Local one-man band rocks out to MTV

Lisa Early and Lisa Early

Justin Russell was born a performer. Even as a child, his passion for music was apparent.

“He was very creative and he always loved music,” said his mother Susan Russell. “We have video tapes of him performing artists such as Michael Jackson. He would sing his heart out and be dancing up a storm.”

Now Russell’s creativity and passion for music has paid off. Last Monday, he received news that his band, The Cityscape Retreat, was one of 50 quarterfinalists in the mtvU’s Best Music on Campus contest. And earlier this week found out the band had advanced on to the semi-finalist and was one step closer to winning a contract with Drive-Thru records.

All this hard work is particularly rewarding for Russell because not only is he the singer of The Cityscape Retreat, Russell is also the band’s guitarist, bass player, piano player and drummer.

“It’s a lot easier for me to work alone,” he said.

Although the events of the past week have been somewhat overwhelming, Russell has still somehow managed to not let it go to his head.

“It’s kind of humbling,” he said. “The key to this is staying modest.”

Russell admits at first he really didn’t think he would make it far.

“There are definitely some other really good bands that deserve to be on Drive-Thru Records,” he said. “When I was writing and recording songs I never thought that people would like me.”

One person who is particularly proud of Russell is his mother.

“I am incredibly proud,” she said. “I just can’t describe the feeling of being a mother and going to the Web site and seeing someone so determined and passionate has gone so far.”

Justin’s mother is not the only fan of his music. The head of programs at mtvU, Ross Martin, admits he was taken aback when he first heard Russell’s work.

“Justin’s music has unique style,” he said. “From the minute you listen to him you want more. His music makes you think.”

He believes that Russell will go on to do great things even if he is not the winner of the contest.

“No matter what, his music has already been exposed to millions of listeners on mtvU and mtvU.com,” Martin said.

Justin admits being influenced by bands such as Bright Eyes, Broken Social Scene, The White Stripes, The Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Jimmy Eat World.

The idea of The Cityscape Retreat is to make raw, real and thoughtful music that will make you think. One song in particular does just that.

In a song titled “Temporary Dream State,” he sings about the feeling of thinking your asleep only to realize that you are awake.

“It’s almost like a surreal song,” Russell said. “It’s about the difference between reality and temporary dream world.”

The Cityscape retreat was not the first band Russell was active in. In middle school he formed a band and most recently he and his older brother Aaron had their own band called Dryden. The band entered the contest last year, but didn’t go very far.

Justin has just recently finished “What Is All Around Us,” his debut album. This, along with some others of Russell’s work, is on sale downtown at Madhatters for $3.