by ANDREA MYERS
Jonathan Earl is a standup guy. He speaks softly, with a faint gruff that comes from smoking too many cigarettes, and his eyes smile kindly as he discusses his music. Earl (as he is known to his friends; his real name is Jonathan Nelson) waxes philosophical over the recent changes in music and recording practices, and his no-nonsense approach to writing songs and making records just might be the kind of attitude needed to save rock and roll once and for all.
We meet over coffee at Earl’s house, a modest abode in the Seward neighborhood
that he loves for its big deck, which is suitable for playing guitar outdoors
in the summer. We sit on the porch to facilitate Earl’s tendency to chainsmoke,
especially when carrying on deep conversations. He is excited to talk about
his musical endeavors, and he is animated when discussing his current project,
The Jonathan Earl Band,
whose CD is due out this Saturday.
Up until last year, Earl was busy recording and engineering sound for hundreds
of bands at Taylor Sound in North Minneapolis, Velvet Brick studios in Wisconsin
and his own home studio, as well as playing in local band Clovis and touring
nationally with Renee Austin. After a tour with Austin was cut short, Earl found
himself back home in his basement studio, writing his own songs and searching,
for the first time, for his own unique sound.
“I think I demoed like 30-some songs, just at home, by myself,”
he explains. “I went out on tour with Renee Austin last year, and …
it’s a long story. She had some surgery, and some bad stuff happened where
she had to stop touring. So that ended really abruptly. I had quit pretty much
everything I was doing to do that: I quit teaching, I stopped all the projects
I was working on, and I quit the bands that I was playing in to do that, and
when that abruptly ended I had nothing going on. So I talked to the drummer
[Jordan Carlson] who plays in my band, who was also playing with Renee on tour.
Neither of us had any bands and we weren’t doing anything, so I said,
let’s make a record. I had all these tunes, and I had been writing, and
I wanted to do it, so it all happened. That was last September.”
Earl had played and recorded before, this was the first project that allowed
him total control of the songwriting and recording. “A lot of the bands
I was in, I was the guy that would arrange the harmonies,” he says. “This
will be the first project in years where I sing lead … I don’t know
if it’s harder; it’s just different. You have to stay by the microphone.
[laughs] You can’t walk around, jump around and stuff. You’ve gotta
get back to the microphone when the verses start.”
From the sound of Earl’s record, you would never guess that he is an inexperienced
lead vocalist. His songs are catchy, full of charisma and hooks, and his voice
has an air of timelessness, versatility and ease. Ranging from blues to straight-up
rock, country and folk, it’s clear that Earl is comfortable playing any
genre, and he transitions from one to the other with seemingly little effort.
The record is tied together with an honest, down-home sensibility for song structure
“I think it’s important for your average listener to be able to
grasp onto something,” he says. “Something catchy and memorable
… If you’ve got good soloists, and it builds, and it’s got
a climax, and as long as the group is cool underneath and people can still shake
their ass, that’s fun.”
In addition to an innate sense for solid songwriting, Earl holds many opinions
about the modern music industry and what he calls the age of instant gratification.
“It seems like it’s hard to get people out to clubs,” he says,
“it’s hard to sell discs. People talk about how it’s the age
of the hit … It’s all about a hit song, because you can go on iTunes
and just buy the song you like. It’s not about a record, having this quality
record. Because, especially in 10 years, they say, no one is going to buy a
think the recording of music and the sale of CDs has been on its way out and
definitely will change a lot,” he says, glancing off into the distance
and taking a pensive drag off his cigarette. “People don’t buy CDs
anywhere near as much as they used to, and it’s only going to get worse.
The iPod generation.”
Rather than getting dragged down by the system, though, Earl believes there
are still ways to make waves despite the drastic changes occurring with music
and technology. “For someone to buy your record, I think the whole thing
has gotta be good. There can’t be a hit that you push and the rest is
filler, which - whether bands consciously do or don’t - happens. The whole
record’s gotta be quality. For my record, it’s got a pretty decent
variety of genres mixed in. There’s kind of a funky rock thing, there’s
kind of a straight up-tempo blues song, a slow acoustic thing, there’s
almost like a country song, a Gram Parsons tune, there’s a straight rock
song. I don’t think you can have 10 straight rock songs.”
Earl also says that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be a guitar player
and soloist in this age of short attention spans. “Is there ever going
to be another Hendrix?” he ruminates. “I don’t know. Hard
to say. They say the guitar solo is dying, or is dead …You know, if you
listen to the radio, how many guitar solos do you hear, really? In the ‘70s
and ‘60s, it was all about the solos. Guitar players were as important
if not more important than the lead singer. A lot of the jam bands, a lot of
the heroes, if you will, were guitar-orientated or solo-orientated. That, I
think, is changed too.
“There’s something in my mind, which is probably not right, but
something about writing a song with instruments, and with your voice - as opposed
to sitting down with a laptop to write a song - there’s just something
more authentic to me about it.
“Maybe I’m an ass,” he scoffs, as I am thinking the exact
opposite. Because in the end, Earl says, it’s all about, “good musicians,
playing some good songs, having a good time.” I couldn’t agree more.
The Jonathan Earl Band plays the release show for their new disc on Sat.,
Sept. 23 at Mayslacks with The Tommy Bentz Band. 9 p.m. $5. 21+. 761 N. Washington
Ave. Mpls. 612-338-8188. For more info on Jonathan Earl, visit jonathanearl.com.