Josh Turner: the Youtube Destiny of a Music Prodige

Raised in North Carolina, Josh Turner started doing folk music when he was 15 and randomly opened a You Tube channel. Six years later, his channel is about to reach 10,000 subscribers, and Josh has turned into a real music prodige. It is through teenage bands and collaborations with talented guests that Josh made his way into music, teaching himself how to play no less than eight intruments… Eleonore Giraud interviewed him before the release of his first studio album, in collaboration with budding singer Larkin Dodgen.

The teenager hits “record” and for a moment, all we can see is his shirt covering the screen. Only after a few seconds does Josh sit down, guitar on his lap.

In his back, the Beatles cross a London street above the bedroom door, black and white silhouettes of the Avett Brothers side the window. A glazed paper Cincinnatti night sky reflects the tiny fairy lights that run on the wall. The landscape of Josh’s room is something that fastly becomes familiar to the growing number of subscribers.

He starts playing.

Josh Turner opened his You Tube channel in 2007 at age 15, and has published 129 videos ever since. Already playing the piano, guitar and ukulele, he soon got into folk music and taught himself how to play nothing less than the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, luth and harmonica.

His passion grew stronger along the years, so that he now barely does anything else. It allowed him to build incredibly sharp skills for a young man of 21. “I basically spend all of my free time playing music, making videos, or arranging for the accapella group I sing with on campus,” Josh says.

When I ask him what decided him to start his channel, the first part of the answer sounds professional – “I wanted to show a friend in a different city how to play a song, because explaining it over the phone was too complicated,” while the second is what we can expect from a 15 year old: “I also wanted to post a cover of a song for a girl I was interested in at the time,” he says.

“Living in North Carolina
had a pretty big musical impact on me”

His family had then moved to North Carolina, and this was not for nothing in his musical choices. “Living in North Carolina had a pretty big musical impact on me – I’m not sure I ever would have started playing Bluegrass music if I hadn’t lived in a state where it was so popular,” Josh says.

A MUSIC IDENTITY CALLED GEOGRAPHY

North Carolina is the state of Old Time and Bluegrass, where the migrants brought the old English music in the deep Appalachian mountains. There, far from the rest of the civilization, it was kept alive – and developed. Beside that, the African American influence added a stronger rhythm to the English ballads, notably with a new instrument: the banjo.

Actually, the English folklore was better preserved in the Appalachia than in Britain, where folk music was already running out of steam in the beginning of the 20th century. Jazz music, imported from America, was responsible for this decline. Ironically enough, while jazz was a runaway success in the English music halls of the Roaring 20s, British ethnomusicologists made the trip to the American east coast to find back old rhythms and songs that had been lost in the mother country.

“[Banjo] has exploded.
I think this has yielded a few pretentious wannabees,
but for the most part it is a very, very good thing.”

Bluegrass and Old Time have always been big in North Carolina, but they got much bigger in the last 10 years or so. As an illustration, banjo used to be old fashioned, but now almost sounds refined. “I started playing the banjo at 14, and even then, it was a bit ridiculous,” Josh testifies. “Now, seven years later, it has exploded. I feel like there is barely a new alt/folk recording that comes out without a banjo. I think this has yielded a few pretentious wannabees, but for the most part it is a very, very good thing.”

TEENAGE BANDS

Very soon, Josh and a few of his hometown friends – Carson McKee (his real name is Drake Eliott) and Cole Gage – created their own Bluegrass band: The Other Favorites. The band released an album called Novelty on ITunes two years ago. To Josh’s hard-working character and strong capacity for adaptation, Carson added a stunning Bob Dylan-styled voice, and Cole, a real virtuosity on the mandolin.

But the end of high school was about to slow down this flow of productivity. This is when the three lads were split into different cities and states for college purposes. Josh moved back to Indiana, his birth state. Of course, college obligations didn’t stop his musical investigations. He kept on recording himself for his You Tube channel, while the video background of his childhood bedroom swapped for a shared residential room.

He also involved into another band with his college lads – Coyote Armada. However, his participation in both bands isn’t quite the same. “In the Other Favorites it’s pretty much just me and Carson, so I get a great deal of say about what happens musically. It is a much more precision oriented band, and more focused on producing good quality recordings than playing live shows,” he says. “In Coyote Armada I am one of six band members, and while I still exert a reasonable amount of influence, there are a lot of other musical ideas going around. That band is less about precision, and more about fun. We spend much more time playing shows than recording.”

DIGITAL MEDIA

Always riddled with smart ideas, Josh also found a solution to get his high school friends together again. Him and his musician mates studying hundreds of miles away from each other reunited just for the time of another video… Each filmed and recorded himself, and then Josh put this into one single video – all the tracks layered on top of each other, screen divided in four cases. This is how the subscribers saw see Alex Kastanas, Ryan McKusick, Carson McKee and Josh sing along a cappella the gospel “Someday” in their student rooms.

Just like every You Tube channel owner, Josh started making videos with a modest equipment. His very first takes were filmed with a simple camera, microphone included. The sound was rough, the angle, a bit awkward. His passion growing, he offered himself a good microphone and started editing. This evolution was not for nothing – in fact, the young student started university majoring in Digital Media Production. “I essentially studied how to make You Tube videos,” Josh says. He started a “virtual bluegrass band,” where he played all the instrument parts of a same song himself, and stuck them together as described before.

CLASSICAL ADDITION

While exploring new media techniques, he also diversified his musical background with classical music. “I grew up with classical music on in my house as a kid, so it was sort of natural for me to start playing it. I got a few CDs of lute music in, I think, the eigth grade (around age 14) and fell in love with the lute. I had to try to play it. I have also sang in a bunch of choirs, which exposes you to many types of music,” Josh says.

And indeed, his channel offers to hear nothing less than “If Ye Love Me,” an a capella version of a 16th century song by English composer Thomas Tallis; his own arrangement of a Renaissance Flemish song with title “Young Lion” from the latest release of American rock band Vampire Weekend; and a banjo version of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”… to cite a few. Outstanding? Pretty much.

While Josh refined his music skills, it is funny to notice a change in his physical appearance as well. More classic shirts gradually slip between the t-shirts, brand new black square glasses give a seriousness to his face, and the neglected teen haircut turns into a closely trimmed one. After he finishes playing his rendition of Ave Verum Corpus, 21 year old Josh, sat on his bed, grabs a glass of Cabernet, sips a little bit and puts the glass back in place before the screen turns black.

COLLABORATIONS: THE ROAD TO SUCCESS?

Josh originally got into music thanks to his father, who used to play and sing for him when he was a little boy. “It had a subconscious impact,” Josh says. He occasionally plays with him in his videos, but more often accompanies himself with other guest singers/musicians with many incredible talents.

After browsing his channel for a while, I was soon familiar with a few of them: Alex Kastanas, who dated Josh for two years – Alex has a beautiful and round soul voice. A fan of the North Carolina band The Avett Brothers, she then got more into soul artists such as Adele. Alex accompanied Josh on songs like “Look at Miss Ohio” by Gillian Welch or “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M. Carson McKee – him and Josh are the head of the band The Other Favorites. I’m afraid to turn a bit emotional at Carson’s voice inflections echoing in the microphone when he covers Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on Josh’s guitar. Cole Gage and Ryan McKusick are more occasional guests, but with equal talents.

“That’s crazy good on a level
that your age shouldn’t even understand…”

Dane Wright, a You Tube subscriber

Another major addition is that of Larkin Dodgen. Larkin has a sweet face and a voice soft like honey, with that tiny little bit of roughness that comes up when you don’t expect it – perfect for jazzy songs like the 1960s hit “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes).” The young girl also makes her own compositions, and participated in a teen song writing contest with the title “Rainy Day.”

The song sounds so professional that I had to look twice at the mention “original song by Larkin Dodgen” under the video – and so did the subscribers, as the video comments show: “I’ve been really into all of your videos, but this girl is just incredible. Honestly one of the best voices I’ve ever heard. I just can’t stop listening to it.” Tony Yates says. “That’s crazy good on a level that your age shouldn’t even understand…” Dane Wright adds. Fitting her jazzy voice tone, the song full of color and soft figures of speech would perfectly fit a soft light music club in a retro movie.

It comes without surprise that Josh and Larkin were lately discovered by a music manager from New York. This encounter led them to record a full length album earlier this year – “all because of our You Tube videos,” Josh says. However, fans still need to wait to have the release in their hands. Of course Josh will keep us updated through his channel.

The number of subscribers to Josh’s channel is about to reach 10,000 people, and the collaborations probably played a role in that success. When I ask him where he met all these gifted people, the answer is a bit disconcerting. “Well actually, we all just went to high school together,” he says casually. Is it just random, or has geography something to do with it? In North Carolina, music seems to make a perfect match between past and present. Valuing historic instruments, it also adapts to the era we are living in.

Although he started majoring in Digital Media, Josh soon realised that he wanted to pursue a musical career. “Before I took too many classes in this I realized that it was a bit foolish and I ought to be studying music,” he says. “I Just changed my major last semester.” Coyote Armada just released a new single and B-side available on Bandcamp. ” I’m very proud of it,” Josh says. “We will start working on a full length album in the coming months.” Projects are getting serious for Josh and his career could make a turn very soon. Despite that, I can’t help but wish that he finds time to “spare” for some new You Tube videos.

SIDEBAR:

To find Josh on Youtube, type “Josh Turner” or “200000028” (the name of his first guitar).
A completely subjective selection of Josh’s best videos:

– “Wagon Wheel,” takes one and two, recorded five years appart from each other. The first rendition of this classic co-signed by the Old Time band The Old Crow Medicine Show and Bob Dylan is already good and quite personal, while the second one makes obvious Josh and Carson’s huge evolutions.

“Offering” from the Avett Brothers. While Josh turns on the camera and starts playing his guitar, a young Alex Kastanas sat on a bed finishes her point in a conversation about a broken Rolex, before to go on with humming the Avett ballad. Josh’s tapping provides its lively rhythm to a beautiful song. I wish this never ends.

“The Fall”, a cover of zydeco-folk-bluegrass band Donna the Buffalo. Probably filmed in the family’s garden, the video stars Josh’s father at the guitar and his son at the banjo and harmonica. To Josh’s problems to take the harmonica out of his pocket and one song word lapse, Jim answers with side glances and grins. The complicity is here.

– Two college friends accompany Josh on the title “Falling In and Out of Love/Aimee.” The tambourine and the three voices singing in unison bring a catchy rhythm to that classic by 1970s band Pure Prairie League. Lead vocals Myles Pinder is striking by his pleasant voice and charism.

– Josh and Cole Gage play an arrangement of “Big Sandy River” and “Monroe’s Hornpipe,” two classics from father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe. The agility of Cole’s fingers on the mandolin is simply thrilling.

– On the Carolina shore and despite the wind, Josh and Carson cover “Under the Boardwalk” by The Drifters. This video is a tribute to beach music, a style born in the 1950s in the Carolinas. Josh is here on the mandolin and Carson, on the guitar.

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