There’s an aura surrounding Josh T. Pearson, one that’s helped make him one of the most enigmatic, whispered about singers of recent times. It’s apparent in the authoritative, stark initial that punctuates his name. It’s evoked by the fabled, crash and burn story behind his old band, Lift to Experience. You can hear it in the ten-minute-plus vehicles for self-flagellation that appear on his album, and see it in the flowing, messianic beard he wears to his chest. It percolates through everything that’s been said or written about Pearson this year so strongly, that whenever he lifts the phone and announces himself to The Skinny in his thick, Texan drawl, it sounds like a proclamation from on high.
“This is he.”
In March, Pearson released his first solo record, the rapturously received Last of the Country Gentlemen. It’s his first output since the double album The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads ten years ago, which signalled the end of the road for Lift… and the beginning of a nomadic, primitive existence for Pearson. “I was just working,” he reluctantly says of the hiatus. “I scrubbed toilets, I was a janitor, I did construction, I was painting outdoors, mowing – lots of mowing – I was a caretaker on some property in Texas for a time. Thirteen acres. I was down there with goats and chickens. Just normal straight work.” The idea that he’s happier now to be making a living from his music is quickly dismissed, though. “Not really,” he says. “I’m glad if it does good for people, but being on the damn road, playing the same damn songs; I would’ve written a lot more if I had a straight job.”
Pearson is currently homeless. He’s in Brixton as we speak and is annoyed at having to speak to me from the street, in case the mobile reception won’t hold indoors. “It’s fine,” he says, graciously letting us off the hook. “Except y’all drive on the wrong side of the road. Surprised I ain’t been hit yet, but there’s always tomorrow.” He’s been touring the album, playing songs that stemmed from intense personal heartache, to steadily growing crowds. But rather than enjoying the fruits of his labour, Pearson finds them harrowing. Success is, for him, a poisoned chalice. He hasn’t been able to listen to the record since he recorded it and each performance is a drain. “It’s difficult every time,” he tells us in an austere, considered manner that lightens gradually as the conversation unfolds. “After the last show I swore I’d never play them again but I’m back doing it, since I’d already committed. You’re only as good as your last show. I’m risking a lot every time I step out. If I had easier songs I’d be glad to play them. But I don’t.”
Pearson has never led what you might call a “normal life”. He comes from Denton, a college town and oasis of music in the barren Texan desert. His father was a Pentecostal preacher and a loyal disciple of the Word of Faith Movement, biblical literalists whose adherence to the scriptures discourages employment (why earn a crust, when Marksays “soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them”?). His father refused to work and his mother, faced with a starving brood, packed up the kids and left when Josh was four.
He’s philosophical about the whole thing. “I’ve got nothing against organised religion,” he says. “We’re all doing our best here to survive this shit out. Denton’s in the Bible Belt so, yeah, it’s going to be a little more religious than other places. If anything, it’s necessary. It’s a hard country. Texas is bigger than France; it takes 16 hours to drive across it. Right now, it’s 38 degrees at the low, 42 at the high. It’s hot and it’s hard; you go crazy there. It’s only natural that the religion is a little extreme.”
“The south,” Pearson explains, “is very, very different from the north.” America isn’t the only country with a north – south divide. He thinks the UK is an inversion of the USA. “They’re conservative in the south of the UK,” he says, “and they’re just wild in the north. It’s the opposite of the US. With Lift… when we got up to Scotland, they were always really up for a rock show. They were passionate and they feel it. It’s much more what I’m used to and that’s what I come from. They get so high and worked up, it’s just like you’re in Texas sometimes. There’s one place in Glasgow, King Tut’s. I always presumed it was good, because the owner would always go for a big hug at the end. I don’t know what the fuck he was saying, but I think he liked it. I was just happy to hug him back.”
Written for The Skinny