Charleston, South Carolina-based SUSTO’s forthcoming album kicks off with all the Western swagger you’d expect from a group most commonly tasked with the alt-country moniker. But just over a minute into the opening track, “Far Out Feeling,” it becomes evident that this is no standard foray into dive bars and backwoods. As the chorus hits, a horn section chimes in and gives way to an orchestral expanse of strings. In this moment, the listener captures a glimpse of that feeling that the singer is chasing. The singer is bandleader and founder Justin Osborne, who wrote the song in the wake of his father’s cancer diagnosis.
The Southern Café and Music Hall
“My own personal life was kind of out of control and I was just thinking of a time in the future when everything would be okay and I could just lay down in the grass,” Osborne says. “Almost like, you know, death and the beautiful calm of the afterlife.”
Osborne turned to his frequent collaborators and bandmates to flesh out the song. Johnny Delaware (guitar) brought the riff and Corey Campbell (guitar, keys) scored the string and horn parts.
“It became exactly what we wanted it to be,” Osborne says, “this really kind of cinematic opus right at the beginning of the record.”
Titled & I’m Fine Today, SUSTO’s sophomore effort is poised to be a major breakout for the group that has toured since its self-titled debut in 2014. The band opened for acts like Shovels & Rope, Iron & Wine and Band of Horses (lead singer Ben Bridwell is a fan and a mentor), and this year brings a headlining tour along with a run of opening dates with The Lumineers.
SUSTO is the brainchild of Osborne, who grew up in a devoutly religious household in rural South Carolina. Shedding his upbringing, he turned to music in high school as an outlet. After a successful stint with his first band, Sequoyah Prep School, he later enrolled at the College of Charleston. During a study abroad trip to Cuba in 2013, he felt reinvigorated to tap into his musical roots, forming the sounds and ideas that he would channel into SUSTO.
“I’ve released albums with different bands for years,” Osborne says. “When I got to SUSTO, I realized that I wanted to do something that was just really honest and was really an exploration of my own self and my own narrative.”
Osborne drew inspiration from the confessional poetry he was reading at the time. As a result, SUSTO’s songs are all written from a first-person perspective, about real-life events. “I was fascinated with the concept of deconstructing experiences in reality through art in a way that you can share it with other people,” he says. “And so that’s one of the main tenets of what SUSTO needs to be.”
Osborne cites American poet Robert Lowell as one of his biggest influences. When adapting a confessional approach in his songwriting, he grappled with the fact that Lowell lost personal connections by putting so much out there. “I had this concept in my head of like, is this person a narcissist or are they like Orpheus and sacrificing everything for the creation of something beautiful, you know?” Osborne says. “And I decided to go with the latter and just try and strive for the most real, raw thing.”
Although Osborne doesn’t let the possibility of backlash impede his artistic process, he is aware and thoughtful about which songs may impact others in his life. “There are people who would never ask me to hide or censor myself based on the reality that we’ve spent together,” he says. “And there are songs that didn’t make it on this record because the people that they were about were just, not comfortable.”
While a majority of songs on & I’m Fine Today are written by Osborne, SUSTO is a collaborative effort that stems from the DIY scene of Charleston. Tracks like “Diamond’s Icaro,” written by drummer Marshall Hudson, maintain the first-person narrative approach, and help to form a cohesive arc across the record. “I think ultimately what we did was create this really balanced kind of experience that doesn’t stay too dark or too low for too long, you know, and kind of ebbs and flows back and forth,” Osborne says. “And that can be hard to do…the happy songs don’t seem contrived and then the dark songs don’t seem overly gloomy, I don’t think.”
But that’s not to say that the album is full of fluff; it doesn’t shy away from the issues at hand. Songs like “Gay in the South” tackle the religious, social and cultural complexities that not only exist in the South, but in the world at large.
“I’m not a politician or a philosopher. I just have eyes and ears, so I see and hear this stuff,” Osborne says. “I also have a mouth, and it comes back out. I try and digest it and try to come to terms with some of the violence and just negative facets of our society.”
Osborne wouldn’t call SUSTO’s music political. Instead, he’s aiming for “cultural evolution.”
“I don’t want a fucking senator to listen to SUSTO,” he says. “I want someone who maybe has been raised in a household that isn’t super racially tolerant or isn’t super tolerant of people’s sexual orientation or, you know, in a house where violence against women is kind of like, promoted. If somebody grew up like that, I want to provide them with an alternative view of how the world can be.”