From the Midwest to Los Angeles, versatile recording artist and singer-songwriter Justin Hulsey releases his fifth studio album entitled 'A Play At Voices.'
With a sound ranging from heartbreaking acoustic to full-fledged rock with hints of grunge and progressive, Justin Hulsey's five albums truly have a lot to say about himself and his diverse style. He's most known for a songwriting approach that's versatile, memorable, progressive, and akin to the minds of Elbow, Doves, R.E.M., Radiohead, David Gray, and The National.
When asked about his recent 9-track album, 'A Play At Voices' (co-produced by Justin Glasco), Hulsey mentioned that "there's a bit of a concept behind the album, which I never intended to happen." He continued, "The way the album communicates is influenced by a Dylan Thomas play called 'Under Milk Wood.' Lots of different characters telling their own stories through dreaming. I think that's what these songs are."
Diving into the record, the venture begins with the introductory track, "Violence and Violins." This piece hauntingly opens with a plucky acoustic guitar melody alongside airy background pads that float in the distance, leading to a pulsating keyboard melody. This almost feels as if it's the opening of a movie, or how Hulsey put it, a play. As his vocals begin to pour through with a sultry and demanding tone, he makes his way to the hook, where he belts his wonder for where god has gone during his internal chaos. The bridge hits us over the head with a wailing lead guitar that paves the way for the blistering and cinematic outro.
On a darker note, the next track, "Suddenly Sunshine," opens with a distant pad and Hulsey's sole vocals that repeat, "hallelujah when you fall in love, damn it all when you f*ck it up." As the melancholy acoustic guitar begins to push through our speakers alongside a downtempo drumbeat, Justin Hulsey makes his way over to the pre-hook, where he's greeted by a crunchy electric guitar and thumping bassline. As the hook begins to cascade over our speakers like a wave of darkness, Hulsey sings a similar concept about how his relationship took a turn for the worst, and suddenly, sunshine wasn't as bright anymore. This raw track is truly one to pierce the heart and soul.
Making our way through to track number three, "Proof," the song kicks off with a mid-tempo drum beat and an array of electric guitars that sonically serenade our ears. As Justin Hulsey begins to haunt us with his melodic and clear vocals, he makes his way over to the hook and pulls on our heartstrings in doing so. We feel a heavy connection to this track merely due to Hulsey's descriptive lyrics of finding someone to spend his life with and having living proof that someone will remember him and tell the truth about how he lived, tried, and died. This is another raw track that slapped us across the face with a heavily emotional concept, bringing us to our knees.
Diving into a more melancholy and alternative piece with "Are You Ok To Drive," the track peacefully opens with a unique percussion arrangement, a saddened piano melody, and Hulsey's lush vocal stylings. Listening to his lyrics, he asks if someone's okay to drive after having a few drinks. As we dive further into the song, he emotionally singles, "Dear Leah, our lives are long, dear Leah, I don't think we belong," which is where the song's concept falls into place. We adore the blues and grunge elements that Justin Hulsey has placed into this song, not to mention the saddened piano melodies to amp up the cinematic experience.
Reaching the album's midway point with "Castle In The Air," the song gently opens with a distant pad, soft hi-hats, and a plucky electric guitar melody that leads into the first verse. As the drums make their way in alongside Hulsey's reflective vocal performance, he begins to serenade us with emotional lyrics of attempting to try another effort at a broken relationship. He continues with lyrics that wonder if he was incapable of loving someone the way he intended to, which hits us straight in the heart. We're wildly impressed with Justin Hulsey's lyrical abilities thus far, as he's managed to make this profoundly genuine impact in such little time.
Hitting play on "Hit The Boundary," a soulful and jazzy keyboard melody floats through our speakers alongside a crashing electronic drum beat and a distant electric guitar melody. While making his vocal entry, Hulsey begins to delve into his lyrical content surrounding this emotional and vivid escape, where he spends his time unleashing his anger and confusion away from the world. As he makes his way to the last quarter of this 2-minute interlude type-piece, Hulsey releases a powerful belt while apologizing for being out of his mind. We can't help but feel that this entire album is tracking the progress of some sort of separation or breakup, especially with unconventional and dynamic pieces like this.
Warming our days with the next track, "Floral," the song sounds exactly like what a bouquet of colorfully arranged flowers would. The intro takes off with a soothing acoustic guitar that quickly jumps into a buzzing synth arrangement and a heavily reverbed electric guitar. As Hulsey jumps in, he expands on finding love in a floral framed door at a local bar. He continues by admitting that we all never see it coming, and before we know it, we die under the beat of someone else's heart. The emotional sonic landscape is honestly incredibly, as it's not that dynamic but tells an equally compelling story of love and loss.
Moving onto the eighth track, "Tonight I Am A Tourist," the song drifts through our speakers with blissful tones alongside a tender acoustic guitar melody and Hulsey's warm vocal stylings. As he begins to sing about being a tourist in his towering city, he wanders the streets only to see the poor, the piss, and the grief that lingers throughout. This song sounds like another lonely wanderer song, as Hulsey's soulful performance alongside the sole acoustic guitar allows us to feel and experience the profound emotion of this tender two-minute piece. We love the song's delicate feel, as it's a perfect contrast to the rest of the dynamic and heavy tunes.
Landing on the album's ninth and final track, "Breathe," the song blissfully opens with an organ-like pad and soft percussion hits. As Justin Hulsey begins to serenade us with his soft and melodic vocals, he brings us into a calming state of mind with his lyrics that remind us to breathe and be strong. We adore this song's introspective and soothing feel, especially as the atmosphere begins to expand with a pulsating acoustic guitar melody while Hulsey reminds us that our journeys are far from over. With the addition of violin strings on the outro, we're truly left in awe of this emotional, thought-provoking, and vulnerable journey that Justin Hulsey has graciously taken us on.
We're more than impressed with the dynamic range and vulnerability you've placed into your 9-track album, 'A Play At Voices.' When did you begin creating songs and executing ideas for this album? How long did it take to finalize?
Thanks so much. These songs have been written over a span of many years. I think I wrote “Castle In The Air” back in 2008 maybe. It’s always been one of my favorites, but it never fit on any of the albums I’ve previously released. I usually just let the songs land where they land as long as it makes sense. With this album, I didn’t know what it was until I put these 9 songs together and they just fit so well. Then listening to them and thinking about the lyrics, they really made sense together. Then looking at it more closely, there seemed to be a concept behind the visuals and meanings of the songs too. So I ran with it.
What inspired you to create this album, 'A Play At Voices?' Were we correct when we mentioned that it sounded like a breakup or separation of some kind?
Well as I started to say about a concept. There’s this Dylan Thomas play called “Under Milk Wood.” It’s about a town where everyone is a little off their rocker, you hear them dreaming about their lives, their regrets, their loves, etc. All these voices, that at the end of the day, are really one voice. Some kind of random unity. At least that’s how I see it. So these songs became their own voices. Now I’m starting to sound like I’ve gone off the rocker. As far as a breakup or separation? Could be. Depends on what you’re going through. There are definitely some of those moments where love has ended. But it’s not necessarily romantic love. There’s a lot of spiritual breakups present for sure.
How does 'A Play At Voices' represent your current stance in life and your overall outlook?
It takes time for me to know what effect an album has. I think songs should be pretty fluid. That they should change and evolve. The idea that a song can only mean one thing is pretty hard for me to fathom. I like knowing that everyone is able to attach their own meaning to it. Sometimes when people tell me what one of my songs means to them, I like their version more than mine. Songs need to have a life of their own.
What was it like working alongside co-producer Justin Glasco for 'A Play At Voices?' How did he help bring your visions and ideas to life?
Glasco and I have worked together on my last 3 albums, this one being the 4th. We’ve been friends for a long time so the way we work together is pretty special. In the past, I would bring the bones of songs to him and we would spend 3 or 4 weeks building them into an album. This time around I tried to bring more fully-formed ideas to the table. With Covid, it was a slower process and we weren’t in the room together, but since we’ve done so much work in the past I think we kind of know what the other one is thinking and the communication was pretty easy.
What impact did you want to make on your audience with 'A Play At Voices?' What did you want the listener to take away?
I just want to be honest and to say and write whatever I need to say and write. It’s extremely freeing to know that I can do that. So if people want to listen to the album and get something out of it then, whatever that is, I hope it makes them feel something real and honest too. I really look forward to hearing other takes on what I write. It makes it more interesting.