He’s known as the barefoot musician and Leamington son, Justin Latam, is about as down home as anyone can be. The affable singer/songwriter and father of five talked with us about being a working musician and family man and what motivates his art.
First off, how are you as a working musician and father of five dealing with the current crisis?
As a working musician and father of 5, this current crisis is hitting hard. Gigging is the main source of my music income, so with all gigs cancelled indefinitely, it’s uncharted territory for me. I’ve been as a working musician for the last 14 years and this situation has me re-thinking what that will look like moving forward.
You’re a self proclaimed porch sitter and sing about it in your song “Life’s Better on the Porch”. Are you a homebody at heart and has this helped you adapt to the current situation of home isolation?
I do enjoy sitting on the porch when I can! For sure, I am a homebody at heart. One up-side of this self-isolation/social-distancing situation is that it’s an opportunity for me to spend time with my wife and children and get caught up on house cleaning. There’s really no excuse for a mess right now.
Have you joined the throng of performers who are performing from home via social media?
In trying to adapt to this shift in what it means to be a working musician without gigs, I’m going to be re-evaluating my online presence. Something new will be coming out of this for sure. You can stay tuned for updates on my website http://justinlatam.ca/index.html.
Your latest release, Justin Latam and The Stride was released March 1st with a show at Leamington’s Bank Theatre. How was the CD release show and how has the response been to the new album? Is this new album a departure in any way from your previous work?
It was a blast to have my CD release show in my hometown, at The Bank Theatre. There is a wonderful community of people that support the arts here, and The Bank Theatre has become a hub for that.
Primarily, I play as a solo-acoustic act or with my dad as an acoustic duo. On my new record, “Justin Latam & the Stride”, I decided to explore my rock n roll side. I don’t feel that my writing has really changed much, just the way I’m presenting the songs.
Playing electric guitar with a band is a totally different experience for me than playing solo acoustic. When we get into the groove and start feeding off what each other is doing, it’s energizing. I was very thankful to have excellent musicians help bring this record to life (Benny Pallotto-percussion, James Staley-bass, Brett Humber-electric guitar). Brett Humber is also the one who recorded, mixed and mastered the record at Sound Foundry Studios in Kingsville. He’s so great to work with.
Response to the new record has been positive. I’ve had people say it was great to listen to while cleaning their house and others say it was good music to paint their house too. I take that as a huge compliment. When I clean the house, I’ll put on records and jam out, it makes it fun. If I can be that for other people (be part of the soundtrack to cleaning, painting, driving, whatever), that is a pretty cool and a rewarding feeling.
Typically, I would sell a majority of CDs at live shows. With no live shows at the moment, I’ve turned to getting my music to my fans and supporters across Canada with my “CD Mailing Tour”. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting folks from all over Canada. My new record has been heard from Halifax N.S. to Duncan B.C., and orders are still coming in. While everyone is physically isolated, music is something that we can share; that keeps us connected. If you’d like to order my new CD, you can send a message to Justin Latam on Facebook OR send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and I can get it to you!
I read that you collected empties to fund your latest album and you held house concerts to help fund the album “Barefoot” a few years ago. This seems to be a more personal way to raise money than online crowd funding. Has it helped you connect to fans and increase your fan base?
For sure it is a great way to connect with fans and increase my fan base. I try to come up with ways to engage fans that goes beyond just asking for monetary support. The empties thing took off and was more successful than I anticipated. It was also easier asking people for their empties than asking for money, and the process allowed for real-life interactions, connecting with people, which is what this whole music thing is about.
I’ve loved being barefoot for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my mom was always barefoot at home with us, and I guess that was instilled in me. I started performing barefoot pretty early on. I think it happened naturally. I played many summer patios and it just felt better to be barefoot. It does help me feel grounded.
You’re a great story teller like a good folk musician should be. Your style of story telling reminds me of another local musician, Max Marshall. He has said songs have come to him while experiencing things on tour. Have you toured or traveled much of Canada and is this a similar experience for you?
I know Max. He’s great!
Yes, over the past couple years I’ve done a few Ontario Tours (playing places like Kingston, Hamilton, London, Toronto, North Bay etc.), played several festivals like The Gathering Festival in N.L., Kingsville Folk Fest, Tomato Fest, several Pride Festivals etc., as well as played writers rounds and showcases in Nashville.
Travelling has definitely influenced my writing, picking up stories here and there. In addition to being influenced by my music travels, as a family, my wife and I enjoying travelling with our kids and also on our own. Sometimes a little change can inspire things. For example, a few years ago my wife and I were coming home from the Dominican and our plane was delayed. While we were waiting, I was starting to really miss my guitar (which is also named Heather). That was how my song “Late Night Lady on the Side” was born. I had this bluesy tune stuck in my head, and then the lyrics came out in one shot.
The first time I played it was for a crowd at Dale’s Friday Coffee House. My wife Heather and our children were also there, and everyone knew I was happily married with children. I didn’t tell the song’s story and just played it. When I finished, there was an awkward silence as people weren’t sure what to think about this Late Night Lady. They thought the song was about another woman, when it’s about my guitar! Ironically, it’s my wife’s favourite song of mine.
A lot of great folk songs have been written about historical events. Gordon Lightfoot has The Edmund Fitzgerald and you have Oh Geronimo. Was Geronimo more a result of your love of beer and simple curiosity or do you have a love of history?
“Oh Geronimo” was a result of both my love for local beer and my interest in local history. On the Walkerville Brewery Geronimo IPA can, it has a little blurb about the story of the ship, The Geronimo. When I read it, it just felt like a song waiting to be written.
Looking at where we are in South-western Ontario, there is a wealth of stories waiting to be shared. I explore that sometimes in my writing, songs like “Still Tomato Town” written about the Heinz closure in Leamington or off my new record, “You Don’t Know Jack”, written about the story of Kingsville resident Jack Kungel’s healing journey with cannabis. There is so much to share in this area. As a folk-artist, I do feel a responsibility to distill these stories into song.
Speaking of beer and incidentally, your song “Beer Beer”, I love that your percussionist created a homemade instrument for the song called a lagerphone. It seems very folk inspired, finding instruments in every day things.
That’s Benny (my percussionist) for you, definitely a folk-inspired idea. He really is open to finding unique ways to approach percussion in the songs I write. Benny can pick up on my strumming patterns, or the way I may tap the guitar with my hand at certain times, and he translates and extrapolates from it to his percussion parts.
You’ve performed at Kingsville Folk Festival. How was your experience there in relation to exposing yourself to a larger audience and connecting with other musicians? What do you think of the job John and Michele Law have done with the festival and now forming a type of partnership with Mariposa?
Playing the Kingsville Folk Fest was an amazing experience. It was fun and inspirational to share the stage with all of the talented folks who played at Folk Fest. They really know how to make the musicians feel welcome and foster a community vibe. As much as I enjoyed playing at the folk fest, I also enjoyed the down time just hanging out and talking with the other musicians. A highlight for me was playing a few tunes on the main stage.
It’s been great to watch it grow every year. I haven’t heard of the partnership with Mariposa, but it sounds cool. John and Michele know what they’re doing.
“A Safe Place for your Pride” is a beautiful song. What inspired you to write that?
In 2015, my wife was at a teacher’s workshop in Toronto. The themes surrounded LGBTQ+ youth. She shared some of what they were learning with me on the ride home to Leamington. Reflecting on what she shared, I thought about our 5 children, and how I love them, no matter who they become or who they love. The song is one of acceptance, not just to my own children, but to everyone.
Who are some of the musicians who’ve inspired you? You wrote a tribute to Gord Downie with August Twenty. He was a great poet, was he one of those you found inspiration in?
So many musicians have inspired me over the years. My parents had a great record collection (Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Neil Young, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel etc.). As a teenager I discovered Nirvana and Leonard Cohen, both huge influences on me.
Gord Downie and the Hip are also an influence on my music. I dig how their songs are saturated with Canadian themes and delivered in a rock n roll sound. Like the rest of Canada, I watched their final concert on the CBC. The day after I left for Newfoundland to play a festival. I wrote my song, “August Twenty”, in the airport and hotel rooms on the trip. For me, that song is the meeting of folk-spirit with rock n roll sound. In Newfoundland, there is this profound sense of love-for-home. Newfoundland had a big impact on my writing from that point onward.
On a more local level, an important influence on my musical journey has been my friend and mentor, Dale Butler. He’s a fellow folk musician from Leamington and is a huge supporter of songwriters. He has been running “Dale’s Friday Coffee House” for years, creating a safe and accepting space for songwriters (both seasoned and new) to share their songs. Thanks Dale!
When did you first pick up a guitar and start writing songs? Have you always played and created in a folk/blues genre or did you go through phases growing up?
I started playing guitar at age 10 at Dale’s Music Room and started writing music soon after. One of the first songs I remember learning was the riff to The Beatles “Day Tripper”.
Growing up, I enjoyed listening (and eventually writing) in a variety of genres, like rock, jazz, classical, folk, pop. I try to keep an open ear.
The folk/blues songs I write seem to be the ones that feel the best to play live, so naturally, I write in that style the most often. I guess my folk/blues writing came about when I was 19 or 20 years old and started playing patios and pubs. Folk music connects with listeners through stories and blues-rock can get people’s toes tapping and heads bobbing and people moving! I guess I just enjoy putting those things together.
When did you realize music was going to be your profession in life? Was there ever any question of that? Was there a moment when you decided this is it for me; I’m committed to making this work?
Music has been my passion in life long before I realized it was. I’m a believer that you can work on the craft of song writing (and it definitely has helped me to do so), but the songs really have a life of their own and you have to balance working the craft side of song writing with letting the songs come to you and becoming what they’re meant to be. Sometimes it feels as if the songs are unfolding on their own and if I can find the right distance to watch it happen (maybe encourage it a little), it’s a beautiful thing.
If I had to pick one moment though that encapsulates me deciding to commit my all to music, it would be back in 2015 when I left my day job (and shoes) behind to follow my path as a working singer-songwriter and performer. At the end of my last shift as a barista, the shoes came off and I walked out of the coffee shop barefoot and haven’t looked back since.
I am so thankful to have the amazing and constant support of my wife, Heather, and our 5 children. Heather helps me keep my feet on the ground when my head is in the clouds (which is often). She’s my muse, my focus, my advocate, my everything. My children are a great support too, often giving me honest, unfiltered feedback on my songs (which is so important). An example is recently, I showed them a song from my new record “Two Wheels”, written about teaching them to ride a bike. In the bridge, I repeat the same line 8 times. I’m sitting there, wondering what they think, when one pipes up with, “Did you just not think of anything else to say? Is that why you keep repeating that line? Sometimes I hear my kids across the house humming or singing one of my songs. To me, that’s what success is.
Many of your songs are very relatable with simple every day themes like We All Shovel Snow and Bubble Bath Time. Snow is pure Canadian with all the Canadian cultural and geographical references. How do your audiences react to these songs when you perform? Does it create a stronger connection between you and your fans?
I often like to look at everyday things for inspiration; things that connect us in our human experience. I feel that songs in that vein (like “We All Shovel Snow”) go over well with audiences. Living in Canada, the experience of snow shovelling is definitely relatable, and I think relatable songs create connections with the listener.
“Bubble Bath Time” was probably the first blues-rock song I was proud of. I remember the first time I played it (also at Dale’s Friday Coffee House in Leamington). The song is often assumed to be a kid’s song based on the title, but it is far from it. The crowd at the coffee house was mostly 60+, and they loved it! It’s become one of my most requested songs. I think beyond the content, the feeling of listening to blues-based music is something many can connect with.
Are any of your children carrying on the musical performer DNA?
There is a love for music and the arts in our home. All of the kids can carry a tune and have excellent rhythm. We’ve got some into musical theatre, some in school bands, some with a great ear for sound. Not all of them may be destined for a stage, but the love is there.
Music is something I haven’t pushed on my children. If it had been pushed on me when I was young, I’m not sure if I would have developed the same drive or love to be a working musician and songwriter.
My dad has probably been the biggest influence on how I view myself as an artist. As a child, I remember discovering my dad’s old sketches and silk screens in our shed. To provide for us, my dad boxed-up his artistic dreams when he had kids and got a steady job. Then, when I was 10 years old, dad lost his job. He turned this obstacle into an opportunity to rediscover his art and turned art into his job as a silk-screener, photographer and sign-maker. This really instilled in me the drive to pursue creative expression through music, with hopes to inspire my children to follow their own paths, whatever they may be.
For more about Justin, visit his website: justinlatam.ca.