Water Liars frontman talks solo tour, mentions project with Will Johnson

Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster / Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

If you’ve seen Water Liars in Fayetteville, you’re no stranger to the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriter Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster. His songs paint vivid pictures with poetic honesty, and he’s supremely easy going and approachable after shows. After a set, you can catch him talking about books and records until the venue is forced to close.

What: Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster solo Living Room Show
When: Saturday, Oct. 1
Where: Address available after ticket purchase
Cost: $20 (19 tickets left as of 9/26)
Tickets: UndertowTickets.com

Kinkel-Schuster’s debut solo record Constant Stranger is available Sept. 30 on Fat Possum Records. A Fayetteville release show is planned for the very next day on Saturday, Oct. 1. The performance is an intimate Living Room Show with limited seating (buy tickets here).

On Constant Stranger, Kinkel-Schuster puts his words up front, and delivers 11 songs of well traveled Americana. These are stark renderings that grow inside you. Songs you can sing along to or sing unaccompanied. Constant Stranger more than expands upon the direction of Water Liars, by narrowing in and simplifying. Kinkel-Schuster is one of my favorite songwriters and this is further proof.

I asked Pete some questions before the record release and Living Room Show tour across the U.S. Here goes…

This is your first solo record. How long have these songs been around? Were they songs that didn’t fit in for Water Liars?
A couple of the songs on Constant Stranger had been around for a minute as demos that didn’t end up fitting into Water Liars. I wrote most of them in the months leading up to the recording sessions for CS, though. I’d say 6 months was probably the longest any of them were kicking around before I started recording them in December 2015 and finished them up in February of ’16.

Was it more liberating or frightening to be alone in the studio working on these songs?
Liberating, very much so. There are pros and cons to doing things oneself, always, but I just happened to be in a place personally and creatively where I really needed the freedom to pursue or dismiss any song or idea as I saw fit. And that’s something I hadn’t really ever done before, and now that I have the taste of it I really really like it. Perhaps too much. But again that’s a feeling that will change, because as we speak I’m in the midst of making a collaborative record with my friend Will Johnson and so am heartily enjoying the experience of having a dialogue about where the songs go. And I know that when I’m ready to make another solo record I’ll be able to go back into that world of having no one to answer to or blame but myself for how the songs come out.

Being in the studio by myself also hugely informed the way the record came out because of my deep limitations as a musician, which I often found and still find frustrating but also liberating, as it forced me to make choices and simplify in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise, and I think there’s a lot to be said for trying to use limitations constructively if possible. Goodness knows I have plenty of them.

I think “False Dawn” and “The Dirt, The Bells & I” might be your best songs yet, and certainly the most unadorned. How was the process of expanding Water Liars and at the same time keeping these songs simple?

First, thank you so much for saying those kind words about those songs. Those are two that are very close to me.

They were really two completely separate processes and head-spaces. Writing simple songs is very much where I’m hoping to aim my work, and it feels very natural to steer that way. To simplify.

I’ve seen you play to hundreds of people and I’ve seen you play for 30, and you seemed to be most at home playing to 30 in a small house. Is this shifting from rock venue to living room show by design? Is it what you’d prefer as an artist?
It’s largely by design, and by lack of popular demand, so to speak. A combination of the two. It feels wonderful to get to play for hundreds of people and also to get to play for thirty. For me, at this point in my career, it’s about trying to make touring as simple and sustainable as possible and playing these living room shows, as I’m doing with the Constant Stranger release, is a very simple and useful way not only to achieve that, but even moreso to try and play shows where there is no gap between myself and the songs and the audience and creating a shared experience, which for me is the whole point to begin with. I’m definitely more comfortable in that smaller environment because in the typical venue setting there are so many distractions for everyone involved, it just makes it harder to get to that place inside, and then outside of oneself. I just want there to be no bullshit, or as little bullshit as possible, for once. Nothing extraneous.

What have you been reading and watching lately? Has any of it snuck into a song?
Oh man, I’m all over the place as usual. At the moment I’m doing my yearly re-read of Lonesome Dove. I just finished the latest Joy Williams short story collection. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry. Just bounced around this huge anthology of Sci-Fi stuff. I’m really looking forward to picking up the new Sharon Olds collection of odes.

Also watching a ton of stuff. Saw Hell or High Water in the theater a couple weeks ago, that was really good. Been re-watching Friday Night Lights. I’m picking up a Texas theme here. I watched The Night Of, and was alternately impressed and disappointed with it, as a fan of Richard Price.
It’s a little early to tell if any of this recent stuff is peeking through but I know that it happens so I’ll need you to tell me.

Has the election cycle changed what you’ve wanted to sing about? Does it work its way into new music or what you play at shows?
Not really. As deeply disconcerting as this election cycle is, politics has never been something that feels productive or natural to me to engage in as far singing or writing a song, insofar as I don’t think anyone needs me to point out what is so obviously problematic. Certainly there are people who can and do write material that successfully navigates and illustrates the pitfalls of political writing but I’ve never come close to possessing that skill.

Do you have a Trump evacuation plan? In this state of panic, what grounds you to keep going as a human and as a writer?
My Trump plan is the same as my Hillary plan: take it one day at a time. Panic has never done anybody any good, so I just try not to. No matter who wins the election we’re all going to have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make the best of it as best we can.

What can we expect at the show?
At the show you can expect to see a 33-year-old man hoping, and expressing that hope by singing and playing a guitar.

You’re a Fayetteville regular now, what keeps you coming back? What’s the first place you go?
I grew up in Greenwood and so grew up exploring and visiting all over Arkansas with my family, and that of course includes Fayetteville. And my sister and her family live in Northwest Arkansas, and Fayetteville has always been a really appreciative tour stop thanks to the efforts of some dear friends over the years. Also, I’ll be moving to Fayetteville soon so if you want to get coffee or come listen to records at my house give me a holler. See you at the show.