When we asked JD Clayton what he would be doing if he wasn’t a singer, he told us he'd probably be "landscaping”, and as soon as you hear his songs it all makes perfect sense.
Born and raised in Arkansas, it feels like the so-called Natural State is a free-flowing presence through his music, like the streams and rivers and meandering bayous that he grew up surrounded by.
“I felt like I needed to get back to my roots and start making music that felt natural and organic,” JD Clayton explains about his approach on his forthcoming album, Long Way From Home. “Production needed to be basic and simplistic with a focus on the story and the song. We would plug in a mic, set it in front of an amp, and let the player share their own story with their instrument. Now, that’s making music.”
In a world where it feels like everything has to be bigger and glossier and shinier just to get noticed, JD Clayton’s songs are a rare thing of wonder. Stripped back and raw, the songs feel almost subversive in their simplicity. There is no artifice here, no pretension or conceit. That isn’t to say there is anything unassuming or unambitious about Clayton's music - there is already a kind of greatness to these songs – but just that every gently plucked string or chirrup of a cricket, every birdsong or creak of a floorboard, feels like a lost call-back to something more honest and true; to a sense of possibility and a belief in something altogether greater.
As with so many artists, the pandemic was a difficult time that Clayton managed to turn around somehow, at least musically. The coffee shop where he was working shut down, so he signed on with a landscape company working on heavy commercial and residential projects.
“I would be in the back of the truck driving with the crew from job to job,” Clayton remembers. “I would throw in my headphones and try to write a song or I would listen to old albums from top to bottom. I constantly listened to The Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was so enamoured by the production choices and musicality of those records. I really think I began to develop an ear for that sound.”
His musical journey had begun in Fort Smith, a small town resting on the banks of the Arkansas river. As a child he was already well-indoctrinated into music; his grandfather played banjo in a bluegrass band and taught Clayton some rudimentary chords.
He began playing in local bands through high school and when he decided to go it alone he went to Nashville, where a childhood friend of his was living. Clayton would leave Fort Smith in the early hours each Friday, get to Nashville early afternoon, record demos and then come back home on Monday morning.
Although nothing came of it, his time there kept him moving forwards, until during his senior year of college when he found producer Thomas Dulin. The two first met shortly after Clayton graduated and went on to collaborate on his 2018 Debut EP, Smoke Out the Fire. “That was a pivotal moment for me,” Clayton says. “I finally had music I wrote and recorded, from start to finish.”
His new album Long Way From Home was produced with Dulin at his studio, The Planetarium, near Nashville’s Berry Hill neighbourhood, but the sound of the record is soaked in the landscapes of Arkansas.
Taking the soulful blue-eyed country rock of Chris Stapleton and mixing it with the poetic earthiness of Will Oldham, Clayton might frame his masterpieces modestly, but their power and greatness is always on display. Songs like ‘Hello, Good Mornin’, ‘Different Kind of Simple Life’ and the gently soothing title track feel like the perfect antidote to a world that’s spirally wildly out of control.
Trust us, once you get this record in your life there's no getting away from it. You’ll be playing this record for many, many years to come. It’s the sort of record you’ll want to grow old with.
We sat down with JD Clayton to talk through the inspirations behind the record and what makes him tick.
Where are you from and how did that influence you?
Fort Smith, Arkansas. It's a fairly small blue-collar town where you know the guy working behind the counter at the hardware store and you know all of your favourite bartenders by name. Up to now, I've lived a pretty simple life with a lot of familiar faces. It's had a positive impact on my life.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up listening to early 2000s singer-songwriters like Jack Johnson and John Mayer because those were artists my dad was discovering at the time. I also listened to a lot of late 60s and early 70s rock & roll, particularly the Beatles.
How would you describe your sound?
Southern singer-songwriter country rock. Say that 10 times fast.
Where’s the most unexpected place music has taken you?
Warsaw, NY, in the middle of nowhere upstate New York. We were hungry and a few hours outside of our destination, so we pulled over. We found a small pub where we ate onion rings and drank beer. There was 6 inches of snow on the ground. A memory I'll never forget.
If you had to make a mixtape for Holler readers of all your favourite songs what would be on it?
Any song by Roger Miller, Kitty Wells, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Credence Clearwater Revival and the Beatles.
How was it making Long Way From Home?
One of the greatest experiences of my life. I had so much fun putting all of the pieces together. The result, this album, was unimaginable.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
I would go to the 1920s. I love that era. I think it would have been fun to walk the dirt or cobblestone streets right next to trolley cars.
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
President Theodore Roosevelt.
What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?
I'd keep it classic and go J Spice.
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Keep going. It gets better, I promise.
What’s next for you?
Touring the world and many more albums. I mean, that's the plan.
Long Way From Home is release on January 27th on Mulberry Records.