In North Florida, the windy St. John's River flows slowly through a network of tributaries toward the Atlantic Ocean, fed primarily by swamps and marshes lying beneath it. It's the river near where funky Southern rocker JJ Grey grew up, and it's what gave his sixth album, "This River," its name.
Grey and his band Mofro will bring their gritty Americana rock to the Music Farm in Charleston on Dec. 27 as part of their tour promoting "This River."
The group's music is a diverse blend of influences that gives them a retro and soulful core. Grey's husky voice is reminiscent of Tony Joe White, while the backing from Mofro seems to stem from the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
On "This River," songs alternate from foot-stomping, head-nodding tracks like "Your Lady, She's Shady" and "99 Shades of Crazy" to the slower "Ballad of Larry Webb" to the contemplative title track, "This River."
"It's got a literal sense and a metaphorical sense in a way. I guess it is kind of an ode to the river itself -- the St. John's River," Grey said. "It's pretty big -- about three miles wide in some places. Just to sit there and stare at it long enough will pull you back down to Earth in a way. And I guess (the song) is a nod to the 'River of Life.' About kind of finally seeing it."
Many of Grey's songs reflect his love for the North Florida wilderness. They also have a strong sense of place rooted firmly in the South.
Tracks like "Somebody Else" and "Tame a Wild One," with their bluesy horn arrangements, sound like they came straight out of a smoky New Orleans bar.
Others, like "Florabama," speak specifically of the area between Florida and Alabama, where "the air (is) so sweaty, so sticky, so tricky."
Even with the energetic songs, overall the album has a lanky, languid rhythm -- a style that fits Grey's laid-back personality perfectly.
Lowcountry Current spoke with Grey and asked him to discuss the new album, his songwriting process (or lack thereof), and why people say his music is "swampy."
Question. A lot of people classify your music as "swamp rock." What does that mean exactly?
A. That's a good question. I have no idea what it means. I'm from the swamp, and I could never put my finger on something and say why it's swampy. I don't know if what I do is swampy. That's somebody else's take. If you listen to a reggae tune, it sounds like the island. Maybe if you listen to a type of music it can remind you of a place. I'm definitely from the swamp, and I've been influenced by people who have been called "swamp rock," so maybe that's where it comes from.
Q. If you don't use that term, how do you define your music?
A. I don't classify it at all. And I don't mean that in a sense that it's unclassifiable because I'm so great -- it's nothing like that at all. It's like looking yourself in the mirror. You brush your teeth every day and see yourself in the mirror, and 40 years later you still have no idea what the hell you look like. You know what everybody else looks like, but you don't know what you look like. Or when a friend comes over and hears their voice on your answering machine, and they say, "Man, I don't sound nothing like that." In the same way, I don't know what I sound like. I listen to the records, and I don't know that I've ever really heard anything I've done the way other people hear it.
Q. Do you think "This River" strays from your previous records at all or is it pretty much in line with what you've been doing?
A. I think it's pretty much in line. I don't live in a way where every day I try and reinvent myself. I don't do that musically either. It sounds silly, but people sometimes expect that with music or books or things like that. But you are who you are and you do what you do and I do what I like and let it fall where it may.
Pick any of my albums and some people will say, "That album is a complete departure to what he was doing before."
To me, I don't think about changing it and I don't think about what I did before.
Q. How do you usually write songs?
A. There is no real process. The other day I was in the car and suddenly I just had something pop in my head so I hummed it in my phone recorder. The other night I was laying in bed trying to fall asleep and lyrics came for one of the songs I've been working on for a while. Eventually I got out of bed and ran down to the studio at 3 a.m. and started putting stuff down. So I never know who, what, when, how, where or nothing. When it comes, it comes, you know?
I guess they just pop in out of thin air. I find the less I have to technically do with it the better. They kind of happen whenever and wherever, and I try to hold on and remember as much as I can.
Q. What do you hope listeners take away from this album?
A. I guess I hope that somehow, some way, it does what other people's music has done for me, which was to inspire me. It's the same way from playing live music, just enjoying a moment together.
Q. What's next for you? You're doing a European tour next year, right?
A. We'll be touring the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia coming up this year. And I'm working on a new record over the holidays, but we won't record until March.
Video: JJ Grey and Mofro, "The Sweetest Thing" featuring Toots Hibbert
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.