Hi Jon! Thanks so much for doing this interview with us! You’ve recently released your EP Petrichor; the EP presents a great mix of styles with references to country, rock, pop and even some 80s sounding synth in there. Is this something that you feel is naturally part of your style as a songwriter or was it a conscious decision when writing this EP?
That’s a good question! A well timed one too because it’s something I’ve actually been thinking about a lot especially after I decided on the songs to put on this EP. I think I’ve discovered over the last few years that it is a part of my writing style to be diverse. I think despite some of my better efforts I’ve learned that I enjoy writing in a lot of different styles; some other bands recently like Kaleo, every song they put out that’s a hit is a different genre, same thing with Billie Eilish who is obviously more grounded in pop. There are more and more bands coming out with albums and EPs that are really not rooted in any style, they’re very diverse. Kaleo was the one for me that kind of clicked where I felt like I had permission to not have a monolithic sound and that people would still get it. I do think that it’s a part of my style but for a long time I just thought I didn’t have one! Through the process of this EP I finally came to terms with the reality that I write what I feel and I don’t really worry about whether it’s following a pattern of ‘genre’.
Heartbreak presents the themes of a tough time when love has been lost but notably does so in what sounds like quite an upbeat way. With lines such as ‘I don’t care who sees my heartbreak’ I interpreted the tone to present the freedom the protagonist feels in letting out those emotions and letting go of that initial sadness they have been holding on to – confirmed by the repetition of ‘I don’t care’ at the end. What was the reason behind making a song with such a sombre theme sound so positive and optimistic?
You’re not wrong, you’re spot on actually! That’s something that I’ve talked about for a long time; how I like to take topics that are generally not happy and repackage them into things that seem happy, I think that does a lot for the message. About five or six years ago I came out with my first song for a different EP when I first moved to Nashville and that was all on social justice but I did it in like a 1950s upbeat pop style but talking about racism and sexism and I just repackaged it because I knew people would just go ‘oh it’s happy’ you know? I followed that trend into this as well. I think that’s an interesting observation that you made there about the last chorus and the repetition of ‘I don’t care’; the idea is that it’s kind of a reconciliation, I think you hit that point at the end of a relationship where you go ‘I’m sad and there’s no reason to hide this anymore’ and I think that’s where healing really starts and you start moving forward maybe to the detriment of your friends that you’re just going to be kind of a miserable human being for a while. I definitely intentionally mix the more serious and sad topics with the more upbeat and enjoyable melodies because I think those emotions and those experiences aren’t monolithic necessarily there’s a lot going on and I like to play the music against the lyrics.
Leather Jacket is an absolute masterpiece! I love the retro 80s synth throwback and the funk feel that the bassline carries and you can’t help but tap your foot to it. The song describes such a specific moment in which we may realise something is happening but have no ability to change it – in this case the realisation that a relationship is ending. The song seems to me to carry in it that frustration at not being able to stop that inevitable reality – what was the sentiment behind this song when writing it?
Now it’s kind of a funny story, at the time it wasn’t! Thankfully it wasn’t happening to me although it happens to all of us at one point or another. So my buddy Ben Cramer (his band name is Old Sea Brigade he’s pretty big in the UK, he does folk indie stuff) had been with this girl for five years and they lived together and had a terrible dog. The relationship was coming to an end and it was just one of those break ups where it doesn’t have a clean end, they’d break up and get back together and they were just both miserable, there were time periods actually where he was living with me because he didn’t have a place to stay or he was sleeping on his couch in his studio; he was just a miserable human being, deeply unhappy. We sat down to write a song around that time and writing sessions are always so weird to start because it’s like ‘well what do you want to write?’ and he said ‘I have this idea’ and it was just that first melody [sings intro] and the only line he had was ‘I think about you baby’ and it was like, I get it! I knew exactly what he was talking about because we’ve all been there where you’re kind of speechless but it’s all you think about because five years is a long time and they thought this was the future and it’s all falling apart. I’ve been through that too where my whole world is falling apart and it was just like fuck. That was the story behind it, this nasty break up. The first time they broke up she got really drunk and told his friend who she just met ‘I’m going to break up with him and you should tell him that.’ It was a whole saga of bad events and when we first sat down to write all he had to say was ‘I think about you’ but that is all you’re thinking about, it’s all you’re feeling and experiencing and the song just fell out from there. It’s all those little tiny things that you notice where it’s something simple like ‘I’m going to go to the grocery store by myself’ and you have these tiny signals you look back on or in the moment you think that’s not right.
I also felt there was some anger in there such as in the line about how the partner is wearing glasses and it says ‘you don’t even need them’, underlining that frustration of being unable to change what you can see is happening
Yeah that one actually came from me, it came from my experience. It’s about when people try to change what they look like in order to accept the reality instead of just saying ‘I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore’, they’re trying to create this new person in order to not be the person in the relationship anymore, instead of just admitting that this is over you’re going to pretend to be someone else. That’s what happened with me and that’s just hurtful and makes me angry because they aren’t being themselves and they’re being a person that I can’t like basically, being a fraud in order to end it. There is a sense of anger because there’s a lot of anger tied up in those events because people try to hurt each other when they’re trying to break up because that's what they need sometimes. It sucks.
Whereas Leather Jacket takes a more outward look at heartbreak – Love Blind focuses more within and looks into the process of healing and learning from the process. How important do you think it is that in life’s toughest moments we try to learn and grow and turn them into positive situations for ourselves?
The natural response for me has always been there’s really no other choice, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think there is an alternative and it’s a very dark, depressive and stagnating alternative because accepting loss and heartbreak and learning from them in a positive way is not an easy thing to do. Even as I get older, and I’m married now, I still find stuff that I moved on from mentally but didn’t resolve and the anger will come back and the frustration and the hurt, so I think it’s especially in relationships because what we are talking about is inter personal relationships; it’s how we view other people and at our most vulnerable in those difficult times and those heartbreaks can create the deepest imprints on us and it will affect more than just our relationships romantically beyond that situation. I think it’s something that we probably don’t talk about enough in the right way, it’s something that we talk about a lot you know almost every song in the top 40 on the radio is a love song or break up song but not a whole lot of discussion or music is made around the details of how to navigate that in a way that’s healthy. I do think it’s really important to talk, that’s what I’ve done a lot in my life when stuff’s gone wrong; I talk a lot about it until I feel like I’ve worked through it and that’s what it comes down to. I think ignoring it or covering it up is what a lot of people do, you know the whole ‘hook up culture’ that’s developed, ‘oh you’re going through a break up let’s go on Tinder or Bumble and go fuck somebody and be done’, that’s not good for your mental health, that’s not a solution it’s a quick fix. I think it’s really important to address these things but how we address them is really important, I think that’s where the misguided nature of our reactions is, we need to have better discussions about how to handle personal, emotional difficulties and pain in healthy ways and not try to ’social media’ it or fix it in one second.
Come Now Spring follows on from this in that it conveys the protagonist being ready for new love and optimistic for the future now that they have had time and room to grow stronger – having covered a lot of difficult subjects throughout the EP was it important for you to end on a positive note or is that just how the natural ark of it went?
It was important. Come Now Spring was written four years ago right after Trump got elected so it was actually at the beginning. For me it was like a deep breath, it’s the first time I’ve counted down four years. I wouldn’t say that it was a singular thing like relationships and break ups obviously informed my lyrics, and depression and wanting to come out of it and seeing a path out; there are a lot of things that informed that song. It’s funny how it has been redefined for me too in the terms that you just expressed which is why I did put it at the end. It was intentional because I feel like the five songs tell a story in the order that they are in, you’ve got the beginning of the relationship and by the time we get to Come Now Spring it is looking forward where it is ‘I’m ready to not be a miserable human anymore, let’s have a rebirth and regrow’. To answer your question, it was really important that I put it there and it felt like the proper ending of the story ark that I told with the EP but it was something that I could have only learned three and half year or four years later when I had written all of the other songs to come to the conclusion that this song has a slightly different meaning in the context of my broader work on this EP.
The whole EP seems to follow an arching story of love – from the smitten sentiments in Imogene to the heartbreak then healing process. This makes the EP somewhat of a journey to listen to, despite the songs being written at different times was this a similar feeling when writing and recording it?
I think anybody who is working in art right now and who is creating art it’s really hard not to be going on a journey in the last four or five years, it’s been a really odd time. It’s a weird book end that’s happening right now so I’m jumping back four years constantly. After the 2016 election, I can’t remember who said it; a recording artist I think said ‘when bad things happen that’s when artists get to work’, so there was definitely a recognition that I’m going to have to get to work now; it’s time to do what artists do which is to create lenses and perspective and catalysts through which people consuming that art can have empathy or revitalisation or relaxation, all the different things that we derive from art. The last four years has been a crazy journey. Writing these songs and putting them together has been one of the most significant journeys of my entire life because when I started this shortly after that I got into a really unhealthy lifestyle where I worked too much. Part of that came from the need to feel like I was doing something and for three years I worked in addition to doing music, I teach a little but on the side and I also worked for an ethical fashion brand which I really believed in, but I got to the point where I was working 70 hours a week plus being a social musician. After three years of that I was barely a person, I was so compressed. A lot of this EP was written in my head while driving because that was the only time I had that was quiet, that I was still and that I could think. When you’re writing you’re aware of your audience so I worked to make it digestible but all of the things that happened over the last four years of me writing this stuff has really informed every single one of these songs and for me that really shows in the production and in the diversity of it; that’s where I feel like I got to express what was going on in my life the most. It wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for COVID because that’s what stopped me working 70 hours a week and that’s when I got away from the fashion brand and that’s when I wrote Love Blind; a month after I stopped working myself to death. It was the last song I wrote, I knew I needed one more and I knew what I wanted it to sound like I just hadn’t been able to do it and that’s also when I went in and recorded. It was a decompression, a decompression that’s still happening today a year later. Sorry that’s a long answer because it’s been a long journey! It’s informed it, it’s shaped it, it’s informed how I produced it because I decided to self-produce on these songs; I had a co producer/ a production assistant who engineered with me and then Dan Cramer who co-wrote Leather Jacket also helped produce that song but it’s the first time I’ve taken the lead on production on my own music in a decade and that was a big decision for me and I felt like I had to do it because of the experiences I’ve had over the last four years because they were so poignant and I felt them so deeply that I knew that I wouldn’t be satisfied if I didn’t get it just the way I wanted it.
One of the things I love about the EP is whilst it can be experienced as this kind of journey, it is also a really great collection of individual songs all with their own styles and sounds – which particular song would you say means the most to you on Petrichor?
What’s funny about that is I’ve tried to pinpoint my favourite but just like with all other music I go through phases of which ones I prefer to listen to. The one that I have a special place for is Heartbreak because that was one that I wrote that really defined the sound I was going to move forward with. When I got in there I did that chorus and the secondary melody that I added on top and as soon as I started doing the background vocals it just clicked with my engineer and he was like ‘ok let’s pan this and add this’ and we played it back and it was like ‘that’s it’. The genres are obviously mixed but the consistency I wanted was not in genre it was tonal and energetic. I wanted the sound to be very deep but also go very high, a really rich sound, that was the first time I felt like I got it. We had this cool slide guitar that’s got a very high sound but then we have this drive in the bottom of it with these huge drums. I’m a big fan of vocal arrangements on top of that too. That slide guitar for me was a stand out moment because I think the slide guitar is not utilised in an appropriate way. Something that’s happening more and more is people are taking these like stereotypical country or pop or even trap music themes then doing something else with it. It probably starts out of ignorance where you don’t know what it is you’re using, and that’s art, I really do believe originality comes from ignorance not creativity! I was aware that I was going to use the slide guitar in a way that was not normal to most people and my buddy Sam Barker played on it and slide guitar isn’t his main thing so he isn’t doing anything fancy but that’s the beauty of it; it’s simple and then we let the production do the real work. I’d say a defining moment of the EP is how we used slide guitar through the whole thing; it just adds a top end that gives it those heights that I wanted to get to.
So I recently found out that Petrichor refers to the smell given off by the first rainfall after a drought - what was the reason for calling you EP this?
A couple different reasons. The first is the order of the songs, the last thing I did was choose the title of the EP and with ending with Come Now Spring this idea of rebirth and revitalization it seemed like that’s the theme; that’s where we start and end; with new life. With Imogene being this anthemic build to this excitement and joy over this feeling and person that you have and then we end with the revitalization; it felt like that was the cycle. The personal part of it was that I named it right after I had got out of the fashion brand and I was starting to realise how much I had compressed myself just to complete every task throughout the day. It felt like I was becoming a person again, it felt like I had gone through this period of disconnect from myself, I had drifted further and further. COVID is awful but the silver lining is I’m grateful it put a stop to that and I was able to take a deep breath and take stock of how I was living my life and I released I hadn’t been doing it right and I’d been choking myself to death and this felt like the opportunity for a new beginning. So the name was because I felt like I’d just got my first drink of water in a while where I feel like myself a little bit again and can enjoy life a little bit again. It was the beginning of decompression after this long period of time where I just worked myself to death.
Finally, one thing we ask all of our interviewees is to name their top three songs that relate to mental health. What would be your top three?
1. Cherry Wine – Hozier (Live acoustic)
2. Come Now Spring – Jon Reynolds and The Aches
3. When The Party’s Over – Billie Eilish