It is the warmest the city has been this year, one of those mid-winter days in Charleston that seems like summer is within easy grasp. I'm at Justin Osborne's house at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, a day I'd normally spend in front of a computer screen. Instead, I'm tagging along with the musician for a few hours — and, OK, eventually a few beers, too — to experience what life's like for him right now and his ever-evolving, rapidly growing project, SUSTO. The band recently garnered attention from the likes of Rolling Stone ahead of the release of the project's third LP, Ever Since I Lost My Mind, out Fri. Feb. 22, and he's gearing up for a long stretch of tour dates both stateside and abroad (which began with a surprise solo show at the Royal American this past Tuesday).
So while a sunny day away from the desk feels like play for myself, there's a lot of work to be done for a guy who's about to unleash his most personal collection of songs yet. Being a working musician isn't the life you see on Instagram — it's more than new places every day and living out your passion on a stage. It's all that, but also, today alone, there's merch to order, a stage banner to decide on, gear to get organized for travel; there's a meeting with management and a new band member; there are new songs to rehearse, photos to pose for, and, ahem, interviews to endure; and there are little details rock 'n' rollers like Osborne must check off the to-do list, things us mere mortals never consider — like recording 'liners' for Spotify and Pandora.
"Hey, this is Justin from SUSTO — you're listening to 'Homeboy' from my new album Ever Since I Lost My Mind, out now. Click on the banner to hear the rest of the album." Osborne downplays the task of recording promo spots for the world's leading streaming platforms as 'boring,' but he also knows it's details like these that help the whole machine — this release tour — come together. Even when there are no shows or albums to push, the early a.m. is still a cherished work space for the songwriter, when lyrics first spark, and catch fire. In creating Ever Since I Lost My Mind, Osborne spent most mornings right here at home, downtown, an arm's reach from his favorite caffeine provider. He'd sometimes crank out three, four tracks in a day.
SUSTO's most recent single, the upbeat, earworm-heavy, airwaves-ready "Last Century," was written on one such day. "Exercise in the early morning, let's try and get one for the radio," Osborne sings in the first line of the track, referring to the band's label, Rounder Records. "They'd always say, 'Keep writing until you're in the studio — you never know what's gonna come out,'" he says. "I'd taken my wife to work, got home, got coffee, got stoned. I started writing and pressed record and that song came out just as it is."
Much like what I'm hoping to get a glimpse of today, the track is a vision of an average day for Osborne, also detailing an intimate post-work routine from before his wife Meghan began carrying their daughter (due this summer). The two would "find some place to get happy for an hour or two," often the Royal American, the singer's former employer and where SUSTO first got its legs.
- Kelly Rae Smith
The wistful yearning for home and all that word encompasses — family, wife, friends, Charleston beaches, his actual, physical home — is a common theme in much of Osborne's songwriting. For instance, "House of the Blue Green Buddha," another track off Ever Since I Lost My Mind, is about missing his house, where a chipped blue-green Buddha is indeed there to greet you at the door; "Livin' in America" touches on the comfort he gets when returning home to America, stressing that it's not a perfect place, but there are still some pretty good people here; and the title track underlines how the polarization in the country continues to draw a faint-but-definitely-there line between Osborne and some of his immediate family, who he misses. It's a separation that already began to form when the singer drifted away from his Christian upbringing and became a punk with "ACID BOYS" tattooed on this knuckles. "We all started doing our own things, and at the same time the Trump era comes in and these political and ideological wedges start to make their way in," he says, "and I just don't have the same level of closeness with them anymore."
Osborne also attributes his chosen profession to that disconnect from loved ones that happens when on the road for much of the year. That's part of what's happening on "Homeboy," the new album's lead single and a response to news that a couple of close friends could be moving on from Charleston. "I always wanted to be a rock 'n' roller and didn't realize how much I was getting myself into, as far as how much of my time it would take and how it would feel to be disconnected from my friends and the love of my life, you know?" Osborne says. "So it's about those competing feelings, like, yeah, I wanna go out and see the world ... but also from the other side of the coin it's like, 'Well I'm out here and you're talking about you want my life — well I want yours.' I want to be at home; I want to be around everybody. I kept envisioning Meghan and the pineapple fountain."
Homesickness also makes its way into "Manual Transmission," which was written last year in Norway during the country's biggest snowstorm in two decades. The band was on the second leg of its European tour, making half-pay and freezing and getting increasingly annoyed with each other. So no, not the glamorous globe-trotting life fans envision, more like a, 'Oh hey, here's your guitar, which got broken in transit, by the way; here's a Sprinter van, where you'll be spending all your time with four other people; and don't bother phoning home — there's no signal.' But at least the ride reminded him of his wife. "Meghan taught me to drive manual so every time I drove it I'd think of her and just miss home even more," he says.
- Ruta Smith
Changes in SUSTO had already taken hold before their jaunt to Europe in 2018, with former guitarist Johnny Delaware departing to form the Artisanals, while Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell (now indie-pop duo Babe Club) left, also amicably, later last year. Though Osborne has obvious affection for his former bandmates and all they've built together, it's also clear that some power struggles led to the current setup, with the band's only founding member returning to SUSTO's origins as one man's vision. That experience, and those emotions, are what the album's final track "Off You" details.
"I had started the band as wanting it to be my project that I had creative control over, but at the same time I was collaborating a lot with Johnny — and I felt comfortable with Johnny — but making [the last record, 2017's And I'm Fine Today] kind of ended that collaboration for us. We collaborated a lot on it, which I was happy with, but whenever we were talking about moves, as far as the team we were building outside of the music, we just disagreed a lot," Osborne says. "And it would eat me alive, the stress, because everybody was looking at me, plus I was trying to figure out how I was going to survive, how I was going make enough money off of this."
That's when Osborne began to also utilize mornings for reviewing demos on the beach for an hour, smoking a bowl and venturing out early to watch the waves rise and fall when the shore is still quiet and empty — a decompression tactic to help the songwriter regain some sanity, get a clear head. There, he could reconnect with his original vision, something he felt he was, for whatever reason, losing control over. "I've seen bands just completely disappear because they were too democratic, because it takes too long to make a decision and there's no clear vision or narrative," he says, "and I really wanted to have that for SUSTO, and I definitely found that on this record. I made a point to make it like that."
SUSTO's origins can largely be found in Cuba, where Osborne spent a good portion of 2013, returning an altogether different songwriter. Before, the musician's old band, Sequoyah Prep School, flirted with success before a big record deal fell through, and Osborne eventually retreated to Havana on a CofC study abroad program. There, he was simply an artist again. "Sitting around late at night playing songs with people and not having to think of the pressure of how I'm gonna get a record deal, how am I going to get a booking agent — none of that was relevant, you know?" he says. "And so it gave me a chance to fall in love with the art of writing songs and moving and connecting with people through that."
That's why the single "Está Bien," a track he wrote and sings entirely in Spanish, is one of this album's several full-circle moments for Osborne, as it had him returning to the Cuban songwriting tradition of trova. "The lyrics [in trova] are playful, irreverent, and I really took away from that coming back to SUSTO, not worrying about what other people thought about what I was going to say, to say what I really thought — politically or emotionally or whatever," he says. "So even though I'm not a good enough Spanish speaker to write a song as clever as a trova writer, I still wanted to do a song kind of in that tradition ... and with everything going on with the border, I wanted to enter the narrative and contribute to it, saying, 'Hey, listen, some of us believe in love and want us all to be OK and appreciate cultures other than the ones right in front of us.'"
The Circle Continues
- Ruta Smith
The rest of the day shadowing SUSTO reveals a beautiful machine of a team hard at work, with all hands on deck. Returning bassist from SUSTO's early days Jordan Hicks helps Osborne haul the band's gear from a storage unit to Rialto Row, where Ever Since I Lost My Mind was demoed, and the two busy themselves with tagging the band's cases using an ACID BOYS stencil. "TSA is gonna love us," Osborne jokes, Budweiser in hand, before sitting for an onsite CP photo shoot, the sun glaring intensely against the singer's all-black attire. Leaving the spray paint fumes in the Rialto lot, we find drummer Marshall Hudson at his home finalizing designs for that merch and stage banner, his front door wide open to a "wintry" day in Charleston. Osborne weighs in on which images and ideas tie in the sentiments of the album best, ever careful in considering every single detail that embodies Ever Since I Lost My Mind. Then on the Eastside of the peninsula, the SUSTO management team offer up another cold one before an orientation of sorts for oncoming member, keys king Steven Walker. He has also toured with the Artisanals in the past and, before that, Brave Baby, and at present offers up whatever he can contribute to Osborne's vision. "I'm just here to lend a hand and enhance the sound and do what I do," Walker says.
We close in on 5 p.m. at the King Street apartment of a cat named Spaghetti and guitarist Dries Vandenburg, also of Human Resources and Coast Records, and the man behind much of SUSTO's image and video content for social media. Osborne is here at Vandenburg's request to go over some of the harmonies, both older ones, like "Hard Drugs," and new ones, like "Last Century," a job that was covered on the album by Nashville musician Madi Diaz. With every current member now visited, we head straight for a bar stool and another full-circle moment at the Royal American, where it all started. "This, having a career, is what I always wanted — and this is the last job I had, you know — and [the venue] also facilitated it," Osborne says, then pauses, emotion swelling in his voice. "I had a lot of dreams in that kitchen, and I kind of started to play them out on that stage. And then it took off from there."
- Ruta Smith
As for the local full-band release show, that's at the Windjammer on Isle of Palms, an earshot away from the same waves that have come to calm Osborne, from one record to the next — the same waves that are emblazened on SUSTO's hot-off-the-press backdrop, the same waves on the back of the new LP, the same waves you've seen in social media branding throughout the record's promotional cycle thus far. And it's all happening on Feb. 22, a.k.a. 222, a number that has long been significant for both Osborne as well as longtime SUSTO producer and friend, Rialto Row's Wolfgang Zimmerman.
The last time I sat in Osborne's home for a cover story, it was in 2015, at the legendary Line Street house immortalized in Live at the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame. That day, the guys told me stories of their frequent run-ins with the number, with Osborne's dating back to his first days as a touring musician, catching glimpses of 222 often and everywhere from exit signs to clocks. He tried not to give the digits too much weight, and yet there it was, constantly. "I read about how the number is supposed to mean you're on the right path or whatever, and it was confirmation that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing," he says. "So when I found out what our [album release] window was, it seemed right. The whole release feels like a culmination of so much — because I've been touring and working at this for a long time and it's the first time I've put out a real record with a real label and a real tour to follow and everything — so it was like all those times, it was coming together as part of the whole."
Always conscious of release dates in the past — the self-titled 2014 debut came out on April Fool's, the follow-up And I'm Fine Today on Friday the 13th — Osborne felt a comforting joy to make 222 a part of this particularly special album. "The hilarious thing about all this is it has to all be arbitrary and I'm following this and maybe against my own interests. I hope not, but if nothing else, it just becomes part of the story — and the story is very important to me," he says. "The release date is important to me nevertheless, because of the record feeling so personal, and if it hadn't been such a personal journey to get here — not just in the last year or two just trying to figure things out and get the pieces together, but really since half my life ago, since I was 15 and first picked up a guitar. So it was a nice cherry on top."
SUSTO will perform with Frances Cone and Mel Washington in a sold out show this Thursday at The Windjammer on IOP.