In a busy New York subway station, a man serenades passersby with a beat-up guitar. A few of them look up from their BlackBerrys and toss a little change in his guitar case. It's a scene that plays out in subways and streets around the world.
Susan Justice knows that scene all too well. She has been on a remarkable journey from street performer playing for handouts to a major recording contract. As a girl, she traveled the world with her parents and nine brothers and sisters, singing on city streets, in parks, anywhere people would listen. But if you saw her performing, you might never have known the conflict she was feeling inside. To talk about her journey, we thought it would be nice to tour around with her in a place she knows well: the streets and subway stations of Manhattan. These were her performance halls, as well as the inspiration for the new album and its title song, Eat Dirt.
"I wanted to make a play on the usual, 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' because everyone's heard that," Justice says in an interview with NPR's David Greene. "In the beginning of the song, there's a piece of candy on the floor that I'm going to eat even though my mom's going to smack me if I eat. But I'm very curious, so I eat it anyway. So then the chorus comes in and it says, 'What doesn't kill you makes you sick / And if you're sick, you learn a lesson / With every lesson, you'll get wiser,' so I figure that it pays to cross the line and eat a little dirt sometimes."
The 32-year-old musician has eaten a lot of dirt in her life. Her journey began during those performances with her family. It wasn't by choice. Her parents were iron-clad believers in a little-known religious sect called "The Family," which was determined to use music to send a religious message. Justice still sings one of those songs, "Ain't It Good to Know," but the experience wasn't all good.
"They thought they were doing something good, I suppose," Justice says. "We wanted some sort of autonomy. We had no autonomy. We were just little vessels being used for someone else's purpose. We had a job from the time we were born."
That's the paradox of this woman's journey. Her talents are rooted in a painful childhood that cut her off from the world. Her parents, who considered themselves traveling missionaries, converted a city bus, tearing out the seats and turning them into beds.
"We would drive around the city and just park on the side of the road and sleep," Justice says. "We'd get up and then we'd drive to our spot. We'd unload all of our equipment and just play in front of our bus. And then, when we were done, we'd pack back up into the bus and drive off.
"Sometimes on a day when we weren't playing, we would be parked on the side of the road in the middle of the city. You're looking out the window and there are so many different types of people walking by, and you're just wondering about their lives, what they do, where do they work — you're just people-watching the whole day."
Even going to the corner store for candy was under strict supervision.
"You're kind of trapped on this bus, looking out, and, like, 'Wow, I'm a total freak of nature.' "
Freak of nature: With those three words, her smile vanishes and her eyes well up.
Justice finally escaped her family in 2001. She left them where they were touring in Germany and landed in New York City, alone, the day before the Sept. 11 attacks. She says she was afraid to be on her own but turned to the only thing she knew — playing on streets and in the subway. Soon, crowds gathered to hear her. She has stayed in touch with her parents and siblings even as she makes this journey from a young woman playing for handouts on the streets to a major recording contract.
Eat Dirt features a song called "Born Bob Dylan," a singer-songwriter whom Justice greatly admires.
"I went through this Bob Dylan phase, and he's so articulate with his songwriting," Justice says. "The chorus is, 'I wish I was born Bob Dylan / Had all the words to speak my feelings / I wish I stood up like Rosa Parks and followed my heart / Unafraid of the truth.' My one regret is that I didn't leave earlier."
So why open up about this hard past now?
"I thought it was a very personal thing," Justice says. "But then I realized it was really hindering me and holding me back from accepting my life and realizing that, yeah, it's OK to be happy for me. So this is sort of allowing me to be a complete person."