Singer/songwriter Susan Justice in the Tribune photo studio on March 20,… (Lenny Gilmore )
When Susan Justice says writing her debut album “Eat Dirt” was “like therapy,” she’s not blowing smoke.
The singer-songwriter, the second oldest of 10 children, grew up as part of a cult known as The Family. “Eat Dirt” remains widely accessible while chronicling Justice’s youth spent traveling the world (sleeping in places like vans and train station benches) and being told what she could think and read and listen to--and her ultimate decision to set out on her own. Then, Justice (not her real name) busked in New York subway stations, where a non-profit organization heard her and in 2007 helped her land a performance on “Oprah,” where Justice performed a song about Oprah to the mogul’s face. (“That was like ‘Inception,’” she says. “It was like a dream within a dream.” Read below for more on that.)
Before the honest, likable “Eat Dirt” arrives in stores March 26, Justice (who prefers not to disclose her age) came to Tribune Tower to perform an acoustic version of the title track (watch that at redeyechicago.com) and talk about her unique past, holding back tears for Oprah and the strangest thing she’s ever eaten. It’s not dirt.
Growing up, you consumed culture—books, music, and more—in secret, hiding things under your bed. Were you ever caught?
[Laughs] Oh yeah. Actually I was caught, because I used to stay up at night and read Greek mythology in the bathroom with the light on. And so one time my mom came in and I was reading it and she was just like, “What are you doing?” It was that and a psychology textbook. I was like 12. [Laughs] And I was like, “This is so cool!” It was a frickin’ psychology textbook. And she was like, “Don’t read this! ‘Cause all those people are crazy!” So that was a big deal. I was so pissed that they caught me.
I’m sure that’s what most 12-year-olds are being caught with in the bathroom: psychology textbooks.
[Laughs] I was a pretty crazy kid. I was out there. [Laughs]
When you decided to set out on your own, what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Well, we were all in New York and we all flew to Germany and I actually fell in love with a guy in New York and I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t like the fact that growing up we traveled so much, that it was really hard to keep friendships. So I was just like, “I can’t do this anymore.” And on top of that Germany was really tough, the weather, it was the middle of winter, I was like, “I want to go back to New York City.” So my boyfriend at the time sent me a plane ticket and just was like, “Go to the airport, your ticket’s waiting for you to come back to New York.” That was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make ‘cause my brothers and sisters, we’re all very close and they didn’t want me to go. They were like, “Susie, don’t leave us!” It was really hard. But once I arrived to New York I knew that I had to make a break then and there ‘cause otherwise I would be stuck forever. I was 20.
Why aren’t there more songs out there now that emphasize lyrics?
Things evolve and things go in a cycle when it comes to music. Right now maybe people are really feeling like they want people to convey things more through the emotion or through the beat of the song, where they want to forget about their problems, they just want to go and dance. And other people are more poetic-driven and they want to hear something that’s more in depth with a story. It also depends on the listener, what people are in the mood for.
So people who really connected with “My Humps” may want to write to us and complain.
I love that song by the way. [Laughs] I was just listening to it the other day.
You’ve never actually eaten dirt, despite your “Eat Dirt” album title. What’s the strangest thing you have eaten?
The strangest thing I’ve eaten or come close to eating was in Japan. Sea urchin, which smells horrifying, and I came very close to eating it but I didn’t. And also raw horse meat. And actually the third horrifying thing that had to do with food also happened in Japan. They took me out to this restaurant and we were sitting around this grill and the chef’s on the other side so I was talking, talking, not paying attention or whatever, and someone was like, “Susan, look!” and they throw these live shrimp that are like squealing and writhing around on the grill. And they like press it down on the grill and cook it live! I was just like “Ahhhh!” I started screaming and crying, and they were laughing at me because it was a prank; they knew that it would upset me. So I’m not a big fan of that. [Laughs]