From Jackson Browne to Joystiq: An Interview with Jon Black

Photo by Caleb Chancey


When I recommended Jon Black's "Gravity (Don't Let Me Go)" in HMX RBN Picks VI, I described the song as "rich bass over the thunder of drums, lyrics reflecting desperation and spirituality, [with] mellow, smooth vocals".  It caught me by surprise when Web Editor HMXcj commented, "Yeah, and did you know it was inspired by a video game?"

So when the opportunity to interview Jon Black showed up, I leapt on it.  As a musician who loves video games, Jon Black is a natural fit in the Rock Band Network, and this was a wonderful opportunity to hear more about his perspectives on music, gaming, and the RBN.  (And sure enough - "Gravity (Don't Let Me Go)" is partially about Halo Orbital Drop Shock Troops.  Who would've thought?)



Carolyn VanEseltine: Jon Black is you, of course, but where did the rest of the name (Jon Black and the Winter Hearts) come from?

Jon Black: The Winter Hearts came from the 2nd song on the new EP called "The Hardest Part of Fading".  This EP is a little different than music I've made in the past.  There's more noise and edge to it, so I thought it would be appropriate to give it a slightly different name.  You can still hear elements of "Jon Black" in the songs, but you'll hear some different sounds.  I wanted to give people a visual warning that it might sound a little different, and hopefully adding The Winter Hearts to it might cue them to consider a change is coming.

CV: How would you describe your music to someone who had never heard it before?

JB: Atmospheric Folk-Rock that knows when be loud and when to be quiet....  I recently overheard a journalist-friend describe me as Jackson Browne and Neil Young's bearded child, and that's flattering because I love their music.

CV: Who are some of the artists that have influenced your music?

JB: The Beatles, Wilco, U2, My Morning Jacket, Jackson Browne, Neil Young... anything with great songs and cool landscapes for the song to travel through.  Also, the folk artist Howard Finster is a visual artist that I draw from as well.  His art is chaos set in a spiritual, southern, and brightly colored world.  Very interesting stuff if you haven't seen his work.  He also did the cover art for R.E.M's album Reckoning.

CV: "Gravity (Don't Let Me Go)" is striking in both the lyrical imagery and the emotion conveyed.  It's also the theme song for the Joystiq Podcast.  What inspired you to write this song?  Did you write it on commission for Joystiq, or did they show interest after you wrote it?

JB: The inspiration behind "Gravity" came from a few places.  First, someone told me in a conversation that you'd never find an atheist in a foxhole after bullets started flying.  I don't know if I necessarily believe this, but I thought it was an interesting idea to think about.  Second, I was thinking about the actual ODST characters from the Halo series.  Games aren't the best medium for conveying human emotion.  So, I tried to express what one soldier (specifically an ODST in mind) might be thinking when they were dropped into a war zone.  I know. Total. Nerd.  At shows, I just call them paratroopers and reference Band of Brothers because I'd rather not explain what an ODST is from stage.

Justin McElroy contacted me after seeing on Facebook that I was a musician and reader of Joystiq.  They were in a situation where they needed to change their intro music and he asked if there was anything they could have permission to use.  I sent Justin a demo version and they loved it so I made a better demo version for them to use.  Then, finally, I decided that I was ready for the song to be recorded and released properly so I started the third version for the new EP.  I'm glad it all worked out because I can mark "be on Rock Band" off my career goals list.

Album art by Greg Sykes

CV: Your album The Beginning (Up From The Ground Vol. 1) has a distinctive, minimalist cover by Greg Sykes.  Could you tell us more about the image and what it means to you?

JB: I love the art work that Greg did.  He and I have been friends for a long time now and I love using him because he's intentional about his design.  He wants the art to compliment the music and be a part of the story.  The scene at the bottom of the art tells the story of the EP.  It has elements of each song all pieced together and it formed a landscape.  That's the kind of detail and care he puts into his work.  Aside from that, I think there's a lot of mystery to the minimalist style and I see no benefit to telling everyone everything up front.  For me, it's fun to listen to an album over an extended period of time and discover different things in there that you didn't notice on your first listen.

CV: Your blog gives a great detail of insight into your character and experiences.  How long have you been keeping your blog?  What inspired you to start?

JB: I've had for a couple of years now.  I originally had a blog and a website for my music; then I realized that those two things should really be together, so I merged them back in 2008.  I'm still trying to figure out if it's the best way to tell people what's happening in my music and also what I'm feeling or thinking about.  I love the interaction between reader and writer in the blog world so I'm testing different ideas behind the scenes on how to maintain that feel but have more of a professional appearance.  It's a fine line.

CV: You commented a while back about how the music industry is changing and about how "the way [to] be these days in the music industry is independent."  What advantages do you see for the independent musician?

JB: I've recently started a year-long project called The Up From The Ground Project. The goal is to deliver 5 EPs and tons of other content.  By the end of the project, all of the songs will be free.  You couldn't do that on a label (past or present).  Thanks to technology and the internet, I have all the tools that major record labels had 10 years ago at my disposal.  What used to cost $100,000 in studio time now costs $10,000.  Everything has changed.  The way we consume music, the way we share music, and even the way we make music has changed and it tipped in favor of the artist.  I think we're still in the growing pains era of the new music business and I think we'll see a handful of major players arise, but I don't think it'll be as controlling as it used to be.  I do think there are disadvantages to being independent as well but those disadvantages aren't anything a little hard work can't remedy.

CV: You listed your favorite video game picks of 2008 but never gave your readers your favorite video game picks of 2009!  What are your recommendations from last year?

JB: Oh man! I totally forgot to do that.  I'm sure I'll forget some but, in no specific order:

Trials HD - I love puzzles and I love platformers. Trials HD was a dream come true.  It's also one of my all-time favorite podcasting games meaning: I can play it and enjoy the game while listening to podcasts.

The Beatles Rock Band: I'm not sucking up, I promise.  The art direction for this game was captivating, the attention to detail and the extras made this Beatles fan excited, and also, let's be honest, who doesn't want to pretend they're in The Beatles?

Assassin's Creed II: I only liked the first one. I loved the second one.  Beautiful and mysterious.

Borderlands: Awesome art direction.  This game was fun in single player, but when you had a full party, it felt almost like a different game.  I need to pick up the DLC for this game....


Honorable Mentions: Halo Wars, Halo: ODST, FIFA 2010, and Dragon Age: Origin

Games I'm looking forward to: Halo Reach, Splinter Cell Conviction (finishing this interview before I open it), StarCraft II, and Crackdown 2

CV: You've got a couple live shows in Alabama coming up soon - the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores on 5/15/10 and then Birmingham on 5/22/10.  [Edit: We interviewed Jon Black prior to these shows.]  Do you enjoy live shows more than playing in the studio, or do you enjoy recording new tracks more?

JB: I love playing live.  I love being on stage with my friends and making music together.  There's something so beautiful about that and nothing will replace that feeling.  That being said, this EP is my first attempt at self-recording and producing and I found it to be a wonderful avenue for expression and creativity.  I could see myself settling into more of a studio role later in life but for now it's about playing live. 

CV: Have you tried playing your song in Rock Band?  If so, how did it go?

JB: OF COURSE! I woke up to an email saying it was available and immediately downloaded it.  I had to leave the house because I wasn't getting any work done.  I would play the song solo on drums... then on guitar... then bass... then I would build a setlist to see what it was like being next to Fleetwood Mac, Steve Earle, The Black Crowes, The 88's, and all the other great bands.  When my wife came home from work, we did the same thing over again.  It's quite surreal to play Rock Band drums in the same room you tracked the real drums.

CV: Are you planning to bring any more songs to the Rock Band Network?  If so, what should we look for next?

JB: I would LOVE to bring more songs to the Rock Band Network and people have been requesting certain songs.  I think it's really a matter of finding time to get them prepped for authoring and then actually getting them authored.  I have all the tools I need to do it myself so I might start that way and see how it goes.  It'll be a while though... I've got 4 more EPs to record.

Photo by Morgan Jones Johnston