“The past is in the past.”
It’s easy to believe the conviction in 18-year-old Emily Justin’s voice when she addresses a new paramour in her ballad “The Rest,” promising in the present to deliver a positive future if only he can let go of the baggage from a previous relationship.
But letting go of the past is never easy. In fact, Justin treats it like any great artist. Instead of ignoring the classics, she immerses herself in them and finds a way to adapt them to contemporary culture. As a result, Justin brings an old soul to her work, infusing the classic heart of Etta James, the vintage gravel of Nina Simone, the modern growl of Amy Winehouse and the contemporary smarts of Alicia Keys.
An amalgam of blues, pop, R&B and gospel, Justin’s music is steeped in dense chords and unexpected melodic journeys as she documents emotional crossroads with a wisdom beyond her years. It’s a timeless sonic approach to love, in itself a timeless topic, and Justin captures relationships in all the hope, heartbreak, intensity and foolishness they engender.
“I eavesdrop a lot,” she confesses. “I don't have a very up-and-down life. I just watch other people go up and down because I don't like getting into the drama. But I'll watch.”
Her observations are powerful. “Adrenaline” captures the excitement of a new relationship, “More Addictive Than” explores a woman committed to a negative boyfriend, “Cup Of Coffee” projects an uplifting connection in a moment of solitude, and “Cryin’ On The Front Porch” follows a woman’s painful rebound from an unfaithful man.
That jilted “Front Porch” conversation begins in understandable anger, but just when the listener might expect the character to go full-bore crazy, she instead breaks into musical laughter. It’s the sort of twist that Justin inserts – both sonically and lyrically – into her music on a regular basis.
“I like throwing a wrench in things,” she says. “I like not keeping with a normal sound. I may have a signature when it comes to how I write and how I play and how I sing, but I like to do something no one is going to expect.”
Justin comes by her talents honestly. Her father, Amyl Justin, established himself as a Detroit-style blues-rocker, playing the same stages as The Stooges, Mitch Ryder and MC5 and other early Michigan power rockers. In Nashville, Amyl worked in the studio with Tom Hambridge and Buddy Guy. He was so driven by his creative muse that he sometimes halted a Barbie play session with Emily in her toddler years to write down a song title or verse when inspiration struck.
“Music is so second nature to him,” Emily quips. “Like, I'll ask him a question, he'll answer me in a guitar lick.”
Her mother is a massage therapist by trade, but at the end of an eight-hour day with new age music and ambient sound, she cranked Etta James and Nina Simone at home, returning to the real world with passionate gritty vocalists.
Emily’s biggest influence mixed both of her parents’ tastes: Paul Rodgers brought a blues- and soul-inspired swagger to the British rock bands Free and Bad Company.
“He can do anything,” she says. “He can sing soft, but there's still so much power behind it. He can get loud and that yet there's still some tenderness in it. And he still has his voice 40-plus years later.”
Emily started playing guitar left-handed at age 4 when her dad brought one home from a truck stop. Around age 8, she took piano lessons, discovering she had a mild case of dyslexia when she interpreted the teacher’s instructions backward and unintentionally invented new scales.
Justin wrote her first song, “You Shine, I’m Shining Too,” as a Father’s Day gift for her dad at age 10, and it set her creative course. She writes daily – literally, every day – whether it’s a complete song or just a line or two in a tight, five-minute window, just to keep the creative faucet open. At 15, she penned “White Crayon,” a short, two-verse song that became a personal breakthrough, inspired by a Tumblr dialogue about a white Crayon – a color that seems unnecessary on first glance.
“Underneath, there was a photo – gorgeous, realistic, a sketch all done in white crayon on black paper,” Justin notes. “So I was like, ‘I'm a white Crayon/You may not think you need me ‘til you do.’ ‘White Crayon’ is like a minute and a half, but it was my first real song that I fell in love with.”
Justin became obsessed with writing, muting her phone to avoid the outside world when she got in a groove, leaving legal pads and gel pens next to her bed in case she awoke in the middle of the night with inspiration. She sometimes is unaware until the next morning that she created something.
“The world just doesn't exist,” she says, “when I have an idea.”
Justin processes those ideas through a rare creative asset: synesthesia, a condition in which a person experiences colors with music. Some major 7th chords translate as brown latte, a C-major 7th is midnight blue, and a minor 7th invariably looks red. Her “White Crayon” song actually reads as a creamy orange.
Justin not only finds the color within her chords, she’s also able to find the right shade in the subject matter she picks. While her 18 years haven’t necessarily yielded the kind of heartache that often appears in her music, Justin has a keen sensitivity. Much like a novelist who interacts with a whole range of characters to create a plot, she is able to find the emotional touch points in the stories she mines from other people’s existence.
“I personally haven't experienced a lot of sadness, but I see it around me so often that I'm very empathetic towards it,” she says. “I do feel it. But I’m not a pessimist. I'm an optimist. I really do believe that there is good in absolutely everything, even in any sad situation. And that's how I write, because it's how I think.”
Justin secured Berg Entertainment, owned by industry veteran Suzanne Berg (Linda Ronstadt, Natalie Cole), for management and enlisted musician/arranger John Mark Painter (Brandi Carlile, Kings of Leon) to produce her first single.
Justin continues to set up her future by building on the past. In addition to her classic influences, her first round of material includes a bluesy Van Gogh tribute, “Vincent”; and a folky take on a Shakespearian tragedy, “Romeo And Juliet.”
The past, she knows, is the past. But Justin has a knack for bringing old stories forward, for finding contemporary perspectives in classic plots and in the personal histories of those around her.
“The past should not affect the future, but it always does,” she says with a shrug – and with an experienced laugh. “It. Always. Does.”