“GQ! It’s about time! Where y’all been? I’m a handsome man!” Josh T Pearson cracks a broad smile behind his thatched beard as he welcomes GQ.com into his dressing room backstage at London’s Barbican. “Step into my office!” he says as he ushers us in with long limbs, before admitting he’s still adjusting to playing venues of this size. “It’s not stadium rock but for ten-minute long heartbreak songs the Barbican is a good lookin’ room. I’m glad that it’s touching people, but it probably means you got your heart broke somewhere along the way in a real devastatin’ manner.” The Texan songwriter first surfaced back in 2001 when his band, Lift to Experience, released an ambitious debut concept double-album about the coming apocalypse called The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, after which he promptly vanished off the face of the earth. The decade that followed saw him drift around the world, make a tentative return to live performance and go through a painful divorce. His heartbreak was captured on record on Last of the Country Gentlemen, which was recently named album of the year by Rough Trade. The devastating beauty of his live performance is matched only by the awfulness of the jokes he tells between each song, as a device for surfacing from the intensity of his despair. Here he talks about struggling with poetry, discovering opera and what it means to be a gentleman.
GQ.com: Which lyric are you most proud of writing?
Josh T Pearson: I like “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ”. It’s silly and simple, but I sure like that one. I’m proud of that work. I tend to write in clumps. I’ll sit and play guitar for a couple of hours until I have a batch of melodies to go along with. Then I go and write down, say, four pages of stuff and then try fit in everything I want to. That’s the real hard part, where you’re getting the s*** kicked out of ‘ya. It’s never easy. Just looking at yourself in the mirror and wondering if you’ve ever written a single line that didn’t completely suck bollocks. It’s just locking yourself in the ring and getting beat up. The first fifteen minutes are excruciating. Then you sort of pass the baton between the music and the words. It’s hard. There’s that story about the poet and the novelist, where they meet after working all day to discuss what they did today. The novelist says: “In the first half of the day I wrote about 14 pages and in the second half I cut seven of those pages out.” The poet says: “Well, in the first half I added a comma and in the second half I cut it out.”
Can you recommend a good book?
The House of Breath by William Goyen. He’s a Texan guy. I’ll let what it’s about surprise you, but it really sounds like breath. It’s an old one, before Hemingway but in that same simple sentence style. He was in the military and then he started writing later and came up with some really great stuff. There’s a real sensuality in the book, and I’m surprised by what he got away with.
Is there a literary influence on your song-writing?
I’m a big fan of Walt Whitman as far as a great American poet goes. Milton as an English poet. I like both of those because you can just open the books to anywhere and start reading them out loud. It’s like jazz. I grew up reading the Bible, the King James version, night after night. That was a big influence as far as the metre of it. Iambic stress-pause-stress. “Blessed is the man that walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law does he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the water…” Just the rhythm of it. But the King James Version, and the Geneva Bible before that influenced all of Western literature including the language of Shakespeare. The Geneva Bible that Shakespeare grew up with is 70% the same as the King James Bible. There’s a lot of colour there to pull from. It’s great source material. The greatest story ever told!
What music do you love that would surprise people?
I like opera. About ten years ago I stopped listening to a lot of the stuff I had been, and started reading about opera. I love the stories. There’s one book I’ve been reading called, Ticket to the Opera by Phil Goulding and a new one called A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide. It’s a British one by Sir Denis Forman. There’s so many operas, so it depends what you’re after, but I’d recommend somewhere between Wagner and Verdi. I prefer Verdi’s melodies but Wagner’s drama. It’s an expensive hobby, though. I saw one in Paris called The Dead City by Korngold. He was a Jewish guy who got overlooked because of the war and it’s more like film music than older opera.
What have been your best fan experiences?
The other night some bloke comes up and really means it. He says: “I’ve just split up with my girl of seven years, and this got me through it.” That’s great. That’s the reason you do it, and put it out there. I had the benefit of writing for the last ten years without fear because I didn’t think they’d make it to record. I played these songs live on a little tour of Ireland and these guys came up and said some specifically touching things that made me reconsider my aesthetic of keeping it to myself. So I then went back to the task of finishing it as an album, as a whole, as one love letter.
Which band would you recommend seeing live?
The greatest live rock’n’roll band are the Dirty Three. I’ve seen thousands of bands and never seen anything like it. They used to come through Texas quite a bit and they were just epiphanal moments. They’re poets, each one of them.
What question are you bored of answering?
Nothing, really. We have a good team who seem to get good interviewers in. We don’t get college kids who are just here because their editor told them to be. I sniff that out, and say “I’m sorry, but you can Google any of this stuff.” I don’t want to waste their time and mine. That sort of stuff is not for the weak at heart, and I definitely have a weak heart.
What’s your favourite record?
As far as records go, beginning to end, there’s three great ones: Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. In the Aeroplane Over the Sea needs more praise than it’s been given. I like albums that are long pieces and those three are good starting places for any young man trying to do something creative that hasn’t been done before. I made the mistake young of thinking that music was art and spent so much time trying to finish one perfect piece. It’s just rock’n’roll. It’s not opera.
What’s your favourite film?
I saw Sorrentino’s Il Divo the other day. I got a little confused at the end but it was really great. Reminded you why you liked film to begin with. I don’t know about my favourite. I’m old now. I like s*** that blows up. Hollywood crap. Probably my favourite film is Once Upon A Time In The West. That spaghetti western music and that drama is my favourite period, with all that untamed American land.
What does it mean to be a gentleman?
Mark Twain says a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo, and doesn’t. [laughs] I’d say honesty, and that the man tries his best. That would be the two. Honesty and the intent, with all that’s within you, to live peaceably with all men.
What’s your favourite joke?
That would be my Willie Nelson joke. I tell it onstage: What’s the worst thing to hear when you’re giving Willie Nelson a blowjob? “I’m not even really Willie Nelson.”
HOW TO COMPETE AT THE WORLD BEARD CHAMPIONSHIPS
“The first thing I’ve got to say about beards, is that they grow on you” says Josh T Pearsonwith a grin. The proudly hirsute songwriter released one of the albums of the year in Last of the Country Gentlemen, but he’s also a two-time competitor at the World Beard and Moustache Championships. The internationally-recognised event takes place every two years, with the next scheduled for Stuttgart in November 2013. It includes prizes for moustaches including the Dali, Imperial and Hungarian, and beards including the Chinese, Musketeer and Alaskan Whaler. GQ.com sought Pearson’s advice on what it takes to make it in the hairiest of situations:
A good beard takes time.
“My beard is ten years old this month. I’ve had many beards before. I’d grow them for a year and shave them. I’m a handsome man underneath this beard, but I’m an even more handsome man with it. I trim it to keep it at this length. I don’t want to look crazy! Not a lot of girls like ’em, but the ones that do… they’re pretty cool.”
Growing a beard can be a competitive business.
“I went to two World Beard Championships. The first one was 2005 in Berlin. I went in good fun but I did compete. The Germans are really serious about it. The second one I went to was in Brighton in 2007, the year that Nick Cave was judging moustaches.”
Everybody can compete.
“There were 21 categories, from full-beard freestyle to the handlebar moustache category. Length, size, shape, there’s a category for everyone. It was a good lookin’ room. I thought it would be fun to be in a room with a hundred bearded men, and it was! Just to get a picture with all those bearded beauties in one room is worth the flight.”
Beware: the judges don’t always appreciate innovation.
“I competed in “full-beard freestyle” in Berlin. You can make it into anything you want to, so I got some putty and shaped the beard into a tornado. A funnel cloud. Then the extra step was to put little train-set miniatures into it: a telegraph pole and a little person. The greatest thing was a little trailer poking out, because in the South the cliché is that hurricane alleys always seem to go through trailer parks. I was too avant-garde for the conservative German judges. They’re really serious about their beards. The guy who won had a tear in his eye. It’s a big deal for these old Bavarian dudes. My “growing on you” joke isn’t so funny to them.”
Originally published by British GQ.