You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Jer Coons

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Q&A with Jer Coons

If you haven't heard of Jer Coons just yet, you will soon. While comparisons to notable singer-songwriters like Jason Mraz abound, Coons has that uniqueness that allows him to standout in today's music scene. From having his current single featured on Hollister's in-store play list to being the third most popular Vermont musician on MySpace, not to mention opening for Colin Hays of Men At Work this summer, Coons is well on his way.

I chatted with Jer while he was in Michigan for a few days before gearing up for his album release and fall tour. Talking candidly about his music, latest album and writing process, Coons' said, "As a songwriter, there is nothing more exciting than hearing a song come together the way you heard it in your head. I just want people to feel like they know me through my music. " And that they will. Read my complete interview below and be sure to pick up a copy of his debut album, Speak, in stores Tuesday, September 29.

Was the recording process for Speak everything you thought it’d be?
Yeah. It was the first time that I was able to record with a band. Everything else was an amalgamation of me trying to play every instrument or having my friends come in and play on a track after I already started the foundation of things. This was the first attempt that I had gotten the band together from the ground floor. It’s a group of guys from Vermont who are incredible musicians and they bring a musicality and authenticity that I really wouldn’t be able to find with people of my own level of experience. They’re absolutely phenomenal.

So, what I did was basically brought these nascent ideas for songs to them at the ground floor and we just worked through them. We let the songs themselves evolve to a point that we felt like we’d been playing them for years before we had recorded them, even though it was condensed into a period of about a month and a half of pre-production.

What’s your typical songwriting process?
The songwriting process, for better or worse, is entirely autobiographical. I can’t really write about something that I haven’t gone through. The downfall as a cynical industry person is that I couldn’t really manufacture something. But, the benefit as a human and as a listener is that I can’t manufacture something so people seem to respond to it because it’s honest. I think if there’s ever a crunch time and I’m forced to go down to the wire and make something up, I don’t have it in me. I think that that’s actually good and I feel excited about that because if there’s ever a time that I have to fake it, I think I’m going to throw in the towel and call it a day 'cause no one wants to hear that.

Do you feel a song comes out better when it really happens to you?
Yeah. It’s definitely everything that’s happened to me. I’ve written dumb songs that aren’t actually things that I play for people and try to create something out of nothing and I don’t think they come out that good. People are smarter than a lot of artists give them credit for, fans especially. Even if people want to dismiss the younger crowd, like 14-year-old-girls, people are like, “They listen to Jonas Brothers, they can’t know what’s going on.” As much as people don’t think they get it, they get it. They’re some of the most perceptive listeners in music, but they’re also some of the most dismissive because if they’ve heard it, they’ve heard it. And they can tell when you’re being honest or when it was just written in a laboratory somewhere.

Your songs are very personal. Are you afraid to reveal too much?
People have their own interpretations of things. I hope that there is enough metaphor and enough ambiguity to make people not read it entirely at face value. Certainly there are songs that people are able to. But, you can’t even think about it as terms as a songwriter. I’m writing purely for therapy and to capture the phrase, lyric or melody that I have in my head exactly as I hear it. Every time I have an idea it pops into my head really quickly and I’m afraid I’m going to forget exactly how I said it. It’s always a struggle to write it down really quickly. I have all these little scraps of paper in my pockets. Some ideas are awful and some ideas may have some quality to it, but I never know until I’ve given it some time. Maybe a week later or two weeks later, I’ll be driving in my car and I’ll be humming a tune and then go grab a guitar and try to flush it out and realize maybe there’s some redeemable quality.

Your first single, “Legs” became pretty popular after being played at Hollister.
That was a total fluke and usually when things are discovered by people there rarely is “an overnight success.” There are always factors that came together in the same way, rarely is it one thing. But, the Hollister thing just came together randomly and it happens to be an audience that is very receptive to my type of music. The target market of Hollister has some overlap with Jer Coons fans apparently. I think it’s a testament to the song, and also I don’t know if this is specifically Hollister consumers, but apparently they’re not lazy. People were willing to put in the effort of looking up artist and song information and taking the time to check me out online and devour the content I have on YouTube. I’m psyched that people cared enough about it to check it out.

You’re the third most popular Vermont artist on MySpace after Phish and Grace Potter.
It’s exciting. Vermont has been very good to me. I’m proud to be born and raised Vermonter. I hope to call it my home my whole life, though my ideal reality is splitting time between Vermont and New York City. I think that’s the best of both worlds. I would love to have a presence in New York without feeling like I have to work in New York to sustain just a closet. The Vermont music scene has been very supportive to me. I love them for it and I hope the feeling is mutual.

The beauty of Vermont — there’s a huge music scene. People love music and the arts and they’re very supportive. It’s a combination, it's big fish small pond sort of thing versus a community like Nashville or LA where there is so much white noise from all the competition that it’s really difficult to make an impact. [In LA and Nashville] there are so many places where the attention is diverted and there are so many venues and bands that it’s tough to make an impact on that level.

Growing up in Vermont, how much has the music scene structured you and your music?
The Vermont music culture is very conducive to jam bands. I think the geography, relaxed state of mind and community — everyone appreciates nature and that makes a lot of jam bands want to play in Vermont. I started to really get into songwriting. I played electric guitar first and switched to acoustic guitar my sophomore year of high school. In a hilarious way, that was almost me being rebellious by rebelling against a less structured type of music and going into a world like pop music that is so constricting and almost the antithesis of that. I have a huge respect and admiration for jam bands. I think it was a response to it being so saturated in my area, to play a type of music that’s not as accepted as a different type of music. I got really fascinated with something that was not formulaic, but that there were rules you had to follow. In a way, I love to try and break convention and fit within the constraints of a song structure and say something unique and do something different that has me laughing because I did it my own way.

Your biography is very different from the typical band bio. (Read Jer's bio here.)
If anything, it’s just poking fun at the nature of things. I was thinking about the industry in general and always get asked how is my “brand” defined? I’m like, it’s not really a brand, it’s me being myself and I’m sort of ridiculous person for better or worse. Honestly, I try and be just Jer. I might put out a record called Just Jer, which is terrible and it may not be commercially successful at all [laughs].

[The bio is] pretty much recognizing that I’m one of a huge number of people trying to do exactly the same thing in terms of the public’s perception. Singer-songwriters are obviously a dime a dozen. The difference between my music and my approach to the whole game is that I’m not trying too hard and I don’t take myself too seriously. People have been responding really well because my songs seem really honest and personal. My bio is just totally tongue in cheek and my type of humor. I try and have every aspect of what I do represent who am instead of who someone thinks that I should be.

How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?
It is acoustic pop music, unabashedly pop and a little hint of soul and country. I really do listen to tons of different music; I’ll have Thelonious Monk at one minute and then the Jonas Brothers, but not actually seriously listening to them. It’s definitely a range. Luckily, I was in an environment growing up and musical family that listened to a whole lot of different stuff. Everything from country to, there was church music at some point and I think every little thing you hear is an additive. You start to explore different types of music and I think it comes across in my songs subtly. I listen to a lot of different things and then try to channel that sound that is myself and that is a byproduct of all these different genres.

What was the inspiration behind your first single, “Legs?”
That is a song that is completely autobiographical. I’ll let listeners take their own interpretation and weave the storyline. I will say that it’s exactly what you think it is. It’s about appreciating the little things. It’s about the tiny details of someone that you seem to latch onto, the subtleties that seem to be lost to other people and that’s “the scars on your legs” line. The writing process for it was no different than any other songs. The right number of factors came together to make it resonate with people and people have really latched onto it. Hilariously, they say something has legs; I like to say the song might have legs. Hopefully it can take off. People who have heard it so far at Hollister seem to latch onto the lyrics. It’s just like a diary entry. Everyone has been through that, or if they haven’t, the second they go through it, they’re like, “Oh man, I know what you’re talking about.” It is what it is.

Is there one song on the album that’s a particular favorite or means the most to you?
In terms of songs that are closest to my heart, I don’t know that they’re my favorite, but in terms of ones that mean the most to me, I think it’s a tie between “Film Called Life” and “The Only Trace,” which are the ballads of the record. Those are two songs that were almost difficult to release to people because they were so revealing and also two songs, as a result, that I don’t play live as much. It’s a big hurdle to leap over to get to a point where it’s cool to be that intimate. Those ones are definitely close to home.

In terms of songs I like to play live, I think “Speak” is one of the most fun songs ever because there’s a harmonized guitar part and the beat that my drummer Jeff helps flush out and the bass line that appears from my bass player, it just makes you shake your ass. I’m very excited to get a song like that. We didn’t have any idea about track listing, but the second we recorded that we were like, “Okay, yeah, that’s going to be the first song.”

You were just on tour this summer with Colin Hay from Men At Work, how was that?
It was awesome. He’s massively successfully. I had been covering “Land Down Under” since the eighth grade. I actually randomly have the same booking agent as Colin Hay, so I was lucky enough to get those dates, totally on a whim. So I’m like, “Wait, Colin Hay? The Colin Hay?” I’ve been covering his songs since I was eight, I think I own some royalties. I rightfully got a little freaked out and excited. With any expectations that you have as a fan of anyone, especially on that level, the dude’s sold 30 million records. I was apprehensive about meeting him, because I had no idea what he’d be like. There’s that fear of meeting someone famous because they’re not gonna be all that you hope they would be.

I was so lucky and so excited when I met him. The first night we played together he just walked right into my dressing room and introduces himself. He was so cool, so down to earth and just genuinely nice. He clearly cared and that was the most encouraging thing ever. The shows were great, there was a super supportive crowd and he killed it every night so I was just excited to warm up the crowd for him.

What did you learn from watching him perform every night?
I guess the biggest thing was he is very honest with his stage presence and his self awareness. He was really good, his banter was awesome with the crowd. I think the one thing I took away was . . . the idea that fame or success gets to people’s heads is universal and he pretty much squashed that. That was my biggest fear. Just seeing that you can totally be at that level and be the coolest guy ever was really, really comforting for me. That certainly is something you fear losing as other things come into play.

For more on Jer Coons, be sure to visit him on MySpace and purchase his debut album Tuesday!

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