In the midst of a long, sweaty afternoon at the Pomona date of Vans Warped Tour 2016, I stumbled past the Ernie Ball stage on my way to meet up with my friends at a different part of the Pomona Fairgrounds — when the sound of a band playing stopped me in my tracks. In a tour filled to the brim with pop punk, metalcore, hardcore punk, and all heavy genres in between, Justine and the Highs immediately stood out. Their timeless alternative pop sound owes as much to the proto-punk of the ‘60s as it does to modern artists like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys, and lead singer Justine Dorsey brings an electric, captivating energy to their live show. I recently caught up with Justine to discuss her musical influences, creativity, and where she wants to go next.
Alex Dansereau: Congrats on your Warped performance on Sunday! I really felt like you brought something fresh to a tour that’s usually focused on a few specific subgenres. What was it like getting recognized by someone like Kevin Lyman, who’s been discovering new talent for more than 20 years?
Justine Dorsey: “It was incredibly validating. I was never a Warped enthusiast — not that I disliked it, but it was never really my scene — but my cousin loved Warped and actually worked on the tour last summer. From what I knew of Kevin, I knew that he means it if he says he supports you, because he doesn’t have time to get behind something he doesn’t believe in. It was really really cool, and really encouraging.”
AD: I think a good thing about your band is that you don’t really fit the traditional Warped image, in that you’re more pop-oriented but with sort of a throwback aesthetic. I feel like a great way to broaden the appeal of Warped is by stepping outside of punk and going for more artists like yourself.
JD: “And I thought it was so cool how open the Warped audience was, because a lot of people did stay for our set. I think Warped is full of people who are fans first of music, and then happen to really love this genre of music. So we felt really comfortable there.”
AD: I think a big part of that success is that your band has a great live show. What do you think are some of the most important elements of a successful performance, both for you and the audience?
JD: “I think movement is such a big thing for me. When I go to a show, I love to be able to dance and I love seeing the artists on stage having a good time and moving around. I think one day it’d be really cool to have something more choreographed, like St. Vincent has the most insane live show I’ve ever seen. I just love dancing, and I love when people in the audience are dancing. And when I made music I was younger, it didn’t lend itself to that at all, so I’m just so excited to be up there. I think that is what makes a really good live show — when the band is excited to be there too. You can feel it, it’s palpable.”
“It feels like it’s a collaboration between the artist and the audience, rather than two groups of people who are like, ‘Why did I come here?’ [laughs]”
AD: As you said, you started out with very different styles of music, and a mix of acoustic covers and acoustic-leaning original songs. What are some musicians who shaped you as an artist, and what led you to pursue a new style as Justine and the Highs?
JD: “When I started out I was definitely listening to a lot of singer-songwriters, and then I got into really good music from bands kind of late. But when I started listening to Arctic Monkeys and The Strokes, that was literally all I listened to for a year, pretty much nothing else. I think maybe St. Vincent — it was like St. Vincent, Arctic Monkeys, and The Strokes — I listened to them for so long. And my music started to change the more that those artists became more of my chemical makeup, it just had a natural influence on my songwriting.”
“And then I discovered classic punk and proto-punk like The Velvet Underground really late too, and when I got into that music, there was no going back. I started writing songs that were more upbeat, and when I saw a band play I craved that feeling, and I wanted people to be able to move at my shows and create a really fun atmosphere. So a band was a natural progression. And now that I do have a band, my writing is totally different, because you have more that’s accessible to you, so you can kind of write for that.”
AD: Like you said, your band is definitely going for a raw, proto-punk and garage rock influenced sound which in a way is very timeless. How do you balance an aesthetic rooted in classic sounds with the ability to bring something new to the table as an artist?
JD: “I think it is so much about the person it’s being filtered through. The thing is, I wasn’t alive at the same time that Talking Heads were making music, or these other classic bands were making music. I feel just by virtue of living in this era, that helps — and also not being precious about it, I think that’s where people can go wrong, like ‘We make classic music for classic music lovers’ — I think when you box it in to being time-specific is where it goes wrong. Arctic Monkeys are the way they are and feel fresh because it’s being filtered through Alex Turner, who I always think of as the focal point of the band. Or Julian Casablancas — they listen to really relevant, new music. I think as long as you’re doing that and not being precious about it, that’s where you kind of save it from being tribute-ish.”
“It makes me annoyed when people say ‘I don’t like new music,’ it just sounds dumb to brag about. Because there’s amazing music that’s being made right now.”
AD: So going off of that, what are some artists that are inspiring you currently?
JD: “That’s a great question. Definitely Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) — Freetown Sound is one of the most perfect albums ever. It’s so good. I’m obsessed, and have gone back and listened to all of his albums — he’s so prolific, it’s amazing.”
AD: Your sister, Kerris Dorsey (Ray Donovan, Moneyball, Brothers & Sisters) already has a prolific Hollywood career, and you’ve occasionally acted as well. Is that something you’d consider doing again, or is music your focus right now?
JD: “I actually just signed on to a movie, and we’ll see how it works out with scheduling and stuff, but I’m not opposed to doing it. Music is definitely the focus right now, but I think they’re kind of natural companions, even in terms of music videos and stuff like that. And I’d love to make a film one day, because I love coming up with music video concepts — so we’ll see what happens there.”
AD: Can we expect any more new music from Justine and the Highs in the near future? Any upcoming shows we should know about?
JD: “We’re recording four songs right now, so I’m really excited about that, just to have something to give people — and you can do totally different stuff in the studio than you can live. Our upcoming shows are August 15th at the Wayfarer in Costa Mesa — that’s 21+ — and August 26th at White Oak Music in Van Nuys. That one is all ages. And our website has all our shows listed!”