Justin Osborne, frontman for the South Carolina-born band SUSTO, has seen a lot of life’s ups and downs, twists and turns lately. Namely, the songwriter recently became a father to a new daughter and, within months, also experienced the passing of his father. The result, as one might imagine was a new record, Time in the Sun, which is out October 29.
To preview SUSTO’s forthcoming release, we wanted to premiere the band’s newest single, “God of Death,” a thoughtful, lush song about the most difficult aspects of the passing of time. The song explores and highlights the devastation that comes with death, the reclusiveness many feel, and then the wonder: what’s next?
We caught up with Osborne to ask him about all of this. We also found out how he began his relationship with music and songwriting and what’s next for his capable group.
American Songwriter: When did you first find music?
Justin Osborne: As far back as I can remember, I was drawn to music. At an early age, I would turn to music when I felt sad or confused, but also when I was feeling joy or love. Eventually, I started getting interested in writing my own material, and so I started writing songs around the age of 13.
My brothers and I had inherited an older Yamaha Parlor guitar from my grandfather when he passed, and I used to try my best to play it, even though it only had 3 strings. We weren’t really supposed to play it because it was an heirloom and my parents were afraid one of us would break it.
Once they realized I had been sneaking it out from its hiding spot and trying to play it, they let me know that it was totally fine and they were supportive. We eventually got new strings on it and I took a few lessons from a friend of my aunt’s. Those handful of lessons were all I really needed to get going, and I started learning to play songs that I loved but also started writing my own songs at the same time.
From the beginning, I knew that songwriting was a valuable way to channel my emotions, and so I got really into it, obsessed really.
AS: Why did you decide to invest in it?
JO: I realized from the start that songwriting was a valuable tool for self-expression and therapy, so it was easy for me to invest time in it because it really felt like I was getting a lot of reward from the time I spent practicing and writing. I started my first band when I was 15 or so, and actually got kicked out of school for a song we wrote about the administration.
Looking back, it was such a harmless song about authority, but I was at this really conservative Christian school and they viewed me as an anarchist and a trouble maker. Their response to the song really made me aware that there was power in songwriting and it only encouraged me more. Later on, in high school, I formed another band which started to have some regional success because of the music being spread around on MySpace.
This was when I first started experiencing the feeling of playing sold-out shows and having people sing along to all the lyrics. That connection I felt to the crowd through those small early successes, really had an effect on me and I became further obsessed with writing songs to convey my emotions and experiences in a way that people could relate to and come together around.
The personal affirmation I receive from audiences has been a primary motivation to keep investing my time and energy into writing and pursuing a career in music. I think it’s pretty natural to feel alone in this world, but for me, songwriting has been a way to breakthrough that loneliness and find connections with people.
AS: What was the impact of South Carolina on you growing up, musically or personally?
JO: Growing up in South Carolina has had a huge impact on my life and writing, for better or worse. Like many people in our state, my family was very religious and conservative; that background really shaped the worldview I had up until leaving home in my late teens. While I have a deep appreciation for the natural and cultural beauty of my home state, I also have a lot of complicated feelings about the spiritual, political, and racial issues that arise from this place.
These feelings definitely come out in my writing, because I feel like I’m continuously unpacking and trying to make sense of my upbringing. I’ve felt a lot of frustration with the views that prevail in South Carolina, but for some reason, I still feel so rooted here and I’m hopeful that there’s room for positive change in some of those problematic areas.
AS: What was the genesis of the new album, on the heels of Ever Since I Lost My Mind in 2019—there’s a little T-Bone Burnett meets The Black Keys feeling?
JO: The writing for Time in the Sun had its beginnings almost immediately after recording was finished for Ever Since I Lost My Mind, in the fall of 2018. I don’t ever stop writing songs, so there’s never really a break between one album to the next. I was obviously focused on the release of Ever Since I Lost My Mind in 2019, but also had begun thinking about the next project as soon as I had room in my brain to do so. By the time we began recording for Time in the Sun, it was January 2020, and I already had a handful of songs I was really excited about.
The recording process spanned from then until April of 2021, and the rest of the album was written during that time period. There was a conscious effort to create a different sound for this album because after the moodiness and grit of the last one (which to be clear, I’m very proud of and glad to have created) I wanted to move towards a sound that felt a bit more upbeat and layered.
Also, I had a lot of major events happening in my personal life that began to influence my writing in a lot of ways. Additionally, some new bandmates came into the mix which also contributed to the evolution of the sound.
AS: Recently, you’ve experienced fatherhood and the passing of your own father. You’ve seen the lifecycle—how did these all factor into the writing process of the new record?
JO: My writing process for this album was hugely influenced by two major events in my life, the birth of my daughter (June 2019) and the death of my father (May 2020). I began the writing around the time I found out my daughter was coming, and by the time we began recording she was about seven months old. With this in mind, I figured the album would be heavily influenced by that big change in my life, and it was, but then when my dad passed midway through the recording process, it became clear that this event would also have a major influence on my writing.
The themes shifted from just being about new life, to be more about the cyclical nature of life and death, and snapshots of life experiences in between. I was obviously contemplating the brevity of life and realizing that I was almost exactly the same amount of years in age difference from my deceased father as I was from my daughter, so I really felt like I was in the middle of that cycle. The title is a metaphor for life, and the years we spend taking laps around the sun.
AS: We’re set to premiere “God of Death” here today—what do you want to say about that song and its origin?
JO: “God of Death” is an important song for me because it was the first one I wrote after my dad died. I had been staying with my parents the week before he passed and then stayed with my mom for the week after too. The whole experience was a whirlwind of goodbyes that turned into funeral procedures, and I found myself having to speak the religious language of my childhood when talking to family friends and relatives, telling me that I’d see my dad again in Heaven. I also gave his eulogy, which was cathartic in a way, but forced me to strike a strange balance between honoring my dad’s life and beliefs, while also trying to not compromise my own views and sense of self.
When I finally got back to Charleston after all of this, I sat down and this song just poured out of me. It’s a mixture of dealing with the grief of losing my father, proclaiming my own views about religious myth, and also addressing the fleeting brutality and beauty of living. Writing this song felt like therapy for me because it was my first chance to say what I was honestly feeling after losing my dad. It’s certainly one of the darker moments on the album, but life has dark moments too and it wouldn’t have been appropriate not to address that on this album, which is at its core an exploration of the experience of living, from my perspective.
AS: When you think of the future, what comes to mind?
JO: I hope that the future holds many more years of life experiences, and chances to distill and share those experiences through songs. Finding a balance between fatherhood and a rigorous touring schedule is an ongoing journey for me, but I’m grateful for the chance to do both. We’ll be traveling a lot over the next year, promoting the album wherever ever folks will have us, and it’s hard to imagine all that time away from my daughter and home.
That said, I’m hopeful there will be times to be home sharing life with her. For now, I’m just trying to soak up the time we have before the road really comes calling again, because when it does call, I know I’ll go. Touring is a part of who I am just as much as being a father is who I am, just as much as writing songs is a part of who I am.
AS: What do you love most about music?
JO: The thing I love most about music is the way it’s there for you regardless of what emotion you’re feeling. If you’re sad, there’s a song for that…if you’re happy, angry, anxious, lost…there’s a song for that. I’m happy to make my own small contributions to this art form that feels like such a necessary companion for the human experience.