Based in Birmingham, Ala., Justin Cross is a singer-songwriter and self-described “noise-maker.” Though his songs are based in American tradition, he hopes they can connect with a global audience.
NewSong Music: What sort of music was playing in your house when you were growing up?
Justin Cross: It was Elvis all day long in my house growing up. My aunt was obsessed with him and had me singing his songs before I was out of diapers. My mom was into country in the ’90s, so a lot of Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, and Vince Gill. I wasn’t a huge fan back then, but I’m not gonna lie and say that I don’t go back to those old greatest hit compilations of theirs regularly. My dad was a ’90s rock fan, so when I was with him we would listen to Collective Soul and Tonic and bands like that.
What inspired you to become a songwriter?
I’ve always written in some shape or form, but I really started writing lyrics in middle school. A lot of my friends were really into hip-hop, so I would help them with their lyrics and then I would go an watch them have rap battles in the bleachers after school. Then I found my dad’s old guitar and it was singer-songwriter land from then on for me. I still go back to hip-hop and beat-centric music a lot now though, and I’m so grateful for my exposure to that culture. It taught me a lot about how effective rhythm and simplicity can be.
What is the first song you wrote that you were really proud of?
It was a song I still sing to this day called “Daughter’s Holding Flowers.” I wrote it in high school and it is about the dangers of wasting your life and the little bit of time you have on this earth. I had no clue what I was actually talking about back then, but it’s funny to me how a lot of times I’ll sing a song I wrote over a decade ago and it means more to me now that it ever did back then.
If you could partner with another living songwriter to co-write a song, who would it be?
Gotta pick two here. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. They are just untouchable artists and writers. I vividly remember my first time hearing both of these guys and it was transformative. I’d settle for just being in the room while they write.
What attracted you to submit your song(s) to the NewSong Competition?
One of my best friends, Wilder Adkins, was the grand prize winner a few years back and I have had the privilege of coming up to Asheville with him a time or two to play at a NewSong event. It always seemed like a such a cool organization with a clear mission to empower and connect artists and I loved that. I’ve entered the contest almost every year since and am so honored to be selected as a finalist this year.
Besides performing at the NewSong Competition, what else would you like to do or see while in Asheville?
There is this little guitar store on the edge of town that I wandered into accidentally on of the first times I ever came to town. It seemed so nondescript from the outside but then you go in and there are like $4,000 guitars just hanging in the wall. The folks there have always been so nice and it’s always a treat rediscovering that little place. I can’t remember the name of that place for the life of me, but I’ll be there in December. I’ve also always wanted to visit the Moog shop but have never gotten the chance to.
Do you have any recent or forthcoming projects to tell us about?
I’m currently writing for my next full-length and I think Its going to be a pretty big departure for me. During quarantine I listened to a lot of old soul artists like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Nina Simone. It would instantly lift my mood. They really knew how to take a bad situation and turn it into the most cathartic, even joyful, music. So, I tried my hand at writing songs like that. Then, in the middle of 2020 my wife and I had a miscarriage and we wrote the song that we entered in to the contest, “I Need a Change.” That song and others like it really became lifelines for me over the last few years, so I’m excited to actually share them with folks soon. I’m also “secretly” working on a side project of folk songs that I’m recording on an old Tascam 414 four track, which has just been a fun time. Not sure if I’ll release any of that or not, but you never know