“There were ravines growing between me and people in my life,” Justin Osborne tells BandWagon. “And with COVID, everybody got pushed back together. Some of those changes had to be faced head on.”
Osborne is the commandant of North Carolina’s Susto and he’s just gone through some of the most intense years of his life.
“If humans are dimensional,” he says, “there’s a whole new dimension of myself that was awakened.”
Susto’s sound sits between Americana, psych-pop and the indie-rock church of rootsy folk. A mix of satire and earnestness adds a roughness; a raised eyebrow setting it apart from rural radio. Its dark, drug-influenced sentimentality and staunch idealism is, at its heart, just barefaced American songwriting.
With titles like “R.I.P. Santa Claus,” “Chillin’ On The Beach With My Best Friend Jesus Christ,” and “Hard Drugs,” there’s a lot of head-shaking, WTF moments. But what makes Susto stick is how real it all is, grounded in Osborne’s life experiences.
“I’ve been writing songs for a long time,” Osborne says. Now 35, he was 12 when he wrote his first one.
“I’ve been testing songs out live since I was like 16. It’s just kind of a honed skill. As far as inspiration goes, I rarely write unless there’s something spiritual or emotional I need to exorcize. When I try too hard to say something, I don’t say it right.”
Inspiration surrounding their newest LP Time in the Sun, wasn’t hard to find.
“I got married in 2018,” Osborne says. “We had a child in 2019. My daughter, Harriet, she’s amazing. Becoming a parent, having a new human in the world that you’re responsible for and that you have this deep love for … and then … my dad died in 2020.”
Osborne was playing over 200 shows a year then, on the road before and after his wedding and leading up to and after his daughter’s birth. The pandemic, ironically, gave him a valuable break.
“I actually got some really quality time with [my dad] towards the end,” he says. “I got a chance to say goodbye; I feel like I have closure. But then in 2021, my daughter’s mom and I split up. And the album [Time In The Sun] came out like, right after.”
He says the birth, separation and especially his father’s death, shed some light on him. But for someone who publicly satirizes his religious background, it wasn’t a “born again” moment.
“It didn’t make me believe there’s some biblical deity,” Osborne says. “That didn’t change at all. But I did recognize how difficult it was to navigate those things without that framework to fall back on; that community. Especially when my dad passed, I had to do a lot of pretending, I guess, to be a believer. Just to speak the language of the ceremony. And even consoling him on his deathbed – ‘Yeah, I’m gonna see you again,’ but in the back of my head being like: ‘if that’s true, it’s not in the way that we’ve been told.’”
“There were a lot of attempts at reconciliation – my own beliefs with how I was raised,” he says. “I had avoided those conversations and being among my family because we couldn’t communicate.”
“A lot of the things that happened forced a style of communication that is more understanding,” Osborne recalls. “Some people give me pushback still, like at my dad’s funeral. And more recently at my grandma’s funeral. I played a gospel song. Some folks were less aware of my public atheism, but some people were aware. They were like, ‘your grandma – you know what she’d really want is for you to mean what you’re saying.’”
“I’m trying not to disrespect,” he says, “but to participate in these big life events. Once you stop believing those things, it’s hard to justify with your ego to even talk about it. But it’s hard for people to accept you when they know you’ve been publicly against what they’re all for.”
Osborne’s religious upbringing isn’t his only inspiring dichotomy. Susto’s 2019 album Ever Since I Lost My Mind is a reference to another culture clash.
“It’s alluding to people saying that if you take psychedelics, you really lose your mind,” he says. “I’m not a crazy psychedelic partier or anything, don’t get me wrong. But psychedelic experiences I had earlier on in my life, really helped me reconcile some difficult things. It put me in touch with emotional tools that helped me navigate,” he says. I continue to kind of reap the benefits of responsible psychedelic use and I’ve seen people in my life benefit from it as well.”
“So, I don’t feel like I lost my mind,” he says. “These are powerful substances, but it’s silly that people say things like that without acknowledging the benefits.”
If Osborne hasn’t lost his mind, he’s certainly found his stride. On the heels of Time in the Sun, he seized inspiration from the chaotic ether, and another new album is nearly done.
“Some of the songs are ready,” Osborne says. “Time in the Sun and this new record are very much siblings. Some were written during Time in the Sun. They didn’t fit that narrative but they’re part of the era.”
Bringing the new music on tour comes with catharsis, and the band’s return to Colorado will be a highlight. “I love Denver,” Osbourne says. His first ever visit to Greeley will be Friday, September 30 at the Moxi Theater.
“I’m excited to be spending several days in Colorado,” Osborne says of the September concerts. “It’s going to be nice to be camped out in the state for a week.”
Crowds are already singing the lyrics to the new songs at shows, and Susto plans to play old fan favorites too. “It’s just a fun, blended set,” he says. “And the lineup of the band right now is great.”
“My collaborator Johnny Delaware rejoined the live lineup. It’s really fun – the chemistry between the two of us – because we started the band together. We do a lot of harmonizing and it’s been fun to rekindle that creative partnership. And yeah, we’re definitely going to sneak in a few new songs.”
BandWagon Presents Susto on Thursday, September 29 at LuLu’s Downstairs in Manitou Springs with King Cardinal and on Friday, September 30 at The Moxi Theater in Greeley with Plain Faraday. Tickets at BandWagonPresents.com – more on Susto at sustoisreal.com