A new album and a rapidly approaching Bragg Jam performance were more than enough to warrant a conversation with my friend Justin Cutway. Known for his time in Macon’s Magnificent Bastard (affectionately referred to as Mag Tard) and by his indie alter ego, Trendlenberg, Justin’s become something of an icon among local songwriters. He seemingly appeared on stage from nowhere in the mid-aughts, and since then has become a favorite collaborator among Macon musicians as well as a singular performer. Justin’s approach is simple, but it carries weight. He’s also a patron as well as an artist, and many of his contemporaries have felt a bit a taller in the saddle just by seeing him in the audience. Genuine is a word I would use to describe Justin Cutway– both the man and the music. His latest offering, The Open C Observations, is some of his best work to date and certainly worth your time.
AI- This brand new album, The Open C Observations… Everything is in open C?
JC- It’s a variation of open C
You just happen to sit down and start writing all those songs in open C?
No, I was toying around with some new tunings and I came up with this… Well, I didn’t come up with it. I really looked it up. It’s very similar to Nick Drake’s tuning kind of thing. Then from there, it was just a matter of changing a string to a different note– so it’s not quite open C. It’s like open C sustain or something like that.
You made the record and I guess what you might call a preview EP Been Too Long. You made all of this down with Shawn Williamson at Star Static Studio. You and Shawn had been buddies for a while. Was that what led you into going to record with him or did it just feel like the right place?
I had been one other place with the Back City Woods guys [Daniel NeSmith & Mike Collins]… Just kind of toying with it. Honestly, I wanted to start the whole thing by myself. I wanted to record it all and do it all like I used to do and just like really insular. I even broke out, at one point, the four-track cassette recorder to try and maybe be really like how I started out.
That’s what you had done with the old “Pecan Suit” days and all that?
A lot of that stuff was done at Rob’s [Evans], at Star Motel. But the stuff before that, like Trendlenberg way before I got here to Macon, was all sorts of bedroom stuff. So I thought I’d get back to that feel– and I just wasn’t able to do it anymore. It sounds like garbage now. I don’t know… You know what I mean? It’s just my ears have grown too much. At that point, I was just trying to figure out where to go and I know Shawn was setting up his studio and we knew a lot about each other and I knew that we could just go in there and it could take as long as it needed to take. And some parts of it did.
Some of those songs you’ve been holding onto for a little while… Like “Maconga” which you’ve had in your repertoire for a fair amount of time. When did you start the project?
I think I finally came up with, with the exception of “Maconga”, I had these seven or eight songs that I had written in this open C and was really kind of thinking I would like them as a piece. They are all sort of about the same kind of thing. I thought that would be a good way to keep them together. And then we added a couple of other ones just to fill it out a little bit and I wrote another one and there’s some stuff that didn’t make the record, but [Been Too Long] is songs that I was writing along the way that just weren’t quite… Didn’t fit in the way I wanted it to in the end.
Madeline Rueter, who just wrote a story for this issue about recording studios, she spoke to Shawn Williamson, and one of the things he said was the most fun he’s had as an engineer working was just coming up with weird and odd sounds with you on a synthesizer. What was the process like? Did you guys sit down with pen and paper?
No, we went in there and I did the vocal and the guitar tracks together live. And then did a bunch of takes of those and just kind of sifted through the ones that were good enough as a whole take. Then we’d go in and pick a song and just be like, “Well, I was kinda thinking about this…” And I had a lot of ideas of my own, but being able to bounce them off Shawn who is also, you know, a “synthy” guy… We just had a bunch of toys around and were able to just kind of record them all and pick things. There’s some of those songs that we’ve tracked probably 30 or 40 things– and we end up using three or four. It was never about having as many as we could, but it was nice to just have them at our disposal. And then when we decided, going into the end of the thing, getting into the real nuts and bolts of it, we could just cut it off.
Once upon a time, I don’t think anybody other than maybe your wife knew that you wrote and performed. I don’t know if you were keeping it a secret…
But then all of a sudden… And I remember the first time I saw you perform, I was actually embarrassed that I didn’t know this about you, that I was unaware that you could even do it much less how good you were. And then from that point on, you really came up, became a big part of Macon’s songwriter scene and music scene.
For a while there.
You had Magnificent Bastard and various other incarnations that you’ve played with. So a lot of those songs early on were coming out of a time when you had first got to Macon. You were a teacher. That’s a world you left behind… This time around, where were these songs coming from?
They’re still very self-centered and about me. But now it’s in this sort of lull… Some of these songs have been written for a while. It’s just kinda been getting them together… So some of them come from a place where there was a lot of death going on in my life. There’s my grandmother and my mother’s husband and then a buddy, a drummer in Mag Tard… And it had given me this sort of… I was trying to get around the sort of moroseness. ‘Cause I mean, I was sad, but I don’t try and write a sad song necessarily. Although the subject matter is maybe a bit rough around the edges.
There’s something about mortality in those songs, those observations.
Yeah, right, exactly. That’s where, obviously, the title comes from. A lot of the songs are spawned from notes that I’ve taken just walking around Downtown Macon seeing something, anything, hearing someone say something…
Of what you can hear and see a lot of.
Exactly. There’s plenty of material (laughs)!
One of the significant things about this is… We always say, you know, your “record”, you make a “record”… You really literally did make a record. You’re doing vinyl with this release. Tell me about that process. ‘Cause I heard a couple of rumblings…
Honestly, it sounds amazing. It literally is worth it. It’s one of the few times– and I’ve made lots of projects… And I even had an old Trendlenberg release that was on vinyl! It’s like a one-sided, hand-lathed…
Yeah, yeah, I do remember that!
And that sounded cool. But this sounds like vinyl.
You’ve done the Trendlenberg band ensemble before. Any plans to do that again? ‘Cause I know you always had a good time. I know the guys always had a good time.
Yeah, there is some talk about that. I think it would be fun to do, at least a show of a lot of songs. Meaning, play not just the record, and if I could do some of that stuff with the fellas, the usual fellows or anybody really, it’d be cool. I have hopes and ambitions of at least trying to get a little bit out of Macon and there’s some venues that I think are fairly accessible and it’d just be easier for it to be me– I think anyway. I’m not sure, but we’ll find out.
Who’s out there working right now that you’re are enjoying? New songwriters on the scene? I mean, cause you’ve been, this isn’t a jab, you’ve been at this a little while now. You have been up above and considered one of the best songwriters in Macon.
Sean Solo (Sean Williams) is putting a great record together. That last record… Not the newest release, I haven’t actually listened to that, but the last full-length he put out was a really good record. All homegrown. I just had the pleasure last night of seeing David Dingess play. He’s a key player, which is a nice little change of pace from the usual singer-songwriter playing guitar. I think those are probably the two real young guys that I’ve seen as of late. I mean, that’s one of the things I was just talking to with Bo [Walker] at work. I don’t know if I go out and see as much as I used to? And I feel like I still go out and see some things, but there’s probably a lot of like… Sean Solo’s been around Macon for a while. I mean, he’s been in all those bands. He’s not really that new. So there must be some new kids out there that I’m missing, right?
But you do get out and you perform. Do you feel like you’re performing less these days?
Definitely, yeah. Oh yeah. This record, I think, is a really good example of what I sound like now, and it’s not too heavily produced to give some sort of concept that I’m going to walk in with a big group of people. I think you could see how I could pull that off by myself. I’m kind of hoping to use that as a little bit of a jump to get back and play some more shows. It’s just been way too long. I played a song last night at the Storytellers thing. It was a Bragg Jam Storytellers…
I wanted to ask you about that. Tell me about the first Bragg Jam you played. Was this back in the old days before they paid any of us? When it was all goodwill and love and like, “We want to be a part of this!”
Magnificent Bastard, and we were still called that at that point, we played the very first set, the very first year the Hummingbird had Bragg Jam. We were the, like, 6:30pm show.
What year was that? Was that the year we had the outdoor stage?
Maybe? When the Drive-By Truckers played?
Yeah, ’cause that was my first Bragg Jam. That was the first Bragg Jam that I had ever performed. And I did that twice, man…
You played at 11:30 in the morning…
With the Liabilities.
I totally remember going to that!
And then we went on later that night before the Truckers as Hank Vegas.
Long days, long days…
A lot of beer and whiskey too…
Yeah, ’cause you know, it’s not like anyone went home to take a rest!
At this point in time, I think it’s safe to say that you have been, for many years now, one of the premier songwriters in town, an actual songwriter who’s applied and worked on your craft. And you’ve also been somebody that a lot of the younger songwriters have looked up to. Everybody talks about Macon music and we’ve got a lot of bands, but when it comes to actual– to me, this is my opinion– to actual real writers, I wouldn’t say that we have an overabundance of those. How do you feel about Macon’s songwriting community in addition to the musical community at large?
Songwriting for me has been a very long process. The way I think about songs is vastly different than when I started when I was 12 or 13. This is 30 years later. There’s a whole different concept of what I’m thinking. So when I think about how the songwriters that I hear, like the local bands, play their songs, I almost always give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Because it takes… I mean, you have to write crap songs. Even if they’re your best songs, you have to write those songs. The problem is that here, you need someone to tell you, “Hey, that’s a crap song. Let’s look at it. Here’s why I think this part of it is a crap song.” And we don’t really do that. I mean, again, to bring up last night, but a newer guy in town who’s not in music… Well, he’s sort of a pseudo musician. Bryan Beck? The glassblower guy. He was like “Oh, I listened to your stuff.” And I was like, “Cool.” He was like, “Yeah, I really liked the first one and the third and the fourth one. But that second one was no good.” (Laughing) And that’s not something you hear. And it was very refreshing. I was like, “Thank you. So tell me about it.” And he talked about what he didn’t like, and I was like, “Oh, well, sorry, that’s kind of what I do.” But it was just that back and forth and understanding that it is a process.
It was you and me and somebody else, I think once upon a time had discussed… It was a long time ago when The Rookery was trying to do an open mic and we’d discussed trying to write a song and come back every week with a new song– whether it was good or bad. I think you’re the only one out of the two or three of us that decided to do this, that took it, and ran with it.
That’s what I mean. I have tons of songs and some of them are no good, but I try and write a song at least every week. Maybe not every day– but that’s how you get better, right? There was a little while where I could just go to see bands play or really listen to records, and, like really think about it. And that helps. But that’s not the same as transforming it out of thin air.
How do you become a better writer?
Practice better. The more words you know, that kind of thing. I found that it’s still hard at times to get motivated to come up with new kinds of music or new styles or to push that part. ‘Cause I’m a more lyrically driven songwriter, I think, more often than not. So there are times where I have to really focus on trying to get something to be better. Like the music to sort of pull along the lyrics as opposed to the lyrics leading. But I don’t know… How do I become a better writer?