Josh T. Pearson is sitting in a French airport. The former Lift To Experience singer is wearing his signature white T-shirt, black jeans and boots.
Standing, his skinny 6-3 frame would earn him the most attention if it weren't for his long, unkempt brown hair and beard. He says he doesn't mind the baffled looks he gets. He's always been quick to diffuse the alarm of strangers with a quick joke or a smile.
But something's different today. On this day, his disposition matches his disheveled appearance.
Mute Records, the label that will release Pearson's debut solo album, Last Of The Country Gentlemen, on March 29, has lined up several days of interviews for him to conduct in his former home city, Berlin. So they booked him a flight. But he missed it—on purpose. Reluctantly, after a pep talk from his manager, Pearson boarded another flight to Berlin.
"After my manager coaxed me on a plane four or five hours later, with much weeping and gnashing of teeth because [Mute Records] were going to have to pay $600 more, he got me on the plane and got us there," Pearson says. "It was real hard going back."
The difficulty wasn't in a fear of flying. Rather, it was seated in a fear of facing a difficult past—one full of anger, alcohol and divorce.
Pearson lived in Berlin for several years. During that time, he lived the somewhat glamorous life of an American expatriate, performing occasionally and falling in love with a girl whom he eventually married. But it wasn't meant to be, and a painful divorce left Pearson broken-hearted. He left Berlin for Paris, but before he did, he recorded the painfully frail Last Of The Country Gentlemen over the course of two days.
"I did one day and waited two weeks to recover from that day," he says. "And then we did it again. It really burned something out of me."
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After mixing the album, he went straight to France, and he never returned to Berlin. Not until this press day a year later.
Funny thing is, Pearson almost didn't release the album. Much like the hundreds of songs he had written in the decade before the recording session, he planned on keeping it for himself and the audiences that would attend his intimate shows throughout Europe. But a couple of fans who were so moved by Pearson's performances on his tour with Dirty Three in Ireland helped change his mind.
"One was in Dublin, one was somewhere else," Pearson says. "They really expressed an earnest gratitude. The one in Dublin was just welling up with tears, and it made me reconsider that it might do some good for some people."
And, with that, he set out to release his first recording since his legendary Denton band Lift To Experience released their debut and final record, The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads, on Bella Union 10 years before.
The reason he waited so long? It's clear only to Pearson.
"It's not that I didn't feel that I was allowed," he says, "I felt specifically that I was not allowed. I had to do some more walking, I guess. Just walking around on the earth and figuring things out."
He had plenty to think about during that time—namely, the turmoil that surrounded Lift To Experience's demise, his falling out with Bella Union label head Simon Raymonde, and the responsibility he felt that he bore for lives of his former bandmates. Problems with drugs and alcohol plagued the band, and eventually the death of bass player Josh Browning's wife was a breaking point.
It was all a far cry from the state that Lift to Experience was in at its inception. All three members were sons of preachers, and Pearson's background was in the Pentecostal church—an upbringing that wasn't easy to avoid. In fact, there are more King James references on the explosive, shoegazing The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads than most preachers dare to cram into an hour-long sermon. Looking back, though, Pearson says he doesn't notice.
"I grew up religious," he says. "I am religious. So, you know, your worldview colors and shades your writing. I grew up reading [the Bible] every day, writing it every day, waking up in the middle of the night just to read it."
Pearson's religious background both haunts him and comforts him still today, and it's just as evident all over Last Of The Country Gentlemen, which is victorious in its frailty, anger and pain. On it, the explosive guitars for which his earlier work is known are all stripped away. The album is just Pearson, an acoustic guitar, and the occasional accompaniment on a violin and a piano.
The first track, "Thou Art Loosed (Intro)," begins where Pearson parts ways with the one he once loved. "Don't cry for me, I'll learn to live without you," he sings beautifully over an ambling, echoing acoustic guitar that follows no particular time signature. "I'm off to save the world," he continues triumphantly. But that's the last sign of confidence shown on the record. As Last Of The Country Gentlemen further descends, the listener is taken through a complex menagerie of emotion, from failure to resentment to anger, regret and a general sense of feeling broken—almost all through the lens of biblical allegory. He sings of kingdoms lost, saviors who can't save and rescuing the world. On "Sweetheart I Ain't Your Christ," the first of four songs on this seven-song offering that clocks in above the 10-minute mark, Pearson spitefully sings "You don't need a lover or a friend, you need a god and not a mortal man" as he wrestles with his own spiritual shortcomings, singing "that dust of death it stuck too deep." That spite quickly turns to anger on "Woman, When I've Raised Hell." One of the record's most cutting lyrics comes in this song, as Pearson sings "Woman, when I've raised hell, there won't be a star left untouched in your sky, when my lightning crashes across the night." Then, after all the crashes of lightning, comes the disappointment and sadness. Pearson turns it all on himself with "Country Dumb." Here he sings, "We are not what you call overcomers, we are failures each and every one, we're the kind who will always need a savior," painting a picture of a life of failure, cloaked in rags, covered in dust, and dirt poor. The album ends with a short prayer of a song called "Drive Her Out (Outro)" on which Pearson gives the listener one last look at his torment, asking, "Could you help me get her out of my mind?"
Two years removed from the album's recording, and Pearson is still agonizing over the ordeal. To this day, he says he can't even listen to the record.
"The songs were personal," he says. "It was a personal experience, writing what's in front of [me] and trying to heal."
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But, in the cathartic process, he's created the masterpiece of his career. The album has no hit single, no anthem and no sing-along, but it cuts to the core in a way that few albums ever have. And Pearson knows it, too: He hints that it might be more than 10 years for his next work to be released or, worse, that this one might be is last.
"I called it Last Of The Country Gentlemen because I didn't know if it would be the last or not," he admits.
Which is understandable. The pain it took him just to record the album, coupled with his jaded view of the record industry, keep him quite reluctant to bare his soul for all to see, as he has done here on this disc.
"All the trouble that you gotta go through to take it in front of people—it's a battle for me," he says. "It's really precious, sacred stuff."