Jon Black has been one of the staples of the Birmingham music scene over the last several years. But recently he has transformed from singer/songwriter to Fort Atlantic, an act that pushes the envelope when it comes to sonic textures and atmospheric landscapes, drawing comparisons to beloved songwriters such as Neil Young and Jackson Browne to the more experimental Wilco and My Morning Jacket. So far this year, Black has opened for Jack White, played the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores and has released his self-titled album on CD, digital download and NES cartridge. He will be a part of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, which will be in Manchester, TN, from June 7th to 10th. We spoke with Black about his newest musical ventures, DIY (do-it-yourself) recording, his upcoming move to Portland and his time in Birmingham. For more information on Fort Atlantic, visit www.fortatlantic.com
Chris K. Davidson for Birmingham Weekly: What was your reasoning
for changing from Jon Black, the singer/songwriter to Fort Atlantic, which
seems much more expansive than your previous work?
Jon Black: I feel like the music's evolved. I just felt that
going as just Jon Black was limiting the potential of it. When it comes to
singer/songwriters, there's an expectation as to how you're supposed to sound.
Even in the niche, genre and market, it's an uphill battle anyway, but if
you're a singer/songwriter that doesn't fit the mold, it's even more an uphill
battle. I've had a lot of conversations with people, especially my manager, and
it felt like this was a good time to do a change. If there was any time to do
it, it was now. Obviously there is some
elements of Jon Black the singer/songwriter in there, but it's a little more
expansive and a little more evolved and it doesn't fit the singer/songwriter
BW: What's the inspiration behind the name?
JB: The name means a lot. When I think about what I do, I think
about how I'm creating music, creating art, and it can be a little vulnerable
to put yourself out there. I just wanted to create a space where I could feel
protected to say what I wanted to say and express what I wanted to express. We
threw around castles, forts, and all these kinds of things when it came to the
name. A fort was really symbolic for a place where I could feel safe and go on
the offense a little bit and push myself out there.
BW: Where did you get the idea for the NES cartridges as the
format for your album?
JB: I thought long and hard about how I wanted to put out the
record. CDs still have a place, but I feel like they're a dying medium.
Everything's going digital. I wanted to think outside of vinyl and CDs and what
would be a creative way to sell the music. I read an article about a guy who
was opening up 5-inch floppy disks and dropping CDs in there and using the
disks as his cases. I thought that was a really creative packaging idea.
Instead of packaging CDs, you just burn them and put a label on them and drop
them into a floppy disk. I thought about what I could do that was a little
creative and had a bit of my personality in it. So how about using a Nintendo
cartridge? It was a random idea, but I chased it and presented it to the label
and they loved it. The idea was how could I rethink how people buy the music.
In the industry, people keep saying that no one's buying music. I think people
are buying music, but I think people want more than just a digital download, CD
or vinyl. They're just looking for a new experience with it.
BW: I can definitely see your musical evolution in the song, "I'm
Wrong," which is something more expansive and one of your lengthiest songs as
far as song structure goes.
JB: Definitely. What's weird about that song is that was a song
whose original version was very folky and bluesy, very Ryan Adams-esque. When I
took the demo to the label, they compared it to Heartbreaker-era Ryan Adams. Immediately, I started thinking of
ways I could put my own spin on it. I just went Neil Young with it and turned
it up. The whole idea is that we're living in this weird digital world where
we're just humans walking around with our cell phones. I just wanted to embody
that in a song. It's the culmination of digital and analog. In the record,
there are lot of subtle things going on, but that's the biggest digital versus
analog kind of battle going on.
BW: What inspired you lyrically for this record? I feel like
there's a struggle, but it's a fruitful type of struggle. There's a goal in
JB: That's definitely a theme on this record and it comes from
where I am in my music career and from other areas of life where I feel like I
could be a better person or I could approach things differently. I don't want
to focus too much on the struggle. I'm hoping the next record will be a little
bit different, but the idea of where I am in life and music, it can be really
difficult. I didn't want to focus on that because it's really easy to focus on,
but I wanted to point it towards the idea that this is going to mold us and
this is what will make us stronger. All these things that we have to go through
in our lives that are tough where in the back of the room laying on the ground
because we don't know what we're doing, these are the things that shape us.
When we look back on these times, we'll be thankful for that. That's what I
wanted to communicate. These struggles are something that we learn from and
it's something that's not easy to be in the middle of, but it's something that
afterward we'll be grateful that we went through it.
BW: You've done a lot of your own recording. What have been some
of the benefits and challenges of doing that?
JB: The biggest benefit of doing this myself is that I have all the time that I can spend on it. A lot of the times when you're in the studio, there's a time limit and restraint to it. There are multiple versions of these songs because we've had time to figure out what we didn't like. That was one of the biggest benefits. One of the cons of doing it yourself is that you do have a lot of time and I'm a perfectionist. That was one of those things where we eventually had to draw a line and say that these songs are where they need to be. I can keep adding things and changing things, but they're where they need to be. Another thing would be the learning curve to do it. I by no means consider myself an engineer or producer, even though I did it all. There's so many people out there doing it better than me and they know the theory behind it, the math behind it. I'll just put a microphone somewhere and say it works there. That's one of the negative things of doing it yourself, but I'm really happy that I did it. When I mixed the record, I was talking with Tom Schick, who mixed it, and I asked what I could do to get better, and he told me that I needed to do the next record the same as this one. He said it was a good project and that he's mixed far worse. That was encouraging to hear that from someone who's won a Grammy.
The two records I did before the Fort Atlantic stuff were not
under my control. I listen to them now and I can hear every single flaw. Now,
when I listen to this record, I hear the flaws, but realize that I had the
decision to keep doing that. The record is one of the most tight things that
I've done. It's like slave to the click track. I knew I had to be really tight
with it. All these flaws that are in it counterbalance how "perfect" some of
the other things. The flaws in the other records were things that we just
didn't have time to fix and the flaws on this record I left because I think it
BW: You're moving to Portland soon. What are you looking forward
to about the move?
JB: Right now, there's a few things I'm excited about moving to Portland. The first thing, the biggest thing, is that my wife and I wanted to try something new and she quickly got a job there, so we knew it was something we could do and it wasn't a hard decision to make. Things fell into place for it. For me, the biggest thing I'm looking forward to is being outside my comfort zone. In art and creative industries, when you're comfortable, you may or may not do the best work. Obviously, you want to be comfortable on stage and comfortable in the studio, but there should always be some sort of tension and unfamiliarity to your surroundings, which is how, at least in my situation, I've pulled out some of the best things that I've done. That's one of the biggest things I'm looking forward to, getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new.
Also, Portland is a bigger city and a bigger market and I think
if we stayed here, I'd be totally happy and my career would continue to grow,
but I think sometimes being in a bigger market helps with your career. It
definitely can't hurt it. There's a lot of great musicians there and looking
forward to making friends out there and keeping my friends here. There's a lot
of similarities between Birmingham and Portland. It kind of has a underdog
sense to it and a quietness to it.
BW: What will you take away from your time in Birmingham?
JB: Friends. First and foremost, our friends here. Every day is
either one side or the other. I'm very excited or I'm very sad. The thing I'm
most sad about is leaving our friends. I think that's something that's really
helped us here. We moved here not knowing anybody. Now we're leaving here with
so many friends and so many dear people. It's going to be a tough adjustment.
BW: What are some of the lessons that you've learned as a
musician that you wish you had known starting out?
JB: I started doing this seven years ago and I think about the songs that I was writing and the sound of those songs and I can hear those and hear who I was trying to be. One thing I tell people is be yourself. Learn how to communicate your voice in your work and your art. It was an epiphany when I was at the Hangout Festival. I was sitting there watching Randy Newman on the piano. I hear these and think, "That's Randy Newman." That's not him trying to be someone else. That is Randy Newman being Randy Newman. His personality comes through his music. I think that's something I'm learning. I think I'm getting closer to it, but by no means have I mastered it. But that is something I would communicate to people just starting out. Don't be someone else. Be yourself and write what you think.
Even though I still take it personally, I also would say don't
take it personally. You've got a lot of growing to do as an artist and I still
have plenty of growing to do and changing with becoming more mature. Be patient
and keep working and you'll see how things change and develop. Eventually, you
will start finding your voice.
BW: What does the rest of 2012 look like for you? You're playing
JB: Yes, Bonnaroo for one thing. Then I'm also playing a Catalpa
Festival in New York. Those two festivals this summer. Use most of August and
part of September to get settled in Portland. After that, we've got some offers
on the table for support of bigger tours and stuff like that. We're hoping the
fall will be a tour-heavy fall. I'll be with [drummer] Josh Cannon on the road
paying our dues. That's what we hope the rest of the year will bring.
BW: What are three to five records that you can listen to from
start to finish at any point?
JB: Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Wilco, Transatlanticism from Death Cab, How It Feels to Be Something On by Sunny Day Real Estate, and Pinkerton from Weezer.
You can still get tickets to Bonaroo from Birmingham Weekly. Go to www.bhamweekly.com if you're not already there and click on the Bonaroo contest.
Also look for other articles by Chris Davidson about bands playing Bonaroo, such as Alabama Shakes (http://bhamweekly.com/birmingham/article-3030-alabama-shakes.html) and the Avett Brothers. http://bhamweekly.com/birmingham/article-2968-the-avett-brothers.html. For more on Bonaroo, go to Out of My Head. http://bhamweekly.com/birmingham/article-3019-wilderness-into-harmony.html.
Find the Bonaroo contest on our home page to get tickets. http://bhamweekly.com/birmingham/contests.