There was a little voice inside me saying, “Don’t do that because, really, who the fuck are you, anyways?” but in August I sent Ron Gallo an email asking for an interview. “Aside from your music,” I wrote him, “I’m really interested in talking about some philosophical ideas… for instance, I’d read (or maybe come across in a video) some of your thoughts on clean living and that you were at one point reading Autobiography of a Yogi. I’m curious if you’d be interested in digging into some of those sort of ideas?” Within twenty-four hours Ron wrote me back, “absolutely down. especially to talk about the non-musical things!” That really made my day.
I don’t remember what first led me to Ron’s music, but once I heard a little I wanted more. This is where Google quickly confirmed for me that I was without a doubt late to the game in terms of “discovering” him. One of the first things I read was a nice explainer written by NPR’s Ann Powers for Ron’s “Please Yourself” video. I’ve probably watched that at least a dozen times now — it’s electric.
“Straddling the fence between two (2) mindsets” begins (something resembling) Ron’s mission statement, “1. THE WORLD: is completely fucked and 2. THE UNIVERSE: is inside you. TRYING: to lean more towards the latter.” This is what speaks through that video, and is something I really appreciate about Ron: he’s thoughtful and talks his truth, but is able to communicate it in a tone that dovetails with my own sense of humor.
I’ve seen him play twice since I sent him that first email, and when he took the stage at Exit/In last month he began with a solo trumpet performance. The trumpet was the first instrument Ron ever played. His dad passed it down to him. With that in mind, Ron knows how to appear as though he doesn’t know how to play the trumpet really well. “I hope you’re better at singing than you are at trumpet” someone shouted after he removed the horn from his lips. Without missing a beat Ron greeted the jeer with a well-timed clearing of his throat and continued on with a deadpan reading of his show introduction. His reaction to the heckler was improv, the reading was schtick, all of it brilliant.
“Irony is kind of a slippery slope. Once you get on board with that mindset and you think you’re separate from something, you sort of start to think of yourself as an all seeing eye. It’s all a joke and you see the absurdity in everything. I think it’s an important thing to go through but you have to maintain the self-awareness to know that you’re never really above anything. You have to realize you’re a part of the thing you make fun of. That’s the line. Being self-aware is just realizing you buy into bullshit just as much as everyone else. If you want to go off the grid and live in a tent without electricity, that’s cool and very authentic of you but no one wants to do that. People just want to criticize each other for not doing it. More so than anything else, I care about people realizing their inherent, limitless value. I want to use my platform to reach people in that way. I want to use my music as an art form rather than as entertainment.” —Ron Gallo, Popdust interview, April 2017
That same dry wit winds its way through the band’s live show, just as it does Ron’s social media pages and interviews. Ron can be silly (critiquing his own potency on Yelp) and he can also be wry (covering K-Ci and JoJo), but his tone throughout retains a very distinct purpose.
Born in New Jersey, he spent a little bit of time in Kentucky and played in some punk bands growing up before moving to Philadelphia, where he went to school at Temple University. When he was 19 he started the band Toy Soldiers which, over an eight year span, “went from a two-piece, lo-fi, garage rock thing, to a twelve-piece freak show, and then it went down to a five-piece thing.” Toy Soldiers broke up in 2014 but Ron hardly slowed down, releasing the “weirdo, whimsical countrified acoustic album” Ronny via his own American Diamond Recordings label that same year. Ron continued as a fixture in the local scene, but even then it seemed like his tongue was firmly planted in cheek as an artist.
Exiting Pennsylvania with “Search and Destroy,” Ron moved to Nashville in early 2016 and by the end of the year had signed with New West Records. That same year Ron released music with the band the Minks and prepped HEAVY META, an album that “talks about a stalker, dead love, domestication, medication of the masses, the cycle of bad parenting, the struggle of pursuing art, self-empowerment, illusion, and personal frustration with the state of culture, music, [and] food.”
The chances of writing a better article than Greg Kot’s Chicago Tribune profile piece on Ron are slim, so I’ll leave the biography writing at that (this video is also a great primer), but the point is to say that what we hear from Ron Gallo now isn’t a frivolous blend of heady lyrics and irony. It’s something more, and it been a long time coming.
Delivering a message of revolution with a side of cheese isn’t just refreshing, but it’s something of the point. “I’m angry, saddened and fed up with how easily ‘medications’ of all kind are just being handed out and creating a plague of addiction, disease and keeping people in a daze. More so than ever, we as a people, should wake up, be alert and not be tamed by the medicine man because we are all a lot more powerful than we are made to think.” Statements like this one might read with a heavy-handed tone if not for Ron’s ability to vary his focus and delivery, each of which serving as mechanisms to soften his delivery. Ron’s approach leaves the messages he’s trying to communicate through his music and words exponentially more attractive than if he were just another humorless voice of revolution, self-righteously advocating change to a society that has lost its way.
“I think people should feel their pain, face it, overcome completely as opposed to just relocating it. Also, I’m not into all that ‘rock and roll lifestyle’ bullshit. It’s not 1975 and I think it’s a good time to stay clear and become our best selves. In the words of Ian MacKaye ‘don’t dull the blade.'” —Ron Gallo, DMNDR interview, August 2016
A lot of thoughts have come and gone since August. Looking back, I felt lost for a good portion of it, which may be due to maneuvering through terrain that is entirely foreign to me. Yesterday I passed two years at my current job, as an example, which is something I’ve never done before. This is also the longest I’ve ever lived in the same city since the last Millennium, the longest I’ve had friends since I was a kid, and the longest I’ve been sober since I had my first drink.
About three months after Ron and I had first connected he sent me another email, “hey man, just wanted to hit you back, things have been a little crazy the last couple months so my apologies for not getting this back to you sooner. i’ve actually tried it a couple times and then revisit and feel like my answers have changed haha. which, needless to say, these questions are really great and challenging so thanks for that.”
Now looking over all of my notes with fresh eyes, about a month and a half removed from that last correspondence, I’m learning something about myself that I don’t think Ron’s answers could have ever provided for me. Certain blind spots are starting to become obvious — one of which relates to all this process.
Maybe this reads in my questions, maybe it doesn’t, but only recently have I started to realize that I take myself far too seriously when I’m trying to impress other people. The moments of late where I’ve really connected with people are the occasions where I’m just being silly and playful. That’s it. That’s the place where I thrive and the avenue by which I best share who I really am.
Rarely can I get my point across when I stew over how to perfectly articulate my thoughts. In such cases I feel like it comes out without even the slightest bit of my true personality behind it. My message gets lost because I’m trying to over-intellectualize my way into impressing someone else without letting them see that I’m really just kind of a goofball. Yet when I return to write here that’s who shows up. I feel most distant from others when I’m at my most self-serious, and I’m at my best when I just cut the bullshit and lighten up. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” Maybe this, the forty-seventh time I’ve publicly quit blogging by way of blog post, will be the one that evidences a leap forward in personal maturity for me.
In a way, Ron’s message helped guide me toward something I didn’t know I had set out to accomplish with my first email. It was a bit of validation, sure, but it was also closure to what I had once thought my aspirations were with “my writing.” Simple as it sounds, everything looks different with the lights on. Closing with the questions I asked of Ron as a meditation seems secondary to everything that’s already run through my mind here, but it also just sort of feels right. As much as I want to have an answer with all of this, there is no conclusion. I’m content not even trying to end with a joke.
“Nobody ever needs to hear what any person ever needs to say.” —Ron Gallo, Vinyl Mag interview, May 2017
Not that there’s anything wrong with Sublime, but from time to time I have to explain to people that I don’t have the band’s album art tattooed on my arm. What I do have, however, is something of a tribute to Henry Rollins — the words “Rise Above” featured over a far far smaller version of the sun he has on his back. You once wrote that “Henry Rollins is the truth,” so I feel like you’ll get me when I say he has had a tremendous impact on my life… I was introduced to him in junior high and started ordering his CDs, and eventually his books. I’ve really looked up to him ever since.
But for me, he also represents something else that I don’t think I still entirely grasp. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs, focuses on his health, and generally does well to think through his ideas, measure his beliefs, and speak up when he has an opinion. Throughout various stages of my life I’ve struggled with each of those things, yet I’ve still returned to my ideal version of him as something to aspire toward. He’s influenced this idea of who I want to be, for myself, yet I’ve often willfully acted in disharmony with that belief.
There’s a galaxy of distance between intellectually recognizing what it is you may want out of life and sincerely living with intention to get there, and on the timeline I’ve found myself on I’m still learning how to execute through continued purposeful action. It’s not even something like personal transcendence I’m aiming for, it’s on as small a scale as consistently digesting an idea and manifesting its wisdom in my own life. I really struggle with that, and to that end, I’m wondering what you see yourself struggling with now, in face of learned knowledge, or if there’s a personal understanding you might have where you feel you should be taking different action in your life than you are, or challenging yourself further?
I watched a video recommendation you’d made titled, Jiddu Krishnamurti “On Observing Ourselves,” and while viewing it my mind latched on to his idea that the observer and the observed are the same thing. While I don’t have anything new to add to the idea of oneness, what hit for me with regard to this idea was recognition within myself that the more I’ve been able to work through the things about myself that I tend to judge, criticize, and fail to love, the closer that’s allowed me to come to other people.
It’s been a few years since you’ve written it, and you’ve already gone into great detail about what inspired “Why Do You Have Kids?” (and subsequently, why you’ve phased it out from your live set), but I’m wondering if any of the anger or frustration that surfaced between your first and second chapters of your life was due to being outwardly critical of what you didn’t want to face within yourself?
Through the same playlist you referenced “I Believe” and wrote, “When I listen to Mahalia Jackson I believe in the god she is referring to.” While I haven’t yet read Autobiography of a Yogi, I know it has started to bear a significant influence on your life. While skimming through passages from it, “If you don’t invite God to be your summer guest, He won’t come in the winter of your life” resonated with me. In the last two years, or so, I’ve given up on a stubborn rebellion I had against the idea of God, and have started to accept a still-evolving concept of a higher power. I’m wondering to what degree a god or a higher power or even something as vague as spirituality is part of your life?
You’re a fan of comedy podcasts, so maybe you know what I’m talking about – but TJ Miller has mentioned something to the effect of how through absurdism nothing has meaning, therefor it’s up to us to create our own meaning in our lives. (Elsewhere, I think this has fallen under ideas such as “Optimistic Nihilism.”) Grace and hope are concepts that are surprising to find within loud, brash rock and roll, but those are concepts that stand out when reading about your current direction. Forgive me for relaying more of your own words back to you here, but I’m drawn to this statement from Native, “The hope is in people’s ability to change, and I’ve seen it myself. The ability to become happy and put light and goodness out into the world. Everybody has that power, it’s just that some people get caught in the illness of being a human. So it’s trying to chip away at the bullshit and get to that good core. You gotta start somewhere.” As you get out on the road more and are introduced to more of the world and its people, how has that helped shift what you place a significance on in your life, and is there anything that has influenced an understanding of personal meaning in your life?
There’s a thread of self-empowerment which I feel is at the core of your mission, it seems, but that’s something wholly different than self-awareness, which I feel is given this a sort of hollow importance in our culture. There’s this interview with Aziz Ansari — and I have to say, I think a lot of what he says is great in his standup work and in the interview — which outlines his personal experience with news & media burnout as it relates. “I don’t think me reading the news is helping anything. I think it’s hurting me. It’s putting me in a bad state of mind. And I could see how someone could hear that about me and be like, Oh, you’re ignoring what’s happening in the world ’cause you don’t want negativity in your head. That seems very selfish. Maybe it is. I don’t know. It’s not like I was reading it and then, like, immediately taking action in a way that was helping to fix problems.” But I think that’s only part of the answer — unplugging from an unhealthy interaction, without plugging back into something that carries more meaning. I mean, in his own words he became aware of a habit that was not healthy or beneficial, but replaced it by just tuning out completely. This seems like awareness without empowerment to me. What do you think about this separation that seems to exist within us – analysis without empowerment?
“I heard Bruce Springsteen say something along the lines of ‘the beauty of a song is that the meaning changes from person to person.’ So why take that away from people by spelling out how I wrote this exactly about that? I’ve done that, but I’m starting to lay back on it a little. A song can mean so many different things to different folks. I have some songs that I wrote when I was 24, and now that I’m 30, some of the meanings have changed for me.”
That quote, from a 2015 East Nashvillian interview with Lilly Hiatt, has been hanging out on a text file on my computer, staring me in the face every time I’ve opened my laptop for the past three months. Beyond it are two paths of thought in the document, each circling around the songwriter and her Trinity Lane LP. The first thought is a broad one concerning my relationship with music and writing; the second is more focused, related to Lilly’s message and the person I’m trying to become.
Musically, Trinity Lane is a twangy rock record – think roots music inspired by ’90s alt-rock. And as a fan, it’s my favorite of Lilly’s three albums. (Rolling Stone Country just positioned the album as one of the year’s best country and Americana releases.) However enjoyable a listen as it is though, the reason Trinity Lane really stuck with me has a lot to do with the intention behind the process of its creation and release.
Talking to The Boot in August, Lilly explained how her label asked her to write a synopsis of the album, which she obliged by coming up with something “really vague.” “I read it to my boyfriend, and he said it wasn’t very compelling, so I wrote this huge chunk about it where I addressed all of those personal things. I opened that door on my own because I was at a place where I was ready to talk about this stuff and be honest about it, especially because if someone was facing the same struggle, I wanted them to be able to relate to it… This was something I wanted to share.”
“Every time I wanted a man,” reads the final version of that synopsis, “I picked up my guitar. Every time I wanted a drink, I picked up a guitar. Love will take you to the darkest places but also to the most honest places if you let it. Learning how to love myself is something I’ve always been lousy with, and I spent some time on that. I thought about my sobriety, what that means to me, the struggles I’d had throughout the years, since I was a 27-year-old and hung up my toxic drinking habit. I thought about my mother, who took her own life when I was a baby, not far from my age at 30 years old, and I related to her more than ever. As you can see, there was plenty of time spent on my own. I didn’t talk to that many folks, albeit a few close friends, and leaned into my family. I stayed away from men, and danced alone in the evenings looking out my window observing my humble and lively neighborhood. I found power in being by myself.” Trinity Lane is poetic vulnerability with a sense of purpose.
PopMatters has an audio interview with Lilly from a few years ago, and in listening to it you can hear how sweet she is. She’s humble, particular about what she says, and thoughtful of how she reacts to questions. In person she’s the same. I met her briefly after her August in-store performance at Grimey’s. She extended courtesy to everyone who lined up to greet her, and she did the same with me, pausing in consideration of what I was saying before greeting the words with a hug. On my record she wrote, “Chris, you stay strong!!!”
“Gonna hang on a little bit longer, sleep well, work a little harder; put my faith in something I can’t see,” sings Lilly on the album’s title track. That song is what first attracted me to her music. I’m in recovery, too – a few months into my third year (this time around) as I write this.
Lilly and I are about the same age and both grew up idolizing Eddie Vedder. I wanted to tell her my whole story, but without rambling like some crazy person I shared just a couple sentences, hoping only to communicate my gratitude for putting herself out there the way she has with this album. Lilly has called herself an empath. I feel like she got me. That afternoon, driving back home, a lot of what had been building up inside of me began working its way out. I’ve never done anything like this before, and am not sure what compelled me to do it then, but when I got home I walked to my bedroom and positioned myself in child’s pose at the foot of my bed. I proceeded to bawl my eyes out. All I really remember is feeling compelled to just to let it go. I don’t know what any of it means, but only that it’s part of where this album has taken me.
For several years I made a living from writing about music. That’s not quite right, actually. For several years I tried to do as little as possible to make enough money as I could blogging about music, so long as doing so would also allow me to continue the destructive habits that were consuming much of my life. At that I was a great success. I did this while making sure to not challenge myself to become as good a writer as I perhaps could have had I pursued the profession with the same sort of dedication as I did my drinking. Priorities being what they were, that seemed like the right approach at the time.
This year I picked up writing again — the first time I’ve tried in a couple years outside of my journal — though to this day, an awkward tendency stands out to me about my process: I’m typically quick to publish a thought without much consideration for who it might affect or how it might land. I’ve been writing in some form or another for almost 14 years and to this day I have that problem (there’s a good chance I’m doing that here). The most glaring instance of this came in 2012. At the time I’d stopped drinking and put several months of research into the writing of a short book about recovery, which really should have taken me several years to write had I approached it with a more sincere level of thoroughness.
Before long though, I missed what I had. Or, at least, I missed the external validation that previously accompanied the blogging process. Having an audience made me feel valuable. So in 2014 I started this site with two missions, one public and one private. Publicly I had a somewhat delusional concept I shared with some friends about about building a one-stop local music hub. Privately I wanted to feed my ego. It was never black and white though.
This article about Sturgill Simpson might be one of the better things I’ve written, but it’s also one of the best examples of this struggle: I care so much about Sturgill’s music, and am eternally grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with him for it, but I allowed myself to feel some twisted self-importance when he shared it with his fans. Hell, that opportunity only happened because someone on his team got a kick out of an earlier blog post I’d written and showed it to him. For the longest time the value of my work hasn’t been in the work itself, but in whose profile I could glean a little shine from or how widely broadcast my work was shared online. Even then I recognized how ugly that was, and frustrated with myself I gave up on the blog after a few months.
Three years removed from that time I decided to try this again, genuinely believing that I could use this website as a platform to tap back into the local music scene, or maybe even get out and meet some interesting people. As I began writing again I sent a pair of emails to Lilly’s label asking for an interview. In retrospect, I’m glad those requests went unanswered.
As I dug into the album and began researching online, reading about Lilly’s life and what she now hopes to accomplish with her music, I began to recognize something in myself. A few months ago I was having a terribly difficult time speaking from my heart to other people and felt trapped by my own inabilities to do so. ‘How in the world can I communicate someone else’s truth on their behalf if I can’t do that for myself?’ I kept thinking to myself. But as no interview came, the urgency to further contemplate my Trinity Lane notes waned. I still knew there was something in there I had to figure out though, which is why they remained on my desktop. Waiting for me.
Months now removed from the first time I heard it, I can’t help but think the music on Trinity Lane has come to mean something different to me than it might mean to a lot of other people. Shortly after that day where she played Grimey’s I started to recognize what I was getting out of the album. Lilly has talked about how she had a hard time communicating with other people, which is something I feel I also struggle with, but that day she cracked jokes and seemed so vibrant and outgoing. She was so happy there. I remember looking up at the ceiling during the performance, taking a deep breath to hold off the emotions that were coming to me. It was so uplifting to see someone who had struggled so much come out of all that emitting such positivity.
Maybe with a little more literary finesse I might be able to get away with a musical comparison here, reflecting on being trapped in the groove of a record that skips, returning to the same place over and over again before an external force nudges the needle forward to play out the remainder of a song. But all the same, Lilly did nudge me. She was in a dark place, but came out of it only to communicate her story of inspiration with other people through a medium that would allow her to share her heart. And her doing so has helped redirect my efforts away from this space to healthier arenas. Doing so is allowing me to share my voice and time with others who might need to hear whatever my personal version of Trinity Lane is. Active recovery is the sound of moving the needle forward. I so admire Lilly and hope that she knows she’s made a difference.
Now it feels safe to delete that text file.
“As the Tragically Hip’s lead singer and lyricist,” wrote CBC’s John Mazerolle last month in memoriam of the group’s frontman, “[Gord] Downie was the face and voice of a band whose discography sold more than eight million copies. The band’s propulsive, muscular rock, coupled with intense live performances and Downie’s cryptic, literary lyrics, allowed the band to attract a diverse fan base that included party animals and armchair philosophers alike.” With several decades of work to their credit, The Hip had long since become the soundtrack of a nation by May of 2016 when the announcement of Downie’s terminal brain cancer was made public. This devastating news was greeted with an added revelation, however: That The Tragically Hip would pursue one final tour as a public goodbye to to their fans.
The final show took place August 20 in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario with nearly 12 million watching the broadcast, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in attendance. As had been the case with the other shows on the tour, Gord dawned a top hat and extravagant metallic garb on stage (to draw attention to the performer and away from the man) and used teleprompters to help him keep up with lyrics as surgery and chemotherapy had disrupted his ability to always remember where he was and what he was doing. An emergency unit was on site in the event of seizures or a collapse and the band closed with “Gift Shop.” It was all so heavy, all so beautiful.
On the morning of Gord’s death I received a text message from a friend alerting me to the news. This same friend bid farewell to the band with me when we watched that final show together last year. I didn’t have much of an emotional reaction to the news that day, and somehow kept it together last August, but the weeks that followed have brought with them the sort of emotional outbursts that I had anticipated experiencing during the poetic death rattles of the band’s final show. In the time that’s passed, I’ve read commentaries and goodbye letters, dug into several dozen interviews and video features, watched the recently released Long Time Running tour documentary, and listened to the band’s discography a few times over. It’s taken me a while to put words to the feelings.
The Tragically Hip wrote most of their enduring anthems before the five members of the group were out of their twenties, and by the time I bought my first Hip album (1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse) they were a decade in to their recording history and had already come to represent the country, in a sense. (“What’s more Canadian than a band with two guys named Gord in it?” joked someone in the tour doc.) They also flirted with mainstream American exposure, having experienced minor Billboard success with the 1993 release of “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” and an appearance on Saturday Night Live in 1995. A few years after Henhouse, they played 1999’s Woodstock reboot.
In my life the band has always been “big,” but I can’t remember a time when their accomplishments didn’t feel somewhat diminished. It’s like there’s always been a cloud looming over them, comparing their accomplishments to some ideal larger sense of success, fueled by their ongoing inability to become every bit as popular internationally as they were domestically. I remember growing up with that perverted idea ingrained in me, that in some ways to be successful in Canada you had to be successful outside Canada. Yet despite these opaque boundaries surrounding what it means to be Canadian (or a success in Canada), the band represented the country well. They were emblematic of the nation’s ambitions, constantly touring the country’s largely empty terrain while maintaining a counterbalance to their everyman sound and grit with a lyrical bend toward the poetic. Inarguably, all this is something to be remembered and celebrated, but the lingering feeling these last several weeks has left me with had to do less with a discussion around the Tragically Hip’s legacy and more to do with the intention behind Gord Downie’s parting efforts.
While Gord’s final LP, the double-album Introduce Yerself, was released last month, it’s the message behind last year’s Secret Path that has resonated most deeply with me since his passing. Its vision is two-fold. In part it’s a “concept album about Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy from the Marten Falls First Nation who died in 1966 while trying to return home after escaping from an Indian residential school.” But it’s also a rallying cry, challenging the country’s clean cut outward appearance by using that story to illuminate a larger national black eye. Over the course of a century, tens of thousands of children just like Chanie were removed from their homes and relocated to boarding schools as a means of forced cultural assimilation. “At least 6,000 of these students are estimated to have died while residents.” Just sit and think about that for a moment. It’s heartbreaking. Knowing this is heartbreaking. Knowing that my whole life I had no idea of this is heartbreaking. That’s what Gord felt, too. “Canada is not Canada.” he wrote in the project’s liner notes. “We are not the country we think we are.”
Secret Path was created to help bridge the divide that continues to exist between indigenous and non-indiginous Canadians, but in absorbing myself in its story, it became apparent that Secret Path also served as a reconciliation with self for its creator. Gord called the album the best thing he’s ever done. He said he had to do it because it was good for his heart.
Throughout the Tragically Hip’s history, be it through songs such as “Born in the Water,” their support of the Clayoquot Sound protests, or their contributions to such projects as Camp Trillium, they continually led an internal challenge to step outside their selves and serve a greater cause. At the band’s final show, Gord challenged Prime Minister Trudeau to succeed where others in his position have failed. (Given Trudeau’s reverence for the man, you get the sense this plea didn’t fall on deaf ears.) And with Secret Path, Gord challenged Canadians’s national identity, urging citizens to reconsider our relationships with the parts of our country that aren’t reflected in the stereotypical celebration of donuts and hockey.
There’s a line in Secret Path’s “Son” which crumpled me when I first heard it. “And when something stirs in your heart, a feeling so strong and intense, when something occurs in your heart, and there isn’t a next sentence.” It had such impact because at the time there were no words, only feelings, for the pressure that was building up under the weight of all the thoughts that had passed through my mind.
My instinct upon starting this was to write a personal tribute to Gord and the band. Maybe so I could tell myself I had done something and pretend like it was meaningful. It’s so easy to put words down, to let them flow out of you, and to consider their publication the conclusion of a metamorphosis process. But somewhere within the dozens of paragraphs I voided myself of in an attempt to understand what I was feeling, I began to feel fear. And the longer I put off facing it, the more I dreaded addressing where it was coming from.
What I think Gord was advocating for — that thing he found in Secret Path which spoke to his soul, that thing he challenged Trudeau on — was a sense of personal accountability. He could feel he had to do something, and until he did it his world just wasn’t going to be right. This last month I’ve been reading all of these words, listening to all these songs, and the entire time they’ve been showing me a reflection into my own heart, allowing me to see that change was needed. They told me I need to look at the thing that’s been haunting me in the eyes and face it. Challenge it. Work away at it until I know I’m done. I’ve been putting off coming here, putting these words down like this, because I didn’t want to then have to be accountable to myself for the change that I recognized to be required in my own world to renew my own heart.
Maybe this the best way I can pay my respects. Through action. And as the band has reminded me time and time again over the past twenty years or so, daydreaming of a better life only gets you so far…
Born in Canada and now stationed in New York City, FJØRA isn’t a traditional “Nashville artist,” despite the roots of her debut release being firmly planted in the city’s musical landscape. Having moved to Nashville to attend Belmont, she expanded her presence in the city’s scene following her graduation last year, establishing herself within an ever-evolving network of like-minded artists in “a city that hasn’t historically been known for pop music.”
Most recently FJØRA returned to town for some studio time and to celebrate the release of Generdyn’s new Chronicles EP (where she is featured on the track “Bridges”). Now, in heading back to NYC, she’s also book-ending a period of creative success she’s found in Nashville with the release of her new WATERCOLOR EP. “So much effort, collaboration, and love was put into this project,” the singer shared recently on her Instagram page. “And I am just so unbelievably grateful to every single person who helped in its creation.”
WATERCOLOR bears production by the likes of Super Duper and Bryan Todd, with the EP’s six tracks focusing their sound around vibrant synth-pop and the singer’s “Ellie Goulding vibes.” Various inspirations can be heard throughout the release, as well, whether it be through tracks such as “Wild Animals,” which pulls from FJØRA’s international heritage, or “Just Us” which boasts a playful Timbaland-sounding throwback beat.
The following discussion came over email where FJØRA detailed her entire musical journey, while also previewing what might come next as she continues to pursue her musical education at NYU’s Steinhardt Graduate School of Music’s composition program. WATERCOLOR is out now and is available via Spotify and Apple Music.
Villin.net: You’ve already worked with a number of highly talented writers and producers – what has the process been like when you’re approaching co-writes, and how do you change your approach in that realm versus the solo composition writing you do?
FJØRA: I have been extremely fortunate in that I have gotten to work with a great many talented individuals in the music industry. Co-writes and sessions vary on a day-to-day basis – there are days when I walk into a session with a particular lyrical or melodic idea bouncing around my brain, and days when I enter a room with my mind a blank slate. The beautiful thing about working with fellow artists, writers, and producers is that there is no one right way to do something or to create. I try to remain as open as possible when creating new music – this is especially important within co-writes. Sometimes prior to the session the writer and/or producer and I will exchange any thoughts or concepts we’ve been conjuring up to see if there is any potential for creative chemistry. Being honest in the creative process is also something I consider vital. The most rewarding sessions are those where the writer/producer tells me the truth about what they are thinking and feeling. No sugar-coating necessary. In my own solo composition writing, all of these values are weighted just as significantly. The only difference is that instead of talking out loud, I have all of my conversations in my head. Well, mostly.
Villin.net: How did you meet Charlie Lowell and what was it like collaborating with him? Several Christian music sites have made reference to your work – is your personal faith at all part of your own creative process, as it has been Charlie’s?
FJØRA: Charlie Lowell is an incredibly talented, motivated individual. Working with him has been very inspirational to me. I met Charlie through my acting manager, Matt Bronleewe (Unsecret Music, Showdown Management), as they were both in the band Jars of Clay. Suffice to say, it is still very surreal to me that I get the opportunity to work with not one, but two members of this band I listened to growing up. I do think that my personal faith remains a consistent, underlying foundation to my creative process, as I know it does Charlie’s. It is not necessarily an intentionally devised, molded shape to which I fill my creative energy in, but rather a silent anchor which keeps me grounded and secure.
Villin.net: When did you begin attending Belmont, and what influenced your decision to continue your education there?
FJØRA: I attended Belmont University for my Masters in Commercial Music (Composition and Arranging) between the years 2014-2016. I gained very valuable experiences and insights into the world of commercial music that I might otherwise had not been exposed to. I decided to attend Belmont because of several factors important to me: the school was personal and encouraged professor/student relations and friendships, the program was one of two music commercial graduate degrees offered in North America, Belmont offered me to attend their school of music on scholarship, and most significantly it was located in the vibrant city of Nashville.
Villin.net: Prior, you were an Istvan Electroacoustic Scholar. (Sidenote: What an amazing
title!) Did you attend school at Queen’s University before heading south?
FJØRA: Yes, I did attend Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario (Canada) for my Bachelor of Music degree before heading south. My specialization area for this degree was piano performance and music composition and theory. The composition major was comprised (upon my choice) of exploration of both electroacoustic and acoustic musics. As a result, many compositional works I created had an electro thread present, if not entirely based around electro music. The advent of sampling and sample sounds within music libraries also fascinated me, and I loved spending hours “playing” with various music sound libraries. I was incredibly honored to be named the Istvan Electroacoustic Scholar my graduating year – and yes, it is an awesome title! Very impressive… might look into the possibility of a bumper sticker.
Villin.net: Your Instagram feed captures various stops at major studios and recording companies around town. From the time you spent here, do you have any moments that still stand out to you where you thought “I can’t believe this is even happening right now!”?
FJØRA: Yes. Absolutely. There are so many moments where I look around and think, “Huh? What? How am I here right now?” I am constantly anxious that somebody is going to look up at me and say, “Hang on, what’s she doing here?” Some of these past moments that I still can’t believe happened were sessions I spent at Universal Music Publishing Studios in Nashville, where my first single, “Wild Animals” was actually created. Or my time spent at BMG Studios making music with the primary writer for the band Echosmith. I still remember rolling up in my car at Capitol Music Studios, parking in the lot, and walking up to the front glass doors thinking, there’s no way they’re going to let me in. But miraculously, they did. They do. It’s mind-boggling even now.
Villin.net: Are your parents from Macedonia, or does that heritage come into the picture
from prior generations?
FJØRA: My father is an immigrant from Macedonia, having immigrated to Canada in his early thirties. My mother is seven generations Canadian, or as I like to say, extremely white. I think there’s some German background on my mom’s side, too. There is definitely Scottish heritage from my mom too, as one of my sister’s middle names is the Scottish clan we belonged to, way back in the day. The MacDonald clan! No wonder we love McDonald’s so much!
Villin.net: Beyond your father being a musical professor, what do you recall about how music was used and regarded in your family’s household growing up?
FJØRA: My entire life was music growing up. I mean, I did other things and pastimes that were also very significant to me as a child; reading, swimming, gymnastics, eating Oreo cookies. However, music was a constant. I woke up to music, and fell asleep to music. My father taught my sisters and I piano from the ages of four, and by the time we entered middle school we had all completed the Royal Conservatory of Music levels of piano. I also completed all levels of music history, harmony, counterpoint, and pedagogy by age fourteen. Needless to say, I had a very classically-trained background. But it wasn’t just classical music that I learned, nor listened to around the house. My dad is a jazz musician, so I was exposed to jazz music at a young age. Additionally, my mom, who also achieved her piano levels as a child, listened to “old school” music like the Carpenters, Elton John, and the Beatles around the house. She also really enjoyed playing the great folk Canadian artists, like Stan Rogers on vinyl. Oh, and Michael Bublé. My mom really likes Michael Bublé.
Villin.net: How did growing up in Canada influence your musical tastes? (I’m from Calgary, so I’ve got my own take on this… haha.)
FJØRA: Haha! I didn’t realize you were from Canada, too! Yes!! That’s awesome. I’ve actually never been to Calgary, meaning to though. Well, I suppose growing up in Canada influenced my musical tastes in a few respects, like what I was exposed to on the radio (Canadian radio promoting Canadian artists) as well as the music I would hear at local festivals (the folky, alternative, and sometimes electronic Canadian sound). This is something to consider too, that the T.V. shows I was watching were mostly Canadian, and so the music accompanying these scores were likely sourced from Canadian composers. I was and am a huge fan of Canadian artists like Metric, the Arcade Fire, and Simple Plan – so my childhood was peppered with Canadian musical influences from all of them. I think more than just growing up in Canada, growing up in the greater Toronto area really helped shape the musical tastes I garner now. Toronto is incredibly multicultural, and so my musical palate just grew and expanded in the most positive way as a result. (My food palate, too!)
Villin.net: Was there ever any stress put on you, growing up, to focus on the classical aspect of your musical education?
FJØRA: I think any stress or pressure put on me is almost always put there from me. I am convinced I am a masochist, or at least have masochistic tendencies. I do it to myself. Focusing on the classical aspect of my musical education was definitely supported by my parents, but not necessarily pushed on me. Perhaps there was a bit more pressure placed on me once I got the ball rolling in that realm myself. But I am the captain of my own ship, the master of my own seas. A masochistic sea master. There’s another Pirates of the Caribbean movie waiting to happen — Pirates: Jack Sparrow Versus Masochistic Sea Master, Part I.
Villin.net: Did you ever try to rebel against formal musical training?
FJØRA: Not really. I was a pretty nerdy kid. Extremely introverted, very “head in the clouds.” I honestly didn’t really understand or know that everyone else didn’t study music on this formal musical training level. I thought that all my friends were doing it, too. Once I hit middle school, the realization that they in fact did not study the various four-part harmony motions every morning struck me. It was pretty eye-opening.
FJØRA: The GiGi Sisters was an incredibly enriching and positive experience for me, as well as my sisters (who were apart of it). There are three of us, and we sometimes joke that we’re pretty interchangeable – all coming from similar musical backgrounds, and all having longish hair. All joking aside, both advents of the GiGi Sisters and ASK opened up the threshold of popular music as a genre to me personally, it being a potential and very real avenue I could choose to explore. Another take-away from these groups was the confidence and practice gained in singing publicly, as I had little to none prior.
Villin.net: Do Stefanie and Katharine still write, record, or perform music?
FJØRA: Yes, they do. Katharine is actually studying her Bachelor of Music degree in composition at the University of Toronto, and Stefanie is wrapping up her Undergraduate degree in Entertainment Industry Services at Belmont University (more on the music business side of things).
Villin.net: What was the basis for your thesis, “Behind Closed Doors: Meaning Through Musical and the Modern Family,” and did you draw from personal experience in its compilation?
FJØRA: Can I just say, I am amazed that you have the title of my masters thesis. The basis for this thesis was essentially tying together the musical platform concept with sociological and historical themes, using music to convey and support a narrative highlighting domestic abuse, equality, gender-normative roles, and identity. I don’t want to necessarily say that I drew entirely from personal experience in its overall compilation, but let’s just say there were predominant themes present that correlated with my own life’s trajectory.
Villin.net: Having achieved your master’s, and now continuing on to NYU where you’ll be attending graduate school and focusing on film scoring (I believe?), what do you see yourself doing musically once you’ve completed your formal education?
FJØRA: Honestly, being a planner, I really like to plan things. I’m also a keener, so that doesn’t help. I usually do way too much, all the time. Believe me, the realization that I can’t actually control or plan everything hit me the hardest. But I can’t. That’s really what it comes down to. No one can. Life kind of just happens. I didn’t expect to find myself back in school necessarily at this stage of my life, but here I am, pursuing my PhD at NYU. My intention these days is to just be – to create music within the paradigm of school, of my professional life, FJORA, and keep my heart and mind open. I am an intense lover of film scoring, music for multimedia, and combining this passion with my love of artistry is an exciting prospect. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Villin.net: What might listeners hear with [the WATERCOLOR EP] that they may not expect, given the selections you’ve already released?
FJØRA: I am extremely excited for [WATERCOLOR]. The tracks on this EP are all cohesive, but in my opinion offer insight into the slightly nuanced genres within pop music today. I don’t want to give anything away too much, but there are some tracks that are not only electronic, but also delve into the synthesizer world in a fresh, organic way. There is also presence of “chill” beats used amidst soaring, lullaby-esque melodies. I’m really looking forward to this EP!
Villin.net: Were you born on Canada Day?
FJØRA: Hell yes.
Villin.net: And lastly — why did you decide on the name “FJØRA”?
FJØRA: When I was a child, I played this made up game with my sisters called Fairyland. One of the characters in this fantasy world was “Fiora.” Then, later on, I found out that the same pronunciation, only spelled as FJØRA, was a Faroese term of the Faroe Islands, meaning “rolling tide.” This had perfect cyclical symmetry to me, as I grew up spending my time near or on the water. For me, water is the greatest symbol of change, development, fluctuation, and rebirth. I felt it was perfect to use “FJØRA” as the name for this next chapter of my life journey.
“I used to get kind of stressed about my age,” says Jon Santana, sitting outside Steadfast Coffee in Germantown, reflecting in between sips of a coffee soda. “Especially when I was twenty-one [or] twenty-two. I was like, ‘Zedd’s twenty-three – I got two more years! I gotta make it!'”
But that sense of artistic dread is nowhere to be found amid the measured production that has since echoed throughout his last several years of credits, be it the “buzzing staccato synth” of his original work, his “chilled out” remixes, or the “diverse landscapes” of his many collaborations. Santana will turn twenty-seven in December, but in the five or six years that have passed since his passing phase of creative anxiety, he’s gone from being a college kid recording and producing friends in his parents’s house, to being a full-time producer in Music City.
“My bills are getting paid by working on other people’s stuff,” he says, smiling. While he hasn’t headlined any international tours yet, adopting his passion as his profession should still be considered a near-universal sign of having made it. Taking a moment to naval-gaze amid his caffeine-induced stream of consciousness storytelling, it seems to hit him. “It’s a dream,” he says.
Born to Caribbean parents and raised in Long Island, Santana’s family moved to Florida when he was fifteen. He eventually transitioned to Southeastern University in pursuit of a music business degree. By this time, he was already experienced in making beats, having familiarized himself with Fruity Loops in his early teens. A California producer by the name of Errol Beats befriended him over AOL Instant Messenger conversations, and took him under his wing — teaching him how to market his music for sale online. “When I was 18, I was a freshman, I sold my first beat for like 50 bucks and I kind of just went from there.”
A drive to produce more music sprung out of this newly found source of validation and income. This evolved into a collaboration with close friend Patrick Hagen’s group A Sound Asleep, before teaming with Hagen under the name Apollo Poeta. Incepted in the midst of a semester studying at the Contemporary Music Center in Brentwood, Poeta helped mark Santana’s introduction to Nashville and later helped usher him into the DJ scene in Lakeland once he returned back home. The next two and a half years saw him springboard off the duo’s formulaic EDM and begin experimenting with a variety of new sounds and influences within the realm of electronic music. This period was essential in helping Santana reduce and refine his musical projects to a point where he could focus fully on his own production.
In the fall of 2011, Santana worked at a local Lakeland studio, where his education of recording and production really took hold. But throughout college and the years that followed his education wasn’t limited to the studio. For two and a half years he played keys with the hardcore band EliudinE, before connecting with indie rockers The Careful Ones. Already showcasing his stylistic flexibility, he began experimenting more with house music, mashups, and remixes.
What’s so interesting about this transition, however, isn’t necessarily the end result of what Santana’s music developed into, but how he moved in such a direction without abandoning his lifelong influences and personal history along the way. Throughout our conversation, Santana maintained a genuine enthusiasm to share all the different phases of who he used to be. There was no trepidation in saying his hardcore band was also a Christian band, and he openly shares about playing music at church. When asked about his faith he says, “I’ve always played in worship bands my whole life,” but aside production work on a surprisingly palatable Christian pop album (an ’80s synth-heavy EP by MOONS, which Santana called “worship music you’ll want to listen to”), there’s little effort made to either filter his music through a lens of his faith, nor try to scrub the internet of any sign of his beliefs for fear of being pigeonholed.
Similarly, scrolling back through his Instagram feed, Circa Survive’s post-hardcore debut album Juturna comes up as Santana’s “favorite record” and his “most prized possession,” despite abandoning rock music entirely as a performer, himself. He’s quick to express his love for his remix of Banks’s “Change” (“It’s just weird!”). But just as excited to share how he geeked out and threw a burned CD with his mix on stage when he saw the group shortly after its release. All of this is just who he is, and somehow it’s all contributed to him making some of the city’s most sublime electronic music.
Since making Nashville his full-time home in early 2015, he’s gone from producing two or three beats a day to learning the co-writing process to becoming an in-demand producer among the city’s burgeoning pop music scene. And having collaborated with the likes of local artists REMMI, CAPPA, and Truitt, he’s now expanding his reach and repertoire through projects such as the recent “power” which he released with Hoyle. Over this same period, he’s also refined his remixing (his 2016 collaborative mix of Justin Beiber’s “What Do You Mean?” with 4B — which is closing in on one million Soundcloud plays — was featured on Diplo’s best of 2016 mix) and released a “creative kaleidoscope” with his debut EP titled And There They Were.
Despite that initial anxiety over how to force success at an early age, little of that burden seems present in Santana’s daily life. Now he seems less occupied with reaching for some sense of other-worldly success, and more comfortable with continuing to allow his story to evolve. When asked about where he wants to see this go, his words make leaps as his mind bounces about. “I love making my own stuff,” he says, later adding that he has two or three songs started for his next solo release, which he hopes to ready by the end of the year. He’s finishing a few EPs, including one for Conventioner, and is set to get married next year, but this isn’t to say that he’s any less determined give up on his search for a larger audience. “I would love to have a major release, a radio song. I’m definitely working toward that.” He’s not limiting what success is to such rigid standards as he set for himself in college. “[A year from now I want to be] doing what I’m doing now, but at a larger scale. Nothing’s going to change, just the people I’m working with. Whatever that looks like, I guess we’ll find out.”