The promising Burlington, Vermont-based singer-songwriter Justin Levinson chats with Gauraa and Morgan about his trajectory as a musician–from the good ol’ Berklee days spent playing gigs at the All Asia Cafe to his upcoming tour with Aaron Carter.
Mary Morgan Craig: Your music is an interesting combination of country, pop, and rock. How would you best describe the influences that led to that?
Justin Levinson: I think most of my music right now is in the power-pop genre but when I spent some time out in Nashville a couple years ago, I was really inspired by a lot of the music that was out there and one of my friends gave me an Elton John record called Tumbleweed Connection and it just turned out to be a really influential record for me. That’s one of Elton John’s records that had some country influence on it and it was piano driven as well.
MMC: We can definitely hear that in your music.
Gauraa Shekhar: Yes, for sure. We read that you went to Berklee College of Music. What did you major in while you were at Berklee?
JL: Well, I started out as Jazz Trumpet and then I changed over and did songwriting. It was more like School of Rock than normal college.
GS: I’d imagine!
MMC: Do you think the Boston music scene helped you grow as an artist? I’m from Boston, by the way.
JL: Yeah, definitely. Going to Berklee was great because I was around incredible, awesome peers who were great musicians and I got to learn a lot from them. I also played a lot of the local clubs like The Middle East. I actually started out playing at the All Asia Cafe, which is kind of the place to start when you’re in Boston and you know, all your friends have to buy a drink and everything. It was small and no one actually went there so it was mostly just students playing, ha. I kind of worked my way up from there to playing bigger venues like Great Scott. I feel like I played every venue in the city until I worked my way up playing at The Paradise.
MMC: Nice. The Paradise is such a gorgeous venue! I would have been so pumped to have played there.
JL: Yeah, it was a real privilege and now actually, when I’m not on tour with a bigger headliner, I go frequently back to the Lizard Lounge, which is in Cambridge. Ha, you probably know the spots. Where are you from in Boston?
MMC: I’m from a little town right outside of Boston, actually, called Boxford. I mean, there’s nothing going on there so we go to Boston all the time.
JL: Ah, nice. Yeah, Boston’s great!
GS: It’s pretty interesting you say that because you went straight from Boston back to Burlington, Vermont, which you described as the “one horse town”. What inspired that?
JL: Well, originally, I had been interested in moving to Nashville. A lot of my friends were thinking about moving out there and I was pretty certain that I was going to move out there–not just because of music but also because this girl I was chasing was moving out there, and since that didn’t work out, I pulled an audible and said I’m gonna move to Los Angeles. Ha, and I ended up not moving to Los Angeles. Then, my final choice was New York City but New York City just wasn’t for me. I mean, I loved visiting but it moved a little too fast for me and I just really loved the people in Vermont as well as the quality of life and I was able to do enough touring to be able to make my confections in the music industry on the road and be able to not have to kind of live in the chaos in the big, urban music meccas.
MMC: Ha, good! So you described your latest album, This Side of Me, as feel good heartache. How’d you come up with that?
JL: Yeah. Basically, I was making a record that was filled with a lot of heartache but at the same time I wanted to keep it a little lighthearted for listeners and I didn’t wanna make kind of a woe-is-me record. Also, I was really aware that making a concept album about heartache is probably the most overdone topic so I realized that it was important for me to put a twist on it. I tried to have a little sense of humor–kind of heart-on-sleeve, using simple metaphors and silly euphemisms…just kind of playful stuff, ha.
GS: Well you did a good job because we definitely liked it! People say musicians write music most when they’re either falling in love or falling out of love. Would you agree with that statement?
JL: Yeah, definitely! Love alone is like the number one topic in most songs and I think when an artist is writing from the heart, its definitely one of the pretty intriguing concepts, I think.
MMC: You have experimented with your sound quite a bit over the past years. How did you end up with The Valcours?
JL: Well, I spent a lot of time playing with session musicians and there’s a big difference when you’re playing with session musicians as opposed to when you’re playing with a band. Session musicians have higher guns and technically you don’t let them into your world as far as writing and ideas are concerned. It’s kind of like you’re showing up to work for the artist, basically. I work that way a lot because I’ve been in bands in the past and it hadn’t really worked out for me. When I met the guys that are in my band now, we just really got along well and we would have dinner together before we would practice and we would totally talk about our troubles and there was this ‘bromance’ going on and I thought to myself maybe I won’t let the jaded past of the band thing haunt me and give this band a chance and let them in a little bit. It really made a big difference because it let me listen to other people’s ideas for once instead of my own. If you don’t work with people who trust you enough, you end up writing the same song over and over and over again but if you listen to four people in the band, someone could be like, ‘Hey man, you’ve already done those four chord changes a few times. Why don’t we try this instead?’ It might be hurtful at first to listen to but it definitely makes you grow as a musician. I think anyone that thinks they can do everything on their own, all DIY and all, is at a setback. In the music industry, it’s always good to listen to other people.
GS: Well said. As musicians, we are consistently trying to find “our sound”. Would you say you’ve find your sound with your new backing band?
JL: Yeah, I think I’ve found a sound but one thing with me is that I get really bored playing one kind of sound so I don’t know if I can make that a final answer. I mean, look at The Beatles, they never made the same record twice. They had some similarities, yeah, but they went from “She Loves You” to “Let it Be”, you know. I’m hoping that I’ll achieve that kind of growth and maturity if I keep it up.
MMC: Yeah, we’re excited to hear more. Your song “City With Two Lights” sat tight on CMJ charts for quite a while, granting you nation-wide exposure. Would you recommend artists like yourself to leverage themselves at conferences like that?
JL: Yeah, I think college radio is a great thing for independent artists. I learned a lot about the industry by doing that as I had to build relationships with people. One of the best piece of advice that I got was from a friend who worked for WERF, which is the Emerson College radio station, and he was actually a DJ there and he suggested putting in a personal note in with my press kit when I sent them out to colleges because college DJs get so many press kits so it needs to have something that separates you from the pack and makes you go, “alright, Justin Levinson is a human ‘being’.
GS: We do get a lot of press kits, that’s true! A personal note can make all the difference.
JL: Yeah, that was really a cool thing and I started writing notes to DJs and build authentic relationships with these people who I’m still in touch with today. I would say for artists coming up, that’s an important thing to do because people you meet as you’re rising are very important. Kids that were DJs at WERF are now working at Columbia Records.
GS: Yeah, hopefully that’ll be us in a few years.
JL: Ha, definitely!
GS: Okay, so, how did you end up as an opening act for Aaron Carter?
JL: Well, that’s actually a good question. I don’t really know all the details about how that came to be but in November I signed with new management and since then I’ve been working with artists like Aaron Carter. I also toured last fall with Tyler Hilton. He’s actually in the cast of One Tree Hill.
GS: Oh, wow, that’s amazing. Tyler’s really good, I have his records and everything.
JL: Yeah, his new record is really good and he’s possibly the nicest guy I’ve ever met, too. He’s totally an authentic dude and the first show I jumped on on tour, he introduced me to all his friends and you know, every time I’d play he’d mention my name three times to the crowd. It was a great experience, really. I think the new management is opening up a lot of doors for me. Hopefully, I’ll be doing a lot more stuff like this in the future!
GS: Oh, sure.
MMC: So when you’re writing, do you keep a certain demographic in mind?
JL: I don’t really think I ever really thought about it but you know, recently, with the Tyler Hilton and Aaron Carter tours, I definitely think about it a little more. During the Tyler Hilton tour, it was like 300-500 screaming young girls every night, which was crazy and something I wasn’t used to but when I write, I want to have every age group and gender have some sort of experience where they can relate to the music. I think I have a pretty good perspective right now. I’m 27 so I’ve still got some sort of teenage angst in me but I’m also kind of an adult now and been into college for a while so I think I can kind of balance out a lot of age groups. Well, I hope I can at least. I mean I’m wishful that a lot of different age groups would enjoy my music.
GS: With the growing EDM scene, what do you see happening to the future of the power-pop/ singer-songwriter genre?
JL: You know, I’m not really sure, I think with the power-pop stuff that I’m doing right now, there always seems to be a market for it, you know, I aspire to be as successful as bands like fun. Nate Reuss is kind of one of my heroes, he’s around my age right now and he’s been doing this power-pop thing for a long time and it seems like it all has worked out for him. I think if artists are able to be as creative as him and really combine a lot of really cool things like hip-hop, power-pop, and even some of those marching band kind of rhythms that he kind of sampled, it would be a great feature for the indie, power pop market.
MMC: Do you think that you will incorporate anything like that in your music?
JL: I would love to keep experimenting, you know. My drummer right now has a sampler and we use a sampler for our drum beats and use real drums over them. I’m always up for doing different things. It would be really cool to try to fuse those things.
GS: Very cool. Is there a specific songwriting process that is your default? Like, do you write the melody first or the lyrics? Or does it vary from time to time?
JL: You’re asking really good questions! These are really thoughtful, I appreciate it.
GS and MMC: Why, thank you!
JL: Yeah, I mean, I’m kind of the dude that plays on the piano with the melody in his head. The lyrics kind of come after, I guess. Usually it comes after playing the piano and guitar. You got to kind of see what the mood is like if it’s a minor chord progression, then it might be a sadder topic. If it’s major, then it might be a happier topic. If it’s kind of transitioning between major and minor, it is likely that it’s going to be bittersweet. I guess that would be my process for the most part.
MMC: Cool. So, in the video for “I Was So Wrong”, what inspired the ballerina in the video?
JL: Well, one of the things I do besides playing music is a lot of social work. I work with people in development of disabilities and one of the things we do is we volunteer at a lot of different places and I volunteer at the main society at Burlington, Vermont and one of the women that works there had told me that she was a dancer and I said, ‘Well, I kind of have this circusey idea for this song and it would be cool to have a ballerina dancing in the background as my muse.’
MMC: Well, it looked good!
JL: Yeah, I’d say it worked out fairly well.
GS: Do you find yourself using social media at all to stay connected to fans?
JL: Yeah, definitely. The whole DIY thing is great and I can’t speak for every songwriter but I have not reached the pinnacle of my career yet but I think being all DIY is an impossible feat in music so it’s important for me to have a lot of help. Even though I’m not with a major label, I have a publicist, a booking agent, a college booking agent, a licensing company, that puts a lot of stuff together for me but I still spend endless time doing the whole social media thing. A lot of publicity these days is doing social media. PR campaigns are all about reaching out to bloggers and podcasts. It’s all about networking, really. It’s a big social networking game and I spend a lot of time doing that. Even though I have this team, I love talking to fans and friends and everything, but sometimes I’m like, “I really want to be writing a song right now” instead of sitting on my Twitter page and what not. It’s really all about balance. If I can do both, it makes me a happy camper.
GS: We loved having you on our show.
JL: It was a pleasure, really. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Hopefully I’ll see you guys at the show!
GS: Oh definitely, we have our tickets.
JL: Nice! You should come in and introduce yourselves, it would be fun to chat a little bit.
GS: We’d love to!
MMC: Thanks and have a great night!
JL: You, too!
Make sure to catch Justin Levinson open for Aaron Carter at the Westcott Theater on the 24th of February!
To listen to this interview with Justin Levinson, tune into The Laura and Meg Show via iTunes Radio on Wednesday, February 20th at 11pm! Just click on “Radio” on the menu bar at the top of your iTunes Library. From there click College Radio> Syracuse University>WERW. Or simply head over to SoundCloud