Rounder Records, the venerable home of such roots-leaning stalwarts as Alison Krauss, Steve Martin, Bela Fleck and Woody Guthrie, quietly announced in October the addition of Susto to its roster. It is, without resorting to hyperbole, one of the biggest breaks for a South Carolina band in the new millennium, perhaps since the 2010 takeoff of Toro Y Moi, or the 2004 mainstream blip of Crossfade.
“We put out '& I’m Fine Today,' and then we had label interest from several different great options,” Osborne recalls. “But then Rounder, who was kind of not even on our radar at first, just started expressing interest. They were excited about what we were doing, kind of the most excited out of everybody.”
While some might balk at Rounder, which typically leans toward legacy acts and traditional sounds, grabbing progressive band Susto, it seems to makes sense when you consider how much Osborne’s songs draw on Southern traditions, updating them for new audiences.
“I think what we do is American roots music for 2018,” Osborne reasons. “I wouldn’t say we’re on the cutting edge or anything like that. But I feel like we’re just a band that’s from America that plays hopefully honest and authentic music. And I think that’s what Rounder’s always done.”
The as-yet untitled new album, the band's third, was demoed at Charleston’s Rialto Row with producer and constant Susto collaborator Wolfgang Zimmerman. The bulk of the proper tracking was done at Asheville’s Echo Mountain, with Zimmerman and a hand-picked selection of Charleston talents anchoring Osborne to his roots.
Steve Martin, The Avett Brothers, Widespread Panic, The War on Drugs, Iron and Wine and more have recorded at Echo Mountain, a former church that Osborne describes as a musical “sanctuary.” Ian Fitchuk, who co-produced the most recent record by critically adored country star Kacey Musgraves, helmed the album, offering enticing possibilities as to where it might go.
“I think it’s a perfect third record,” Osborne offers without giving too much away. “In the way that '& I’m Fine Today' was different than our first record and similar, I think the third record is like that to both of those. It exists definitely inside that catalog. I think it’s very Susto. But at the same time, we were given opportunities that just (sound) better. It’s the first Susto album that wasn’t made in a storage unit. And Wolfy did great stuff in the storage unit. But give us more tools and we’ll make a bigger boat, you know?”
Recently, Susto band members have pursued other projects. Guitarist Dries Vandenberg has carved out time away from his touring and recording obligations with Susto to create affable synth-pop with his band Human Resources. And Jenna Desmond and Corey Campbell, who left their respective Susto posts on bass and guitar back in September, have launched Babe Club, eschewing the possible benefits of Susto's new deal to pursue their own music full-time.
“I think that Susto is headed on a path to be very successful,” Desmond says of their decision to leave. “And I think it’s easy to want to be more stable and to be kind of a part of something that is already moving in an exponentially growing way. (But) we’ve written all these songs together about our life, and I’m kind of just ready to express them. ... We’re 25 right now, so if there’s any time to start over and not be comfortable, it’s right now.”
For Osborne, creating an atmosphere where the musicians in Susto, himself included, feel free to follow their own muses is paramount.
“Everybody has a need to feel like they’re contributing creatively to something, especially if they’re spending all this time,” he says. “At the same time, I had been working half my life to get to the point where I had a label helping me make a record the best way I can. So I had to be really true to myself. ... It was important for me to feel like I was in control, and that the situation was solid. I think everybody respects that. I respect Corey and Jenna for needing to have a project that they feel like they’re contributing to creatively.”
As they carry on with Babe Club, it’s Osborne’s authenticity as songwriter and bandleader that Campbell and Desmond say impacted them the most.
“I’m from New York,” Desmond offers. “I definitely don’t share the same Southern experience that I think Susto writes about, which is kind of funny. But I think I learned a lot from Justin’s writing style and watching him perform and relate to people.”