Music Interviews
3:00 pm
Sun March 25, 2012

Susan Justice: Sometimes You Just Have To 'Eat Dirt'

Originally published on Mon March 26, 2012 9:21 am

In a busy New York subway station, a man serenades passersby with a beat-up guitar. A few of them look up from their BlackBerrys and toss a little change in his guitar case. It's a scene that plays out in subways and streets around the world.

Susan Justice knows that scene all too well. She has been on a remarkable journey from street performer playing for handouts to a major recording contract. As a girl, she traveled the world with her parents and nine brothers and sisters, singing on city streets, in parks, anywhere people would listen. But if you saw her performing, you might never have known the conflict she was feeling inside. To talk about her journey, we thought it would be nice to tour around with her in a place she knows well: the streets and subway stations of Manhattan. These were her performance halls, as well as the inspiration for the new album and its title song, Eat Dirt.

"I wanted to make a play on the usual, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' because everyone's heard that," Justice says in an interview with NPR's David Greene. "In the beginning of the song, there's a piece of candy on the floor that I'm going to eat even though my mom's going to smack me if I eat. But I'm very curious, so I eat it anyway. So then the chorus comes in and it says, 'What doesn't kill you makes you sick / And if you're sick, you learn a lesson / With every lesson, you'll get wiser,' so I figure that it pays to cross the line and eat a little dirt sometimes."

No Autonomy

The 32-year-old musician has eaten a lot of dirt in her life. Her journey began during those performances with her family. It wasn't by choice. Her parents were iron-clad believers in a little-known religious sect called "The Family," which was determined to use music to send a religious message. Justice still sings one of those songs, "Ain't It Good to Know," but the experience wasn't all good.

"They thought they were doing something good, I suppose," Justice says. "We wanted some sort of autonomy. We had no autonomy. We were just little vessels being used for someone else's purpose. We had a job from the time we were born."

That's the paradox of this woman's journey. Her talents are rooted in a painful childhood that cut her off from the world. Her parents, who considered themselves traveling missionaries, converted a city bus, tearing out the seats and turning them into beds.

"We would drive around the city and just park on the side of the road and sleep," Justice says. "We'd get up and then we'd drive to our spot. We'd unload all of our equipment and just play in front of our bus. And then, when we were done, we'd pack back up into the bus and drive off.

"Sometimes on a day when we weren't playing, we would be parked on the side of the road in the middle of the city. You're looking out the window and there are so many different types of people walking by, and you're just wondering about their lives, what they do, where do they work — you're just people-watching the whole day."

Trapped

Even going to the corner store for candy was under strict supervision.

"You're kind of trapped on this bus, looking out, and, like, 'Wow, I'm a total freak of nature.' "

Freak of nature: With those three words, her smile vanishes and her eyes well up.

Justice finally escaped her family in 2001. She left them where they were touring in Germany and landed in New York City, alone, the day before the Sept. 11 attacks. She says she was afraid to be on her own but turned to the only thing she knew — playing on streets and in the subway. Soon, crowds gathered to hear her. She has stayed in touch with her parents and siblings even as she makes this journey from a young woman playing for handouts on the streets to a major recording contract.

Eat Dirt features a song called "Born Bob Dylan," a singer-songwriter whom Justice greatly admires.

"I went through this Bob Dylan phase, and he's so articulate with his songwriting," Justice says. "The chorus is, 'I wish I was born Bob Dylan / Had all the words to speak my feelings / I wish I stood up like Rosa Parks and followed my heart / Unafraid of the truth.' My one regret is that I didn't leave earlier."

So why open up about this hard past now?

"I thought it was a very personal thing," Justice says. "But then I realized it was really hindering me and holding me back from accepting my life and realizing that, yeah, it's OK to be happy for me. So this is sort of allowing me to be a complete person."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are in a busy New York subway station, and over there is a man with a beat-up guitar held together by duct tape. He's serenading passersby. And a few of them are looking up from their Blackberries long enough to toss a little change in his guitar case. This is a scene that plays out in subways and on streets around the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SUSAN JUSTICE: (Singing) Baby, you were meant to sing. I push you on a string...

GREENE: This is the voice of a woman who knows that scene all too well. Susan Justice releases her new album today and she has been on a remarkable journey, from street performer playing for hand-outs to a major recording contract. As a girl, she traveled the world with her parents and nine brothers and sisters, singing on city streets, in parks, really, anywhere people would listen. But if you saw her performing, you might never have known the conflict she was feeling inside.

To talk about her journey, we thought it would be nice to tour around with her in a place she knows well, the streets and subway stations of Manhattan. These were her performance halls and the inspiration for the new CD, and its title song "Eat Dirt."

JUSTICE: I wanted to make a play on the usual, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, because everyone's heard that. In the beginning of the song, there's a piece of candy on the floor that I eat even though my mom's going to smack me if I eat it. But I'm very curious, so I eat it anyway.

So then the chorus comes in and it says: What doesn't kill you makes you sick, and if you're sick, you learn a lesson, with every lesson, you'll get wiser. So I figure that it pays to cross the line and eat a little dirt sometimes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EAT DIRT")

JUSTICE: (Singing) What doesn't kill you makes you sick, and if you're sick, you learn a lesson, with every lesson, you'll get wiser. Wiser, wiser...

GREENE: This 32-year-old musician has eaten a lot of dirt in her life. Her journey began doing those performances with her family. It was not by choice. Her parents were iron-clad believers in a little-known religious sect called The Family. They were determined to use music to send a religious message.

JUSTICE: They thought they were doing something good.

GREENE: By bringing the family together and kind of singing Christian music in the group.

JUSTICE: Yeah.

GREENE: And for a while, I mean, did that feel good when you were growing up?

JUSTICE: No because we wanted some sort of autonomy. We had no autonomy. We were just little vessels being used for someone else's purpose. It literally was like we had a job from the time we were born.

GREENE: And what were some of the songs you were singing? What were the messages that your parents were asking you to...

JUSTICE: Some of them were really sweet songs. I actually continued singing one of them. One of them is called "Ain't it Good to Know." And it goes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T IT GOOD TO KNOW")

JUSTICE: (Singing) Ain't it good to know you've got somebody that loves you? Ain't it good to know you've got somebody who cares when no one else knows you're there? And it's like a cool wind that blows refreshing your soul...

GREENE: And that's really the paradox of this woman's journey. Her talents are rooted in a painful childhood that literally cut her off from the world. Her parents, who considered themselves traveling missionaries, converted a city bus; tearing out the seats and turning them into beds.

JUSTICE: We would drive around the city and we'd just park on the side of the road and sleep. And then we'd get up and then we'd drive to our spot. And the spot that we used to play was up there.

GREENE: Like up here, right there, like 49 and Broadway?

JUSTICE: Yeah. Yeah, it was like right up there. And we'd unload all of our equipment and just play right like in front of our bus. And then, when we were done, we'd pack back up into the bus and drive off

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GREENE: And what was your connection to the rest of the world, kind of out that window?

JUSTICE: Well, sometimes on days when we weren't playing, we would just be parked on the side of the road, like in the middle of the city. So you're just like looking outside the window and there are so many different types of people walking by. And you're just wondering about their lives, what do they do, where do they work. And you're just people-watching the whole day. You know?

GREENE: And could you have said like, Mom, can we go out and get a hot dog from...

JUSTICE: No, we couldn't really leave. I mean it was like later on, like when we were like, OK, we're just going to go to the store for a second. So it was like, literally, go to the corner store, get your candy or whatever. So - yeah, you're kind of like trapped on this bus, like looking out. And you're like, wow, I'm a total freak of nature. It's like...

GREENE: Freak of nature, with those three words her smile vanished and her eyes began to well up.

Do you want to stop a second?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WONDER")

JUSTICE: (Singing) I was off a nose, off by a hair. All the things you said didn't get me anywhere...

GREENE: Susan Justice feels like this new album is an important milestone. She finally escaped her family in 2001, leaving them where they were touring in Germany. She landed in New York City, alone, the day before the September 11th attacks. And she was afraid to be by herself. She turned to the only thing she knew, playing on streets and in the subway and the crowds started gathering.

Justice has remained in touch with her parents and siblings, even as she's broken from her past.

You have a song, "Born Bob Dylan."

JUSTICE: Yeah.

GREENE: Why this...

JUSTICE: Well, 'cause like, you know, I went through this Bob Dylan phase, and he's so articulate with his songwriting. And the chorus is: I wish I was born Bob Dylan, had all the words to speak my feelings; I wish I stood up like Rosa Parks and followed my heart, unafraid of the truth. My one regret is that I didn't leave earlier.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN BOB DYLAN")

JUSTICE: (Singing) I wish I was born Bob Dylan, had all the words to speak my feelings. I wish I stood up like Rosa Parks and followed my heart, unafraid of the truth even if I stood alone...

GREENE: As I understand it, you've decided, only recently, to kind of open up and talk a lot of this. Why the decision now?

JUSTICE: Well, I thought it was a very personal thing. You know? And then - but then I realized that it was really hindering me and holding me back from really accepting my life and realizing that, yeah, it's OK to be happy for me. So this is sort of like allowing me to just be a complete person.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JUSTICE: (Singing) I just returned from fantasy. How can I cope with reality?

GREENE: Susan, thank you for telling your story. It (unintelligible)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JUSTICE: Thank you, guys for listening.

GREENE: And best of luck to you.

JUSTICE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JUSTICE: (Singing) I always need company. I always need company...

GREENE: Susan Justice's new album is "Eat Dirt," and it is out today.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

JUSTICE: (Singing) Couldn't you be, be like (unintelligible). Couldn't you be? Be that for me.... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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