Josh T Pearson: 'Each show, I think I'll never do this again'

His latest album has been hailed as the release of the year. Josh T Pearson talks to Laura Barton about his Pentecostal upbringing, life in the desert – and how you write a song about heartbreak

"Writing lyrics is just pain," says Josh T Pearson. "It's like stepping into the ring and getting the shit kicked out of you. And you know every time you do it, you're gonna get beat up." It is a grey afternoon in a pub in Holland Park, London. Small dogs, children and piped music float by as Pearson stares at a space left of his shoe, and speaks about the agonising process of writing Last of the Country Gentlemen – the album that Rough Trade, the independent music chain, has just anointed its album of the year.

The Texas-born songwriter surfaced in 2001, in a band called Lift to Experience; they produced one startling record, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, and then combusted. After a decade of near silence, Pearson re-emerged this year with Last of the Country Gentlemen, its seven songs a distillation of the pain he felt during the breakup of his marriage. "I thought it might be important to document this," says Pearson, who is about to start a UK tour. "It was the essence of a time, almost like documentary work, trying to be true to that time in the relationship [when I was] sort of realising that was it, and the cracking being captured on the record."

These are heartwrenching songs; Pearson's voice is low, sad and hoarse, buffeted by acoustic guitar and occasional strings. "I almost always start with music," he says. "And I just sit with it, play around with the song, let it be out in the air and then start to sing whatever goes with it. Most of the time, lyrics come independently of the music. Then I go back and listen to that song and cut the lyrics to fit. I try to be as economical with the words as I can – it's more the music that's affecting."

Although the subject matter is more recent, the album has been stewing for 10 years. After the demise of Lift to Experience, Pearson was pursued by labels, urged to form a new band or produce a solo album. Instead, he left his home in the Texas city of Denton and moved to the country. "I had offers on the table, but it was a real specific decision to say, 'No, I'm going to stay here in the countryside and keep digging in the earth.' It was a real conscious decision to turn down a healthy [financial] lifestyle. I chose to stay there and really pursue song."

For a brief time, Lift to Experience's bass player Josh "Bear" Browning came to join him, moving to the same small town an hour south of Dallas. "He got a job at Walmart," says Pearson. "Lasted a coupla months. It's hard out there. There's nothin'. It's dry; it's grassland, high desert."

The town was slow to accept him, a fact not so surprising when one takes into account Pearson's appearance: tall and wiry, with a beard to his chest. "When I said I was in a band, no one believed me. They thought I was selling drugs or something." In fact, he was eking out a living doing odd jobs, earning just enough for utilities and food. "The people at the local Baptist church kept me fed, too," he says. "One old lady said, 'You come visit! The pews are real comfortable!' Somehow, within a couple of months they'd got me leading the songs, which was kind of funny. I think it was the pastor's wife who kept asking me to play. She said, 'Well, if you're too nervous, you just let us know whenever you get over your shyness.' I said, 'I'm not scared to play! I do it for a living.'"

Pearson was raised in the church, his father a Pentecostal preacher. "They get wild and crazy," is how he explains Pentecostalism. Religion has stayed with him. "It's a blessing and a curse. I'm a believer. The Christian traditions of love thy neighbour, do good unto others, love God with all your heart … they're wonderful things. But with any organisation, a little gang mentality creeps in." He is particularly thankful to the church for introducing him to the King James Bible. "My father, he was pretty silly, but he really believed all the other versions of the Bible were watered down by the devil." He gives a faint smile. "But I'm glad for that tradition, because the King James, once you get your head around it, was written in a way to be remembered, the rhythm and rhyme of it."

At 19, he experienced a crisis of faith. "I mean a big one, in which I just lost all the feeling. So I was flat on my ass, I guess." Music helped fill the hole. "Replaced the feeling at least," he says. "And I started looking at philosophy and went to philosophy school. My questions were little things, simple things that aren't simple when you're a kid – problems of evil."

Pearson's live shows have become the stuff of legend: long, intense, with something of the sermon about them. Between the songs, he is given to telling rambling anecdotes and dubious jokes, in stark contrast to the ache of the music. He laughs when I mention it. "When I tell an off-colour joke it's just a way to pull my own head up from the water to keep from getting too deep, where I can't handle it."

He claims not to have listened to the album since its recording and, despite eight months of touring the songs, still finds them difficult to play. "When I started playing them, I was playing them for therapy," he says. "You play stuff out. It's gotten easier." He pauses. "I say it's gotten easier, but I don't think it has, because right before the show I'm still thinking: 'I'll never do this again.' But when people are touched by it, then it gives you the strength to do it again."

He is unsure what to do next: he speaks repeatedly of needing to work things out – relationships, career, where to live, whether to spend another 10 years working on songs – and of how lately he has been focused on little but touring. "In my emotional state, it's been best to stay busy," he says. "To work on something so that other part of your mind has time to fix itself, to figure what just happened. I need to figure it out. I've neglected it. I don't know what's going to happen after the end of this year."

We talk about the album's title track, a song he found too confessional for the CD, but included as a bonus track on the LP, because "the vinyl would be a little more sacred, and that song felt like the essence of it". It is an astonishing song, raw, hushed and sorry. I ask him what he thinks a gentleman is. "Mark Twain says a gentleman is someone who can play the banjo and doesn't." He laughs, falls quiet, addresses his shoe. "A gentleman is someone who tries to be good, tries to do good, who just always tries his best."


Laura Barton

The GuardianTramp

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