Interview: Jonathan Jackson
Ahead of the release of his band’s new EP, we talk all things music with the actor and Enation frontman
When Songwriting visited Nashville last year, we had the pleasure of seeing Jonathan Jackson + Enation perform live. An ear-bursting whirlpool of surging guitars amidst a world of twang, it was a great performance from the trio. They now return with latest release the Blame-shifter EP, the follow-up to their 2014 album Radio Cinematic. Produced by Greg Archilla (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul) the EP might be their rawest sounding record to date.
Alongside his brother Richard and Daniel Sweatt, Jackson’s group have a classic sound slightly reminiscent of U2 and Muse, but with an added dose of North West grunginess. Jonathan is also a well-known and award-winning actor, appearing in the hit US shows Nashville and General Hospital.
Today though we want to talk with him about his band, their new material and his career in music…
Tell us about the new EP?
“The new EP is called Blame-shifter. Musically I would say that it’s is a little bit more edgy than some of Radio Cinematic, it’s more of an alt-rock record. Coming off of that album we wanted to make an EP that felt a little more like the visceral energy we have when we play live, that was the goal from the outset. For the title track, I got inspired by reading a book about how easy it is to try to blame everyone else and shift the blame, it’s a hard rock song coming from the other perspective and saying that I’m not going to do that anymore.”
I’M WRITING SONGS THROUGHOUT THE YEAR NO MATTER WHAT I’M DOING
How did the Unchained Melody cover come about?
“It was fun for us to put it on there as a bonus track. We’d performed it live at The Opry and the response to the song online was shocking to us, it was just really beautiful. One of the things that we’ve been talking about over the last few years is that the country, gospel, Americana and roots influences that are here in Nashville were also something that we grew up with. Our dad sang country music and recorded an album in Nashville. The first time I ever played music and sang was at his concert in the North West. Then growing up in that area we were surrounded by Nirvana and Pearl Jam and so that’s where the alt-rock stuff comes from, but we also have the roots inspiration. So putting a performance from The Opry on an alt-rock record made perfect sense in terms of both our musical and geographical journey.”
What are your hopes for the EP?
“My hope is that the fans that we already have really get to dig into it, bring it into their lives and that it will mean something to them over time. I hope that it continues to grow in terms of its reach but I don’t really have any real clear-cut ambitions for it other than we just want to make great music and get it out to the right people.”
Does your busy schedule prevent you from writing as much as you’d like to?
“The writing is happening all the time. I’m writing songs throughout the year no matter what I’m doing. The hardest thing schedule-wise is to find time to actually record and play live which is why we tour in the summer, when I’m on a break from filming.”
Do you like splitting your time between acting and music or would you rather concentrate on one of them?
“Creatively speaking I enjoy doing both and I’ve been doing that for so long that they’ve kind of mutually reinforced each other. A lot of times when I’m either watching films or acting in films or television projects I’ll get in the headspace of a character and their story and songs will come out of that. I would love to be able to put a little more time and energy into the music. Hopefully, in the future, my schedule will open up so I can do more of it but right now I’m obviously loving doing Nashville.”
Will you be scribbling in a notebook while doing other things or do you set time aside for your writing?
“It’s a little of both. Sometimes I’ll jot notes down if something comes to me and I’m not in a place to actually write. Sometimes the songs come out musically first where’s there’s a melody and a song structure and then the lyrics come later. Other times I’ll just write lyrics out with no melody or music connected to it. I would say 60 or 70 percent of the songs I write are on piano and then the harder rock stuff is usually on guitar and a lot of that writing happens when we’re touring and actually in the throes of playing live as a three-piece. That’s when I get inspired to work on the rock and riff-driven stuff. When I’m at home I tend to sit down at the piano and write a lot of songs in a different headspace.”
Has living and working in Nashville had an influence on your music?
“I think it has, slowly, more by osmosis. A lot of the musical heroes that I had, and that I still have, were influenced by roots music. I grew up listening to Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, I got into Bob Dylan when I was a teenager and Leonard Cohen. All of that kind of stuff is present here in Nashville but actually getting to be in the studio with people like T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller and incredible musicians like Colin Linden, you can’t help but be inspired and grow and learn. There’s some more bluesy roots stuff that has been coming out in the songwriting that might be on some future albums. But the goal has always been the same, to make music that’s honest and real.”
Were there other musical influences that inspired you to start writing?
“I started writing songs when I was 11 years old and the first band that I really fell in love with was R.E.M, they’re still one of my favourite bands. Then I got into U2’s catalogue as well and they’ve had a huge influence, especially on the songwriting. Peter Gabriel and Radiohead as well, we kind of bounce back and forth between the European alt-rock stuff and some of the American roots music. It’s all in there somewhere, no matter what we do those influences are there.”
SONGS TEND TO BE BIRTHED FROM PLACES THAT I’VE VISITED AND PEOPLE WHO I’VE MET
And influences outside of music?
“Life in general, life experiences. I’ve been married for almost 14 years and a lot of songs come from my relationship with my wife and my kids. I also love to read and a lot of songs are inspired by books that I read. I love Dostoyevsky and I’m actually in the middle of The House Of The Dead right not. He’s been one of my favourite writers for quite a few years and a goal of mine is to get through his whole canon. I get inspired by reading authors like him and poets like Dylan Thomas and Leonard Cohen, not just his music but his poetry as well. Travelling as well. Songs tend to be birthed from places that I’ve visited and people who I’ve met, and experiencing life from a different place. So it’s really all of those life experiences that come out in the music.”
Do you write the songs and then take them to the other two members of the band?
“I write most of the songs on my own and then take them to Richard and Dan. At that point, we come together in a very collaborative way and try to figure out how to bring these songs to life and what kind of album or EP we want to make. We then really hammer out the arrangements together, that’s a completely collaborative affair in terms of trying to take the skeletal structure of the song and bring it to life in the context of the band.”
Does their initial reaction ever surprise you?
“Absolutely, that happens all the time. I’m always surprised by what the guys gravitate towards. At the same time, there is a great deal of shared musical instinct as we’ve grown up together and tend to love the same music. Most of the time if there’s a song that I really feel strongly about the guys will respond with just as much enthusiasm but there have been many songs that I didn’t think were all that great that they’ve really responded to. That happens with my wife as well. She’ll hear a song and respond to it and I’ll be surprised. She has a really good ear for music.”
Are any of those songs on the EP?
“Yeah, Wasteland was a song that I really liked but I didn’t know if anyone else would respond to it but Greg Archilla really loved it and Richard and Daniel loved it as well. It’s just an odd little song, it has some Peter Gabriel and Radiohead in there somewhere. The reaction to that song was a little bit of a surprise, but not really with the other ones. On Radio Cinematic’s The Future Is Ours, I didn’t really know if it was any good when I wrote it but my wife, the guys in the band and Greg really responded to it and I started playing it live acoustically to feel it out in front of an audience. It’s actually become a song that I play acoustically quite a bit when we tour.”
What do you think Greg brings out of you in the studio?
“A lot. Greg is such a joy to work with and he’s extremely focused and loves what he does and he really brings out the best in us as musicians. When we were arranging the music on the last two records he’s been so vital in that process. The other great thing is that he not only saw us play live before we worked together but he’s actually gone on quite a few shows with us and mixed front of house so he knows what we feel and sound like as a band when we play live together. He was able to really bring that out in the studio, especially on the EP.”
SOME OF MY FAVOURITE SONGS JUST COMPLETELY ABOLISH THE WHOLE CONCEPT OF A CRAFT
Do you enjoy getting involved in the nitty-gritty of the studio?
“For sure, being in the studio is one of the most fun things for me. I love the whole process. It’s a little bit of a paradox because you’re bringing something to fruition so you have to guide it to some extent but you also have to get out of the way and allow it to come to life. Greg and all of us in the band have a similar instinct with that. We’ll go after something but we can all look at each other and tell if we’re pushing in a way which is not what the song is asking for. Having that accountability in the room and having the confidence to strip things down is really great. For Blame-shifter it was tempting to keep adding more but we all just felt that it needed to be very simple in its production and just have a full throttle three-piece feel.”
There’s a certain unique energy that comes from being in a three-piece, can you explain why that is?
“Every instrument becomes really vital and there’s a sense of desperation that happens when there’s just three of you playing. It can sometimes work for you and sometimes work against you but in the good moments I think it helps. You really have to rely on each other and work from a place of what isn’t there, which is sometimes a good thing.”
What do you think makes a perfect song?
“That’s such a tough question. There are two schools of thought on that, one is leaning on craft and there is absolutely a craft to songwriting but some of my favourite songs just completely abolish the whole concept of a craft and make no sense in terms of structure. There’s a song by U2 called Bad off The Unforgettable Fire and it’s one of my favourite songs ever even though it’s basically two chords for six minutes and it’s hard to discern really what the chorus is. If I could say anything, I think it’s honesty. What makes a great song is honesty.”
Finally, what’s next for the band?
“We’re going to record the next EP which we’ll combine to make a full album this year. There’s also going to be a whole other album which we’re hoping to release in the next 16 months. There’s going to be a lot of music coming out which we’re excited about. Like I said, the hardest thing is to actually find time to get into the studio and record but the songs are there and we love what we do. Over time it’s really just about building a catalogue and exposing that to music fans and connecting with people.”