“Well, performing with Lana is always surreal, because the crowds that come out to see her are just insane,” says 22-year old Max Jury about what it’s like opening for the songstress Lana Del Ray. “I played solo on all the shows, so it’s kind of scary at first playing in front of all those people by yourself…” Jury, a singer-songwriter from Des Moines, Iowa, was just another music student studying at the prestigious Berklee College of Music (where musicians like John Mayer, St. Vincent, and most of Passion Pit attended) before he found himself on stage, preparing to open for Lana.
Drawing influences from the music he listened to growing up – roots, roots rock, country rock – Jury’s work has an honesty to it that is both modest and comforting. His song “Christian Eyes” was written about his unrequited feelings for a pastor’s daughter. “The deeper subtext, I guess, is just wanting to be a better person, and you can’t,” he explains. “You can’t necessarily have those nice things that you want, because you don’t deserve them.”
His debut EP, Something in the Air, came out earlier this year. His follow-up, All I Want: The Sonic Factory Sessions came out shortly thereafter. After these two back to back releases, Jury made his NYC debut at the CMJ Festival this past October followed by a coast to coast North American tour and an appearance at the Transmusicales festival in Rennes, France. All to say, we anticipate there to be much in store for us from this prolific young artist. The Untitled Magazine sat down with the Jury when he was in New York last to talk about music, growing up in Iowa, and popping his New York City cherry. Check out our exclusive interview below.
Indira Cesarine: So we’re both from Iowa, when I heard about your CMJ performance in New York, I was thinking ‘oh, I’ve got to interview him, because I never meet musicians from Iowa. Ever.’ So this is actually really interesting. I’m curious about the music scene out there and I thought you could give us the heads up. I imagine the scene is very different in Des Moines, Iowa than in New York City! How did you get started with your music career there?
Max Jury: I started playing in bands when I was a teenager, and then I started writing my own songs. I went to music college [Berklee School] after high school for a couple of years, on and off. When I was a kid I used to study in their summer programs. When it was time to apply for colleges, I just figured I’d apply there. I applied to several others, but I got a scholarship [from Berklee], so just financially too, I chose that path.
IC: How long have you been performing?
MJ: For about four years. I was gigging in college, trying to sell my stuff to places but over the last year it’s picked up, and so it’s a full-time thing now.
IC: What is it like growing up in Des Moines and then performing in New York City and abroad? Does it make you nervous to be going from a relatively small-ish scene to such an influential urban mecca like New York City or other places you’ve performed?
MJ: Yeah, totally. It made me nervous at first, but the first show we ever played as a band was for Lana Del Rey. It was for several thousand people in Chicago, so it was kind of like ripping the band-aid off. It hasn’t been nerve-wracking ever since, because we just kind of had to dive right into it.
IC: And how did you end up opening for Lana Del Ray?
MJ: We have the same booking agent in the UK, and our managers are friends, I guess – something like that.
IC: How did you end up getting a booking agent in the UK, being from Des Moines? Is your family in the music industry?
MJ: No, they’re not. I sent my demo out to a couple of places when I was in college, and some people came to see me in Boston. Nothing worked out, but I made connections, and met some friends. A couple of years later, they showed my music to this management company in London and it kind of went from there.
IC: That’s cool. Lucky one!
MJ: Yeah, I got lucky.
IC: So what’s the music scene like in Des Moines?
MJ: It’s growing. There’s a lot of variety in terms of music. There are different kinds of bands and different genres. Yeah, it’s growing.
IC: Are there a lot of places to perform live?
MJ: There’s a couple, but not a ton. There’s this place called Wooly’s that is a medium size venue that’s about 600 capacity. Touring bands sort of come through there. And there’s another kind of dive-y club called the Vaudeville Mews. Maybe smaller, independent acts will tour through there, but you can see really good shows there. I remember when I was in high school I saw Ben Kweller there for maybe five bucks, and you probably couldn’t do that anywhere else.
IC: What was it like going to high school in Des Moines, and being a musician?
MJ: Suburbia and music… I don’t know if it fits in or if they really work together. Valley High School kind of has stereotypical social caste systems, you know what I mean? Like jocks and whatever. It’s sort of like that stereotypical, generic All-American high school. There were several kids who I could play music with and hang out, but that’s probably why I left. To move to Boston and to play music.
IC: You went back to Des Moines after living in Boston, right?
MJ: Yeah, I live there now.
IC: What made you decide to go back, versus living in New York, Boston, or LA?
MJ: At the time, it was honestly convenience. I was touring the midwest and I didn’t have a ton of money, so I moved back in with my parents. I’ve just been so busy over the last year that I haven’t really made the move to get out. But I like it there too. I like the sleepiness of it, and the quiet. The natural world is still within reach.
IC: Do you ideally want to base yourself in Iowa or do you eventually want to move to a big city?
MJ: I probably would like to move in the next couple of years. I spend a lot of time in London.
IC: Yeah, you look like you’d fit in more in the Islington crowd than you would in the Des Moines crowd.
MJ: I don’t have my overalls on (laughs).
IC: That’s a stereotype as well. I mean, not all Iowans are farmers. Particularly West Des Moines is not necessarily farming town. That’s interesting. I’m sure you get that question a lot.
MJ: Usually I just breeze over it… West Des Moines is not like that. I don’t even know any farmers to be perfectly honest with you.
IC: Do you think growing up there influenced your music?
MJ: Maybe indirectly. Just the music I listened to growing up, or the music that’s popular around there – roots music, roots rock, country rock – that whole genre of music is more popular there, maybe than other places.
IC: And your song, “Christian Eyes,” what was the inspiration behind that?
MJ: Oh, it’s just about a pastor’s daughter. And liking her, and not having that reciprocated. The deeper subtext, I guess, is just wanting to be a better person, but you can’t. You can’t necessarily have those nice things that you want, because you don’t deserve them. It’s pretty autobiographical. I wrote it with a friend so I think it’s from both of our perspectives.
IC: You toured with Lana Del Ray and performed with her several times. The first time was in Chicago, the second time was in Berlin. Can you tell me what that was like?
MJ: Well, performing with Lana is always surreal, because the crowds that come out to see her are just insane. I played solo on all the shows, so it’s kind of scary at first playing in front of all those people by yourself, but I really like playing in Europe. They’re really good to me. It’s different – everybody is really attentive and appreciative, and listens really intently, which is sort of a foreign idea to me. It’s nice.
IC: Do you do your own songwriting? What’s your process?
MJ: I don’t really have a specific process. I’ve done a bunch of co-writes. Sometimes the rest of the band that plays with me and I will write a song. But for the most part, 70-80%, I’m just kind of writing by myself. I’m walking around or just sitting at a desk, just trying to write a song.
IC: And what is your favorite song that you’ve done so far?
MJ: “Christian Eyes.” Yeah, I like that one.
IC: Can you tell me about your EP, All I Want, The Sonic Factory Sessions?
MJ: Sure. It was recorded all live in one room. The rest of the band and I are never together because we live all over the country. We had a couple of weeks where we were all in Des Moines, so we recorded it live. It took us two or three days to do it. We wanted to capture that “in-the-room” sound – sort of have that fresh quick feel; we didn’t spend too much time thinking about it or editing it, or suffocating it with our opinions. We just wanted to play it and then leave it and really sit.
IC: Are there a lot of notable rock musicians or bands that have come out of the Des Moines area that you know?
MJ: Slipknot. I’m trying to think… Bob Nastanovich from Pavement used to live in Iowa City. I know Will Oldham used to live there, and John Darnielle from the Mountain Goats. So they kind of come and go, but I don’t know anybody from Des Moines. The guitarist from Built to Spill went to Valley High School.
IC: Do you feel like you’re maybe going to put Des Moines on the map?
MJ: I don’t know. That’s a lot of pressure!
IC: Is that something that you would like?
MJ: Sure, yeah. I’m proud of my upbringing and having grown up there. I wouldn’t run away from it and start to say I was from Boston, or something.
IC: And where do you want to go from here?
MJ: I just want to continue to do it. Hopefully play for bigger crowds, sell more records. If I could just do this for the rest of my life, I would. I would be really happy to just write songs and play them. I have no back-up plan, so I’m really hoping it goes somewhere, otherwise I don’t know what I’m going to do!
IC: You played a couple of CMJ showcases this past fall. Had you performed at CMJ before?
MJ: I hadn’t, no. That was actually my first time playing in New York!
IC: Oh, first time playing in New York! You were a virgin! New York can be an interesting crowd, actually.
MJ: Yeah, it was really interesting to see what the reaction was, you know? I hadn’t even really played outside of the Midwest, it’s just been Europe and Des Moines. I’ve had a couple of LA shows… that’s it.
IC: Where are you going with your music at the moment? This year, are we going to be seeing an album coming out?
MJ: Yeah, I have all the songs written. I have like 20 stacked up, so it’s just a matter of finding the money to do it, finding the time, and everybody working on the project deciding that the time is right. But probably in the next year. Definitely.
Look out for Max on tour this spring throughout the UK and Europe, including dates in London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris.
– Interview and photos by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Watch Max Jury’s video for his latest track “All I Want”: