The first question I have is actually related to your name. When I looked at your profile online, I only saw one Jon in the lineup. Where have all the other Jons gone?
(laughs) There were more at one point. When I first started, I was a singer/songwriter. After performing for a while like that, I felt like I really wanted to have more players and more layers of sound. The first thing I went out looking for was a drummer. That drummer is the one we still have with us, Jon Witlock. After that, we found another guy who played bass, and his name was Jon Steel.
It became a sort of joke in that I would refer to them as The Jons, and then we thought, Well, that’s easy, I guess (laughs). When that bass player left, our second bass player was also named Jon, coincidentally. Even after that, our third bass player was also named Jon. It worked for like two years, and finally, our last Jon moved away, and we hired Vince (Ilagan).
When was all this happening? When did you go from being a solo singer/songwriter to having a band?
That was like two years ago since I started performing out. When it started, I was just doing open-mike nights and the occasional bookstore, that kind of thing.
How long were you doing the solo thing before that?
I guess maybe solidly for six months, but I’ve dabbled with it my whole life. I grew up in a musical family, and I performed a lot when I took piano and had piano recitals, stuff like that. I grew up in Knoxville.
You talked a little bit about wanting to add layers to your sound, and one thing that really strikes me about your group is that you seem a bit like a Swiss Army knife in that you seem to have a player for every situation since so many of them are multi-instrumentalists. That must be really handy having that range of sounds to work with.
It is. It’s awesome, and it’s getting to be more and more like that. We formed as just a trio for like a year and a half, and we really wanted somebody else who could come in and be our fourth player and play melody and take solos and do the melody parts.
In my mind, I had this fantasy person who could play every instrument in the world and never repeat one twice. I wanted someone who could play violin, mandolin and accordion and trumpet and piano. Then, I went to see this band in Knoxville with this guy who was alternating between violin and trumpet. I was like, I’ve got to meet that guy. Then, I found out he was the little brother of one of my really close friends. He’s a really modest, shy, humble person, but he’s got a brilliant, melodic mind.
We hired him right away. We’re like a perfect match. He brings out a desire in me to bring some of my other instruments out. I’m kinda shy about it, and I usually just play guitar. I play a lot of other stuff, just not on stage. Having his influence has made me open up because I really like to vary the sounds we create and do like some old country song one minute and the next do a swing, vintage jazz kind of thing. Other than my acoustic guitar I always bring, I’ve been bringing a hollow-body electric, my banjo and I’ve also got an accordion.
I’ve become more of a multi-instrumentalist now, too, and I think our next album is going to reflect a lot more of that than our current one.
I’m assuming you’re talking about Seth Hopper, right?
Yeah, I’m talking about Seth.
When did you add him to the lineup?
A year ago in April, so I guess a year and a half.
OK, so he was the one who was playing violin on Love and Circumstances, right?
Yeah, he’s playing violin and mandolin and trumpet. He’s also playing an accordion-style instrument called a bandoneon.
One thing about your band that I think is pretty cool about having that many instruments playing together is that you somehow manage not to sound jumbled. You create a very strong impression of togetherness.
I appreciate that because that is very difficult. We analyze our music a lot during our rehearsals and try to create structure and create different sections with different volumes. We try to keep it varied so we’re not constantly playing slow numbers and not constantly playing quietly. We’re interested in taking the audience up and down with different rhythms and feels.
We’re also interested in switching between original and cover music. When we play out of town at places where people haven’t heard our original music, I think sometimes the audience wants something familiar they can identify.
I think I got a little off track there (laughs).
That’s OK. When I first heard your music, one of the things that struck me was how vintage it sounds. You used that word earlier, and I think it’s very apt because it really gives you the impression that it could be coming out of a 30s vacuum-tube radio, even though you sing about things like mix tapes. That has to be something you try and cultivate.
Ah, thanks. I do try and cultivate it, but it came very naturally. I think the look came before the sound because I’ve collected vintage dresses and knick knacks since I was really, really young. I’ve got a lot of pieces that were from females in my family.
When I first started performing, I wanted to wear something nice on stage, and all I had was vintage dresses, so that’s what I wore. People told me that my voice would be really suited to singing old jazz. At the time, I was doing more folk-singer, Americana, Gillian Welch kind-of singer/songwriter style stuff. I was inspired to learn some Ella Fitzgerald cover songs - some old standards. Those have taken me very far.
I do try, but I don’t try very hard. I’m not particularly trying to copy or model myself after any particular era or singer, but I do like old stuff, and I have a passion for junk stores and thrift stores, especially when we’re going out of town. Those are good times for the band.
I don’t mean to imply you’re trying to copy anything, but your sound just sounds so authentic, and that seems like something you would have to work at.
I take that as a very huge compliment. I really want it to sound soulful and old and familiar. I think part of that may come from our recording techniques. On the last album, we decided we would do it all live. We did it all pretty much standing together in one room in one take. We were all kind of going at it at the same time and singing at the same time we were playing. I know that’s how old recordings were done before overdubbing. We recorded it in this really high-ceilinged room up in the woods in Johnson City so it had really nice atmosphere. I think that is reflected in the album.
Your music from what I’ve read - and I think this is an apt description - has often been called sultry. What’s amusing about that is that it can mean either hot and stuffy or arousing. Which definition applies to your music?
I definitely go for the subtly-arousing vibe when I’m singing. I’ve heard people say about my singing that I go right up to the edge of giving it all, but I won’t - I’ll hold back a little bit. It makes people want to hear more. I’ve thought about that, and I sort of use that technique a little bit.
You mentioned early that you don’t just sing the Depression-era jazz music but like to venture into other genres, but everything I’ve heard on your Myspace seems to fall in that category. Is that where the bulk of your songs come from or have I just not been exposed to enough of your music?
I think in a live show we spread it out a lot more evenly into other genres. I think the difference is maybe that the album is all original music except for one standard. I don’t know, I guess it all has a vintage sound. You’re winning me over to your style of thinking the more I think about it (laughs).
I guess it’s two different animals seeing us live and listening to the album. I think we’ve matured a lot since the album came out, and it’s only been a year and a month. I don’t know.
That seems to be true that bands sound different live than on recordings.
You can definitely feel the similarity, though. We’ve also written a lot more songs since that album came out, and we’re right on the precipice of the next album. I think, like any artist, we get excited about our new work than about our old work, you know?
Yeah. When are you planning to start work on that next album, or are you already in the process of doing so?
We’re in the process, in that we’ve written a solid number of songs to go in. We’d like to have 15 to go in and record 12. I’m the only songwriter in the band, so that falls pretty much squarely on my shoulders (laughs). Doing that, I’ve got it about up to where I want to be.
The next thing we do is that we like to have the songs worked out and arranged before we go into the studio because, like I said, we like to do it live. We like working them out on stage for a good month or two beforehand because unpredictable things can happen that can sound wonderful, and you’ll want to recreate that when you record the album.
Do you have any kind of timetable established?
I think we’re going to try and get our first studio time in late February or early March. What we typically do is take a four-day weekend and go and do all the songs until we think we have it down. Then, we’ll go back and listen to it one more time and fix any little things that need fixing.
I don’t know, from that process it takes a couple months, to get the artwork ready and duplicated at the old factory, so I’d say maybe out by early summer. It’s really not that far away. We’re really excited about it.
You’ve said you’ve grown a lot as a band. Are there any lessons in particular you’ve taken away from Love and Circumstances?
You said earlier that we have a lot of instruments but that it doesn’t sound very busy, but I sort of feel when I listen to Love and Circumstances that it’s a bit busy. The lesson I’m taking from that is to be more careful and more spare the next time we record. I’m definitely more conscious about it this time around. Instead of just doing what feels good, I’m trying to separate myself a little bit from the songs and think about structure, volume and not overdoing it.
One of my favorite albums to listen to, from a production standpoint, is Norah Jones’ first album, Come Away With Me. I love her band. Her voice is incredible and her songs are incredible, but her band is just the perfect support for her without overwhelming her. It doesn’t really steal the spotlight or anything like that. It just enhances her pretty much perfectly.
I’m almost afraid to bring up her name in interviews because I don’t want anyone to listen to us and be like, Norah Jones! Then they’ll be like, Oh, you sound just like Norah Jones, you know what I mean?
Well, you’re two different animals, but I can see how you might want to pull from her. To move on, it seems like, listening to this style of singing, it’s a more difficult style to approach than many others in that it maintains a melodic element but also emphasizes the rhythmic as well. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I think that’s accurate. It’s hard to talk about my own singing because it’s like talking about your hand - it’s just sort of there (laughs). I have a couple of things to say about singing techniques.
I do this thing when I’m singing - and I think I picked this up from another singer, though I can’t think of who now - who said to enunciate in a certain way. If you’ve ever seen Alice in Wonderland and the part with the caterpillar sitting on the mushroom with all the words are coming out of his mouth as a stream of smoke. In my case, they’re coming out of my mouth like a stream of air.
I kind of imagine the shapes of the words coming out. By doing that, it makes my vocal tone rounder and warmer and less nasally. I don’t exactly know what that is, but I do it when I sing. I think it makes me sound sexier. Again, I’m not exactly sure why, but it works, so I’ll keep doing it.
I definitely depend a lot on having a rhythmic player with me. If I could only perform with one member of the band with me, it would be the drummer. He’s had a really big influence on my overall songwriting. Instead of writing things that are more narrative, I’m writing things that are more catchy, and part of being catchy is having a kind of groove. Playing with a really accomplished drummer is like insta-groove (laughs). I’ve been picking up a lot on him.
Anything you’d like to add before we close this out?
You could maybe add that this is the first year that we’ve been touring really. We were just a local band before that, but we really want to expand our market, and we really want to travel nationally and internationally just because that’s our passion. We hired a booking agent, and things just snowballed so fast. One day, we’re just playing in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Johnson City, we hire a booking agent, and the next day, I check my myspace page and the agent has added 20 new dates in Florida (laughs). It’s awesome.
That’s the reason we haven’t been in the studio yet. We’ve had a plethora of touring dates. It’s kind of the new era of Christabel and The Jons.
Are you going to stop coming to Chattanooga, then?
Of course not. We want to build up a following in those cities that are closest to us so we can come back.
E-mail Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org