Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Jonah Tolchin On Life Before and After "Criminal Man"
Jonah Tolchin mesmerizes audiences with his impeccable musicianship, foot-stomping rhythms, and lyrical original songs. At age fourteen he fell in love with traditional blues and began playing guitar and harmonica.
At fifteen he appeared at Tupelo Music Hall in New Hampshire with blues legend Ronnie Earl. Now he plays everything from roots and Americana music to old time folk & acoustic blues, but likes to settle down in the in-between places. From 2007-2011 Jonah was lead guitarist and vocalist in the New Hampshire band Uncle Fran’s Breakfast, and since then he has been touring as a solo artist, primarily in New England.
Right after graduating from high school in June 2011, Jonah produced his first EP, Eldawise, a group of four original songs and a Robert Johnson blues classic; he wrote, produced, sang, and recorded all the instruments.
Then he immediately began working on his current release Criminal Man, a predominately acoustic album recorded by Eric Michael Lichter at Dirt Floor Studio in CT and Archibald Taruskin. A masterful guitarist with a deeply resonant voice, Tolchin is joined on this album by Joe Fletcher, musicians from The Low Anthem, Brown Bird, and others.
Criminal Man combines the sounds of folk, blues, bluegrass, and Americana music in ten original songs (and one cover by Blaze Foley) dedicated to social change. Jonah sings with passion and originality about the abuses to the environment, a destructive materialistic culture, and the pain of poverty and loss. Jonah is an ardent naturalist, and much of his inspiration comes from visiting America’s exquisite parklands.
(The above is from http://www.jonahtolchin.com)
After hearing Jonah Tolchin's rendition of "State Trooper" off of Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, and interviewing LDS producer Scott Pingeton, Jonah and I connected to put together this Q & A. I've really been digging his Criminal Man album and his recent 13-track Daytrotter session. Jonah Tolchin is an exceptional singer-songwriter and I hope that this piece helps to spread the word on his work.
When/ how did you begin learning, playing, and performing music?
Jonah Tolchin: Growing up I was given many musical opportunities with various instruments, but never really stuck with anything. It wasn't until my best friend started playing guitar that I really got interested... We wanted to do everything together, and when he started playing I decided that I wanted to play too! I was 13 or so. I was addicted to playing as soon as I picked it up... I loved learning licks and chord progression's from more experienced friends. I had many music teachers, but I definitely consider myself to be mostly self-taught, with the help and inspiration of my musical friends.
I learned how to play by ear... I can't read music. I started performing when I joined/helped create a blues/ rock band in High School (High Mowing, Wilton NH)... We were called The Gentlemen Of Leisure. I played rhythm/lead guitar and harmonica. Those were some of the best times of my life (so far!). The band shifted gears when our front-man left and we started a new project called Uncle Frans Breakfast (don't ask how we got the name!). This expanded my musical horizons tremendously. We kept playing Blues, but started to infuse more funk, jazz, country, and folk influences... We also started writing some more songs. Playing in those bands really gave me the confidence that I needed to be able to do this "professionally".
Which artists and albums inspired you most to write your own music early on, and how?
Jonah: My parents introduced me to music when I was still in the womb. My Mom and Dad both have very good taste when it comes to music, and I feel very lucky to have been brought up listening to such good artists. My Dad lived in the Mississippi Delta for a while when he was younger and ran a record store.
I got into serious trouble after middle-school and ended up in a deep state of depression. One day I was feeling really down, and I decided to look up the "Blues" genre on the iTunes music store. I still don't know how, or why... The first Blues song that I ever heard of my own accord was by Buddy Guy called "Damn Right, I've Got The Blues". It floored me!!! I had never heard ANY music before this that I felt and connected with so intensely. It changed my life...
I started playing along with every Blues recording I could get my hands on, and learning solo's note for note by ear. I started tracing the music back-wards and forwards. Listening to everyone from Blind Lemon Jefferson and Son House, to B.B. King and Eric Clapton. I was set off on a journey ever since that moment... From there I got into Bob Dylan and other folk artists. I'll leave the rest open for the imagination…
Can you discuss your writing processes?
Jonah: Song-writing is mysterious. You never know exactly what's going to happen when your writing a song, and if you do, there's something wrong with you! My favorite songs come from the realms of the unknown. They capture feelings and moments like immortal fireflies caught in a jars... The "light", or feelings of good songs always burn and stay alive for ever. There is proof of this with old folk songs! Our music will outlive us, as my good friend Eric Lichter (Dirt Floor Studio) likes to say.
My song-writing process is unpredictable and spontaneous. I will say that 9 times out of 10 I come up with a chord progression first, and use that as the foundation for building. The lyrics and stories, or "concepts" of the songs I write are not predetermined. They are created in the moment; the sounds I hear when I am experimenting with chords and musical phrasing bring forth emotions and inspiration that I tend to mold into lyrics.
Can you talk about writing and recording the Eldawise EP?
Jonah: Eldawise (pronounced L-Da-Wise) is a collection of songs that I wrote during my senior year/ summer after graduation. I had so much emotion and passion after my High School experience that I needed to create something to unleash the energy. The school I went to literally saved my life. It helped me become a better, centered, connected, more aware, and creative human-being. "The Hill" (Track 2) refers to the place where my school was located.
The whole EP is very auto-biographical. It was also my first experience with self-producing and home-recording. It was an incredible experience and I would recommend the route of home recording and self-production to anyone wanting to get their music out in the world. The word "Eldawise" is a word I made up that refers to a fictional place.
How did that prepare you for writing/ recording Criminal Man?
Jonah: Recording Eldawise really helped me strengthen my arrangement skills.
Did you have a particular vision for what would become the new album?
Jonah: It was a swirling always changing vision... It took a while for me to decide what path I wanted to pursue with it, and what kind of story I wanted the album to tell. I've done a lot rambling across the country over the past two years. The main goal of my travels has been to seek and experience natural beauty. My girlfriend and I got a National Park Pass and have gone to over 20 parks in the last two years. We went on an 84 13,000 road trip shortly before I recorded Criminal Man.
I was on the road that I planned out the concept of the record and wrote many of the songs. I have always been an avid naturalist, and I wanted to raise awareness about issues such as "fracking", and hopefully open peoples eyes and help promote to change... I wanted to donate money from the record to an organization, but I barely had enough to record and release it!
Was there a tune(s) that set the course for Criminal Man? Please tell us how it all came together?
Jonah: Criminal Man is my so-far-life's-work! The title track is the first song I ever wrote. The album has songs that I wrote over a five-year stretch of time (which is a 1/4 of my life). It is a combination of personal songs with environmental/political songs. I wanted to not only give the listener a deeper picture of myself, but also wanted to sing about issues that I feel strongly about.
There were so many incredible people involved with the record, but the person whose spirit was most directly involved other then myself is Eric Lichter (owner and operator of Dirt Floor Studios in Chester CT). Without his help and good vibes I would have been lost.
What were you listening to during this time?
Jonah: I was trying to listen to very little! When I am seriously writing and creating I like to be completely fresh and as original as possible. We listened to a lot of music over the 13,000 miles! I honestly can't remember if there was anything in particular. I will say that when we were in Nashville we bought a 4 disc Hank Williams set.
What are some of your biggest non-musical influences?
Jonah: Everything and everyone. In particular, my friends and mentors. I have been lucky to have such amazing friends and teachers. I've also learned a lot from reading J. Krishnamurti.
One aspect I really enjoy about Criminal Man is the variety on the album and the variety of songs (acoustic and sparse tunes to ones that have a "fuller band" kind of sound). Can you talk about your intentions, and how these came together?
Jonah: That was exactly my intention! When I listen to a record I want variety. I want to be taken on a sonic and emotional roller-coaster. That's exactly how it turned out! It was always in the back of my mind. But just having it somewhere in my head helped to make it happen. I am also a big fan of simplicity.
As an independent artist utilizing bandcamp (http://jonahtolchin.bandcamp.com/) and getting your own music out there), can you speak to the freedom, advantages (both in practice and philosophically), challenges, self-promotion, etc. of getting your music out there?
Jonah: Oh man! Challenge is an under-statement. It is a living hell sometimes. I have learned more then I care to admit about self-promotion and the music business over the last two years. Bandcamp is one of the few things I like about getting my music out in the world. It's a very easy platform to use, and it gives you the option to let people pay what they want for your music. This is a historical concept! Being an independent artist is fun for a while, but it loses it flare pretty quick. It makes it very hard to afford food.
Along the same "independently-minded" lines, can you describe your experiences doing your Daytrotter session?
Jonah: Daytrotter is a mecca for discovering new music, but also hearing artists you love do things you've never heard. Sean Moeller, Mike Gentry, and Johnnie Cluney create a trifecta of genius. Not to mention the amazing staff that work harder then most folks in the business. I had an incredible time doing my session... I think most people have a lot of set-up/break-down time and also re-do songs. I just sat down, took out my guitar and played till I ran out of time.
Daytrotter not only provides a musical paradise similar to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for listeners, but it also is very beneficial for artists. It's a great way to get your music heard and get discovered by people all over the world. It has definitely helped dedicated fans find my music. I look forward to returning to The Horse Shack for round two.
How did you get involved in the new tribute/ charity album Long Distance Salvation: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska?
Jonah: I was on tour to Jackson, MI to play a folk festival and I received and email from Scott Pingeton asking if I would be interested in being involved with the project. I immediately responded and got incredibly excited about it! We bought the album on my iPhone and started listening to it over, and over, and over.
I was on the road with Chris Freeman and Harrison Goodale (Poor Old Shine), and Lucas Hamren. We ended up driving to Lucas's house in Princeton NJ after the gig and recorded the track in his basement in one day. Lucas Hamren mixed/engineered the song and also played dobro and backup vox, Chris Freeman played pump organ, banjo, and backup vox, and Harrison Goodale played the hell out of the upright bass and backup vox. It was a mighty good time!
Why "State Trooper"?
Jonah: Scott had folks for all of the other tracks, he asked us to do "State Trooper".
Can you talk a little bit about how you have been influenced by Bruce Springsteen and specifically the Nebraska album?
Jonah: I'm a Jersey boy. Born and raised. It's hard not to be influenced by Bruce! Nebraska is definitely my favorite Springsteen record, and it was a absolute honor to be a part of the Long Distance Salvation Project.
What have you been listening to lately that you have found significantly inspiring? And how/ why?
Jonah: I've been listening to Shovels & Rope, Noah & The Whale, Andrew Bird, A.A Bondy, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Brandi Carlile, and I just saw Leonard Cohen in Seattle this past weekend!!! Andrew Bird's new record has probably been the most inspiring thing I've listened to in a while.. His rendition of "Railroad Bill" is the best thing ever.
Any new material in the pipeline? Touring plans?
Jonah: Lots of new material!!! I've been writing about 4 new songs every week. I am currently planning my 2013 record. I will be tracking this January in Nashville and am very excited about the cast of session players that are on board. It's a very exciting time for me right now!
I am also leaving to go on tour December 5th. I'll be touring from Olympia WA to Nashua NH and beyond. I'll be joining up with Futur Primitif (Daniel Lefkowitz) and Joshua Black Wilkins down the road. You can see my tour dates here: http://www.jonahtolchin.com/shows/
What's next for you in 2012 and beyond?
Jonah: I'm excited to be heading home for the holidays to my friends and family back east. I will be releasing the new record sometime in March and will be doing a lot more touring. I plan on playing every state in the U.S multiple times by the end of 2013. I am also planning to play some more festivals this summer!