Justin Saladino Plumbs Emotional Depths for Honest Lies
Canadian outfit Justin Saladino Band recently released their second studio album, Honest Lies, which follows on from a live album that arrived in 2020 and builds on their debut full-length, A Fool’s Heart. While the first album was more pop-leaning, audiences will notice that Honest Lies is a Rock-inflected enterprise, but it’s one that builds on a core ear for melody and a determination to reach listeners lyrically. It’s an album that’s open about heavier subjects like emotional distance, suffering, and self-doubt, and also occasionally brings in themes from the outer world, like political strife.
Combining these thematic and sound elements was a specific choice for Justin Saladino, who worked intensely on his vocal range to deliver more emotive possibilities on the new collection, but he also sought out Ariel Posen of The Bros. Landreth to be the album’s producer. Seeing Posen’s approach to his own vocal and guitar-driven work, Saladino hoped he could bring out each song’s potential more fully. The team up was clearly fortuitous as Honest Lies delivers Saladino’s most direct and energetic work to date. I spoke with Justin Saladino about reaching new heights and depths in order to create Honest Lies.
Americana Highways: I was already familiar with A Fool’s Heart and now I see that you also released a live album before this new collection, Honest Lies.
Justin Saladino: We had two great summers out playing following A Fool’s Heart and we kept thinking “Oh, we should have recorded that!” So we finally hired people to do that. We now have a keyboard player and back vocals who are really in the family and we did that to bring us to a fuller, less studio sound.
I would say that with this album, Honest Lies, we tried to recapture that live album sound, but in the context of a “polished” album. The album is certainly heavily produced, with lots of layers, but I don’t think people would call it over-produced. But we preserved that “going for it” quality which we have on the live album. It’s been an amazing project because I feel that this helped us put our finger on what our sound is before we even knew what our sound was.
AH: So you feel that making this album helped define that sound?
JS: Big time. The more people who I’ve previewed this album to, the more people have been calling it Americana. I was hanging with a friend who is much more an Americana artist than I am, and she said that could hear more of the country scene. A big part of that was choosing an American roots melting pot for the album. I try not to think too much about style when I write, I just try to think about what the song is.
AH: By contrast, how did people tend to describe your first album to you?
JS: Some people have said that the last album was a little “polite” compared to the live album and this album. I saw some comments comparing it to John Mayer, and I’ll take that. We were referencing Continuum, Mayer and Chris Stapleton’s first album in the studio, and that sound is pretty clean. That was the vibe I was going for back then, a little more pop inflected with a strong focus on melodies. As a first album, it was exploratory. But the difference is that Honest Lies is a lot more of a Rock album, with more cojones, and more meat on the bone. There’s more distortion, more open chords on the guitar, and things you might associate with Rock.
AH: I always felt that you were heading towards Americana, but I can definitely see the country and rock on this album. Also, I’m a big fan of 60s and 70s music, and I can hear that influence here, too.
JS: It started with the bass and drums for us. We really practiced a lot as a core trio, since that’s how the album was recorded, and the bass and drums did 9 songs on the first day, which was crazy! I think a big part of the live element comes from that. A lot of the feel of the drums comes from my drummer. We didn’t over-tune things, like the vocals, to make it super bright. We wanted to keep things feeling natural and open.
AH: I heard that you really wanted to work with Ariel Posen as producer. I’m assuming that you hoped to learn from him or take your music to a slightly different place with him. Did that wish come true?
JS: It really did. I had heard people locally in the scene talking about Ariel. I think I learned a lot about that next step of professionalism from him in so many ways. That’s not to take away from him as a producer since that also was above and beyond, but at the time, he actually hadn’t produced a ton of records yet. He’s doing more and more now. I got to learn about him as the guy behind his project, which is similar to what I’m doing, which is a relatively independent project led by a singer/guitarist that is very guitar-forward, but with strong emphasis on the songs. We really connected on the fact that we both think the song is of the highest importance. Just seeing the way he navigates his career, organizes things, and pushes projects forward, that alone was huge for me. He’s a complete workhorse.
But as a guitarist, having him as producer meant I had him directing some of the guitar parts, and helping to structure the layers, and telling me when I’m playing too much and too little. He told me why I should think in certain ways at certain points, and once I saw all the layers together, it made so much sense. There were things I was maybe even hesitant about, but when I saw it later, I knew that was the result of having so many years of experience making records. I also think he got a lot out of my vocals and a lot out of the band.
AH: I was going to ask about vocals, because it seems like you must have had to develop new approaches to make an album that sounds like this and deals with these themes. I noticed a lot of different ranges and directions for the vocals, even within the same songs, occasionally.
JS: The way that Ariel sings also opened up the softer side of things, which was more what I was going for on A Fool’s Heart, with more soul and pop inflections. I really appreciate that you point this out, though, because when lockdowns happened, one of the first things that I worked on, sometimes two to six hours a day, were my vocals. That was mostly through watching videos on Youtube and learning how to belt and reach higher ranges in a full voice. I was looking at guys like Ian Thornley of Big Wreck, which is an amazing Canadian band.
I was looking at Chris Cornell and singers that have a baritone voice, like me, but manage to access these higher ranges by really cranking it. I worked on that for hours. That was such a new development for me with this record. A lot of the influences on this record called for it. There was a foreshadowing of that in my practice, in my lyrics, and in the overall vibe of the songs.
AH: I’d be surprised if people don’t notice that on this album. The vocals feel significant to the emotions and the ideas that you’re bringing in. I can see the different choices you’re making on this album because I’ve heard and seen the different versions of “Sink or Swim” between the acoustic and album version. It’s a big range of choices.
JS: One of the big things on the album was to be “imperfect.” It’s the idea of not tuning every line and going in with a scalpel. We were definitely surgical, but leaving in that humanness was important. On songs like “Let You Go,” in the intro, that’s the first time on the record that I really tried to capture a bit of a broken voice. I succeeded, and when I hear it back, I was doubting myself. But that’s when Ariel came in and said, “This is good. This is really human. We can feel the emotion.” I’m super-grateful that he did that, because we can be our own worst critics to the point of removing something that’s special. It has feeling to it. Ariel kept my confidence high and that’s a big job for producers.
AH: I’m sure that’s even more necessary in the times we’ve been living through.
JS: It was a rough few years, pandemic aside. As everyone can hear on the album, a break up happened, then there were the financial struggles of the pandemic. I also have dealt with some health issues, since I’ve always had a bad stomach, and I lost something like 15 pounds. I went to see doctors for a few months, and they couldn’t figure it out. It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life, but people were worried about me during the pandemic. I went super health conscious with my diet, and it was a struggle. That partly delayed doing the album, but I think when I hear the album, I can hear that in there. There was definitely more suffering than the previous record! [Laughs]
AH: The timing must have been so frustrating. Health stuff always seems to have the worst timing.
JS: It does, and I think that’s because we are very directed by our emotions and that contributes to triggering stuff in our body. When I look back, there was also anxiety because we released our live album one week before the pandemic, and then couldn’t support it. Making the album became a do or die situation, and that’s also why “Sink or Swim” is the first single. I feel like it represents the album well, too, because it’s not about a hopeless sadness. It’s about having your back against the wall and wondering “What are you going to do about it, man?” There’s a kind of triumphant aspect to the album, too. That was there in putting “Don’t Worry ‘Bout It” last on the album, too, since there was a bit of us saying, “We made it.”
AH: There’s a lot of suffering on the album, but it also feels like there’s a determination to figure things out.
JS: I think some of it was also a grieving period during the pandemic for my music, and for other musicians, for my friends’ careers in the music scene.
AH: That’s totally valid. I feel like that comes out in some of the songs, acknowledging the feelings that are there, rather than brushing them under the carpet. I noticed that sometimes when the lyrics are particularly heavy, some of the guitar parts that accompany them feel more hopeful. Sometimes that would flip to the opposite, but they seemed like they were in counter-balance.
JS: I agree. That’s a great point.
AH: “Let You Go” is a very different song from “Sink or Swim.” There’s a lot of determination in that song, too, if you really look at it, though.
JS: It’s funny, because I started working on those lyrics when I started working on my first EP, so they’ve been sitting. But that’s perfect for what the song is about, which is that inner voice. I haven’t been able to figure out how to silence that inner voice of self-doubt, or deprecation, or negativity, since then. That’s a lifelong struggle for most people. The lyrics fit and I remember having them in the back of my head as something that felt genuine. I found the music that accompanied it and I think they made a perfect marriage.
From there, the whole theme of the album developed without meaning to. I wouldn’t call it a concept record, but there are a lot of overlapping ideas and feelings, and “Let You Go” lent itself to that. As my band would say, it also felt “very Saladino.” It had chords that were colorful and a little out there. I like to put contrasting sections together and play with harmony to pique curiosity. I was really proud of “Let You Go.” The aspect of there being slide guitar and the whole vibe makes me love that song. I find that you put the song on, and it takes you to a place immediately. It’s cool when a song does that. I’m not really even sure how to do that, but it just happens.
Thanks very music for chatting with us, Justin Saladino. Music fans can find more information and tour dates here: https://www.justinsaladinoband.com
Find earlier coverage here: Grooves & Cuts August 2022