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Susto's Justin Osborne on Havana, hard drugs and everlasting hope


Maladie d'amour: Susto contemplate life's rites of passage. - PAUL CHELMIS
  • Paul Chelmis
  • Maladie d'amour: Susto contemplate life's rites of passage.

Susto's backstory is as unique as its name. It begins with frontman Justin Osborne getting fed up with music at the age of 26, moving to Havana to study anthropology, being married for a few months, and witnessing a couple of ancient Latin American rituals.

Fast forward four years and you'll now find the South Carolina native and his Wilco-esque™ band in the midst of an ambitious national tour, which includes 38 headlining dates plus an additional 17 shows as the hand-picked opening act for The Lumineers.

It's the perfect opportunity for Susto to promote their newly released sophomore album, & I'm Fine Today, an eminently listenable collection that transcends Americana genre boundaries through the additions of strings, horns and synthesizers.

And while at least one new track, the infectiously optimistic "Jah Werx," is likely to enchant crowds who come to hear the Lumineers play "Ho Hey," others may not.

"I think there's going to be people in every single one of those crowds that love us, and there's going to be people in every single one of those crowds that probably don't," says Osborne, who's grateful for the opportunity. "But I think that's also kind of the point of us being on this tour, to bring something extra for people who might be into music that's a little bit more edgy."

In addition to being more musically experimental, & I'm Fine Today also finds an increasing earnestness in Osborne's lyrics, a marked departure from last year's whimsical single "Chillin' on the Beach With My Best Friend Jesus Christ." When he sings of nightmares where he's lying next to a dead person's body with his limbs blown off, he's really had those nightmares, although he says he's been having them less frequently these days. When he sings of watching a friend die from drugs, that's also happened. And when he manages to find something hopeful among it all, that's real, too.

All of which brings us back to that name: Susto is a term used to describe a Latin American malady in which the spirit is said to separate from the body. And while Osborne is neither Latin American nor religious, he still felt that, on some level, he could relate: "I was broke, I wasn't sure what I was doing, I wasn't on good terms with my parents. I just kind of lost my religion and stepped away from it, and was constantly very angry about that. I felt like some part of myself was somewhere hovering over me, but I couldn't get it back."

The traditional rituals for curing such maladies, he adds, tend to be less than pleasant. "I was friends with the son of a holy man in Havana," he recalls, "and I remember we were having a party for my friend's birthday. And next to the courtyard where we were partying, there was a room with someone who'd been locked inside there for a week."

Long story short, Osborne returned to South Carolina and hooked up with guitarist Johnny Delaware and keyboardist Corey Campbell to form the creative core of his new band. "The Caribbean influences are definitely there, but a lot of that actually comes from Corey, who's the only actual trained musician in the band. If I had to describe it, I'd say it's like modern alternative music with influences that go from American traditional to world music to electronic music."

Osborne is happier now, although he expects that an element of what inspired the band's name will always come and go. Inauguration Day, he says, was not a happy one for him, but his mood was transformed when the band's tour hit Washington, D.C., the same day as the women's march.

The most poignant track on Susto's new album is "Gay in the South," a song about people who are devastated by societal intolerance: "They promised us you were going straight to hell when you die / I don't even think it's a real place / And in a future time there will be nothing different between you and I / And I can't wait for that time to come."

"The song is a reaction to a very literal thing that happened," says the songwriter. "There are people who find out they have a life-threatening illness, or find out they're pregnant in a society that does not allow them to see abortion as an option. And that sometimes turns people to darkness and they start doing drugs or whatever.

"It's kind of an encouraging letter," he adds, "to just say, 'Hey, pick yourself up, it's okay, don't let this ruin your life. There are people who will love you and understand you no matter what happens.' And so it's a bit of a metaphor for whether or not the positives can overcome the negatives. I think as long as I am alive and breathing, there's always going to be hope."

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