Justin Furstenfeld, lead singer of Blue October, a Houston, Texas band known for shimmering rock songs and haunting lyrics on albums such as 2009’s Billboard top-15 debut, “Approaching Normal,” 2011’s Billboard top-10 debut “Any Man In America” and the platinum-selling “Foiled,” is now living his best life.
Almost six years sober, Furstenfeld is extremely open about his past addictions, going as far as creating a one-man show “An Open Book,” in addition to touring with the full band, where he tells a bunch of fascinating stories about his struggle with addiction, his time in rehab and his fight for custody of his kids. Through the show he plays some acoustic songs and does a live annotation that’s simply wild. The band is back with their latest single “I Hope You’re Happy” released in January. Have a listen to the powerful track embedded below.
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Sean Ritchie: Coming from Houston, Texas, talk about the city itself a little bit. What stands out and makes it special to you? Where would you send a first-time visitor?
Justin Furstenfeld: The thing I love about Houston was in the music scene when I was growing up. You didn’t have just your “normal” rock bands. Houston is a very artsy town and I’ve always loved that about it. It’s very eclectic. It just screams diversity. When I used to go and see bands growing up, you couldn’t really put your finger on what type of band they were. They weren’t rock, funk or rap bands. It was just art. I remember a lot of the performance artists that I used to go see in Houston, and they were all littered with art.
I spent most of my time in the downtown area the [Washington Avenue] Arts District, because I grew up going to a high school for the performing and visual arts and I grew up in the [Houston] Heights area. The one thing I could also say about Houston, and I’m a huge hip-hop/trap fan, is that has always been big there. I’ve always been so proud of how much hip-hop we’ve got coming from Houston. You’ve got Beyoncé, I mean come on! But, you’ve got Paul Wall, Travis Scott and so many others. It’s just amazing.
I’d have to say, if anyone was to visit Houston, I would tell them to visit the Westheimer [Road] and Montrose [Boulevard] area – lots of amazing coffee shops, especially a place called Brasil. That’s my favorite coffee shop. If you go there get a From there, they would also have to go down to the museums, because we have such a Museum District too. It’s wrapped around River Oaks, which is a hugely-expensive neighborhood, but it’s so classy. If you want good Mexican food, go to Tony’s [off of Ella Boulevard].
SR: To bring it back a bit, how did you first get exposed to music? I know you went to a performance arts high school, but was it something around your family or friends?
JF: My grandfather always had guitars around the house, and my dad always played guitars, but I swear to God it was when I first heard George Winston the pianist. It was so sad, but so pretty. I remember also hearing Roy Orbison and the song “Crying” when I was five years old. I just remember balling my eyes out. My mom was like, “What’s so sad?” I said, “This song.” She responded, “How do you even know what it’s about?” The song had just got me. I remember listening to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” album too. It was just something about music man that got me. I just couldn’t live without it.
SR: To create music, and traveling to promote it, must be such a feeling, but what’s the most impactful and meaningful part you cherish about it looking back? Does the traveling help inspirationally at all?
JF: The travel is amazing. For instance, we just came back from Europe. We were in Cologne, Munich, Manchester and London. And, I make it a point to get off the bus wherever I am and walk five-six-seven miles a day. No matter where we are. I’m a sucker for getting out and seeing what the town has to offer. I walked into the Cologne Cathedral and I was just blown away. Then I went to Manchester where The Smiths took their famous photos.
There’s so much to do in this life that has to do with traveling, and I think that if you stay in one place you’re really selling yourself short. There are so many different foods to try and people to meet – cultures to see. I have to say, there’s nothing like playing an amazing show in front of 1,000-1,200 people, getting on a bus with your boys and then waking up in a whole different city that was build long before America was. It’s just amazing and it does inspire me.
SR: Couldn’t agree more! Now, you just released your new single “I Hope You’re Happy” in January. What was your thought process behind that track? I know it’s been only out a short while, but how’s it been received since it dropped?
JF: It’s number 20 on the [Billboard Alternative] Top-40 right now, so it’s doing really well. One day I was just shopping with my kids in Austin, and I just started humming the lyrics, “I hope you’re happy. I hope you’re good.” And, I was just like, “Oh my God, that’s a great chord.” I instantly told the kids to be quiet as I sang it into the phone.
I’m at a place in my life where there’s so much going on in the world and I only wish everyone, no matter who, happiness. I wanted to put that into a song. In the past, I dwelled on a lot of negative things, but this life is so worth living and enjoying that I really want people to feel truly happy with what they have in the world. If they don’t, then they can get out there and go get it, because life is good.
SR: Really cool to hear. I enjoyed it when I listened to it. I wanted to tie this into your one-man show “An Open Book.” I know it’s a little bit different from your other shows in that you talk about struggles with addiction, while playing some relevant acoustic songs in between what you’re speaking about. Talk through that show. What was your motivation behind it? Addiction has hit my family in all different ways through generations, and it’s something that people don’t really want to talk and be open about. What gave you the strength and openness to share your story?
JF: It’s funny, because when I first got sober, and that was five years and 11 months ago, I didn’t know how to get up on stage sober. I was scared because I had never done it in my whole life. [My addiction] had just got so bad that at the end that it was hell. The show came from my wife suggestion to just go out on stage with an acoustic guitar, in front of some people that know you and you feel comfortable around in Houston and Austin, before you go out with Blue October.
She said, “Why don’t you just talk about how you’re uncomfortable? Tell them about how you just got sober and that you need the audience help to find your footing again.” I just thought it was genius. I told her, “Your genius baby, and you’re hot.” So, I did that and it started out as a 30-minute show and over the five and half years it’s grown to over a two-hour set. It’s all about how passionate I am for life, what I learned along the way and how things have changed.
It’s really a blessing, because it’s turned into something that’s really inspirational for me and very comforting to know that I can just talk to people in the audience that might be struggling with the same thing. Parents bring their kids, churches bring some of their congregation, [Alcoholics Anonymous] groups bring people and sponsors bring sponsees. Then there’s people that love their life and want to hear this dude talk about his. It’s a wonderful experience. It definitely brings down the fourth wall between the audience and me. It’s about how you can go from hating life to really adoring it.
SR: Just simply inspiring. I’m so happy you are sharing your story with the world. Bringing it into travel a bit, when you do have some downtime or have a break, are you more of a beach guy? Looking to be near a city? Or, trying to be up in the mountains?
JF: I’m a huge fan of New York City. I adore NYC. I would live there if I could. But, my wife and I found each other next to the beach. Whenever we have worked a long time, I try to take my family to Santa Monica and we live in this apartment right on the beach for four weeks. I’ll do some acting and music there to pay for the trip, but the beach is so spiritual for me. So, when I do have time, and I’m with my family, I love the beach. But, when I’m by myself, I love to explore a city.
SR: I’m the same way. I feel like there’s no right answer. They complement each other. I love to ask well-traveled people if there are any destinations that they haven’t been to, but want to see. Are there a few on your list?
JF: I want to go everywhere. I want to go to Bali. I want to go to South America and Australia too. I’ve never been to China or Hong Kong. I’ve only really been to Europe. There’s still a lot for me to go see and I can’t wait to see it.
SR: So, when you’re on a flight are there any necessities that you need to bring with you? Any secrets on how you get through it?
JF: Oh yeah, I need my MPC, they’re drum machines. I have all kinds of them, I’ve been collecting them since I was a kid. I figure I make beats and music, so I have this little portable thing that I’ll take on the plane with me. I can literally sit there and just pound away at beats, so much so that the lady on the way to London asked me to stop. I was shaking her chair. I get so into it. So, I have to have my AKAI MPC and my laptop so I can make phat beats. I have to have my book of AA – the big book – so I can read. I need some melatonin, a natural sleep aide. I take one of those when I’m ready to go to sleep. I also need a pen and paper. Give me an 11-hour flight and I’ll write a whole album.