‘A sense of thankfulness’ An interview with Jon Hardy
St. Louis blue-collared rocker Jon Hardy fell out of a tree a little under a year ago this month. This month also marks Hardy and his band the Public’s return to the stage since the accident.
The band will appear at Off Broadway on August 17 with Hemmingbirds and Jon Bonham & Friends. In this interview, Hardy discusses the future of the band, what keeps him from hanging up his guitar and his musical study habits.
Matt Stuttler: You’ve been off the radar for a bit. What’s been going on?
Jon Hardy: Well, we played LouFest last summer at the end of August and were about to play a Stevie Wonder tribute show through KDHX at Off Broadway. Right before that, I had an accident. I wound up falling out of a tree, broke my back and had some damage to my head. So, I was certainly out of commission for a couple weeks. Then I wound up in a pretty restrictive back brace for three months, just recovering. The band didn’t really do anything from September until most of December.
I believe it was in early November, a buddy of ours who has a studio in Chicago and has been working with us came down. His name is Benjamin Balcom. He came down, and he and I spent a couple days just working through some real rough ideas for songs, song sketches, some ideas I’d been recording for a while on my own. Then in the end of December, we started rehearsing again. We played some of the songs we already had, and then for most of the spring, we’ve been kind of experimenting with new stuff, new material, new ideas.
At the beginning of summer/end of spring, we changed gears and started moving back toward polishing up two songs that we tracked up in Chicago in the spring of 2011. Right now we’re on schedule to go back up to Chicago the week after we play at Off Broadway and re-track those songs and hopefully have some kind of package to release in the early fall.
Since the accident, has your perspective on performing music changed at all?
I think so. It hasn’t happened yet, so it’s a little hard to say.
Do you have a different mindset going into it then?
I think there’s going to be more of the mindset we’ve kind of been developing for a while. For me personally I think there will be more of a sense of thankfulness and just not taking any show for granted and making sure we’re doing the best we’re capable of doing every time we get up there.
I’ve read a little about your upbringing and your connections to spirituality. What role would you say that spirituality plays in your songwriting process?
I think that’s a difficult question to answer, even for me. For me it’s hard to know exactly how things move from what I believe about the world, people and God, how that winds up translating into songs in a way that’s easy to define or talk about.
It’s just kind of part of you.
Yeah, I mean I think it’s something that’s changing. I think with songs after I get a little distance from them, maybe from the time once they get recorded, once there’s some distance I can look back and see some things that I would say are explicit connections. That’s something I feel like I’m even trying to get a handle on myself, because it’s something I want to be careful about. I don’t want to assume that I’m entirely capable of quickly and easily translating beliefs into songs for people to listen to. Though I feel like that’s something I’m trying to figure out, how does this work.
What have you been listening to recently?
I’ve been listening to some newer stuff. I’ve been listening to the National and their most recent record. I’m still always listening to people like Leonard Cohen and Springsteen, but then also listening to the Arcade Fire, some of U2′s earlier stuff. I’ve been listening to “The Joshua Tree” quite a bit. U2 as well as Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire are all groups that I’ve both listened to for enjoyment and for studying purposes. Also, they all have a very spiritual aspect to their songs, so I’ve paid attention to them for that reason as well.
That’s interesting that you say you study your music. It makes sense you study songs to write songs. How do you go about that? Do you just sit down and take apart songs to see what makes them good?
Sometimes, I’ve done that where I think part of the process is a matter of imitating, seeing what other people are doing and learning how. You know that was sort of the way a lot of the arts worked for a long time. You would put in your time copying and learning exactly the way other people had done what you were studying and over time, you sort of naturally built up a repertoire of tools to be able to then go and figure out how to do it in your own way.
Yeah, that’s a really interesting take on that.
I think part of it is kind of trying to break them down and asking, “What are they doing? Why does it work? Or not work?”
Your first release was in 2004. What have you seen change around you as far as the music scene in St. Louis or in general? What have you picked up in the past 10 years or so since you began playing?
It’s probably gotten a little harder. I think 2008, 2009 had an impact on the ability to make money, which was already difficult, partly because of the way that people are consuming music now. Beyond that it seems to me like we’ve had in St. Louis a balance of good and bad where venues are concerned. We’ve had a few places like the Firebird and now Plush, some smaller to medium size places come up that can still support a good number of national acts. I’m pretty sure it was before 2004 maybe that Mississippi Nights closed, that would be a negative, that place going away. I guess on the other hand, another thing on the positive, it seems like I’ve heard of a number of people, especially down around Cherokee Street opening up studios. That’s very cool. That’s a good thing.
So what preparations are you making for your return show at Off Broadway on August 17th?
Practice. Practice, practice, practice. Practicing has always been something we spend a lot of time on, just really trying to make sure that we’ve got a really solid set that we kind of know front to back so that we’re able to play it tight and put on the best performance we can.
Are you going to be playing some new material at the show?
We’re going to be playing a few songs that right now we haven’t released but we’ve played them live before. Although they’ll probably be different than what people remember if they do remember them. Then also we’ll be playing a few other songs that we’ve never performed before. Looking forward to see how people react to those.
What’s your current lineup?
Friday we’re going to have bass, three guitars including me, keys, drums of course, and we will have our tenor and baritone sax players as well.
So Hemmingbirds and Jon Bonham & Friends will be playing with you. What’s your connection with them and why did you pick them for the show?
We’ve played a number of times with Jon Bonham & friends. Those guys are great. I actually sat in with them back in January or February and just played some guitar. They’re certainly, at least in my mind, a mainstay of St. Louis music. It seems like they’re always out on the weekends playing around. Jon’s got a great voice and they’re just really fun. I just enjoy being around them when they’re playing. For Hemmingbirds, I don’t really deal with booking our shows, but I kind of got the sense from glancing through emails that we’ve tried to play with them in the past and it’s never worked out for some reason, and then this happened.
Has there ever been a point where you’ve said you’re done with music? I mean, besides when you were forced to take a break.
Certainly. If I haven’t actually said it, I’ve come extremely close to saying, “I just can’t do this anymore. It’s too much work. Not enough money.” But it’s been interesting, I’ve sort of taken as a sign that often times when that has come up in my mind I’ll either run into someone or even get a call or an email kind of out of the blue saying, “Hey, I was listening to your music and you guys are so good. Please keep doing it, don’t stop.” So, it’s like “Well, all right.”
That has certainly been the thing that has kept me going the most — getting positive feedback from people who listen to it. There’s plenty of music out there for people to listen to so the fact that people are willing to come see us and listen to our music even when they’re not at the show, really means a lot to me.
You mentioned earlier about the shift in music you observed in 2008 and 2009. Are you guys working on any ideas on how to address that? Alternative release formats?
I think that our main goal to address that is just to try to consistently have new material to put out. Obviously the last year has kind of thrown a wrench into that, but that’s kind of the main goal. Once we get these two songs close to ready, I think that’s a discussion we’re going to have — how do we put this out there? Is there anything different or new we want to try with that? But I’m not sure. We’ve certainly talked about it a lot but it’s hard to know what the best way to put stuff out there is. The way that’s going to get it out to the most people and be somewhat beneficial to the band.
So now you’re coming back and Jon Hardy & the Public will be playing again. Do you have any plans beyond playing the show on the 17th?
We’re looking at some stuff in the fall, but the immediate plans after that are studio work, getting up to Chicago to finish these two songs, getting those mixed and mastered, then figuring out how we’re going to put them out. I’m sure something else will come up this fall as far as performance goes, but that’s kind of the priority after the show, is tackling those two tracks.
What’s the studio process like when you go in to record? Are you the primary songwriter?
Generally, that’s how it’s worked where I will bring a song to the band and then we’ll all kind of figure out who’s going to play what and how that’s going to happen. Certainly a fair number of them have changed quite a bit from what I initially brought in. These two songs have gotten worked over a lot. Benjamin is acting as an honest to goodness producer so that meant kind of rearranging the songs, new chords in there, some new rhythms.
Have you worked with a producer in the past?
Working with Benjamin has been the first time where someone’s really broken stuff down to that degree.
How do you feel about that?
I feel good about it. I think that he’s made the songs better. It’s a learning process, we certainly weren’t used to having someone do that. But I think we’re all on the same page and we all want the best songs possible. We’ve had people say, Benjamin for one, “Man, you guys are really easy to work with. There’s not a lot of drama. You’re not like we don’t want to change that part because you’re hurting our feelings.” So thankfully we’ve been able to keep our egos in check when it comes to adjusting and refining songs. Hopefully that’ll continue.