

What was the writing process for the albums, I asked. “I was at kind of a loss creatively before starting work on In the Meantime. That was the first time I had worked with Will Sexton in the studio. Amy and Will tour as a duo; they were in town for a week or two and we only had a short window of time to work on the album; we’d get together around dinnertime and cook and write songs in their kitchen and then we’d eat. I’d never done anything like that, collaborated like that, it was an intense creative process. Will brought things out in my songwriting that had been dormant – more honest stuff.“

“I opened up and learned to just write through difficult things. For the song “Funerals in New Orleans,” we got the news a friend of ours had died, literally during one of those days we were sitting around that table. And writing about it was part of the grieving process for me.”

I chimed in that his song about the “901 Number”, with its vocals like a mid 20th century Franki Valli, and lyrics “if you get a call from a 901 number, you’ll know it’s me … just let it ring ‘cause I’ll only be crying” is incredibly sad. Keith responded. “That song is directly from my life. You know how John Lennon wrote the song “Norwegian Wood;” it was about a one night stand he had when he was married to his first wife, and he didn’t want her to know what it was about. I’ve been that way too, veiling my meanings; I used to have to write like that too, but when we did the Mirrors record it was much more honest and I just let it all out. “

“”901 Number” is on my solo album, but it’s related because once we finished the Mirrors album I wanted to keep going in that direction, and by that point I had my confidence back. That song is straight out of my life, that’s something I lived. I realized also that when you hide that stuff, when you veil that stuff, then you’re shortchanging your songs.   Sometimes you can draw on the past to write or you can make something up altogether, but you have to express real emotions because otherwise what’s the point? The best way to write songs that other people can relate to is to be honest.”

Your album was recorded in Memphis, what’s your takeaway about what’s unique about the Memphis sound?  “There is more than one Memphis sound. There’s the rockabilly 1950’s stuff you associate with Sun Studio, and then there’s the stuff most people associate with Memphis, which is the Stax sound – Otis Redding and the High Records sound – with horns and a lot of organ: Booker T and the MGs, Al Green.   But there’s other Memphis stuff, Big Star was from Memphis — Ardent Studio is holy ground for power pop people.   Memphis has also had a garage punk scene in the 90s with Jack Oblivian. And Memphis has one of the hottest rap scenes in the country right now too. I mean, Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar!”

“There are so many Memphis sounds. The ones I draw on are primarily from the mid 20th century, the Sun Records, the Stax and High Records sounds. The Mirrors one is more influenced by the Sun Records, Johnny Cash acoustic guitar based stuff, and my Heart Shaped Shadow is more influenced by the Stax stuff. I got my toe in the water working with horns, I’ve never done that before.”

What’s on the horizon for you coming up this spring? “I’ve started playing on Beale Street in Memphis which is something I haven’t done much before. I’ve been doing my show on Beale Street with the horn section playing for tourists from all over the world. There’s Twangfest in St. Louis in June, and then I am heading to Europe in the fall. Also I want to start my next record as soon as I can.   I am enjoying writing now and it’s become my therapy, this is how I get through life now.”

“I’m chomping at the bit. (laughs) See I’m bringing it back to a horse metaphor, to those mules and horses parked at my gig!” Nice artistic sensibility. Check out John Paul Keith’s TWIN new albums, out today! Right here:




Leave a Reply!