Memphis Music Club: John Paul Keith Talks About His Retro Sound, Songwriting and Memphis

If I had let the interview with John Paul Keith go on another fifteen minutes, I would have been asking him questions to solve my personal problems: he is just that wise, kind, and zen-like. I sat down with Keith for a cup of coffee after listening to his new album over the course of a week, a week which included a road trip across the state of Tennessee to the Knoxville-area, which ironically, is where both Keith and I grew up (though I never met or followed him before now) and it made the five and a half hour drive a short and fun one. The Man That Time Forgot (Big Legal Mess, 2011), recorded with his band, the One Four Fives, is very retro-inspired with sounds of rockabilly, 60’s pop and soul, and a dash of classic country. It reminded me of better days, made I-40 feel like Route 66, and left me craving a milkshake with two straws served by a soda jerk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was soft, it was tight and it rocked hard, but in an uplifting way. I felt (and understood) every word he was saying. I dare someone not to like this album, or John Paul Keith for that matter.

My favorite song on the album is “Someone Should Write a Song About You.” It stands out amongst the other songs because of the different sound and I wasn’t sure how to describe it. It turns out to have an interesting story. Keith said that it was inspired by 60’s adult pop and soul, but was unsure of exactly of how to tag it in a genre. It was also a song that was added to the album at the last minute.

“The song took two weeks to write…that was one of the songs that if it went the wrong way in either direction by a degree, a fraction of an inch, it would suck. I had been listening to a lot of Tyrone Davis when I wrote it and had never done anything quite like that. I told the band, ‘This one will send the Goner dudes running and screaming,’” Keith said laughingly.

Taking a gamble on music and trying new situations are not new to Keith. His career is peppered with many hits and near misses which were all navigated by his truth, perseverance, and unwillingness to compromise his art form as mandated by the industry. Before his tenure in Memphis, Keith had found success with The Viceroys, which began in Knoxville and ended in Nashville.

“I spent five years in Nashville which is a complete opposite culture, it is the complete opposite of Memphis in every single way. I found that my direction and my songwriting really suffered when I was in Nashville. It just was not a good fit for me. Nashville did teach me things about being a professional which is something that Memphis can use a little more of from time to time [laughing]. Be on time. Be in tune,” Keith said.

After his disillusionment with Nashville, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama where he lived until the band that he was with at the time broke up and at his sister’s urging, moved to Memphis where she lived. It was not his intention to play music again; however the music muse of Memphis had other plans for John Paul Keith. It began with his becoming a self-described “nerd” about the guitar and “falling in love” with the instrument again.

“I got into guitar: practicing it, tinkering with them, taking them apart and putting them back together, swapping them for different ones. I got back into that in a way I hadn’t since I was eleven or twelve years old and from that I started hanging out with these guys and playing on Beale Street for some extra cash and that woke me up to why I like music and got me thinking about songs and things. I also started hanging out with Mark [Stuart ] and John [Argroves]. They owned Taylor’s guitars and I met them there.”

Keith formed John Paul Keith and The One Four Fives along with Stuart, Argroves, and Al Gamble . Keith also began listening to the music that made him embrace music as a teenager such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

“When I got to Memphis, all I would do was listen to that old stuff, I didn’t make any pretense of being interested in anything current. That’s what I like, that old stuff and that’s why my stuff sounds like that.”

After that he began to write songs again. Make no bones about it, above all else, Keith is a songwriter. While discussing songwriting, his method or just the art form of songwriting generally, his face lights up and his speech quickens.

“It’s hard work writing songs. Some people write songs because they feel a certain way, it’s like therapy for them. It’s never been that way for me. I mean, I have feelings too, but songwriting has always been a craft for me. Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good song. Playing with Jack Oblivian has been a real cool thing for me. Seeing how he writes songs and his process. People think of him as a garage punk guy but he’s a damn songwriter and there’s a lot of work that goes into his stuff, a lot of work goes into making it sound like no work went into it,” Keith says with a grin.

To weed out prospective songs he uses his audience, and they are growing.  Keith says he has not seen such a turn out since being with the Viceroys. He is loving the recognition and the success of having a following.

“Having that audience, the audience is what influenced the songs on the first record more than anything else. We had been playing long shows of covers at the Buccaneer and started writing songs that sounded like the covers that had gone over well with the audience. That’s been a huge source of how we’ve developed: be reactive to how people react to us. Having a sizable audience is a really cool thing and I don’t take it for granted.”

The new album, The Man That Time Forgot, is available online for purchase as well as on vinyl at record stores such as Shangri-la Records and Goner Records. John Paul Keith will has a number of upcoming shows in various cities throughout the South this summer.

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