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Max Jury is a precious talent. We have all heard such claims before. But hearing is believing.
A soft-voiced young piano playing singer-songwriter out of Des Moines, Iowa, Max Jury has struck a reach seam of pure, musical gold. His self-titled debut album is a classic in the making. Think of the bruised Americana of Gram Parsons, the rich piano storytelling of Randy Newman and Tom Waits, the lush melodicism of Paul McCartney and rough edged gospel heart of the Rolling Stones playing country ballads. And then trace a fragile link to the tender soul of Curtis Mayfield and Al Green all the way to the 21st century beats of Alicia Keys and D’Angelo. Weave together a magical tapestry of Seventies Laurel Canyon acoustic confessionals and 21st Century Neo Soul and breathe it all out in a whisper of breathless emotion. Max Jury is a thing of rare beauty.
Max is just 23 years old. He has played piano and sung since childhood, raised in a household of country, soul and classic rock but when he heard Neil Young in his early teens, something shifted in him. He started writing songs and slowly realised he had found a direction in life. “I had broken up with a girl,” says Max, with shy reticence. ”It’s the classic story. Songs gave me a way to express what was going on. They got me through shit.” He began to delve deeper into the country music that was the soundtrack to life in Iowa, finding his way through George Jones, Willie Nelson to Gram Parsons, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers and contemporary artists like Lucinda and Wilco. With his teenage friends, he embraced the scruffy, alternative indie of Elliott Smith, Pavement and Sebadoh. And from his parent’s love of classic soul, he found a link to D’Angelo and even the emotional hip hop of Drake and The Weeknd. “Soul music and country might seem like different genres, but strip the arrangements away, and you find the same kind of songs and situations, dealing with matters of the heart.”
Max’s prodigious gifts won him a scholarship to renowned music college Berklee in Boston but that didn’t work out too well. “I had preconceived notions that it would be some kind of hippy collective and we would all be writing songs together, but instead it was a competitive, aggressive environment, full of people trying to elbow their way to the top of the pop world.” And there was a girl back home. He dropped out in his first year to live with his girlfriend in Des Moines and got a job as a janitor for the city, working Parks & Recreation. “I was basically cleaning shit out of bathrooms, mulching playgrounds and fixing basketball hoops. I’m pretty delicate, I’m not someone you’d associate with manual labour, and all the guys working there would call me faggot and lay into me relentlessly. I was like, Oh my God, get me out of here.” Meanwhile, his girlfriend moved to New York, leaving Max feeling trapped and directionless. The song Numb, the opening track of his debut album, evokes his longing for escape. “It was a rough summer but I got through it and I got a song out of it.”
There is a certain texture to American life that forms the backdrop to Max’s art, a classic sensibility of discovering beauty in ugly places. “Iowa can be pretty redneck. I didn’t grow up in a trailer park but most of my extended family did, so I was around those places a lot. I don’t want to mythologise it and put it on a pedestal. But I feel connected to what they were experiencing. I tend to write introverted songs based on my personal relationships and what’s going on in my own head. It’s all pretty autobiographical. I don’t know what else to do with my life.”
Through his darkest hours, Max kept writing songs, playing piano in local bands, and performing shows on his own. He got accepted back to Berklee but, by then, his music was taking on a life of its own. When Max plays and sings, you can hear a pin drop. He draws you into his world with perfectly formed songs that are bittersweet, romantic, bruised and hopeful. His voice is a thing of wonder. “I had to learn to sing soft, to find a way to use what I’ve got, ‘cause I’m never going to shake the chandelier with big notes. That’s what I tried to learn from singers like Al Green, Curtis Mayfield and D’Angelo, they have a way of moving notes that so intimate and personal, but they’ve got more soul than anyone.”
He played across America, and he played across Europe, making friends wherever he performed. He toured supporting Lana Del Rey. He found himself at a Grammy party, bumming cigarettes off Katy Perry. “I’m kind of a restless dude, so I like visiting all these different cities, seeing different cultures, and learning about people that way. It can get kind of lonely, meeting people you are never going to see again. But I’m not complaining. I’m not a janitor any more, wiping shit off the floor of public restrooms.”
He started recording his debut album in New York with hip hop producer Inflo, with a band made up of musicians who have backed Alicia Keys and D’Angelo, pulling all-night sessions at the legendary Electric Lady studios. An unfortunate incident involving candle wax and Jimi Hendrix’s historic mixing desk led to Max being ejected. Running out of money, Max picked up in his bass playing friend Stacy TK’s home studio in North Carolina. “It was literally his parent’s living room, just a desktop and a little interface, a bit of antiquated recording software but lots of wonderful instruments and vintage microphones.” He wanted to maintain the gospel-soul bridge he was constructing to his own country roots, and reached out to a director of music at a local black church. “This guy named Jackson Scott turned up with his three cousins, and he became a huge part of the album. He works in the church, he lives in the sticks, and he was the most amazing guitarist, one of the most effortless, genuine players I have ever heard. And his cousins sang like angels. Everything came right from the heart. It was a huge blessing.” They spent three weeks holed up with Jackson, nailing the finished album. Max plays piano, some drums, percussion, and rhythm guitar. The finished album speaks for itself.
“Writing is kind of my diary,” says Max. “The songs are all pretty autobiographical. I don’t want to make a big statement, because I don’t know what it would be. This is my music. It is what it is. I hope people like it.”