Every now and then an artist arrives on the scene and captures your attention not with pyrotechnics, high fashion or cutting edge technology but with an honest voice, an open heart, and songs that touch your soul. SUSAN JUSTICE just might be one of those rare artists who can speak to a generation. On her debut album Eat Dirt, soon to be released on Capitol Records/Kite Records, Justice delivers a collage of emotionally resonant songs that are deeply personal and reflective, but at the same time connect with anyone who’s ever tried to figure out who they are and where they belong. Eat Dirt is an inspiring story of survival and a wild joyful ride that puts a smile on your face in these most difficult of times.
Justice’s story is an unusual one. She was raised by itinerant parents who were members of a religious sect known as The Family. Susan, the second oldest of ten kids, spent her childhood and teen years on the road with her parents and siblings, performing music on the streets all over the world. During the course of their travels, the family slept everywhere from a van parked in a lot in Germany, to a train station bench in Italy, to a city bus renovated by Justice’s father and parked on the street in New York City. “We would drive around for hours looking for a parking space for the night,” she recalls. “Sometimes we would stay for a few months, but most of the time, it was a new town every few days.”
Justice’s parents were strict about their children not consuming anything that wasn’t sanctioned by The Family. So in her teens Justice had to hide her books, magazines and music, secretly devouring albums by Alanis Morissette, Tracy Chapman, Joan Osborne, Prince, The Fugees, Nirvana, etc. Justice was inspired hearing other artists tell their stories through their music.
One day, Justice impulsively decided to strike out on her own. She ran away from her family and hid in the subway. She watched in amazement as people piled onto the crowded subway cars. She noticed a pan handler singing for his supper. In short order she was doing much the same, busking in the subway, drawing large appreciative crowds, and often earning as much as $500 a day. “I felt really connected to people singing in the subway,” she says. “It was amazing to play by myself for a change. That’s when I really began to blossom as a songwriter.” With the money she earned playing in the subway, Justice recorded a CD and began to sell her music.
In 2007, she released The Subway Recordings (under her given name Susan Cagle), which was compiled from two live sets she had performed in Times Square and Grand Central Station. The following year, Spin Doctors’ drummer Aaron Comess caught her act at a club and introduced her to veteran artist manager David Sonenberg (The Fugees, John Legend and the Black Eyed Peas) who set Justice up with songwriter/producer Toby Gad (Beyoncé, Fergie, Alicia Keys) and advised her to write songs about her life. And that’s exactly what she did. Toby and Susan wrote and performed every song on the Eat Dirt LP.
“Toby was like my psychiatrist,” Justice says. “Because at that time, I was kind of homeless. I really didn’t know what I was doing with my life. Toby made me dig deep to write about what I was feeling. Getting in touch with those feelings was the real breakthrough for me. Toby set me on the path to writing songs that gave people a window into my personal story.”
“Susan is a real artist who can do it all,” Gad says. “She can simply pick up a guitar and command your attention. She moves you to tears of joy and somehow makes you want to stand up and cheer. I love her honesty, vulnerability, and inner beauty.”
The first song Justice and Gad wrote together was “I Wonder,” which Justice calls a magical tale akin to Alice in Wonderland, an empowering journey where Justice questions those who tried to tell her how to think and feel. On the title track “Eat Dirt,” Justice acknowledges that you may have to eat a little dirt in order to learn some hard lessons. But you come out stronger on the other side. On “Bob Dylan” Justice expresses the elation she felt when she realized that she could be open about her past rather than run away from it.
“I’ve had a hard time expressing myself because I had so many secrets about my life,” she says. “It’s a relief to engage with people, to attempt to communicate how you are feeling, even if you’re not the most eloquent person.” Justice takes a lighter tone on the upbeat love song “Paper Planes” and the playful “Forbidden Fruits,” which not only describes her delight at the unpredictable adventure of life in New York City, but also cements the album’s theme of freedom. According to Justice, “curiosity didn’t kill the cat. It saved the cat!”
Although the songs chronicle some of the heavier things Justice has faced, it’s clear that she has triumphed over all her adversities. “My past has made me who I am today. And for that I’m grateful. I’ve survived and I’m feeling positive and creative. I’m looking ahead, not backwards.”