Interview: Justin Golden Pens a Love Letter to the Blues With ‘Hard Times and a Woman’
Suffolk, Virginia-born singer-songwriter Justin Golden embraces all facets of the blues on his debut album Hard Times and a Woman, due out on April 15.
After joining his school band and playing saxophone from a young age, Golden later picked up a guitar and latched onto the blues while attending Longwood University in nearby Farmville, where he studied history and archaeology. Around the same time, he began listening to music that fit his own tastes instead of having to put up with whatever his family had on at home. This period of discovery eventually led him to The Black Keys.
“The Black Keys and their debut album [The Big Come Up] was my introduction to the blues,” Golden tells The Boot. “From there I explored the band’s influences—people like Junior Kimbrough, Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis and other pre-war blues artists.”
After moving to Richmond in 2014, he started digging into Americana and classic country. Both play a big role in the collective sound of Hard Times and a Woman, which mixes blues, folk, rock and gospel to forge a sound that pays homage to the past while, at the same time, serving up something new.
Despite the varying sounds on the album, Golden admits that prior to recording it, he’d mostly been writing in a singer-songwriter voice rather than a bluesy one. That all changed when he stumbled upon an interview from an elder bluesman, which sparked the album’s title.
“He was talking about how the blues ain’t nothing but hard luck and a woman,” says Golden. “Right then I knew that’s what my album would be called.”
With a plethora of stylistic influences, the albums navigates between songs that sound like bonafide blues ballads, both lyrically and instrumentally, and songs that incorporate some of the aforementioned music styles with their arrangements. With blues being the origin of many of the other types of music present within Hard Times and a Woman, Golden illustrates the beauty of the genre in all of its forms.
One of the songs that's lyrically tied to the blues is the album closer “Oh Lord, Oh Lord,” an old-timey banjo tune that Golden crafted in the fall of 2019. Since then, the track has taken on a whole new meaning, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and everything thats followed in the three years since.
“I remember picking around on my banjo and pleading to a higher power about why my life was as hard as it was,” says Golden of when he was writing the song. “Now, after a global pandemic, I realize how much I was taking for granted. It also helped me to understand that things oftentimes have to get worse before they can get better.”
Another song with similar sentiments is “Why the Sun Goes Down,” an upbeat, rockin' blues number with gospel-esque harmonies that documents Golden’s first handful of months cooped up at home during the pandemic.
“My apartment at the time didn’t have any windows, so the only exterior light I had coming into it was through a little sliver atop one of the walls,” says Golden. “There was still so much uncertainty with COVID back then that I rarely went outside, worrying that if I did I’d catch the virus. My only way of knowing it was a new day was by watching that gap in the wall and seeing it lit up.”
Throughout the album, Golden frequently ruminates on his experiences as a Black man in America, along with the difficulties and fears that come along with it. The most direct reference to this occurs on “The Gator,” a Black Keys-sounding track that likens some of the prejudices he faces to being watched by an alligator at the water’s edge, readying to jump out and pull its prey underwater.
“The song is an accumulation of everything I’ve had to live through as a Black man and always being worried about something happening to me if I happen to bump into the wrong person at the wrong time,” says Golden. “I already had been working on the song when George Floyd was murdered. Seeing what happened to him in such a public fashion only reinforced my feelings and the imagery in the song of a gator leaping out from the water to snatch its prey.”
The song was admittedly a tough one for Golden to write, as he usually kept those emotions away from his music or reduced them to vague metaphors in the past. Aside from the sorrow of that and some of the other songs on Hard Times and a Woman, the album has its happier moments too.
The blues and gospel-fueled “Must Be Honey” came to be after Golden’s friends joked that he only writes sad songs, leaving him determined to prove them wrong with a happy tune. Once again his mastery of lyrical imagery shines through on the song’s chorus, “this must be honey ‘cause sugar just ain’t so sweet / this might be heaven ‘cause angels don’t walk through the streets.” According to Golden, that hook came from someone showering him with compliments, to which he responded with “you must be honey because sugar just ain’t so sweet.” He says the song is about being sweet, spreading love and making someone’s day.
Speaking of love, Golden hopes that Hard Times and a Woman inspire those who listen to it to be more loving and empathetic to those around them. He also hopes it teaches people to love all of the blues and not just parts of it.
“I want it to be a love letter to the blues that helps listeners realize that the blues isn’t all sad music,” says Golden. “Sometimes the blues is from you feeling sad, sometimes it’s from your woman making you sad and sometimes it’s from your woman making you happy. And that’s why the title is what it is. There’s a lot of ups, downs and middle ground in life and this album is the same way.”