On a picture perfect summer day I stumbled upon a performance by singer/songwriter Justin Marra. His laidback energy let the music flow at Coastal Roasters in Tiverton supporting the cause Singing Out Against Hunger.
Justin likes to rock. With an unforced raspy tone he can clear his throat and crank it to 11. He breaks out his originals but sprinkles in covers that fit his style from Elvis Costello’s “Miracle Man” to the Wallflower’s “One Headlight”.
He exudes cool just like his vintage fender acoustic with its beat up pastel green finish. He was about to up the ante and take his performance to the next level.
Then his microphone and amp went out.
The runners of the show race to fix the sound while Justin shrugs, smiles, and without skipping a beat he keeps on going like a pro.
“I hope so,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years!”
And he doesn’t need the power. He brings it himself, more real, more personal and more soulful. He did his job and connected with us all. Musical talent has a way of doing that. So does personality. Justin has both. A month later I was stoked to catch up with him for a one on one talk about how he keeps rekindling the fire for performing his music, on his terms.
Talk to me about the music scene in Rhode Island. What’s it like to be a singer/songwriter here?
I think I started doing this at the end of the golden age of music in RI. That’s not to say there aren’t great bands and venues here today but it’s very different. If you went to Richmond St. 15 years ago there were 50 cafes with 50 different bands playing on one night. If you wanted a gig there was a venue for you to play at.
But I can almost remember when it switched and clubs started closing all over the place. There aren’t a lot of games in town left. There are only a few left and if you want to play you’ve got to play the social media game.
Do you think that’s a result of the climate in the music industry in general and the market where everything’s online and streaming versus what used to make bands their money, which was touring?
Yes. And that’s still true. All booking is done through social networking now and venues will ask how many Twitter, Facebook, Instagram followers you have so they know how many people they can expect at the gig. And if you don’t have that following you’re not getting the gig. Or you’re locked into a pay to play gig. You have to sell ‘x’ many tickets in advance.
I was in a band in Worcester for years and one of the guys had a business so we would do these once a month events at his store. More people would hear our music playing as the house band at his monthly event than would hear us at every gig we played in the city over 3 months. I remember saying to him, “the bar stools really know our set list man, why are we doing this?”
What I find interesting is that way of promotion should be easier today with the Internet and the tools we have. But it seems like it’s harder because it’s so accessible.
It’s basic supply and demand. If something is scarce and valued people will pay for it and they will hunt to then ends of the earth to find it. What makes something desirable, desiring it and not being able to get it. Having to wait. And we live in a society where we don’t have to wait for anything!
I talk about the Internet all the time with people who think it’s great that everybody has a voice and everything’s out there on whatever platform. There’s always someone blowing up.
There’s one. But there are millions who don’t.
How can you possibly sift through it all? I remember when I was 17 A & R guys would chase me down trying to sign me and get me to work with them, but I wanted to go to college. I thought there would be time for this later. Now it’s like, “apply for this opportunity to work with this company we will choose 3”. How many people do you think are applying for that? Millions! And you’re gonna pick 3?
But on the flipside, the Internet has been good to me. I’ve maybe played a few hundred shows between open mics, coffee shops and shows in New England. So maybe a few thousand people have heard me live versus 10,000 streams of my latest mp3 out there. That’s insane! I’ve got a small dedicated following in Finland. I’ve never been to Finland! That’s pretty awesome. I have a really strong following in Massachusetts where I haven’t lived in 5 years. I’ve only played a few shows there. That’s awesome that I can still interact with those people and they care. That’s 100% because of the Internet.
When did you start getting the confidence to get up and play in front of people?
For me it’s always been about getting on stage and playing for people. I’m not the person that goes home, sits in their bedroom and noodles around or I have to learn that song and play it exactly. For me it’s always been about playing on stage. I never wanted to be a musician or a great songwriter. What does every 15-year-old want a guitar for? You want to get up on stage. You want to impress people. Starting out the only gig I could get was AS220, but you can’t play covers there. So that forced me to sit down and write songs. I had to be me if I wanted to play.
What’s it like the first time you started writing and performing your own songs?
Terrifying. Exciting. Exhilarating! I’m kind of an introvert. You gotta go find your comfort zone, and if that’s not on stage you have to create one. The guys I’m in a band [Survivors of The Kraken] with right now, Allan Furtado and Brian Decotaux, we’re in one of the first bands I ever played in. They’ve had my back for a really long time and I know that they have it now. So that helps. But there were times when they had to pull me out of the bathroom before we went on because I was so nervous.
That’s so interesting because when you were performing at Coastal Roasters, you couldn’t have had more things go wrong for you technically. But you just kept entertaining and laughed it off.
When did you start getting comfortable on stage? How do you find that pocket to go up and connect with people?
The same way that you got your high school crush; Do they like me? Do they not? Are we connecting? Is this going well? Being on stage is a similar experience. There are some audiences that you’re just a human jukebox. Or the radio could be on. Then there are some audiences that are cheering and shouting for you.
That Roaster’s show, it took a minute to gauge. Was I just there playing? Because it didn’t feel like people were enjoying what I was doing; we weren’t connecting until I stepped away from the mic. I felt it in that moment. And I was one of many performers that had gone on in the day. But that worked to my favor frankly, the power going out, because it was something different and it caught people. You don’t always get the opportunity to hook someone. Sometimes you’re just the next band on.
So a lot of the comfort level is what you get back from the audience. But a lot of it is you have to know what it is your doing and be okay with the audience not paying attention to you. For me my happy place is on stage or wherever your platform is, that’s where I’m the most me. So any chance I get to go there I’ll take it.
You’re not on that end of the spectrum where this is all there is and you’re going to eat ramen noodles until you have a gold album. You have a career, a wife and some perspective on this. But at a certain point a lot of people give up. What’s the allure of being a struggling musician? Why is that your happy place?
I can’t explain it. I wish I knew. Because when I figure it out I think I’ll be more successful. I think we all crave adventure in our life. We go and see dystopian movies. Like, the reason the Walking Dead is so popular isn’t the zombies, or the gore it’s because people are on the edge of their seat. They’re excited. They’re craving adventure. Every performance is a new adventure. Every song you play is a new experience. You just have to decide if you want to go on it. Some gigs bring a great payday some gigs don’t but the free gigs I usually get an experience that works its way into a song.
Do you know when you’ve written a good song?
Do you know when you’ve written a bad one?
I know when I’ve written a song that doesn’t connect with me. I don’t know if they’re good or bad. There are songs in my arsenal that don’t mean anything to me that I’ve written. They’re not part of the message I want to put out there.
What is the message you want to put out there?
I’m telling stories. My stories. Other people’s stories. I’m writing one now. One of the last gigs I played was at George’s of Galilee. I ran into this girl I knew in high school and I said, “hi, you probably don’t remember me, we were acquaintances in the theatre program.” And her response is “I’m sorry I don’t know you. I recently had an accident and I have no memory of my life.” So she’s 30 years old and brand new. Every experience for her is brand new. How amazing is that? To be 30 years old and take all of that baggage that gives you inhibitions and put it somewhere else. Everything that knocked you down in your life is gone. And you get to go forward as a fully developed human being with natural charisma and personality from day one.
And you’re writing a song about it?
Yeah, I said to her there’s a song here are you cool with that? “Yeah change the names and places and have at it.”
That’s an amazing story.
It is. And I wouldn’t have gotten that story if I hadn’t played that gig that night and reached out to her. So every experience brings you to the next one. I don’t know if it’s going to be a good song but I know it’s a story I want to tell.
I’m a storyteller too. What I immediately go to is knowing when it’s ready to be told. For me as a writer I can go back and edit, edit, edit but it’s never really done. How do you know when your stories are ready to be told?
I think a song’s ready to be told when you’re ready to share it. Is there ever a right time to break up with someone? Or give someone bad news? Ask them to marry you? Go on a date? No. You just have to decide that you’re willing to put yourself out there and do it.
I’m not a prolific songwriter. There are people who write hundreds of songs and pick and choose. I’m the guy who needs one more to fill this thing out and I don’t have it yet.
I worked on my third album for 7 years! There’s a song on the album called “7 Years” and it’s essentially the big things that happened in my life in those years between my second and third album.
I needed to figure out what had happened to me in the previous 7 years. I recorded two albums before 25, and then nothing. I stopped writing songs and I didn’t know why that was. I figured it out. But I needed to tell that journey.
The first 4 songs on my third album are everything that had happened up until that point. So the whole first half of the album is kind of a downer. Track 5 is called “2nd Time Around” and I wrote and recorded that with my band. It was the first song we wrote in 12 years. From being a band in high school, to going our separate ways and getting back together, figuring out who we were as adults, meeting my wife… the 2nd half is kind of like, “wow, adulthood’s not terrible!” I still have things to say. Things are still going to happen to your life that are amazing or not and you have to move forward. But it tells the story I wanted it to tell.
I still have story ideas that I think are great. I came up with them when I was 18-20 years old. But I didn’t know how to tell those stories then. Now I do. Is some of that the same with you?
That’s really interesting. One of the first songs I wrote was “Go Be A Star”. And I put it on my first album. It doesn’t work. Because when you’re 19 or 20, you don’t have the life experience to look back. Everything’s still so brand new.
When you’re 18-20 years old you think you have experience but you really don’t.
You don’t even know who you are! I firmly believe you can have an experience that comes to define you and you can carry that but you have no idea who you are when your 18.
And that song is very different now. I had to go through my teens and 20’s to be able to sing that song now in my 30’s. And it’s interesting because Allan and Brian were there when I was writing it. They heard the rough cuts. And they said “you had to find your voice before you could sing that song and tell that story right”. It didn’t work back then. It does now. But I changed nothing about the song. The guts of the song, chords, lyrics, hook, all the same. I changed.
So you put out 2 albums before you were 25; 7 more years before the 3rd one. What stopped you and what changed? What sparked you finally?
Being really unhappy! I’m comfortable doing what I do for a living and it works for me. But I neglected the musical side of me. I stopped playing my own songs. I went on tour playing other people’s music and covers. I became a gun for hire for whoever needed a guitarist and a back up vocalist. I shut that part of myself off without realizing it. That’s not what defines me as a person. I put all of my energy into the career. And I work in an environment that fosters creativity and creation. I’m trying to create that experience for other people. But I still want it for myself. I still have stories to tell, I have something to say. I still want this. I should be doing it.
What’s going to make you keep doing what you do, and grow it five years from now as you get older, your family, responsibility. What does having this side of you out in the public mean to you?
Success is 15 years from now I’m still doing it and people are listening. Would I love to make a steady income from this? That would be amazing. If I could be performing regularly, giving lessons, recording others bands and that’s what I do? Awesome. If I was touring 7 months out of the year? That’d be awesome. In my corner at the one steady gig I have on Tuesday night and people are listening? Awesome! As long as I still have stories to tell and I’m telling them, that’s success.
Want to see Justin live?
You can see him next at 8:00PM on January 26th, 2017 at:
Woodstock Inn and Brewery
135 Main St
North Woodstock, NH 03262
You’ll be seeing more of Justin in Rhode Island this summer at:
George’s of Galilee
250 Sand Hill Cove Rd.
Narragansett, RI 02882
Find Justin online at www.justinmarramusic.com where you can purchase his latest albums and check for future performance dates!