Interview: Jon Lewis discusses his band’s latest album and making a living as a full-time artist

Rochester’s Jon Lewis Band is experiencing its fair share of notoriety on the heels of releasing their eighth album in four years, Get Wild Somewhere. In the month of May, lead singer Jon Lewis made the media rounds, appearing on WXXI’s Connections with Evan Dawson to talk about how streaming is impacting musicians, as well as on college radio stations WRUR and WBER, and the band opened the Rochester Lilac Festival.

Jon Lewis interviewJon Lewis recently spoke with NYSMusic about the process of making music with his best friends, eeking out a full-time career in music and art, and the largest pizza he’s ever seen.

Amy Cavalier: What inspired this album? Why did you feel the need to fly out of Rochester to record this album?

Jon Lewis: After we finished recording our previous EP “Baby Brother,” we were given an amazing opportunity to record in our friend’s newly built studio in Los Angeles. With that in mind, we began to write and practice songs that were all intentionally constructed to be played and recorded live. We didn’t want to do any overdubs or try to manipulate our sound too much. This made it possible to record in a shorter period of time and also enabled us to make something that showcases all of our individual strengths. All the songs were written for this album. A totally fresh brew of tunes.

AC: Despite some major weather delays, you were able to record this in just a few days. What types of challenges arose and what did you learn from the process?

JL: This experience was insane. We were supposed to have a solid three to four days in the studio, but because of nearly two full days of weather delays, we only had a day and a half to record the album. In the end, we had prepped for such a thing and ended up recording the entire band live in one day. We never wanted to take a long time, and it almost seemed like Mother Nature was challenging our convictions and everyone in Jon Lewis band rose to the challenge.

We showed up ready to play, and everyone at the studio made it possible by prepping and being on-hand for the whole process. Plus, there was a brewery across the street, so we were well taken care of. We also ate the biggest pizza I had ever seen that had to be taken in through the loading dock door because it was too large to fit through the door.

AC: What was the idea behind the creation of the video for “Cinnamon Only,” the sixth track on Get Wild Somewhere? How long did it take to create? Do you plan to make videos for more of your songs?

JL: I animated the video entirely using colored paper and sketches I made. It took about a month from start to finish. I drew and cut out the characters, then photographed/animated them against a green screen. Then I put all the layers together to create something I like to call “Paper World.”

I’ve done several of these projects and it’s truly a joy and passion of mine. This video was created as I went; I started drawing a face and then thought, “she should be riding a motorcycle” and then when I drew that I thought, “and she should be accompanied by a wolf spirit guide” and then just kept drawing and writing as I went. The plot and story completely unfolded as I continued to work, just letting the song dictate the imagery. I will definitely be making more videos, just as soon as I get some time.

AC: How do you find the inspiration to keep coming up with new material on such a regular basis? What does the songwriting process look like for the JLB?

JL: The songwriting for the band has been an ever-evolving creature. In the beginning, I did a majority of the song writing, taking songs from my acoustic catalog and then translating them into a full band format. As time has passed, Dave Drago and I have become more of a battery for song writing. This new album is an example of how far we’ve come.

The inception of songs coming from Dave and myself, and then constructed and enlightened by everyone in the band. A true commutative effort. I still write quite a lot of songs specifically for my acoustic performances, as well as songs intentionally created for my alter-ego “Mr. Loops.” I am incredibly lucky to have different purposes for songs I write and that definitely helps the creative energy.

AC: You put out a very fun social media presence….your band seems like the kind of guys you could really just hang out with. Have you put thought into the image your band emulates? Or is this organic?

JL: Marketing and managing social media is a fun and yet also a very daunting task. I manage it all. Our band’s main purpose and function are that each member feels a no-stress and all-joy connection to the music. We are brothers and friends and family and without that feeling, we would not care to exist. It helps put out the right vibe and deep down that is because we feel it on a very real level.

AC: Your fans helped fund the recording of this album. Why do you think your fans are so willing to support you and eager to see you succeed?

JL: This album would not exist without the incredible love and support we got from our fans through our fundraiser. Once we decided to make the album in LA and to track it live, we knew this was the album to press on vinyl. We were successful after a few weeks time and that sent us to LA feeling so much positive energy, most certainly fueling our ability to overcome obstacles and make the music the best we could. I know our fans are invested in hearing what this journey has meant for our sound and how far we’ve come since our last release and I cannot wait to share it.

AC: If you could describe each of your band mates to a stranger (as a person and a musician), how would you describe them? And if they could describe you, what would they say?

JL: Dave (Drago, bass) is dad. He’s the reason any of the music exists as he has engineered/recorded and produced all of our albums in his studio 1809 Studios (link). He’s got vision, he’s upfront and he sees the infinite potential in a song and person unlike anyone I’ve ever met.

Jake (Walsh, drums) is our heartbeat. Consistent, positive and present, he has maintained the beat of the band since the very beginning. One of the most talented and empathetic human beings you can ever wish to meet.

Shawn (Brogan, lead guitar) is our hot sauce. His lead guitar licks and dissident sounds create the soul of our music. He’s technical and always creates a well-constructed lead lick. He’s “ride or die” and balances our sound and our group with energy and support.

Alex (Northrup, keys) is our bed. When Alex joined the band we knew we were finally comfy and complete. One of the most talented musicians I have ever met, he can pick up literally any instrument and make it sing. He’s technically proficient and also carries an edge of insanity that fits in with us so well. He’s a compassionate and amazing human.

Jon Lewis (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) I literally have no idea how the band would describe me but I would hope they would say something nice (or else).

AC: You are currently making a full-time living with music and performance art. Was this always your intention? What does it take to be a successful full-time musician in a small pond such as Rochester? Are there advantages to doing this here vs. in a bigger city with more competition?

JL: I am a full-time artist. I dropped out of college before I incurred any debt and went straight into the workforce. I worked sales for 10 years before building a foundation to quit and make art full-time.

It’s not easy, and I have to find new and innovative ways of making a living outside of just performing and making music. I do documentary film making for local historical societies, I animate and create music videos, and I perform music for kids as “Mr. Loops” – this combination has created an ever spinning wheel of work for me that keeps the dream of not going back to “work” possible.

If you want to chase a dream like this, you have to keep your eyes and doors open to different ways of being creative, and getting what you deserve for your creations. Rochester is certainly a more affordable place to live and play than larger cities, making this sort of crazy notion possible.

AC: Do you have a bigger vision for the Jon Lewis Band…not just to dominate the local Rochester music scene, but to make yourself known to a wider audience?

JL: I definitely keep an ever-expanding vision alive for my art and my music. I have very little expectations but I truly pour all of myself into every creation with the knowledge that there’s no way of knowing how long I will be lucky enough to be alive and make music. I would love to tour more, and still have many different adventures to take with performing.

AC: You recently traveled back to LA to audition for Blue’s Clues…how did that come about? Although you did not get a call back, what did you take from that experience?

JL: I sure did! After never being to LA as an adult I found myself there twice in a three month period. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to send my information and videos into Nickelodeon when I heard from a dear friend Malcolm Whitfield that they were looking for a new Blues Clues host.

They did respond, inviting me out to audition in person and I jumped at the chance. It was an amazing experience and one I will never forget. More than just the insanely cool audition experience, I was able to spend some serious quality time with my long-time friend Johnny McHone and soak up the sun more than we had a chance to when we were recording Get Wild Somewhere. I learned that, especially in LA, if you bring a positive and giving attitude to the city (no matter if you “win or lose”) that the city and life will repay you tenfold.

AC: How often do you perform as Mr. Loops? What other ways do you cobble together your living? Would you describe yourself as a starving artist? Or do you feel like you’re finally making headway?

JL: I perform regularly as Mr. Loops but would like to perform even more. I love to play music for kids and it keeps me silly and having fun in a business that can certainly be hard to manage. I find that the “struggle” of being an artist full-time greatly outweighs the “comfort” of a less rewarding career. I feel truly connected and alive making music and making art.

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