The Singer-Songwriter, Josiah Early, Discusses Acting on Boardwalk Empire, His Passion for Music and How His Upbringing Has Influenced His Music
Posted On 31 Jul 2014
Tag: Avett Brothers, Boarwalk Empire, Chris Smither, Ethan Johns, Gone Again, HBO, Hollywood, Hotel Cafe, Jamie Candiloro, Joe's Pub, Josh T Pearson, Josiah Early, Justin Earle, Justin Jones, Lay Me Down, Levon Helm, Mennonite Minister, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ray LaMontagne, REM, Rex's Blues, Robert Dittrich, Ryan Adams, Shenandoah Valley, Singer-Songwriter, Terrance Winter, The Felice Brothers, Tim Van Patten, Townes Van Zandt, Virginia, Willie Nelson
The singer-songwriter, Josiah Early originally hails from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, but he has spent time living in New York City and Los Angeles. He has toured across the country and played with the likes of Justin Townes Earle.
Early just released his debut EP which was recorded with producer Jamie Candiloro (Ryan Adams, Willie Nelson, REM). Not only is he a talented musician, but Josiah Early is also a talented actor. Josiah is best known for his role as Robert Dittrich on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
Learn more about Josiah in this Q & A:
When was the first moment that you realized that you wanted to be a performer?
Well I didn’t pick up the guitar or write songs at all until a few years ago and I actually had no desire to perform my music onstage. I was just writing it because I needed to after a broken heart breakup thing. I was more focused on acting and I was just happy playing my songs around the campfire for family and friends. My friend from back home, Justin Jones, is an incredible singer-songwriter and has been doing this professionally for a long time. Well, he saw me learning my first chords and writing my first songs. He was the first established person to tell me I was making some good music. He kept pushing me to play live and very graciously asked me to open for him. I said no the first few times but then I finally agreed when he played in NYC just to see what it felt like. I thought I’d only do it that one time, but that show got me some press and then the ball just started rolling.
How have you grown as a musician since you started?
I’ve learned to let the songs write themselves more. I’ve learned when to get out of the way and stop thinking so much. I kind of have this rule I yell at myself a lot lately. It’s “No thinking til it’s all out.” You can always go back and craft the song better and do the tweaking and changing of stuff, but when it’s being born, just get out of its way. That’s when the magic is happening and brain never beats magic.
The minute I first hit NYC, I knew I was home. It was where I was always supposed to have lived. After a few years of living there, something strange happened. I still felt that way about the New York, but it started being a big mirror that kept showing me who I really was and where that comes from. My values, my beliefs, almost everything at the core of who I am comes from growing up the way that I did in Virginia.
You are the son of a Mennonite Minister and grew up listening to hymns every Sunday at church and bluegrass and country music just about everywhere else. How has all that affected the music that you make today?
When I was working with Justin Earle he told me, “The first thing you have to ask yourself before writing any song is: Black Church or White Church?” I know it sounds funny but it’s pretty true. Mennonites are famous for our four part harmony choirs. Hearing that every Sunday as a kid had a huge effect on me.
In terms of bluegrass and country, I’ve seen some of the best banjo and fiddle playing ever where I grew up. It was being played on somebody’s front porch by people you’ve never heard of. People who just play because they love it. They work at the local gas station you know. And country is just what’s playing on the radio everywhere you go. Go to Linville, VA and press scan on your radio and you’ll have to go through ten stations before you hear one that’s not country.
You are an actor as well as a musician. Which is your true calling? What makes you happiest?
That’s a tough one. I want to say music mainly because I never really have the general urge to “act”. I’m never sitting on my couch thinking, man I wish I was acting right now, but the second I read a role that interests me I become obsessed. I can’t stop myself. I’ll just keep digging deeper and deeper. With music it’s just more of a constant thing that’s always with me.
You played Robert Dittrich on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”. What was it like going back in time for that show to the 1920’s? What did you learn from being apart of such a successful show?
Well, I was in the first season and it hadn’t yet become a success. None of us could see the world that Scorcese, and Terry Winter were trying to create except for maybe Tim Van Patten and a couple of others. We were all just trying to give them what they needed to make their vision come to life. There was so much humility in everyone involved and so much attention to detail. My photography studio on the boardwalk wasn’t just a fake storefront. It was a real photography studio from the 1920’s inside down to the last detail. Thats how much they cared about authenticity and getting it right. We all knew that it was crystal clear to them what they saw in their own minds and what they wanted from us and they were incredible at getting it from us.
On my first day of shooting I was really nervous and Terry and Tim were the coolest dudes ever. They just give off this vibe that makes you trust them completely. I actually auditioned and prepared the role completely differently then what you see. On the first takes of my first day shooting Tim and Terry are watching Michael Pitt and me work out the scene and they were chatting as they watched a little play back. Finally Tim shouts to me “Josiah, make him more light on his feet. Make him kind of a dandy.” The character I created beforehand was the exact opposite of this but they knew the whole storyline already and they could see that the dynamic between Michael Pitt and I would be better if my character had that element to it. So on the spot I had to scrap the whole character I thought I’d be playing and try and rebuild him as dandy. Normally this would make me really mad and frustrated, but they made me feel so at ease. I knew if they saw dandy, then dandy it needed to be. So I guess I learned to be more malleable and be ready to make big character changes on my feet… and especially if those changes are coming from notes you are getting from Terrance Winter and Tim Van Patten.
How are you using social media networks and sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram to interact with your fans? What do you think about it all?
I’ve just started doing all that stuff and I started very begrudgingly, but I get it. It’s the world we live in now and it’s necessary. I’ve actually started having fun with it. I just learned about “Throwback Thursday” and I’m having blast looking through old pictures and posting them on my friend’s pages. I’m having more fun with it than I thought I would. It’s nice to see what people are up to and to see pictures of moments captured that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I used to think it was evil and it would kill real conversations and that kind of thing, but I’ve done a complete 180 on that kind of thinking. I’ve had so many nice messages sent to me from strangers telling me how one of my songs helped them through their breakup or whatnot or ask me to listen to their music and give them feedback. These are people I’d never have met without this internet world. I’m really warming up to it.
If you had the opportunity to work with any artist/band from the past, present or future, who would it be and why?
Past is to hard to answer, but Levon Helm is definitely on drums in that past picture. Present: I’d like to make a record with Ethan Johns. That’s probably at the top of my list right now. He blows my mind with his trust of sparseness and simplicity. It’s like he knows how to get the truth out of an artist with this very gentle guiding hand. No gimmicks. no quirks. He listens for the song’s bare bones honesty. I really love every record he’s ever made.
Future: I can’t wait to hear the record some kid makes on his iPhone in his basement that’s gonna change the whole way I think about music. I’d like to work with him.
Right now it’s a song called “Gone Again”. It’s not on this first record, but I want to record it on the next one. It’s kind of an apology for disappearing into my own world all time. I really like playing it live because it’s just me doing some simple finger picking and the upright bass player bowing very low and slowly. That sound and the message of the song together is helping me heal some wounds and it feels really good.
When you aren’t performing and writing new material, what do you like to do in your spare time?
I spend time with my wife mostly and work with my hands, building something or fixing something. Living in LA really makes me miss being at the farm and getting my hands dirty.
What bands are currently inspiring the music that you’re making? Who are some new bands that you are loving now?
I really love Chris Smither. He’s like 70 years old now and he’s making the best records of his career. It’s incredible. Josh T Pearson really inspires me too. I haven’t seen anyone so present onstage ever. No one.
I also really like the Avett Brothers, Justin Townes Earle, Ray LaMontagne, the Felice Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show. Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua are actually from my hometown. They had a band in high school called the Route 11 Boys. The first verse of my song “Virginia, Lay Me Down” is about a night where they played at some party in someones barn and I lost my shoes and had to walk like five miles barefoot back to town.
Thus far, what’s a favorite memory or something silly that’s taken place (in-studio, onstage, or elsewhere)?
My favorite memory is actually from the second live show I ever played. It was at Joe’s Pub in New York. I had seen so many greats play there before I ever even made music. Like hero’s of mine and I just remember sitting on that stage before I played the first song and it felt so good. I just looked out at the crowd and said “give me a second. I need to soak this in.” I couldn’t believe I was up on that stage. I thought it would intimidate me, but this serene feeling washed over me and I was just so happy and honored. That space is magical. I can still recall how I felt in that moment like it was yesterday.
Is there anything in particular that you’d like people to take away from listening to your music?
No. I want them to have their own personal connection to the songs more than anything. That’s what I love about music. Townes Van Zandt may have written and recorded “Rex’s Blues” but when I listen to it, it’s mine. In that way my songs aren’t mine either. I have no control over what they do to the listener and they belong to them just as much as they belong to me. That’s what makes music such an intimate art form.