Growing up in Northeast Texas, Justin Mills played the piano. In 2019, under the pseudonym Levees, his keys have turned to strings and his passion for music has taken him to undiscovered heights. Now brandishing a banjo more often than not, Mills writes and performs folk songs that range from observational Americana to animated Appalachian. From the early stages of adolescent piano lessons and high school marching band a bold and story-driven musician has emerged, relating tales of adversity and adventure and evoking powerful emotions through his songs.
Currently a student at University of Texas at Dallas, Levees is earning a degree in mathematics while occupying his time with the arts simultaneously. The artistic classes in his schedule allow him to further explore creativity outside of music and he has begun to understand how other art forms can indirectly enhance his craft as a musician. While still well-versed in data science and analytics, Mills expresses his artistry through songwriting and often looks to his music for a brief liberation from his data-driven studies.
“Mostly I’ve been studying Math at UTD, but over the past two years I’ve been taking film classes and poetry classes, and those have been incredible to me….In some sense being forced to read poetry and film criticism has really broadened my appreciation for the arts and how they are made.”
Ideas for songs flow naturally through Levees throughout the day but his characters and storylines burn brightest near dawn and dusk, particularly when surrounded by the quiet landscapes that UTD’s campus has to offer. After mending and altering, Levees spends weeks debating a song’s potential and ultimately if there’s something he can’t let go of, he knows there’s something special in development.
His latest release The King of Lean Cuisine tells fabled stories that sound uniquely modern yet aged in their own right. With heavily-present guitar and banjo strumming and deliberately-forward vocals, Levees paints cinematic action sequences for his listeners through speakers instead of a silver screen. Relying on artists like Sufjan Stevens, The Mountain Goats, Steve Earle, Shakey Graves, and especially Al Scorch for musical and poetic inspiration, he admires the straightforward candor of folk music and aims to write songs that provoke deeper thought while still entertaining his audiences.
“Generally, [writing is] a pretty natural process; sometimes […] I just get the feeling and need to get to the nearest instrument and work something out. The simplicity of folk instrumentation really lends to highlighting great lyrics, which is certainly what I try to write. I read somewhere that Woody Guthrie purposefully kept himself from getting too good at guitar so people would listen to what he had to sing and say…. I like that mentality.”
A native of DeSoto, Texas, Mills spent the majority of his childhood playing music yet only picked up a guitar or banjo for the first time three short years ago. After seeing Scorch perform, whose stylistic banjo playing served as an early influence to his musical journey, Mills’ passion for banjo-backed narration was solidified and the artistic concept for Levees was born.
Since then a self-taught banjoist (but still cognizant of music’s early influence in his life), Levees dawns a particular ‘clawhammer’ style of playing banjo as heard on the EP’s third track “Spiders”.
Featuring aggressive strumming and meticulous picking, the clawhammer style pairs together individual instrumental lines in order to form a collaborative rhythm and melody, all rooted in scrupulous timing. Coupled with instrument’s harmony, Mills’ aching vocals and grippingly emphatic narratives create what is Levees’ durable and decisive structure of sound.
Referring to the new Lean Cuisine EP, which was recorded, mixed and mastered by Mills in a campus dorm (following guidance from friend Matt Clepper), Levees identifies the record as a compilation of tales focused on central characters who persevere through failing relationships and exist on the verge of desperation. Levees believes it is possible, however, that while the album features antiheroes living in separate worlds, their stories are somehow intertwined — perhaps on this record, perhaps on another beyond the horizon.
Looking forward into 2019, Levees reveals that there is additional music slated for release in the back half of the year. Possibly featuring sequential anecdotes to the misadventures of Lean Cuisine, his new music is at this point mostly written and now beginning to undergo the process of early stage recording. As for now, Levees’ first act is a rousing revival of the American Past’s musical production, highlighted by modern anecdotes and present day passion; sit tight if you enjoy what you’re hearing. The show is just getting started.