Jonathan Jones chats about restarting his career on his new solo album Community Group, the pros and cons of Kickstarter, and the struggle in how to figure out what to do in life.
The first thing I want to talk about is Kickstarter, which is how you funded this album. On AP.net about a month or so ago, there was a rather lively discussion on the pros and cons of that, and I was wondering what your firsthand impression of it was.
Thatís a good question. I was actually reflecting on this myself as I was fulfilling the Kickstarter rewards last night. Good timing, I should say. Itís really good. The pros are you get to interact with your fanbase, kind of take that to the next level. Iíve always in my career been really good with my fans. From early on, I understood that they were the bread and butter, and the reason why I was able to have so many cool experiences. Kickstarter ramps it up another 10 times that.
It was cool hearing directly from fans, like what they wanted, what kind of album. Iíd post something like, ďOK, hereís the beginning of this demo,Ē and everyone would have a comment on it. From an artistic view, it didnít really help because everyone was very opinionated and you got 25 people saying different things. Originally, I thought I would be able to use it as kind of a filter, but then quickly realized that wasnít the case.
The other positive thing is it did pay for most of my record, but there are some minor pitfalls of that. You got to be really careful and calculate your costs ahead of time. When you do rewards, you need to understand what thatís going to cost you, going to the post office and figuring out how much all these are going to weigh because when I send it out Iím going to be responsible for that amount of money six months later.
It wasnít a completely free album because I didnít plan correctly. I ran out of money. I didnít budget correctly, and I ended up having to put $2,000 of my own in. Well, probably a little more because now Iím about to send everything and I have no idea what thatís going to cost. Iím sending out 183 packages, so Iím thinking itís going to cost me $700 probably.
Your original goal was $10,000, right?
Yep, and I ended up raising $12,800, although I guess I donít read very closely. I thought with Kickstarter you get to keep all that. They kind of image themselves like that, but really they take a percentage. The wording of itís really weird because they word it where itís like, no, weíre not taking anything. Itís all yours. But they really take like 5%, I think. Youíd have to fact check that, but they take something, definitely. They have something with Amazon, and then Amazon takes a percentage of it. So from $12,800, I think I really ended up with $10,800. Thatís like 20%, right?
Something along those lines, yeah.
So point being, the whole thing with Kickstarter is I didnít even think it was going to work. I did it as a social experiment. It hadnít completely gotten popular yet. It was popular, but it hadnít really broke as this new platform. People were just trying it out. At the time I was managing a band and was like, ďWell, Iím going to try this for myself to see what this looks like. I can make some mistakes, so if I want to use it for a band, itís not their tail.Ē
Thatís how I went into it, and then I just got blown away. It was way more successful than I ever dreamed. I thought $10,000 was going to be a joke. I had some drinks one night with some of my friends and was like, ďIím going to do Kickstarter and raise $10,000.Ē And then I did. I raised more than that.
Itís been amazing because I wouldnít have been able to do this. Time will tell. Youíre kind of asking me a question where the verdictís still out. I donít know how Community Group is going to do. So far the preorders are going really well. Thatís a pretty good indicator, but I havenít actually gone out and supported myself off of it yet.
Being that this was funded by your fansí money, did you feel any kind of added pressure or accountability by that?
Ah, youíre asking all the right questions. That was one of the major downfalls. I felt more pressure than Iíve ever felt in my life. I went into Kickstarter thinking the opposite. I thought, ďOh, itís going to be whatever.Ē Iím three months behind the deadline I initially proposed.
Then when itís other peopleís money and not a record labelís, if youíre a halfway decent human being you feel really responsible for their funds to allocate properly. All of a sudden Iím like, ďWell, shit. If this album sucks, theyíre going to be bummed. That could mean my career, maybe. Maybe in the future, theyíll be like, ĎI kind of felt we got screwed on that.íĒ These are things I went in not thinking about until later.
Originally, you were planning on titling it Morning Light, and then you ended up going with Community Group. What led to you changing the name?
On my Kickstarter, people didnít like Morning Light. I thought, ďOK, fair enough.Ē At first, ďCommunity GroupĒ was a song I wrote about my girlfriend and about how that started, but then I started thinking about community group in terms of what that word really meant and embodied.
For me, it was a no brainer. We are a community at Kickstarter funding this, so I have to call the record Community Group. To add onto that, Community Group is 90% that and 10% the prior.
One of the goals you had for this record was to push yourself out of your previous musical comfort zones. Can you talk about that and if that indeed ended up happening?
Iím really proud of my past work, all of it, but I felt like I was starting to get this formula for writing pop-rock songs. I started losing interest, honestly. It was boring to me. That was scary in itself because I really like upbeat pop-rock. Thatís what I was grown up on from back in the day, with Gin Blossoms, Everclear, Eve 6, Third Eye Blind. All those bands, good or bad, were the first bands I was really listening to before I dug into all the classics.
It was scary because I was like, ďAh man, this musicís just starting to bore me. I feel like Iím not writing good songs.Ē Then Iím like, ďWell, I need to do something completely different for myself just to keep my interest in music.Ē Itís kind of scary when you play music for almost a decade and you start losing interest. You donít want to sit down at the piano and write.
So in an attempt to save my passion for music, I was like, ďIím going to do songs like Iíve never done before.Ē I feel like I came out somewhere in the middle. I honestly feel like these songs are definitely way different in style and even production, but in my head I think I even saw it going a little more to the left. I think it met somewhere of a hybrid of my Waking Ashland days with where I am now.
Yeah, I would definitely agree with that.
Cool. It was really fun, though. I think it achieved for me what I was going for, not completely, but I donít think we ever achieve that as musicians. I donít think thereís ever a time where a musicianís like, ďYep, I nailed it. There it is. I got it.Ē
Iíve been longing since my first album, Composure, to really dive into strings. On Composure back in the day, I did all those string arrangements. That was probably one of my favorite things Iíve ever done, playing with strings and having the luxury to arrange for strings and try out your ideas with an actual string quartet. I kind of drew back upon that. The idea here was instead of guitars blasting off in the choruses, it was like, well, what would happen if I had strings and brass going along?
Having you studied music theory and stuff before?
Yeah, I went to Cal State Northridge for music, so I took a couple composition classes there. I donít know if it helps me in all this, but definitely thatís what got me started and my interest in other instruments besides the piano and drums and whatever.
Lyrically for this record you touch on some of the love themes that youíve always written about, but I think thereís also a certain search for meaning on this record as well. Can you talk a little about that?
The first song on the record, just the whole record in a sense, is what do I do now with my life? Thereís times where I feel like, not necessarily opportunity has passed me, but Iím going into things now, not jaded, but with experience. I know now that if I do ĎAí itís going to equal this, and if I do ĎBí then itís going to equal this. I think a lot of songs are exploring how do you begin again and forget what you know now. Itís really hard to do and I havenít found a way to do that unfortunately yet. Does that make sense to you?
Seeing the younger bands and seeing what music gets attention now, itís so confusing because itís like, wow. A couple years ago when I wrote A Silver Lining, that was trying to be Composure. I totally bought into it. Part of this whole liberating Community Group experience was like, ďYou know what? Iím going to go back and try and do my best to not think of anything. Just do what I did in college, sit in a room and write some songs, and then not think about who cares. Not try to write any massive sounding choruses that I think are going to be hits.Ē
Thatís how I started writing music. It was like, ďOh, this sounds good to me, even if itís cheesy. Whatever.Ē Iíve never thought any of my stuff is cheesy. Obviously, people would differ. I think itís good when an artist regardless can look at his work and go, ďOh, yeah. This is a snapshot of my life right now and this is good to me.Ē Thatís what I tried to do on Community Group and I wrote about it in a sense, like you picked up on.
Now thereís also a couple of the more spiritual songs that youíve done with ďVacancyĒ and ďMy Faith.Ē Can you talk about those two?
ďVacancyĒ was written right after I crashed the van. I donít know if you heard about that. I was in a major van accident with We Shot the Moon a couple years back. It didnít end We Shot the Moon, but it took the wind out of the sails and put people in positions in life where they needed to make choices. It basically made our band not able to tour that much. Thatís a song that just reflects on the hand that Iíve been dealt.
The God Iím referencing in that, itís more of an all-purpose, universal question. Please hold my head up. It has to get better than this. I wrote that song when I was like, ďDo I play music anymore? Do I go get a job or something?Ē To be honest, those are probably the most personal lyrics on my record, that one even more so than ďMy Faith.Ē
ďMy FaithĒ is a song about whatís going on here. It gets so much harder to believe as you get older in what you once believed in. Itís really challenging to come to terms with where you are. Do you still believe in what you once believed in? Thatís me posing some interesting questions. Itís really weird. I try to be depressing in songs sometimes, and then automatically I get optimistic in the choruses. At some point, thereís always this hope lingering. I donít try to do it, it just happens. Itís annoying. The songís so dark, and then itís begging for forgiveness. Iím like, ďWhy did that happen?Ē I guess thatís what happens in life.
Thatís not necessarily a bad thing, though.
No, no, itís just an interesting thing. Iíve noticed throughout my songwriting career where Iíll go in and be like, ďThis is how Iím feeling. Iím feeling in despair. Iím confused. I disagree with where these people stand on this issue and Iím calling myself this. Why am I calling myself this?Ē Then I write about it and itís like, ďOh, yeah. Forgive me, though.Ē
I have that song, ďMiracle,Ē thatís kind of that same concept with We Shot the Moon. Itís looking at yourself getting older and what youíve amounted to, and then praying for this thing to come and intercede in your life. Itís a thing that I definitely keep wrestling with, for better or worse.
I read in the liner notes that Dan from Sherwood helped out on a couple songs. I believe he also helped on the first We Shot the Moon record, so what was it like working with him again?
It was good. He wasnít as involved with Community Group. He helped me on ďVacancyĒ and on ďEast Coast Feelings.Ē He helped me explain my lyrics a little better. He helped me organize my lyrics. He happened to be in San Diego for a couple days. Weíre really good friends. We were hanging out and he was like, ďAh, do you have any songs going?Ē I was like, ďAs a matter of fact, I got these two. Do you want to take a shot at helping me finish these, kind of the lyrics where Iím stuck?Ē So he came in and tidied them up for me. It was great. I plan on in the future totally doing a major collaboration. I think the next time we really go in and collaborate, that will be the ticket for us.
When I wrote Fear and Love with him, that was a really weird point in my life. I feel Fear and Love is meh. I think thereís maybe a song thatís good on it, or two. Fear and Love was all about me getting back on the road and continuing with the life I was comfortable with. Dan and I will definitely collaborate on something again, I just need to fly up to Seattle and hang out with him. God knows he wonít fly down to San Diego.
This record is kind of the third or fourth iteration of yourself as a musician. On the one hand thatís good, as you were saying, because youíre able to keep things new and fresh without being locked into a particular sound as much, but on the downside youíre also having to reintroduce yourself every time and thereís less stability with that. Can you talk about what that has been like?
I guess I look at it differently. I look at it as if people donít know who I am, thatís kind of a good thing and maybe thatís what Iím trying to do. I feel thereís going to be a lot of people who would like Community Group who will never listen to it because of past projects.
Itís scary because I do the same thing all the time. I never check out someone in this band that I associate with them, and then they do this other thing and Iím like, ďI donít want to listen to that.Ē Maybe people not knowing me would be nice, just to hear this music for what it is. Waking Ashland and We Shot the Moon will inevitably be attached, which can be good and can be bad Iíve learned.
I guess for the reintroduction part, itís fine. Itís part of the game. It doesnít really bother me. Itís like, ďHereís my new music. Please listen to it.Ē Actions speak louder than words, so in the reintroduction the action would be the music and going out there and doing it. No gimmicks, just writing music, and people either like it or they donít.
Have you had to hold down a regular job through all of this?
Thatís a good question. I like that question [laughs]. Yes, after the van accident, when my life was in some kind of purgatory state, I worked at Starbucks for three months and then that summer I led kayak tours. That was a really good experience. That was the first time in six years that I had to have a quote-unquote ďreal job.Ē It was hard work and really made me go back to the drawing board.
Thatís actually kind of how the birth of Community Group started and my Kickstarter idea. It was like, ďI got to figure this out. I know Iím never going to be rich, but I know I can make endís meet making music. Thereís got to be a better way to do it than Iíve been doing it in We Shot the Moon because We Shot the Moon is not working.Ē
So youíve been doing this music thing for about eight years now and been through a lot of labels and bands. What kind of advice would you give to a younger band, say if Waking Ashland was just starting out today, what would you tell them?
Oh, man. I would say first and foremost get with likeminded people that you believe in and youíre willing to be poor for five years with. You have to believe in them. Donít play with your friend whoís your best friend but he sucks at his instrument or you donít believe in his abilities. Or maybe heís good at his instrument but you see music differently. Thatís never going to work. Youíre wasting everyoneís time. Find likeminded musicians.
Donít play it for the money. I know thatís probably really clichť, but honestly do not play music for money. If youíre going to do that, people are going to see through it. People can spot that. People are smart now these days. They donít like that. And learn your instrument. Practice your instrument. Do not go out onstage with only knowing four chords with your nice outfit and hair. Please, for us all, put an hour a day for three years into your instrument so youíll be great.
Then just write songs that youíre willing to drop everything, because after you write this song, you are going to have to drop everything. Write those songs that you have no problem, you wonít even second-guess yourself. You write this song that you believe in and youíre willing to go for broke because you will be broke. And, might I add, youíll be broke but youíll have the best memories and times of your life. Itís a trade off.
So Community Group is going to be coming out in about 10 days or so. What are your plans to do with that album for the rest of the year?
I would like to tour, ultimately, as much as I can on it. That kind of depends on if some new players come to the table, or new opportunities I should say. Iím going to do at least one major tour, even if I have to headline it, over most of the country. Probably next summer, I think, would be the time I would do it. My goal would be to play an hour in front of a new audience, and thatís easier said than done. Thatís why I donít know if that will happen, but I think that would be the best thing for me. I donít know how you do that. I guess get it out there, and weíre working on that. Itís hard. The industryís just so saturated with bands, really good bands, too. Everyone can make music now these days and thereís just lots of good music.
So tour, and write another album. I want to write some more. Iím happy with the way Community Group sounds to me, and I want to take it even more in the less produced, string, brass, not as rock drum sounding. I want to take it more in that direction. Probably at some point you can expect Iíll be writing more music. I play lots of college shows, so I think thereís lots of colleges on the horizon for this year. Like I said, sorry I keep reiterating myself, but the main goal is to play for new people and to get the music into a new audienceís hands.
Is this album going to be available on iTunes and Amazon and all that stuff?
Yep, it will available everywhere. No stores this time because itís independently released. Oh yeah, I donít know if you want to mention that but this is the first time Iíve ever officially owned my music and released it completely independently. Iím basically running a record label right now, so thatís probably what Iíll be doing. Iíll be running my own record label, so to speak [laughs].
such an awesome guy, he took the time out of his day to talk to me over the phone a few days ago about music and just giving me advice. his heart is definitely in the right place for this and i am really stoked about this cd. he has a lot of good things to say in this interview, its very inspiring.