Interview: Jeffrey Michael Austin of Young Elder

By Zakkiyyah Najeebah

By Zakkiyyah Najeebah

Jeffrey Michael Austin calls himself an artist so he can fit all of his different passions and practices under the vast umbrella term. His visual artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally – with recent solo shows at The Luminary and Bert Green Fine Art and another scheduled for Heaven Gallery later this year – and was recently featured on Colossal. He is a member of Growing Concerns Poetry Collective which recently released a full-length album titled WE HERE: Thank you For Noticing and published a book titled Five Fifths with Candor Arts. Austin also drums for the pop-rock band Eggs! and has produced a number of albums under his own name. He will be releasing his debut EP under the name Young Elder on May 2nd at his record release show at The Den Theatre. Hooligan sat down with him a month before his record release.

below is a single from Young Elder's upcoming LP:

If someone were to ask you “what do you do” how would you respond?

As a profession? As a trade? I am a visual artist and I’m a musician. Those things are sometimes very autonomous and sometimes they bleed over. I also participate in small ways as an educator and as a book-maker / publisher. There are many little communities that I exist in to varying degrees and I think [they’re] in their own way parts of how I continue to define myself. I’ve tried to distance myself from identifying exclusively with one kind of practice or singular set of interests because I feel like every day is kind of a new journey.

Do you ever feel like you’re “spreading yourself thin” by participating in many different forms of art?

For sure, and I think that feeling intensifies as time goes on and I get older and these practices become more mature and focused. It’s definitely hard, and I think rather than giving up on any of my creative practices over the past several years, I feel like what I’ve found myself doing is just pushing harder and harder to find ways to sustain myself (my living expenses) through my creative practices. But to answer that question, yes, I almost always feel stretched thin in a certain way – but also simultaneously, enlivened and rewarded and fulfilled by the fact that the reason that I’m stretching myself thin is so that I can give myself fully to all of these things.

How do you feel your visual art affects your music/ how does your music affect your visual art? How do they overlap in your life or do they overlap in your life?

I think all of it is definitely connected. I’ve been asked before if they merge and connect in a really straightforward, visible way. Does my art work every incorporate my music or does my music performance ever incorporate a visual element? But I’ve never really approached it like that; I’ve never tried to merge them in that way. I’ve never felt like they are asking to be merged that way, but I do certainly think that they are connected on a more abstract philosophical level. I approach making a piece of artwork or a song in very similar ways, and I feel like for me one of the only things that makes them feel separate is the difference in the communities and institutions that are there to receive them and showcase them. When I go about my day doing those things, I don’t really regard them as separate practices – like they all kind of feel mingled through me but they don’t ever bleed into one another in a logistical sense.

I think one of the only ways in which an outside perspective might draw a connection between the two is how people have told me that my music seems to have a visual energy to it, particularly the music I was making on my own years ago. In Growing Concerns, it’s almost like I’m writing a film score that is meant to guide you through a visual narrative and I’ve always sort of had a visual perspective on music in that way; but in the sense of it actually existing in physical space with my visual artwork, that’s never really been the case.

We talked about this earlier, the art that you produce- whether its visual art or music- or what you do with the poetry collective, they’re all from different communities. For your record release show, you are performing your music, your will also be performing in Growing Concerns, and drumming Eggs. Why do you feel it is important to have a mixing pot of communities at your record release show?

When I think about the ways that all of these projects and practices are separate from one another, I think mostly about how the supportive communities of each are structured and segregated. Especially with our current social culture, it tends to move in a way that becomes sort of insular, with the same audiences participating in the same genre of events, showing up to support the same kind of body of artists and engaging with a particular kind of dialogue or set of interests. It often seems like most of the members of each of these distinct Chicago communities I’m participating in have never met one another and are never really exposed to the kind of work that the other is creating. It pushes me to value my position as a potential vehicle through which folks might cross that line, so in that way I’m interested in being the common thread between the acts. [It] gives me an excuse to call on these different communities and bring them into one room together to participate as one audience in a show where they’re of course coming to see whatever act they’re familiar with but then in the same moment will be exposed to not only a new musical performance that they likely would have never seen otherwise but also to the community that is attached.

When did you start making music?

In general? Since I was a toddler. My dad was a musician when he was in his 20’s, so I feel like he really wanted to see me pursue music. I was also showing an individual interest in music as a youngster. I was taking piano lessons, pretty typical story. At my youngest, I was doing piano but when I really picked things up, I was in middle school and learned how to play bass, mostly because my friends were starting a band and that was the only thing they didn’t have yet. But, pretty immediately after joining the band, I recognized that the thing I was most attracted to – kind of enamored by - was the drums. So then, around the age of 10 or 11, I started playing drums and that’s definitely been my primary instrument and strongest suit as a musician ever since. I’ve been drumming for almost 20 years but all throughout that picking up new instruments as well, like guitar and piano and all kinds of strange, eclectic instruments like kalimba and obscure percussive things like ukulele, musical saw, violin. I try to dabble in all of these things and bring them in as I see fit. But yes, it’s definitely been a lifelong road of music.

You are going to be releasing your new album under the name Young Elder. What is the meaning and or reason behind Young Elder?

First, the reasoning behind giving myself a new name at all was to mark what I saw as a very distinct new chapter in my musical progression. I feel like my decision to create a new name for myself has to do a lot with the fact this new group of songs that I’m putting out, I’ve really invested myself in it and allowed myself to be a lot more vulnerable and I kind of wanted to mark that transition and say that from this point forward this is how I will be.

The name Young Elder itself is actually the title of the last full length album I released under my name, Jeff Austin. When the phrase first came to me, it was something that I heard someone describing in the context of a tree – meaning they were looking at a number of elder trees and pointed out one that was new, like a young elder, and that phrase really stuck with and resonated with me. The more I thought about it and unpacked it, the more I related to it. It is a kind of paradoxical phrase, obviously, but one that fits very well to describe the feeling that I think most of us feel throughout our lives – being in a position where we are the embodied collection of the lessons we’ve learned throughout our life and, in that way, have X amount of wisdom and perspective to share but that we are also always so new and lost in this world and sort of young-minded in the sense that we always have more to learn - the feeling of always embodying both of those states of being. Always being a person who is at once so full of wisdom and experience and also having so much further to go, and feeling that as well. That’s where the name comes from.

Do you have a favorite track off the album?

I don’t think I can pick a favorite, necessarily. For practical reasons and for it to exist in the world in a digestible way for people, it’s split up into these individual tracks but to me it’s hard to imagine the EP existing without any one of those songs. They all kind of feel like they define themselves in relation to the others.

It’s meant to be listened to all the way through!

Yeah exactly, cause I think when you do pluck one out and listen to it on its own, it is no way representative of what the thing is as a whole. I don’t think you can listen to any one song on there and understand what the experience of the EP is, cause it changes quite a bit in terms of the genre and the kind of emotions and visuals being conjured. To choose a favorite, I don’t really know. It’s hard, the whole thing is kind of one movement in my mind.

What do you want people to get out of this album, experience through this album, feel from this album? What do you want your audience to get from it?

I very much regard this as my first attempt at writing love songs. I tried to approach it in a way where I was writing a body of songs that was clearly about love and concerned with love, but rather than embodying what most of us would think of when we hear the phrase “love song” – songs that are really idealistic and dreamy and romantic, celebrating the absolute best moments of love and relationship – I was interested in seeing what it would mean to challenge myself to write a collection of songs that feels like its embodying the more honest, messy, vulnerable side of what it means to be a person in relationship to another. That works itself into the album in many different forms, from the lyrics to the way the songs are structured to the way that each song seems to have its own genre and its own vibe. I was interested in pulling on some of the genres that are typically associated with love songs and using them to open up this other conversation.


Where does the album title Stories come from?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these two different states we’re always balancing between. On one hand, we’ve got our awareness of the vast mystery of life itself, and how everything we experience rests on this foundation of a huge, inexplicable dream of a universe, right? And then we’ve got our stories – meaning, the images and narratives we have of what our life is or what it should look like, the stories that have been passed down to us of how life has been handled historically. These stories comprise all of our culture, all of our religions, all of our philosophical outlooks, pretty much anything we regard as the narrative of human life or human consciousness I think in a way is a big, elaborate, collection of stories that have been told at some point by people just like us and we all choose which ones to subscribe to and live by as we navigate. In the context of a loving relationship or romantic relationship, I feel like I recently found myself at the end of a relationship feeling less and less interested in the stories – meaning less interested in navigating my life in a way where I was trying to climb some kind of ladder of expectations or fulfill some kind of narrative that I’ve set out for myself – and, instead, more interested in trying to go inward and find a space of life that feels more connected to the larger mystery. I feel like I’m writing an album from the perspective of someone who is at the deepest level of that space, most wrapped up in those kinds of surface, ego-level concerns. To me, STORIES is a kind of emblem of that messy, anxious space – of being lost in those superficial concerns and working past them.

When did you start writing this EP? Did you start writing it at the end of the relationship, during the relationship?

I would say I didn’t start writing it at all until maybe a couple months after it had ended. I think the process of me working through these things can be reflected in the trajectory of the EP itself. For instance, I feel like in the beginning – “Like A Thought I Had When I was Dead” – it’s a song in which I wanted to unabashedly show a kind of pain and a kind of vulnerability and maybe a sort of hopelessness. And then I feel as you move through the EP, you feel those emotions being progressively worked through, eventually leading up to a track like “Truth Is In The Moving” which is like the feeling of finding love again for myself and for others and opening up again to that space of growth. And then, finally, the track “Coming Up”, which acts like a kind of hopeful anthem for being on that up-wave again and being excited again for what’s coming.