How Justus West Melds Soul, Fusion & More in His Modern Pop | Sonic Futures

This is the second interview in our Sonic Futures series, where we talk to musicians about Black artists that have inspired their musical journey, and how they pull those influences into the future through their own work. Find our previous interview with Suzi Analogue and check back to Reverb News for more in the coming weeks.

What does it mean to be a pop artist today? If the current definition can include everyone from Adele to Migos—and former top-charting artists as diverse as The Beatles, Prince, Sting, and thousands more, each with their own sound—then why are others excluded from the term? This is a question that's top-of-mind for Justus West, as he navigates a burgeoning career as a recording artist.

While still in his early twenties, Justus has for years been an on-call session player, producer, and sideman. He co-wrote and co-produced a track on John Legend's Bigger Love, winning a Grammy in the process. He's likewise produced for Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande, and helped Mustard make one particular monster of a track—"Ballin'," featuring Roddy Ricch—that hit the top of the Hot 100, garnered critical acclaim, and received a Grammy nomination too. Outside of studio walls, Justus is also a gigging musician, which included a stint as the touring guitarist for the late Mac Miller and the artist's beloved Tiny Desk Concert.

These various roles have positioned Justus as a "Swiss army knife" contributor, which has led to some confusion when potential collaborators approach him. "Everybody has a misconception," he says. Some people think he's only a guitarist, some think he's an unaffordable mega-producer, and others imagine that he's just one on a larger team of people.

"That's why I'm pushing to release more of my music, because it's not just establishing me as an artist, but as a producer as well," he says. "Because I make 100% of my music, and I mix most of it too. … When you collaborate with me, I don't have to call five other guys who do my stuff for me."

Justus West - "Crazy," from Somewhere in Los Angeles

So far, Justus has released a string of singles and the EP Control, but he's hard at work on more solo performances and an album, a record he hopes will show off the full range of his capabilities. "That's the goal: taking control of my narrative as a producer," he says. And if he's successful, he may just break down the current definition of pop.

That's because, while Justus has worked on mainstream projects, his idea of pop music is much larger. To him, it can include everything—whether that's gospel, funk, fusion, ambient-leaning indie, or some mix of it all. For this Sonic Futures piece, we talked about how he combines all of the various streams into his own music.

A Foundation of Musicianship

At his foundation are the harmonies of gospel, not in the sense of choral backing vocals, but the harmonic choices in gospel chord progressions. Whether listening to contemporary gospel pioneers like Walter Hawkins and Fred Hammond, or modern-day artists like Tye Tribbett and Israel Houghton, Justus is enamored with the piano voicings and groove.

"Gospel is known as denser music. It's not as complex as jazz, but more complex than average pop music and R&B music," he says. "So it's in this awesome middle space where, listening to it, you grasp so much about musicality and complexity, but also groove and these other elements that you just can't get in any other genre."

When playing in church and learning to keep up, that's when his sense of harmony—and his personal fretwork—first really stretched, since gospel music often voices even the simplest changes in complex ways.

"Especially as a guitar player and gospel being primarily piano-driven, it just opens your mind up. When I would play in church—you have to match those voicings. You can't just go in there with a basic guitar C [laughs]. Whatever [extra] notes are on top and on the bottom, you gotta play that too. You have to figure it out. But it also lets you realize that instruments are related in more ways than we realize, and while piano chords might sound really difficult and guitar players might shy away, like, I could never play that chord—we can though. And once you figure it out, it makes perfect sense. It's more compatible than a lot of guitarists realize."

If you've seen Justus play, you'll know that, seemingly out of nowhere, he'll jump from chords into an almost liquid solo. He tacks this up to the influence of "one of the greatest guitar players ever" and one who Justus believes doesn't always get the recognition he deserves: Greg Howe.

Greg Howe - "Proto Cosmos"

"He's one of the godfathers of legato—shredder," Justus says. "He gets into funk, dominant seven, and church stuff, and then he'll just break out a crazy fusion lick. He's ridiculous." The trio album he made with Dennis Chambers and Victor Wooten is one of Justus' favorites.

"Seeing Black musicians play in that space" was important to Justus' growth as a guitarist. "I grew up mainly on alternative music and saw mainly white people. Then I got into gospel and I was like, 'Oh, so this is what Black people play.' Like, we play in church, we play this more soulful stuff. Then out of nowhere I see Greg Howe and I'm like, 'Whoa, this is like both worlds in one person.' So he dramatically changed my playing."

Another player who had this same effect on him is Tosin Abasi, the Animals as Leaders guitarist and founder of Abasi Guitars. (Justus also has a couple Abasi instruments, including one prototype on a somewhat permanent loan.) Taken together, these influences helped him become a lead guitar player, which he claims he struggled with for the first nine years of his playing.

"It just kind of happened naturally. I can't really think of the point in time it finally clicked," he says. But after years of listening and struggling to play at those speeds, suddenly he realized, "'Whoa, I'm gliding around the guitar.'"

Developing an Ear for Production

Justus' first taste of production came on a trip to visit family in New York when was about 10 years old. His cousin had recently gotten a Native Instruments Maschine Mikro for Christmas but hadn't quite gotten around to figuring out how to use it. Later one day, the cousin and other older family members went out, and Justus, because he was 10, had to stay behind. But while they were gone, he made his first beat, astonishing his cousin and brother when they got back.

By the time he was 12 or 13, he got deeper into production by listening to Drake and Lil Wayne. "I was like, 'I want to make beats like this.' And it became an everyday thing—try to recreate it and fail a million times [laughs]." He remembers scrolling through Logic presets—Justus' mom is a professional songwriter who had a pre-production setup at home—and thinking, "None of this sounds like what they're using."

These days, he appreciates a wide sonic range, prizing analog productions from funk, soul, and jazz artists like Don Blackman for his creative use of vocals and James Brown for his creative use of everything—production, arrangement, tone, structure, groove. One standout record to him is Bobby McFerrin's Beyond Words, "the warmest sounding album I've ever heard in my whole life."

Bobby McFerrin - "A Silken Road"

"That's when I started noticing sonics," he says. "Especially how the bass interacted with the kick. All the vocal textures." It's now a kind of gold standard he measures his own recordings against: "I do most of my stuff at home, because resources only allow that much, but I think that's one thing a lot of at-home producers and writers can't hear the difference of, the brightness and brittleness of stuff that's not recorded through [mic] pres, that saturated warmth that's not distortion. It just enhances all the best parts of the mids and the harmonics to where it's perfect."

Another world-famous artist that continues to inspire his productions is Prince, particularly the purple one's drums and the way he pioneered how modern producers—Justus included—even think about using them.

"People, when it comes to innovation, they move behind. I say that to say: [Prince] was innovating and doing that, and people are now, however many years later, just understanding the idea that a snare doesn't always have to be a snare, or that a guitar doesn't always have to be a guitar," he says.

It's a lesson he puts into practice in many of his tracks, sampling, resampling, and changing instruments so that they're transformed. When something new and usable comes out the other side, it surprises him as much as anyone in the room: "It's not that I knew it was going to be this, I was just open to the idea that it could be something else." And from there he's learned a few tricks, like "an acoustic [guitar], recorded with a mic, and pitched down an octave makes the craziest sounding bass. You can't ever make a bass sound like that."

Songwriting Risks and Reward

Justus cites two last, and related, sources of inspiration: writing meaningful lyrics and taking risks in arrangements. One artist who exemplifies both in his mind is Curtis Mayfield.

Even though Justus enjoys groups like the Isley Brothers and Earth, Wind & Fire—"they are 100% the proof that music doesn't have to be simple for the average listener to hold onto it"—he says Curtis added sobering, "no fluff" lyrics to his own daring productions. "It's difficult to do now," he says, since many tastemakers would label attempts at "world" or "message" songs as corny. But all the same, Justus brings this into his contemporary songwriting.

Even as he pulls in melancholic, ambient vocals like the kind performed by Novo Amor, Ry X, or Bon Iver, it's with a message that Curtis might try to deliver. "One thing I do differently in my music, especially my stuff that's coming up now that's more floaty, is taking that Curtis Mayfield element of these lyrics being heard and meaning something."

If this all this inspiration feels like a lot to live up to—the harmonic complexity of gospel, fusion solos, funk arrangements, and the lyrical weight of social soul music—that's not lost on Justus.

"It all rides on trying to be a pop artist," Justus says. The goal is to synthesize all of these strains into something lots of listeners can latch onto. He feels a kinship with artists like Dijon and Moses Sumney, who rightly refuse to stick to one genre. And Justus rejects labels like alt-R&B, because it pigeonholes Black artists who should be considered pop, or indie as a catch-all for avant-garde.

In professional sessions he's been a part of, Justus says, "Some pop artists will say they're simplifying for listeners, but listeners listen to all sorts of crazy stuff." He remembers seeing footage of Soundgarden perform "Black Hole Sun" to tens of thousands of screaming fans—despite the song having "some of the strangest chords I've heard in my life."

So why box himself in? "There is no sound that defines pop. It's just whether the powers that be decide to put you in that category," he says. And with any luck, he'll claim the title.

Keep up to date with Justus West on Instagram.

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