Blue October’s tenth studio album, This Is What I Live For, came out on October 23, continuing their tradition of releasing highly impassioned and catchy alternative rock songs. Calling from his home in San Marcos, Texas, frontman Justin Furstenfeld explains why he’s always created music with such immediacy and emotion.
Videos by American Songwriter
“When I write, we put it down like, ‘If we’re dying tomorrow, this is what people are going to hear’ – I always think that,” Furstenfeld says. “If you get in a car wreck tomorrow and it’s the last thing people hear [you sing], are they going to hear a scratch vocal or are they really going to hear you giving it everything?”
During Blue October’s 25 year career, Furstenfeld has become known for never holding back with his lyrics (or his heartfelt delivery of them). He has written with startling honesty about depression and addiction, but is equally known for ultimately delivering an uplifting message.
This Is What I Live For continues this dichotomy. “This album is a little bit darker. It’s romantic. It’s sad. It’s hopeful.,” Furstenfeld says, though he adds that he’s maybe a little less dramatic than he used to be. “I’m 44 years old now, and this is the first time that I’m ever at such peace with my confidence level, with how beautiful I think life is, that I’m able to tackle the subject of the darker side in me that I’ve never really gotten to explain unselfishly. I always tried to explain it while playing the victim in songs. These days, I’d rather look at the topic and discuss it.”
Furstenfeld writes Blue October’s songs with his longtime associate Eric Holtz, who is also the engineer at the band’s own studio, Up/Down Studios in San Marcos. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this beat – I need something really romantic and sad to it.’ Then we focus on that for the rest of the day,” Furstenfeld says.
Furstenfeld and Holtz are very disciplined about their writing sessions, working daily from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. whenever Blue October aren’t touring. While this method normally produces good results, Furstenfeld admits that they do get stuck at times, but they’ve found a way to work around this: “Sometimes melodies pop in right over the soundscapes and the chords but you don’t know the words you want to say,” he says. In these cases, Furstenfeld will record “nonsense” words in a stream-of-consciousness style. “We call it the ‘mumble track.’ And then we’ll pick words out of the mumble that make sense to the [song’s] meaning.”
Furstenfeld recalls that he was eight years old, growing up in Houston, when he first discovered his knack for songwriting. “My teacher told everybody to go home and write a poem about something that they love to do, and we were going to read it [to everyone] the next day,” he says. “I loved flying a kite when I was a kid, so I instead of writing a poem, I wrote a song called “The Kite.” The next day, I got up and I sang it, and the teacher was floored.
“That day at lunch, they handed me a microphone and called me up in front of 500 kids and said, ‘Sing your kite song,’” Furstenfeld continues. “I remember everybody going, ‘How did he do that?’” He laughs and adds, “I also liked how all the girls were looking at me! I remember pretty little April in her red dress was going, ‘Oh, my God.’”
That experience was so positive, Furstenfeld says, that “Every day after that, I would just continue to write,” and he says he’s never stopped since. “I just love it. It’s something I take more seriously than anything.”
Around the same time that he wrote “The Kite,” Furstenfeld also had another pivotal influence: “On Friday nights, before I watched videos, my dad would tell me that I had to memorize certain poems about the moral compass of a human,” he says. “I remember one of them he made me memorize was, ‘If the task is begun, never leave until it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do the job well or not at all.’”
Later, this high work ethic was reinforced when Furstenfeld attended Houston’s prestigious Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. “They were like, ‘If you get in one fight or if you fail one grade, you’re out. You think that that poem you wrote is good? That’s trash. Really dive into it.’ They were so brutal. But I loved it,” Furstenfeld says. This school is where he met multi-instrumentalist Ryan Delahoussaye, with whom he formed Blue October (along with his brother, Jeremy Furstenfeld, who is the band’s drummer).
In his career with Blue October, Furstenfeld admits that he can be the taskmaster now. “I’m brutal when it comes to the studio, and when it comes to songwriting and how I want it to sound,” he says. “It’s the one thing in my life I can control.”
Blue October released their debut studio album, The Answers, in 1996, but it wasn’t until their third album, History for Sale (2003) that they began to get significant airplay and media attention. In 2006, they had their big breakthrough with the intense single “Hate Me” from their fourth album, Foiled. That track went to #2 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and was certified platinum. Their next single off that album, “Into the Ocean,” saw equally successful sales.
Since then, Blue October have released a string of successful albums, though the band nearly imploded as Furstenfeld increasingly struggled with addiction. He successfully completed treatment in 2013. Despite the career success he’d had prior to getting clean, Furstenfeld credits this life change for bringing out his true artistic voice.
“I would have to say I didn’t really find who I was artistically until after I got sober about seven years ago, when I wrote a song called “Fear” – that’s when it was, ‘This is the style of music you’re supposed to do,’” Furstenfeld says. “It’s just being honest. It’s romantic art rock, I guess is what it’s called.”
Although Furstenfeld’s earlier songs vividly describe his personal struggles, he says he has no regrets. “There are some songs that you listen to and you’re like, ‘Wow, this guy is a piece of work. He’s looking for a little attention.’ It’s a phase I went through. The honesty that I’ve been able to portray in the lyrics, that’s my thing. People know me as that now, and I’m proud of it,” he says.
Furstenfeld let fans get an even closer look at the ups and downs in his life with the documentary Get Back Up, which was filmed over the course of seven years and takes an unflinching look at his addiction and mental health issues – and also his family and bandmates’ help and encouragement to get him back on track. Get Back Up is available on Blue October’s own streaming platform, Get Back Up TV.
As with his songs, Furstenfeld says he has no qualms about revealing so much about himself with this film, either. “Here’s a documentary about hope and redemption and people getting better and not dying,” he says. “We need to show solutions for people. I’m a firm believer in recovery and being a badass at life. The only way to do it is to not be complacent, to not be apathetic about your health and your life.”
Furstenfeld is also trying to help his fans get to a healthier and happier place, as well, by broadcasting a weekly show, Positively Justin, which is available on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook. “I’m getting to do 12-step recovery shows where I talk about the steps and how they changed my life,” he says. “Hopefully there’s some people out there that might need it and they can work them with me. I’m trying to do selfless things that also make me feel good.”
Beyond all that, Furstenfeld says he and his bandmates are working tirelessly despite the pandemic preventing them from touring. “We have just been going crazy over here at the studio writing and running with every idea and just going with it, even if it sounds weird and it’s a different avenue. We must have come up with 80 new things since COVID [started], just because we want to keep it going and stock the war chest up.” And, he adds, “I see right now as a time when people need music.”