Singer/songwriter Justin Jones performs at the 9:30 Club. (Sam Holden, Handout photo )
Years ago, when Justin Jones was homeless, he lived in his Jeep Cherokee. Friends offered their couches and floors for the singer-songwriter to crash on, but he "didn't want to offend other people" with his drug use.
"I was just driving around to different alleys and shooting dope, smoking crack, getting paranoid and then moving to another alley," said Jones, 32. "It was the weirdest existence."
The D.C.-based singer, who headlines a hometown show at the 9:30 Club on Saturday, eventually got help, thanks to a girlfriend who paid for a rehabilitation clinic, even after they split.
If this were Hollywood, Jones' story would include his guitar helping him back to life, giving him a reason to stay clean. In reality, music was the furthest thing from his mind.
"Whether I played music again didn't matter to me," Jones said. "I just wanted to be a normal person again."
Now married to the woman who helped get him clean, Jones hasn't used drugs since February 2007. With that "miserable experience" behind him, Jones got back to music.
In 2010, Jones became the first (and still only) artist signed to 9:30 Records, the label run by 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz. After releasing 2010's "The Little Fox EP" and sharing stages with artists such as Ray LaMontagne and the Drive-By Truckers, Jones entered the studio with a collection of his most personal songs yet.
The 11-track result, "Fading Light," was released in May. The album finds Jones trading his earlier country sound for melancholic folk.
"I just started writing about mortality and the disappointments and [stuff] that really bothers me," he said. "If I don't write about it, it weighs me down."
Jones says the album's second track, "As It Turns Out," best represents him now. His concerns and perspective have grown outward over the years.
"As you get older, your problems become the world's problems," said Jones, a father of two. "It's not 'my girlfriend broke up with me.' It's 'how are we going to fix the country?' That song is about how frustrating it's been to be in America the last couple years. The emotion in it feels very current to me."
You can hear Jones' frustration through his slow drawl (he grew up in the mountains of Rawley Springs, Va.). He says art and music have been devalued in America to the point that it's "impossible to make a living" — at least for him.
Despite being proud of "Fading Light," Jones says he doesn't know how long he'll keep trying to "make it happen."
"It'd be foolish to say I'm not going to record more songs, but I'm not totally sure how much longer I want to spend away from my family for absolutely no financial gain," Jones said. When not on tour, he bartends at the 9:30 Club.
His music career hasn't expired yet, though. Jones says he and his band will "play a lot of shows to try and get people behind us." Whether the new album and tour turn Jones into a more profitable singer-songwriter remains to be seen. As a man who's been through a lot, he's learned to keep his priorities in check.
"At the end of the day, I have two children I have to provide for and a wife I need to honor," he said. "I'm trying to do this because it's what I love, but if I can't do it, I can't do it."
If you go
Justin Jones performs Saturday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington. American Aquarium will also perform. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10. Call 877-435-9849 or go to 930.com.