Concert Festival Heartstrings Interview

Be Here Now: An Interview with Jonah Tolchin

Since discovering and writing about Jonah Tolchin‘s Clover Lane in early July we’ve stayed in touch and agreed to schedule an interview when our schedules would permit. It had been quite some time since our first contact and upon realizing that we both would be attending AmericanaFest mid-September, Nashville was the obvious choice for where we would finally meet.

After Joe Purdy’s  spellbinding set at the Mercy Lounge (see the pre-show interview below), the Heartsrings crew and I  crossed 8th Ave. and headed over to Jonah’s 9 PM showcase at Third Man Records–Jack White’s extraordinary studio. We had been there the night before, as witness to amazing back-to-back sets by Frank Fairfield and Gregory Alan Isakov. Frank captivated the audience — a capacity crowd which included Gregory Alan’s fiddle player, Jeb, and Bob Boilen — founder of NPR’s All Songs Considered. It was the third time I’d seen Gregory Alan play in an 8-week period, and his performance, once again, simply astounded and enthralled. We were also fortunate to meet with Gregory and his band after the show (see Gregory Alan’s earlier interview below). For those of you who don’t know, Third Man Records is the location where Neil Young recorded A Letter Home, on Jack White’s 1947 Voice-O-Graph — the only one available to the public in the world (find out more on KEXP’s exclusive interview with Jack White here). Give Jack a call. You can record on it too, if you like. The elephant-head taxidermy which the American Pickers found for Jack (I watched that episode when it first aired), was hanging on the wall to the right of the bar, just in front of the elevated control room. Third Man is a special place indeed.

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Tonight, as I mentioned, we were here to see Jonah Tolchin and his band. As they took the stage, (even before the very  first note hit the air), we already knew that they were worthy to be counted among those who can say they have performed upon these hallowed grounds. One of my traveling companions, singer-songwriter, Bill Scorzari, commented on the ability of Jonah’s phenomenal guitarist, Danny, to seemingly effortlessly evoke the legendary Derek Trucks  and even at times appear to channel Master, Duane Allman himself (yeah…Danny’s that good). It was also clear, from drummer Michael’s performance, how Michael’s formerly “temporary” position with the band (as a “sit in” for a prior performance) instantly became a permanent position. As for Jonah…well, 100 percent pure emotion   exuded from every single pore of his body. In fact, I think I might have actually witnessed a split-second moment when just one single pore tried to catch it’s breath, only to have Jonah instantaneously identify and coax it back into service. The trio is a fascinatingly well-oiled machine. The absence of a bass player–a fourth-man (see what I did there?)–was only visual, not sonic. The additional instrument was unnecessary, as Jonah, Danny and Michael had it all covered somehow. This night was clearly made for Jonah Tolchin and his band, and it was as magical and profound as it gets.

That Friday night’s show was followed by a mid-day performance on Saturday during Americanarama  in the courtyard outside Grimey’s/The Basement.The sun was at its peak, but Jonah and his band played as sensationally in the open air as they had the night before, inside Third Man’s blue-lit, cool-aired studio.

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We spoke with Jonah after the Grimey’s show and walked with Danny to get some of that greenish kiwi lemonade from the “Mas Tacos” truck– a staple vendor that provided mobile sustenance throughout AmericanaFest (especially at The Groove the day before–where we had mucho Mas Tacos). Before leaving Grimey’s, Jonah suggested we reconvene outside The Wild Cow, a delicious vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free restaurant in East Nashville. We met Jonah, Danny, Michael and Blue (Jonah’s wife) there, and laughed about the weird looking Mexican restaurant across the street, with the sign outside that read: “No one loves Kanye as much as Kanye loves Kanye.” We walked to a quiet grassy area near a large rock pile and sat, comfortably getting to know each other better–which I found to be incredibly easy and pleasant, surrounded by this most inviting group of kind and genuine friends. Oh, and they were really funny too.

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Lauren Jahoda: Jonah, where are you from in New Jersey?

Jonah Tolchin: I grew up in Princeton, NJ.

LJ: That’s where you had your Clover Lane release party — how was it?

JT: Yeah. It was a lot of fun, like the dentist was there and my parents. The mailman, the mail woman actually (laughs). It was really nice. We’ve been on tour with Black Prairie and they just did…it wasn’t quite a CD release, but it was a show in Chris Funks’ hometown in Indiana. It was like the same thing, so it was cool. I like that home vibe.

Michael: And they’re great people. They’re super friendly. Nate, their bass player, has been sitting in with us and he’s amazing. They played last night. Same time as us.

LJ: I know it took 3-5 years to create Clover Lane. How do you write songs? Do you collaborate or is it more of a solitary act?

JT: Yeah. I would even say that writing Clover Lane was sort of a life-long process for me. There were ideas that I had many years before I recorded it that I sort of put together. And for me, songwriting until pretty recently has been a solitary thing. I like to go into a room where it’s quiet and it doesn’t really matter where it is and usually what will happen is I’ll get a feeling. A song for me is a feeling and that’s why I listen to music. It’s all about feeling. it’s all about emotions. What I’ll try to do is capture that feeling as best as I can through music and words. That’s the most important thing to me — the feeling. I wouldn’t consider myself a great lyricist by any means, but I strive to be good at capturing feelings and it’s definitely a learning process.

LJ: That definitely comes across when listening to your music — that feeling transfers to your listener effortlessly. Although it took a long time to create and release Clover Lane, I also read that you recorded it in just 4 days.

JT: (laughs) Yeah.

LJ: I can relate to that in some way, to finish my Master’s degree, I was required to write a thesis…

JT: Congratulations! That’s a lot of work!

LJ: Thanks! The process was very similar — I spent 6 months researching, reading book after book after book, but when it was time to write the paper it took about a week. It’s a strange feeling committing to something so wholeheartedly and for so long, and then to release all of that energy in such a short amount of time. What was that process is like for you?

JT: Yeah. It’s hard to describe. I mean, it’s the same thing when you’re ordering dinner at a restaurant and you’re waiting around and then your food comes and it’s gone in about 12 seconds (laughs).

LJ: That’s probably the best comparison I’ve heard yet.

Michael: …Especially at Wild Cow down here in Nashville (laughs).

JT: For me, it was a strange process because I actually finished a lot of the songs right before. Literally the week before, I got some of the songs ready and we went and recorded it in only 4 days. A few months later, the record got picked up and then there was this waiting period of about a year and a half. So since then, I’ve actually written a whole other record that’s about ready to go. But it’s interesting trying to keep these songs fresh while on the road because these songs have been on my mind and been played on the road for a few years now. Last night I played some newer songs and we’re just really feeling those right now because they’re new. Everything always changes. As people say, the only constant is change so we try to keep playing these songs that we’ve been playing for 4 or 5 years, whatever it is, and it gets kind of old after awhile, ya know. And you want to stay fresh.

LJ: I know the meaning behind Clover Lane is really strong, with the connection to and story of your parents’ home on Clover Lane — what is guiding you in terms of the new record?

JT: Yeah. About a year or so ago I thought of an idea to write and record an album that was based around the book Siddhartha and so there was about a year of time that passed and I didn’t do anything on it. I read the book and sometimes I’d think about it but not really. And then one day, this inspiration just struck and again, I wrote all the songs in a few days, all the songs, and now it’s just ready to go.

LJ: What’s your plan for the new album? Do you have a time frame in mind, in terms of release?

JT: As far as the release, I can’t really say. But for recording, I hope to record this December. Maybe in a church in Western Mass.

LJ: You have a place in mind?

JT: Yeah. There’s a studio that I’m going to check out at the end of the month and we’ll see. Hopefully, it’ll be the spot.

LJ: That’s awesome. Bill (Scorzari), who I manage, talked about recording some songs in this church that was built in East Orange, New Jersey in 1868. He’s building a studio in New York and for seating he bought some antique pews that the church had removed, and it sort of inspired this idea of recording there.

LJ: I know that your spirituality is a big part of who you all are, and everything you do.

JT: I guess the way I think about it is that it’s all there is. For me spirituality is reality and I’ve grown a lot as a person from being around Danny, who has his own path as well, and I’ve been really lucky that our paths have become one in some ways. Same with Blue. I’ve learned so many things from being with Blue because she’s very connected to what’s going on. I consider spiritually to be reality in the deepest sense of that word. Ya know, being here, right now, which we never are, ya know what I mean? And it’s been amazing because Michael’s been on the road with us and because, until recently, we’ve been playing with other musicians who aren’t. They’re not as focused or centered on who they are and they struggle, but with Michael, and from my experience, he’s just going, and he’s always here and now. And to be in the car with all these people who are just going and trying to live a healthy life and a conscious life, really is inspiring. It makes it a lot easier to be healthy and conscious. Ya know? Because if you have one negative polarity in the car or on the stage, it can bring down the whole ship. So it feels really good to be traveling with these guys and spending time together.

LJ: Yeah. You guys seem pretty lucky to have found each other. You really are so nice. It’s as simple as that.

JT: (laughs) You guys are as well.

(laughs)

LJ: I read somewhere that you’re a big fan of Game of Thrones. Are you all GOT-obsessed?

Band: (laughs) Yeah! (laughs)

Michael: Not me (laughs)

Danny: We’re getting him ready for Season 5.

JT: We gotta prep him (laughs). Well the three of us are living in a house in Bar Harbor, Maine, so when it came out every Sunday, we’d all watch it.

LJ: I do the same thing. How about True Detective?

JT: Ohhh yeah. True Detective.

Danny: What’s funny is everyone in the house would be like “Oh my god! It’s 9:30. Let’s go watch Game of Thrones!!”

LJ: It’s a bonding experience!

Danny: Oh yeah! And sometimes we’d be like WTF! Because we get so into it.

(laughs)

LJ: When I wrote about you a few months ago, you made a lot of effort to spread the article around to your friends and on your Facebook. Thank you for that. It’s nice that you give back to those who are writing about you.

JT: You’re welcome. Thanks for writing it. I definitely do my best to always do it. I guess these days with social media it’s kind of complicated. Say you get Three pieces of press that come out the same week or even the same day and you post them all that day, sometimes people will be like you’re talking about yourself too much, on your own facebook page. So sometimes you have to stagger things so I’ve been learning about the best way to do that. But yeah. Of course, I love to support people that support me. Ya know, we’re all in this together and doing it for the same reasons.

LJ: How did you end up in Rhode Island? Were each of you there as well?

Blue: Yes, after we graduated…I’m from Rhode Island…and after we graduated, we started living together so we moved there for a bit. We traveled a lot the first year after high school but yeah, that was our base for awhile and we just started doing open mics. The thing about Rhode Island that we always say that because it’s so small, there’s only one degree of separation, so anyone you see in Rhode Island, you know someone the same. So as far as stating out there, it was great because we were one person away from anyone in the state that we needed to know.

LJ: Michael, you hadn’t  joined at that point yet right?

Michael: Not yet. We were playing some of the same places, but I was with a different artist at the time, so it all really came together this summer.

LJ: Can you tell me about some of your first monumental experiences in Rhode Island, either meeting someone or playing somewhere?

JT: Yeah. I think one of the coolest things that happened was we went to the Low Anthem CD release concert of Smart Flesh…I think it was the first time we saw Brown Bird…that was so incredibly inspiring. And we got to see the Low Anthem play..that was just ridiculous. That was definitely in the top 5 I would say. Then going to Newport Folk Festival was obviously pretty big for me, to be able to spend time there. And I just did a lot of open mics in the beginning. I just tried to play one every day, all the time. I did a lot of open mics (laughs). The way that I work is that I have hyper ADD about some things sometimes but if I just put my focus on one thing, I’ll just go and that’s all I’ll do. So when I decided I wanted to play music as a career, that’s all that I thought about and that’s all that I did and I found a healthier balance now, that the ball has started rolling down the hill. What I feel like is that I pushed this ball up the hill and now the work is all starting to pay off and I can relax a little bit.

LJ: Yeah. Everyone has their different moments of when they realize and decide to fully commit to that career. you figured out at a very young age that this is what you wanted to do, right?

JT: Yeah. Danny and I were in a band together at our high school. He was a senior and I was a freshman. So that was a really powerful experience for me, to be a part of something like that and to just be playing music a lot with friends. And I think it was after that probably that I got this passion and felt this confidence because you know as a freshman and coming into high school and being taken under the wing of a senior, is a pretty big deal, at the time. So that was really cool. It was a confidence boost thing. So I was getting all these signs about it and I decided to blow off school and play more music and not take the SATs and knew that I was going to do this. There was never a  question. It was almost subconscious in some ways, like I never had anxiety about it or anything like that. I was just like, oh yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.

LJ: Danny, what was it that brought you to Jonah? Or did he find you?

JT: I think I bothered him quite a bit (laughs).

Danny: Yeah (laughs). It was really funny. So the year before Jonah came on a Sunday to the school to visit the school, to stay a night or two in the dorms and I had just got back from my parents house over the weekend and I was in my dorm room playing my guitar and my friend Tyler walks in and is like “Oh there’s this prospect student coming and he’s a guitar player.” So Jonah comes in and I think, I don’t know if he asked me if he could play my guitar or if Tyler told him he could play it, but I guess I gave it to him, but I really didn’t want to. I was thinking “Get out of my room you little twirper” (laughs). But um, then he played and I was like, cool…

LJ: …Alright maybe we’ll keep him around (laughs).

Danny: (laughs) Yeah, and in September, when school came around, for the first two weeks, Jonah would knock on my dorm room, because I would play guitar after school every day, and Jonah would knock on my door and say “Can I jam?” (laughs). For the first week or two, I didn’t really know what to think of it, but something happened where one afternoon i was playing and Jonah was in the library pretty far away on the whole other side of the campus and somehow he just knew I was playing and ran over and that’s when stuff started cooking. i mean, Jonah and i in high school both had an affinity for blues music from our dads and that’s a rare bond that you don’t find, especially when you’re a young teenager.

LJ: Yes. At that age, it is unique. As a young teenager, I wasn’t listening to this stuff yet.

Danny: The thing is, Jonah used to be, and always is like… he’ll surpass or get interested in something so much and then share those interests with everyone around him, at least in music. It becomes a collaboration of music styles, I guess.

LJ: A favorite question of mine comes from photographer/blogger/creator of Humans of New York: If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of people, what would it be?

Danny: Whatever you believe is your reality.

Michael: Remind yourself that your perspective isn’t the only perspective. If you can stay mindful of that it can help you out in a lot of situations.

JT: I just have so many things. They’re really all the same thing. I feel like there are so many people in the world that are trying to change the world. They’re trying to solve people’s problems and do all these external things to try to make the world a better place, but from my perspective, the only way to do that is by changing yourself, focusing on your own reality, your own mind, your own body. It’s all about interconnection, this universal mind, this universal consciousness. The only way we can really understand that is by meditating on that and caring about each other, but the only way you can do that is by caring about yourself. I think there are so many people who have this self-loathing and so many problems, and they don’t focus the lens inwards–that’s really the beginning of changing the world, by everyone changing yourself.

LJ: You can’t work on others until you work on yourself.

JT: You really just have to be the change you want to see.

Bill Scorzari: Yeah. I agree with that, and would add a lyric from one of my songs: Nothing can outlast patience and time.

LJ: Well, I can’t thank you guys enough. I want to hang out all night.

JT: Yeah, we’re around! (laughs) We’re going to Joe Fletcher’s show tonight at midnight.

LJ: I plan to be there too. I’m so glad I got to connect with you all.

JT: Likewise.

Just before we parted ways, I noticed the tattoo on the inside of Jonah’s forearm. I asked Jonah about it and he explained:

“This is an idea that came to me, well, the triangle and the heart and the infinity sign just popped into my consciousness one day when I was sitting at a picnic table in New Hampshire, and then Blue sort of drew it all out for me because I’m terrible at drawing, and she made a cohesive piece and added the three triangles. The words are a reminder that I need to “BE HERE NOW.” It’s all I really need to remember…What’s that fucked up movie, is it Memento?…I kind of feel that way about being present.”

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“The words are from the book title “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass…Of course these are just three very simple words that no one man has ownership over.” – Jonah Tolchin

Photo Courtesy: Jonah Tolchin

Don’t miss Jonah Tolchin and Mandolin Orange at the Mercury Lounge in NYC this Thursday (Oct. 2)! Get your tickets here.

 

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