A season of drastic change is what brought SUSTO frontman Justin Osborne to the band’s fifth full-length LP, My Entire Life [New West Records]. There was a divorce, difficulties re-building his band after the pandemic, and the pain and helplessness of witnessing family members struggle with addiction and mental illness. Despite these challenges, Justin ultimately found himself in a new landscape, with new love and a deeper perspective, all of which is masterfully projected into My Entire Life.
While navigating some major life changes, Justin understandably experienced a surge of creative energy. He channeled this into writing and recording with the people closest to him, even as the tides of his personal life continued to shift. Primary collaborators included longtime producer Wolfgang “Wolfy” Zimmerman, SUSTO Co-founders, Johnny Delaware and Marshall Hudson, and his fiancé/co-writer Caroline Foyle.
Much of the album was recorded at The Space, in Charleston, SC, but major sessions also took place at Echo Mountain Recording in Asheville, NC, and Chase Park Transduction in Athens, GA.
Johnny had moved to Mexico shortly after work on the album began, so some tracking was done at his home studio in Mexico City.
The band also took a “recording pilgrimage” to the Mexican town of Tepotzlán (mythical birthplace of mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl), where they turned an airbnb into a remote recording studio, with help from members of Mexican Institute of Sound.
The combined result of these efforts is a compelling blend of rock, folk and psychedelia, with vivid country-esque storytelling. It’s as raw and real as anything the band has done so far and everything you’d hope for from a modern rock ‘n’ roll record.
The album’s namesake and lead single, “My Entire Life” is melodically tearful, with an urgency “to keep living.”
As a whole, the album documents Justin’s personal journey through highs and lows in his life, with many of the details on full display. He narrates the demise and aftermath of an almost decade long relationship, while celebrating the joy of falling in love and the hopefulness of starting over. There is a playfulness at times, but always a clear desire to distill wisdom from experience.
“SUSTO’s narrative has always been confessional, and songwriting is my way of trying to make sense of the chaos—good and bad—around me,” observes Justin. “These songs cover the spectrum of everything that’s happened in my life the last few years. There’s been a lot of change, which can be painful, but there’s also been a lot of joy and hope, along with everything in between. I figure that’s what life is.” He continues “…it’s a mosaic of all the good, bad, and mundane things we face as we make our way from birth to death. Along the way we ride the waves, but if you stay true to yourself and push through, I believe you can get to where you really want to be, and you can shape that mosaic into something that fulfills you. There is a lot of hope in that for me. This record is my story of navigating a bunch of chaos, but finding ways to carry on and manifest my own happiness…the last few years were a challenge, but I look back and see that I made it through, a better, truer, and more realized version of myself.”
It's been quite the ride for SUSTO. In addition to achieving widespread critical acclaim in recent years, the group has built a diehard fan base through captivating live performances and compelling songs.
For as much as My Entire Life is the ultimate vision of what the band can be, it’s also a classic story of one person rising from the ashes, wiser and fiery than ever…
“Writing and performing has long been central in my life, and this season of change has only heightened my desire to connect with other people through songs. I’ve crossed a mountain, so I’m ready to charge forward, and share that story. Everybody goes through difficulty one way or another, we all get worn down, we all chase dreams; songs are there to remind us we aren’t alone in that. In my case. I’m thankful for lessons learned, and excited for the future. The privilege of sharing these songs with our audience is something I’m incredibly grateful for.”
Everything clicks on Safe to Run, the fourth album from singer, songwriter and perpetual searcher Esther Rose. It’s the quiet culmination of years spent fully immersed in a developing artistry, and presents Rose’s always vividly detailed emotional scenes with new levels of clarity and control. As with previous work, her songwriting transfigures the chaos and uncertainty of a life in progress, but here she sharpens the pop elements and attaches unshakably catchy hooks to even the darkest stretches of the journey.
After spending her formative years in Michigan, Rose relocated to New Orleans and got her start in music there while awash in the unparalleled energy of the city’s scene. Over the course of her first three records, an infatuation with traditional country gradually evolved into a more distinctive style and increasingly personal material. Rose’s music traced her changes as she moved through stages, studios, and home addresses, and she eventually left NOLA for New Mexico where the two year writing process for Safe to Run unfolded. Making the transition to this new environment after spending the better part of a decade building a life somewhere else demanded looking around and taking stock. All the heaviness, sweetness, levity, and self-discovery that had led up to that point began funneling into new songs that moved slower in order to dig deeper, taking on the intricate hues of a desert horizon as they came together.
Making the leap from the comfortable to the unknown defines every aspect of Safe to Run. Since she started writing songs, Rose has self-imposed some strategic challenges in order to keep things interesting. A longstanding rule to never recycle chord progressions remained in place, as did a newer intention of avoiding the temptation to write another heartbreak song. Applying limitations like these allowed the album’s expressive range to become more nuanced. Rose takes an unblinking look at her own vulnerabilities as well as more universal concerns, somehow never taking herself too seriously in the process. This manifests as a critique of the insidious sexism of the music industry on “Dream Girl,” but quickly melts into a hazy memoryscape of the dive bar drama and suspended hovering of her early 20s on “Chet Baker.” The song “Safe to Run” (a gorgeous duet with Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra) directly merges the personal with the global, superimposing feelings of spiritual displacement onto the larger, looming dread of climate grief. Rose breathes in the ecstasy of the natural world in one line and makes fun of herself a few bars later. There are ghosts in the room for most of her songs, but she’s invited them in and is cracking jokes with them over a drink or two.
The album’s production takes another giant step forward, again motivated by a drive to go somewhere new. Lyle Werner, a constant presence on Esther’s albums, again adds his rust-colored fiddle to “St. Francis Waltz” and the gentle country sway of “Spider” also offers faint echoes of the twangy glow of earlier material, but there's new experimentation with arrangements and instrumentation. Long-time collaborator Ross Farbe went from acting as a co-producer on 2021’s How Many Times to a full on producer role here, adding understated synthesizers to accentuate melodic presence and atmospheric textures to cast a deeper vibe. The bridging from past to present was further embodied by the cast of players, with Rose bringing in New Orleans group Silver Synthetic as a backing band on some tunes, and working with her new bandmates-- Taoseño's Lonnie Leary on drums and Meredith Stoner on bass--- on others. Across all of the tracks, the open-air, live-in-the-room sound she tended towards in the past was paired with a heightened exploration of multitracking and overdubs. The album is a network of meticulously balanced layers that whisper secrets instead of shouting declarations. Listening closely you’ll hear nods to Elliott Smith in the close-miced vocal doubling of “Stay,” dreamy drum machine guiding the steady hop of “Levee Song,” and a Mellotron tossing even more glitter into the already sparkling pop of “Insecure.”Ultimately all of these new advancements become twinkles of light in the background as they fold into the big picture impact of the songs themselves. With grace, subtlety, and a knowing grin, Esther Rose translates her world into eleven curious and captivating scenes. While the songs are stunning one by one, absorbing Safe to Run as a whole feels like witnessing something taking shape, experiencing the headspins of the elevation and the slow return to equilibrium as the clouds start clearing. It’s the sound of a singular voice reaching its purest form, finally emerging.