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.
That’s a good question. I was actually reflecting on this myself as I was fulfilling the Kickstarter rewards last night. Good timing, I should say. It’s really good. The pros are you get to interact with your fanbase, kind of take that to the next level. I’ve 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. I’d post something like, “OK, here’s the beginning of this demo,” and everyone would have a comment on it. From an artistic view, it didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 that’s 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 I’m going to be responsible for that amount of money six months later.
It wasn’t a completely free album because I didn’t plan correctly. I ran out of money. I didn’t budget correctly, and I ended up having to put $2,000 of my own in. Well, probably a little more because now I’m about to send everything and I have no idea what that’s going to cost. I’m sending out 183 packages, so I’m thinking it’s 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 don’t 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 it’s really weird because they word it where it’s like, no, we’re not taking anything. It’s all yours. But they really take like 5%, I think. You’d 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. That’s like 20%, right?
Something along those lines, yeah.
So point being, the whole thing with Kickstarter is I didn’t even think it was going to work. I did it as a social experiment. It hadn’t completely gotten popular yet. It was popular, but it hadn’t really broke as this new platform. People were just trying it out. At the time I was managing a band and was like, “Well, I’m 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, it’s not their tail.”
That’s 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, “I’m going to do Kickstarter and raise $10,000.” And then I did. I raised more than that.
It’s been amazing because I wouldn’t have been able to do this. Time will tell. You’re kind of asking me a question where the verdict’s still out. I don’t know how Community Group is going to do. So far the preorders are going really well. That’s a pretty good indicator, but I haven’t actually gone out and supported myself off of it yet.
Being that this was funded by your fans’ money, did you feel any kind of added pressure or accountability by that?
Ah, you’re asking all the right questions. That was one of the major downfalls. I felt more pressure than I’ve ever felt in my life. I went into Kickstarter thinking the opposite. I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be whatever.” I’m three months behind the deadline I initially proposed.
Then when it’s other people’s money and not a record label’s, if you’re a halfway decent human being you feel really responsible for their funds to allocate properly. All of a sudden I’m like, “Well, shit. If this album sucks, they’re going to be bummed. That could mean my career, maybe. Maybe in the future, they’ll be like, ‘I kind of felt we got screwed on that.’” 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 didn’t like Morning Light. I thought, “OK, fair enough.” At first, “Community Group” 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?
I’m 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. That’s 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, “Ah man, this music’s just starting to bore me. I feel like I’m not writing good songs.” Then I’m like, “Well, I need to do something completely different for myself just to keep my interest in music.” It’s kind of scary when you play music for almost a decade and you start losing interest. You don’t want to sit down at the piano and write.
So in an attempt to save my passion for music, I was like, “I’m going to do songs like I’ve never done before.” 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 don’t think we ever achieve that as musicians. I don’t think there’s ever a time where a musician’s like, “Yep, I nailed it. There it is. I got it.”
I’ve 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 I’ve 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 don’t know if it helps me in all this, but definitely that’s 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 you’ve always written about, but I think there’s 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? There’s times where I feel like, not necessarily opportunity has passed me, but I’m going into things now, not jaded, but with experience. I know now that if I do ‘A’ it’s going to equal this, and if I do ‘B’ then it’s going to equal this. I think a lot of songs are exploring how do you begin again and forget what you know now. It’s really hard to do and I haven’t 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, it’s so confusing because it’s 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, “You know what? I’m 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.”
That’s how I started writing music. It was like, “Oh, this sounds good to me, even if it’s cheesy. Whatever.” I’ve never thought any of my stuff is cheesy. Obviously, people would differ. I think it’s good when an artist regardless can look at his work and go, “Oh, yeah. This is a snapshot of my life right now and this is good to me.” That’s what I tried to do on Community Group and I wrote about it in a sense, like you picked up on.
Now there’s also a couple of the more spiritual songs that you’ve done with “Vacancy” and “My Faith.” Can you talk about those two?
“Vacancy” was written right after I crashed the van. I don’t know if you heard about that. I was in a major van accident with We Shot the Moon a couple years back. It didn’t 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. That’s a song that just reflects on the hand that I’ve been dealt.
The God I’m referencing in that, it’s 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, “Do I play music anymore? Do I go get a job or something?” To be honest, those are probably the most personal lyrics on my record, that one even more so than “My Faith.”
“My Faith” is a song about what’s going on here. It gets so much harder to believe as you get older in what you once believed in. It’s really challenging to come to terms with where you are. Do you still believe in what you once believed in? That’s me posing some interesting questions. It’s really weird. I try to be depressing in songs sometimes, and then automatically I get optimistic in the choruses. At some point, there’s always this hope lingering. I don’t try to do it, it just happens. It’s annoying. The song’s so dark, and then it’s begging for forgiveness. I’m like, “Why did that happen?” I guess that’s what happens in life.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.
No, no, it’s just an interesting thing. I’ve noticed throughout my songwriting career where I’ll go in and be like, “This is how I’m feeling. I’m feeling in despair. I’m confused. I disagree with where these people stand on this issue and I’m calling myself this. Why am I calling myself this?” Then I write about it and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. Forgive me, though.”
I have that song, “Miracle,” that’s kind of that same concept with We Shot the Moon. It’s looking at yourself getting older and what you’ve amounted to, and then praying for this thing to come and intercede in your life. It’s 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 wasn’t as involved with Community Group. He helped me on “Vacancy” and on “East Coast Feelings.” 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. We’re really good friends. We were hanging out and he was like, “Ah, do you have any songs going?” I was like, “As 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 I’m stuck?” 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 there’s maybe a song that’s 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 won’t fly down to San Diego.
This record is kind of the third or fourth iteration of yourself as a musician. On the one hand that’s good, as you were saying, because you’re able to keep things new and fresh without being locked into a particular sound as much, but on the downside you’re also having to reintroduce yourself every time and there’s 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 don’t know who I am, that’s kind of a good thing and maybe that’s what I’m trying to do. I feel there’s going to be a lot of people who would like Community Group who will never listen to it because of past projects.
It’s 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 I’m like, “I don’t want to listen to that.” 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 I’ve learned.
I guess for the reintroduction part, it’s fine. It’s part of the game. It doesn’t really bother me. It’s like, “Here’s my new music. Please listen to it.” 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 don’t.
Have you had to hold down a regular job through all of this?
That’s 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 “real job.” It was hard work and really made me go back to the drawing board.
That’s actually kind of how the birth of Community Group started and my Kickstarter idea. It was like, “I got to figure this out. I know I’m never going to be rich, but I know I can make end’s meet making music. There’s got to be a better way to do it than I’ve been doing it in We Shot the Moon because We Shot the Moon is not working.”
So you’ve 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 you’re willing to be poor for five years with. You have to believe in them. Don’t play with your friend who’s your best friend but he sucks at his instrument or you don’t believe in his abilities. Or maybe he’s good at his instrument but you see music differently. That’s never going to work. You’re wasting everyone’s time. Find likeminded musicians.
Don’t play it for the money. I know that’s probably really cliché, but honestly do not play music for money. If you’re going to do that, people are going to see through it. People can spot that. People are smart now these days. They don’t 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 you’ll be great.
Then just write songs that you’re 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 won’t even second-guess yourself. You write this song that you believe in and you’re willing to go for broke because you will be broke. And, might I add, you’ll be broke but you’ll have the best memories and times of your life. It’s 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. I’m 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 that’s easier said than done. That’s why I don’t know if that will happen, but I think that would be the best thing for me. I don’t know how you do that. I guess get it out there, and we’re working on that. It’s hard. The industry’s just so saturated with bands, really good bands, too. Everyone can make music now these days and there’s just lots of good music.
So tour, and write another album. I want to write some more. I’m 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 I’ll be writing more music. I play lots of college shows, so I think there’s 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 audience’s 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 it’s independently released. Oh yeah, I don’t know if you want to mention that but this is the first time I’ve ever officially owned my music and released it completely independently. I’m basically running a record label right now, so that’s probably what I’ll be doing. I’ll be running my own record label, so to speak [laughs].
Originally appeared on Absolute Punk