Sounds like home
Justin Farren makes music out of his life, and vice versa
Common wisdom says you should write what you know, but when you’re young, and you’ve lived in one town your whole life, it can feel like you don’t know anything worth writing about. Many local songwriters compensate for a lack of experience with a wealth of imagination—penning lyrics of dramatic events set in towns they’ve never been to. Cafe stages and open-mic nights are crowded with ballads about drifters riding the rails, drunk on whiskey and dusty with desert grit, and the broken-hearted girls they left behind.
Twenty-two-year-old singer-songwriter Justin Farren also frequents those stages. His smooth, fluid vocals may be accompanied by his quiet melodies on acoustic guitar or by a friend playing hand drums. His voice will trip lightly across a considerable range with an energy that is strongly reminiscent of Jason Mraz (although Farren insists he has never heard any of Mraz’s music). Farren might be singing a silly song about a fly looking for a home—complete with a buzzing kazoo solo—or a poignant ballad about a breakup, but you can be sure he won’t be singing about anything other than his own life. “You can only write about what you’ve experienced,” he said in a recent interview.
Judging from the lyrics on his newest CD, The Sound of Flight, Farren’s been experiencing a newfound adult independence and burgeoning musical talent, mixed with an uncertainty about what to do with it all. It’s a theme that runs throughout the album. On the opening track, “The Pig Farm,” Farren cycles through a list of what-ifs—“What if I don’t go back to school?” “What if I never have a wife?” “What if I never buy a house?”—and wonders whether each of these circumstances would be a blessing or a curse. On “Standing in a Ditch Alone” he captures the absurdity of young adulthood with the chorus, “I’ve got one friend going to college / one friend who’s going to jail / and me, I’m digging a ditch in some strangers’ backyard / so they can have a toilet in their tool shed / and I can make some money to fix my car again.”
A commitment to write from experience also means Farren’s lyrics are peppered with local references. Gunther’s Quality Ice Cream, Cache Creek, Fruitridge Road and 90-degree summer evenings all make cameo appearances in his songs and reflect Farren’s Sacramento upbringing.
Farren began his musical career at age 11, learning to play the bass at the urging of his older brother, Devin. “My brother was in a band,” Farren recalled. “He played drums, and he was like, ‘Hey, man, drums and bass go good together. You should learn to play.’ So, I asked for a bass for Christmas and wound up playing for his band.” The band was a short-lived hard-rock outfit called Effigy.
Farren picked up the guitar at age 13 and continued playing throughout high school. “I had written little songs, but listening back to them, the music wasn’t really good,” he said. “It was just on its way somewhere.” At 16, he began playing guitar and singing for the rock trio Mellow Judith. “Mellow Judith was a pretty big step,” Farren said, “and when Mellow Judith broke up, I suddenly got the drive to hit the solo thing really hard.”
In 2002, six months after Farren went solo, he released his first CD, Smog Check Blues, and started playing shows at places known for acoustic music, like Luna’s Café. He followed that up with 2004’s The Sound of Flight. Farren, who supplements his income as a musician by doing recording engineering for local bands, produced both albums. “I do everything myself,” he said, “though my friend Brian Rogers helps me out on drums.
“I’m not at all interested in signing a record deal,” Farren continued. “I’m not really interested in having a higher-up above me at all. I like to write songs. I’m fully capable of recording and distributing them myself. I want to follow that avenue for as long as I can, because it’s really fun. As long as it’s fun, I’m doing all right.” Maybe he’s more certain than he sounds.