An Inherited Guitar, A Trip To Cuba And An Unplugged Performance In A Bar: The Long Road To SUSTO’s New Album

“I had a really big fascination with music from pretty early on,” Justin Osborne of SUSTO tells American Songwriter. “As far back as I can remember, I was singing along with songs on the radio, listening to Casey Kasem and stuff. I’d even press ‘record’ on my cassette tape to try to bootleg my favorite songs.”

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Like a lot of artists, Osborne’s appreciation for music came quick, fast and hard. As a young fan, he gobbled it up, listening to as much as he could. Then, once he got older—and once he became privy to the fancy guitar his parents had been hiding from him—his infatuation grew into a full-fledged love affair. 

“I was probably 10 or 11 when my granddad passed away, leaving his acoustic guitar to me and my three brothers,” he said. “Being pretty destructive kids, my parents hid it from us and wouldn’t let us access it. It was a pristine guitar, though, really in good shape. My granddad was a big country music fan, but never really learned how to play guitar. He just bought it in the hopes he would learn, I guess.”

The object of his desires, yet a fruit forbidden by his parents, Osborne began to think of ways he could get some alone time with the coveted instrument. “I figured out where the guitar was hidden,” he explained. “My parents would leave the house and I would kinda be like, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like going where everybody else is going’ and then, when they were gone and out the driveway, I would go pull down the guitar and start trying to learn how to play it.”

As you might guess, Osborne couldn’t keep this affair secret forever and, eventually, he got found out. But, having supportive parents, he faced no punishment—rather, his folks signed him up for guitar lessons. He stuck with those for a bit, but pretty quickly it became apparent that he had even grander aspirations: he wanted to write his own songs.

That was the very beginning of Osborne’s journey, which has since been the adventure of a lifetime—playing countless shows, recording albums, traveling the world, meeting incredible people and making fantastic, heartfelt music all along the way. After going to college for a period of time in his mid 20s, he founded SUSTO, an Americana folk-rock band that would eventually go on to earn millions of streams for their honest, down-to-Earth song craft. While their sound is akin to most current, indie-influenced folk-rock, the heart of the band is reminiscent of the great troubadours of the 20th century, like Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, who kept a romantic, freewheelin’ notion of the old world alive even as they navigated the complicated twists and turns of modern life.

Likewise, Osborne’s songwriting captures a certain authenticity, a certain spirit of American identity that isn’t very prevalent in the mainstream anymore (at least not explicitly). Writing about everything from love to relationships to just trying to find an identity in the world these days, he’s not only a torch-bearer to this cultural legacy, but incredibly adept at utilizing the power that folks like Van Zandt and Clark had: the power to say out loud what everyone’s quietly thinking to themselves. Now, on June 4, he’s putting out SUSTO’s finest example of this to-date: a live, solo acoustic album, Rogue Acoustic, which features songs, stories and more all from Osborne’s favorite hometown venue, The Royal American in Charleston, SC.

But as Osborne explained to American Songwriter, the journey to SUSTO has been a long one. Even though he came to music incredibly young, it wasn’t until after he explored the world a bit that he was sure he wanted to pursue it in seriousness. In fact, for years, he was only doing music loosely, playing mostly punk and emo and getting in trouble for it.

“I recorded and put out my first album when I was in 10th grade—I got kicked out of school for a song that was on it, actually,” he said. “It was like a wannabe punk album, as much as a suburban kid in the 10th grade can be ‘punk.’ But, I went to a conservative Baptist school and I wrote a song about the administration. I released it over Christmas break and when we went back to school in January, the very first day, they kicked me out. I was kinda proud of that. That was the moment I realized how powerful music is.”

Becoming well-acquainted with the radical potential of songwriting, this was a formative experience for Osborne, but not an overwhelmingly convincing one in terms of showing that music was a “good career path.” Rather, as Osborne got older and started touring with his punk and emo projects, he actually felt himself getting a little disillusioned with music—instead, he was drawn to politics.

“I had pretty much spun my wheels with the DIY music thing and I was really struggling to break into the ‘music industry,’” he said. “So, I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do music as a hobby and follow some other interests.’ Through doing tours and stuff, I spent a lot of time reading and one of my favorite topics in particular was Latin American politics. Thus, I quit the DIY touring thing and I enrolled in college, studying anthropology with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies.”

At first, this felt like a good compromise—Osborne could keep making music on the side while he pursued this other passion as his main vocation. But things changed when he got the opportunity to study abroad in Havana, Cuba for a semester. 

“I went down there with the mindset that I was going to be really focused on learning about revolutionary movements and stuff like that, you know?” he said. “I did do a lot of that, but as soon as I got there, I fell in love with the musicians who were writing and playing and doing all the same stuff that I was doing with my friends back home in Charleston.” 

Thrown into this vibrant community of artists, creators and free-spirited thinkers, Osborne quickly found himself in the midst of a personal renaissance. Not only did this hook him up with some life-long collaborators, but it also reinvigorated his drive to make music full-time.

“I had kinda given up on the idea of having a career in music,” he said. “I tried to put out records, you know? I tried to do the DIY thing, but I could never get a team together or garner any interest from labels or anything. But the friends I made down there were really supportive and encouraging. I had lost my confidence a bit, but they helped me gain it back. Even being exposed to the Cuban songwriting tradition called ‘trova’—it’s basically like a storytelling, singer-songwriter tradition. In Spanish, it’s very honest. But it can be kinda tongue-in-cheek and playful at times, or a political tool at other times. It’s songwriting that’s well-thought-out, lyric-based and brave, in my opinion. That really inspired me to let go of some of the things that I felt had been holding me back in my writing.”

Accessing this augmented headspace with his own writing, Osborne was determined to go back to the creative drawing board and make one more strong effort as a full-time musician. 

“That time in Cuba kinda allowed me to fall back in love with writing for writing’s sake,” he said. “I was just playing without any huge expectations. So, I started writing new songs, which eventually became the first SUSTO album.”

Now, years later in 2021, all the adventures from his past are weighing heavy on Osborne’s mind. It’s been like that for a little while—in fact, he was feeling sentimental about his pure love for music even before the pandemic hit, which turned out to be quite serendipitous. On the metaphorical eve of America’s quarantine, he got an idea: inspired by the electrifying feeling of a solo acoustic show he had been asked to do a few months prior, he booked himself a solo acoustic night at his old stomping ground in Charleston in order to again feel that beautiful sensation of playing music without expectations.

“At first, doing the solo acoustic thing again was a little daunting—but once I did it, I remembered how primitive and fulfilling it is,” he said. “It can make the music feel so raw. So, I booked this show at the bar where I got my start playing—back in those days, we had a system where I would work in the kitchen and then play shows. We set it up last February and it sold out really quick. So, I lined up a bunch of friends to do it with me and it was just, like… we went in there and had a good time. At that point, I had heard about the virus on the radio, but it wasn’t a pandemic yet. It was just murmurs about it happening in China and the possibility of it spreading. So, in a lot of ways, I think we took it for granted.”

It’s true—while the evening was designed to be a sentimental celebration of the community around SUSTO and the art they make, within weeks, the recording took on a whole new dimension. 

“Immediately after the pandemic hit, it assumed a new kind of energy and spirit,” Osborne said. “It means something completely now that we’ve been through this past year. Listening back to it, you can hear the crowd—watching the videos, you can tell how packed it is in there. That’s just something we feel so far away from now (even though it’s just starting to feel closer again). To me, that makes this recording so much more important. It feels like a nice thing to put out, kinda like something we can aspire to again. It’s a reminder of what our world was like before, so that we might try to find a way back there again.” 

With this in mind, Rogue Acoustic might very well be SUSTO’s most potent and moving work to-date. Between the comprehensive musical summary of Osborne’s journey, the palpable energy of the crowd and the undeniably stellar performances throughout, it really does hit a magic sweet-spot. It’s an artifact of a recently by-gone past, a beacon of hope for a new future and a simply undeniably earnest collection of SUSTO’s best songs. And now, with a feeling that he’s paid proper credence to his past and a slew of unplugged tour dates on the books for 2021, Osborne is excited to step into a new chapter of the SUSTO story.

“I’m excited, not just for myself, but also to see all kinds of artists announcing tours and stuff,” he said. “We’re getting close, but I don’t feel like we’re completely there. I want people to feel safe and I don’t want to be reckless or anything, so there’s still an element of easing back into it as well. That’s why we’re doing this as kinda a storytelling thing, not exactly like the album, but certainly stripped back. But it’s just exciting to get to play shows in general. Hopefully, it’ll be somewhere close to where we were before all of this—hopefully, people can just gather and enjoy music with each other again.” 

SUSTO’s new album Rogue Acoustic is out now and available everywhere. Watch the video recording for “Mystery Man (feat. Johnny Delaware)” and check out their upcoming tour dates below:

SUSTO — 2021 Tour Dates
6/10 — Charleston, SC – The Royal American *SOLD OUT*
6/16 — Greenville, SC – Radio Room *SOLD OUT*
6/17 — Asheville, NC – The Grey Eagle
6/18 — Chattanooga, TN – The Signal
6/19 — Nashville, TN – Marathon Music Works
6/20 — Mobile, AL – Callaghan Irish Social Club *SOLD OUT*
6/22 — Atlanta, GA – City Winery Atlanta (2 Shows)
6/24 — Waverly, AL – Standard Deluxe Inc
6/25 — Savannah, GA – Service Brewing Co.
6/26 — West Columbia, SC – New Brookland Tavern
8/21 — Maquoketa, IA – Codfish Hollow Barnstormers
9/4 — Isle Of Palms, SC – The Windjammer
9/10 — Athens, GA – Georgia Theatre
9/23 — Columbia, SC – The Senate
9/24 — Harmony, NC – Carolina Jubilee 2021 (Solo)
9/30 — St. Augustine, FL – St. Augustine Amphitheatre Backyard Stage
11/19 — Asheville, NC – The Grey Eagle
11/20 — Charlotte, NC – Neighborhood Theatre
12/17 — Birmingham, AL – Saturn
12/18 — Atlanta, GA – Terminal West

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