Storytelling songs of alt-country act SUSTO come from a very real, very excellent place

Write what you know.

It’s one of the fundamentals for any storyteller, any songwriter — no matter how fertile the imagination it should initially grow from some aspect of life, of your life.

It helps, then, when your life is just as fertile, has provided just as much experience to draw from, to help populate, colour, inform and give life to what you want to write about.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Osborne is proving to be one of alt-country’s most compelling songwriters and storytellers, why the music he and his South Carolina quintet SUSTO create resonates so much and is so impactful.

He writes what he knows.

“I’ve been fortunate to have lived a fairly interesting life,” Osborne says from Edmonton, where the band was just getting set to wrap up its opening stint with The Lumineers. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I’ve definitely enjoyed all the different places I’ve been in my life, emotionally and spiritually.”

And many of those places are mined for the band’s recently released superlative sophomore album & I’m Fine Today, a record that traverses the same sonic terrain as acts like Cracker, Son Volt, Being There-era Wilco and My Morning Jacket.

The songs, themselves, have grown out of Osborne’s 30 years of living life full, his struggles with faith, the people he has surrounded himself with.

Tunes such as Hard Drugs (which opens with the line: I had a dream that we were doing hard drugs in a street alley/You were lying dead next to me), Far Out Feeling (written abut his father’s battle with cancer and his brother being in rehab) and Havana Vieja, he says, are reflections on difficult and trying times, of “life hitting me in the face,” and being changed by those experiences.

He admits the path to getting to that place where he was comfortable in pulling that out of himself wasn’t an easy one, noting that in previous projects, in other people’s bands he was prone to “self-censorship,” worried about the backlash that might come from being too honest.

That was also the case with the band’s 2014 debut, which he says felt more like a side-project with others backing him than an actual SUSTO release, and he was still figuring out how and what he wanted to say with the music.

“I’m more comfortable with my own voice now — not just my literal voice but my wordsmithing voice,” he says 

“And  I think that level of comfortability extended to the sonic side of things, too. We felt like we could explore a little bit and be more cinematic in places and genre bend a little bit.”

He says & I’m Fine Today has been a “labour of love for a few years” now, finally getting its release this past January.

And people are gravitating to it, thanks in large part to how flat-out pleasingly easygoing it is and, again, because of Osborne’s spectacular storytelling.

“It’s what I enjoy doing. As far as feeling fulfilled after a song is written, if I feel like I’ve gotten the story across in a way that can set the stage and really feel the emotion and some of the details of what happened but it still flows and feels true to the vibe of the song, then it feels good. I’m just naturally a confessional writer. So a lot of the content is from real experience, that happened personally or with friends or whatever,” he says, pointing specifically to Hard Drugs, which tells the story of a harrowing after-LSD experience he and a group of his friends, specifically one of his best friends, had one day.

“That song in particular is really an important one to me, it’s an important one for to get right, too, and I’m happy how it turned out.”

Pleased, too, is the songwriter with how album highlight Gay in the South turned out. It’s a song that he says is different from the others because it comes from a more “vulnerable place,” one that finds him questioning once more that faith, offering the line: “They promised us you were going straight to hell when you died/I don’t even think it’s a real place.”

“Personally for me that song was a really hard one to write,” he admits.

“The subject matter and what really inspired the song was something really terrible happening to someone very close to me. And I felt like somebody had to say something … I felt so compelled to write a letter to this person via song, saying, ‘I know this has not been fair and society has not been fair, and just know that I’m here.’ Solidarity is all that you can offer sometimes.”

And while the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive publicly, Osborne admits that it has caused him some grief.

“Personally, in my own life, my parents were not happy about it,” he says. 

“I come from a devout Christian family and me dealing with walking away from faith has been difficult for them and for our relationship. We’re finding a way to navigate that and finding common ground and not be at each other’s throats all the time …

“There was definitely a period of time right after the record came out where I wasn’t hearing from my parents at all and they were upset about some of the things I was saying, specifically in that song.”

Hopefully it won’t dissuade him from offering it up when SUSTO hit town for a show Saturday night at the Webber Academy Performing Arts Centre as part of the venue’s Stampede City Sessions.

The stop is the band’s first headlining one after their stint with The Lumineers, and will kick off a solid three-month run on the road.

Osborne, obviously, is happy about getting out there, getting the songs heard, but, as a songwriter, as a storyteller, one that truly does write what he knows and does it so, so very well, it poses something of a dilemma, but one that he’s willing to work around.

“It’s different now, too, because now I’m on the road all the time. And as exciting as that may seem to people a lot of it’s mundane and redundant,” he says.

“So I’ve started to realize when things happen I make a note to myself, like, ‘That was out of the ordinary, remember that,’ and continue to think about whatever that situation means. I think I’ve gotten better at recognizing those moments that are worth talking about and not just letting them happen and letting them go …

“Songwriting, really, I’ve found is a good way to take those memories and learn from them and unpack them and get past things. It’s kind of therapeutic in a lot of ways. I’ve learned to use songwriting that way and hopefully gotten better at the storytelling aspect.”

SUSTO perform Saturday night at the Webber Academy Performing Arts Centre as part of the Stampede City Sessions.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at He likes beer. Buy him one.