A skinny white kid from New Jersey though he may be, Jonah Tolchin grew up with a love and reverence for the blues that rivals any kid from Chicago or Memphis. That passion was made clear on 2014’s Clover Lane, but is brought into even sharper focus on his latest release, Thousand Mile Night. Working, once again, with Marvin Etzioni, Tolchin churns and chugs through a song cycle that continues to fulfill his promise as a young bluesman.
You’ve had a lot of life changes since your last record. You criss-crossed the country, got married, moved to the woods, became a producer… How do those things find their way into this project?
Being able to collaborate as a co-producer on this record was a big step for me in the realm of producing, and I’m grateful to my mentor and friend Marvin [Etzioni] to have been able to take that step with his guidance. We were working late hours every day to complete this project. I think it took something like four days total (tracking and mixing). There were times when three of us were working the board at once, mixing live in unison. This record, for me, is really a “record in time” of how I was feeling during the process and leading up to it.
Because Clover Lane was so warmly received and widely acclaimed, how did that affect how you approached its follow-up?
Through the guidance of my team, I was able to really focus in and take a step forward that everyone felt good about. In the past, I’ve had sort of a rebellious attitude toward life, not caring what anyone thought except for myself. More recently, I’ve adopted an attitude of gratitude. I tried to listen to my heart and my environment in order to create a piece of art that felt good at the time.
I think I can speak for many when I say, as artists, we are always shedding our skin as soon as we create something; we tend to move on and start focusing on what is next. That’s how I function. I don’t want people to feel alienated from the records I make just because I tend to move on quickly. I’ve noticed a pattern: When I make a new record, I tend to start to start falling back in love with the record I made previously.
One day, I hope to love all of the records that I’ve made… I try and not listen to things too much after I make ’em. Just open the gate and let them run free. It’s a scary thing, sometimes. But I do my best to keep faith that all is well and beautiful.
Beauty in the Ugliest of Days” holds a particularly poignant and important message. Was that written for a specific, personal situation or the broader world stage?
The seed of this song came from a man that I’ve never met. Co-producer Marvin Etzioni called me when I was on the runway at LAX about to fly back to Logan. He told me a friend just called who was living out on the streets of L.A. He essentially started preaching the gospel to Marvin. He told Marvin that it was “up to us to see the beauty in the ugliest of days,” or at least that’s how he felt, out in his situation.
I had had some chords that I came up with a few days prior when I was on a break from working on the Julie Rhodes record at the Carriage House Studios (Sheldon Gomberg’s spot in Silver Lake). The phone conversation was very inspiring to me, and I started scribbling on my notepad and completed the lyrics to go with the chords in my head before the plane took off. It was a surreal experience. I feel blessed to have been part of the process of making the song.
Unless You Got Faith” is a song you wrote for Julie Rhodes’ album, which you produced, but you felt compelled to record it yourself, as well. What about it stirred that need in you?
Julie actually suggested that I record the song myself…
You’re carrying on the blues with a tangible reverence for the form. What’s your assessment of its present and future, in terms of artists and audience?
The blues are a highly misunderstood genre of music by everyone except those who already love the style. A lot of people think they are too simplistic or primitive, and some people think it’s a depressing art form. My understanding of the blues is that, to play the blues, you have to be able to transform your own emotions of hardship into pure love and positive energy. The blues aren’t for just sitting in your room and wallowing. The blues are for overcoming hard times. That’s a timeless thing: We all go through some form of the blues, at some point.
My hope is that the art form remains timeless, yet there is more and more positive energy going into the craft. My hope for the world is that we will all learn to get along and practice loving kindness and compassion. Just like any style, the blues is evolving in certain ways — I just hope that the seeds of the past masters are continually watered so we don’t forget where the art form started. We need more authentic players in the world who are doing it out of pure love and passion for the art form. It really is an art — and more difficult to master then people think. I will always be a student in this field. Maybe in 20-40 years that will change, and I’ll be able to teach in a bigger way. In the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix: “Who knows!”