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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Upping the ante: JJ Grey brings full orchestration to ‘Olustee,’ stops at GLA this week

JJ Grey and Mofro will perform in Wilmington twice this year, including its first stop this week at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. (Tom Dorgan/MoonFrog Media)

Remember the old Paul Masson wine advertisements built around the line: “We will sell no wine before its time”? JJ Grey, quite unintentionally, followed a variation on that philosophy in making his new album “Olustee.”    

READ MORE: In Photos: JJ Grey and Mofro at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater

“Olustee,” like Grey’s other albums, presents a varied gumbo of rock, soul, country, with horn-spiced uptempo tracks, like the edgy and funky “Rooster” and the driving, rocking soul tune “Wonderland.” They sit comfortably alongside the downright pretty “The Sea” and the gently swaying “Starry Night.”       

JJ Grey and Mofro will perform in Wilmington twice this year, including its first stop this week at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater.                

Over a career that was launched with the 2001 album “Backwater,” Grey had delivered his six most recent studio albums over an eight-year span, with “Ol’ Glory” culminating that prolific run with its release in 2015. It took Grey that same amount of time to finish “Olustee.”             

Ironically, the project actually got off to a fast start, and for a time, it looked like Grey might have a quick followup album to “Ol’ Glory.” 

“After ‘Old Glory’ came out, it probably wasn’t even 18 months — a year and a half or whatever — that I was back in the studio and had recorded the basic tracks for a song called ‘Free High,’” he said.

He also recorded “Starry Night” and “Top of the World.”

“I had placeholder kind-of singing, sometimes with words, sometimes it just sounded like words. I was struggling,” he said, before backtracking the thought. “If there’s a struggle, you have to actually try. This one, I was just not writing the lyrics and not singing it.”

Grey awaited for inspiration to strike — all the way until spring of 2023. That’s when a friend who worked in real estate showed him a building along the St. Marys River in north Florida. Grey immediately envisioned it as a studio and rehearsal space. 

“It was incredible — used to be a boys home and it was a crazy three-story octagon building,” Grey said.

That March he made an offer, with keys in hand by April. His new acquisition was put to immediate use. Grey finally tackled the lyrics and vocal melodies he needed to finish the “Olustee” album. 

“Within a week I had everything written, recorded and done,” he said. “And when I say a week, I don’t mean a week’s worth of recording. Hell, I wasn’t in there a couple of hours each day. It took me four or five days, a couple of hours each day.”

Some songs traveled in different directions than originally anticipated, he explained. While that burst of writing at the octagon brought the “Olustee” album together, the bulk of recording was done well before then at the studio where Grey has always recorded: Retrophonics in Saint Augustine, Florida.

Grey, who was producing the album himself, brought in demos and turned studio musicians loose to bring a more human feel to the basic tracks of the songs. The “Rooster” demo, he explained, came together organically.

“I just played it, put it on a guide track in the studio and the guys played along with it,” he said. “I just left everything on there, the drum kit from the demo and all of that stuff, and … it sounded killer. When these guys played it, it just really came to life.”

Before putting the “Olustee” project to bed, Grey went one step further and had a full orchestra add strings and other instruments to the album’s four ballads, rather than settling for faux-string keyboard parts or samples to try to achieve the effect. Grey had been working with an orchestrator, Ronen Landa, to write charts for a number of his songs. They were to be used for a possible future concert with a full symphony orchestra.

While working on “Olustee,” Grey decided to ask Landa to write charts for a ballad, “On a Breeze,” he wanted to include on the new album. Grey was so impressed with the results, he then had Landa bring his talents to three other ballads: “Starry Night,” “Deeper Than Belief” and “The Sea.”

“He just crushed it — all the parts that he wrote and arranged for the orchestra to play,” Grey said. “I was just floored at how good it sounded.”            

Grey went the extra mile financially to bring “Olustee” to market. Though he said he never usually records with large budgets, this was an exception to “pull out all the stops.”

“Frankly, it didn’t end up costing crazy, crazy money,” he said, explaining upward of $30,000 came out of his own pocket. “Of course, I burned through all of the budget, all of the advance the record label gave me. … But it was well worth it.”

Grey isn’t skimping either when it comes to his first extensive run of tour dates in support of the release. Instead of this being a full-band tour, he calls it a “fuller-band” tour. A 11-piece will be joining the show, with Grey noting its the most musicians on tour than have performed with him at various shows near his North Florida home.

“I just never could afford to take them on tour because I’d need a second bus,” he said. “And so I was like you know what, whether or not I can afford it, I want to figure it out. … It’s definitely going to be new-album heavy. I don’t mean we’re going to play the whole entire new album. That’s not going to happen.”

Fans can expect to hear at least half-a-dozen songs as well as staples from 2004’s “Lochloosa” and core tracks, such as “Brighter Days” and “The Sun Is Shining Down.”

JJ Grey and Mofro take the GLA stage on Thursday, April 25, 5:45 p.m., with electric blues artist Cedric Burnside opening. JJ Grey and Mofro will perform Oct. 25 with Whiskey Myers at Live Oak Bank Pavilion. Tickets are available here.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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