New Jersey raised musician Jon DeRosa began writing and recording at an early age. In addition to his solo work, projects including Dead Leaves Rising, Aarktica, Pale Horse and Rider have all contributed to a prolific output that mirrors a deep appreciation and fluency that is not confined to any one genre. Instead, DeRosa has produced a vast canon of work that reflects changes in taste and approach. A week before the release of his third full-length solo album, Black Halo, DeRosa spoke to Pancakes and Whiskey about his musical upbringing and songwriting.
Your grandfather was a big band singer during World War II and you’ve talked about taking a lot of inspiration from the vocalists of that time. Did he introduce you to that world?
Yeah, absolutely. My Grandfather taught me a lot about music when I was younger. I think he taught me to read music probably around the same time I could read books. The songs that he sang and the songs that he remembered from when he was singing and passed along, I can remember hearing from when I was pretty young.
You grew up playing classical and flamenco guitar. Did you start writing songs around the same time?
Yeah, I think I started playing guitar when I was probably around ten. I was allowed to drop out of the school band where I was playing trumpet and play guitar as long as I agreed to take classical guitar lessons. I thought that was a pretty fair compromise, so I started playing classical guitar and flamenco guitar. Right away, as soon as I started learning chords and techniques and stuff, I remember writing songs. I don’t know how great they were at the time, but it was something that I started pretty young.
Where they all kind of within the same genre? Like when you were a kid did you primarily listen to the things you were being taught or was classical and flamenco more or less a starting point in the sense that when parents start their kids on lessons a lot of times that’s just the natural thing to start with?
When I started playing guitar I was into Guns ‘N Roses and stuff (laughs). It was the late eighties and that’s what was really popular, and I was really into it and bands like Poison. Those bands and seeing those videos were the things that made me want to play guitar in the first place because at that age it’s just about being cool. And having classical training definitely turned me onto a lot of stuff that I might not have been opened up to. I started to realize that a lot of the metal riffs and all that stuff came back to classical stuff and chord techniques.
So you have that influence and then over the years, I guess I was in my early teens, I started really getting into a lot of Goth stuff, but a lot of the mellower kind of ambient stuff and 4AD records and Projekt records. That’s where I realized that all this classical stuff I was learning was really easily transferable into some of these genres that I was really feeling drawn to because there was a lot of finger pick guitar and a lot of minor key stuff and a lot of stuff that had a bit more of the neo classical elements to it. And so that informed a lot of the stuff I was writing and putting out in my really early career, like when I was fourteen or fifteen.
You’ve talked in the past about being inspired by the Roy Orbison song, “Crying” and the song really hinges on the vocal performance and how the emotion is in his delivery more than the lyrics. When it comes to writing your own songs, do you deliberately aim for that same conciseness?
I try, but I think by nature I tend to get a little more heady and literal. It’s like one of those things where you can try, but at the same time you kind of have to go with what’s natural to you. While I would love to write in a more simple way and I strive to, I think it can be kind of difficult for me. Not to mention, I think in that era when you go back to a lot of the standards, even in the forties, we’re talking big band era and even later into the fifties, sixties when we’re talking about Brill Building where you had these songwriters who were pumping out these amazing songs and the amazing song is half the equation. Getting it to the right singer who can translate those words into something amazing is the other half.
And so that’s where that simplicity of writing doesn’t necessarily stand on its own. You really need the performer and that’s where singers like Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, all these guys…were masters of interpretation. They were able to take these songs and truly make them their own and truly bring out the real beauty of it. As a songwriter and a performer, I’m trying to balance both of those elements the best that I can.
You grew up in New Jersey and lived in New York for a long time before moving to Los Angeles. Do you find that your physical surroundings bring out different elements in your songwriting? I would imagine that different climates, different landscapes might sometimes bring out different sensibilities.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you have those songwriters like Lou Reed, who are so able to translate the New York experience into great songs. Then you have the whole West Coast school, Laurel Canyon and all that in the sixties that were able to translate the whole California experience into songs and everything in between, obviously. For me and for this new record, Black Halo, it was written half in New York and half in California.
I started writing it when I was still living there and I would say pretty much equally, there was half of the songs started or finished written in New York. Then I moved to California and wrote more songs for it. When you listen to the record, you can tell. There’s a certain lightness on certain songs and there’s a certain density on others. And there were some songs that were started in New York and finished in California and it was one of those things where I couldn’t quite finish it there (laughs). Something about being here unlocked some kind of key to it. Out here, the desert landscape was really inspiring. Taking trips out to Joshua Tree and kind of like that wide-open expanse…New York’s a little bit tight and it’s a little bit close and it’s a little claustrophobic for me sometimes. So certain elements are in certain songs and then you have the other side of it.
When you were twenty years old, you lost most of your hearing in your right ear, which lead you to create Aarktica, a project that experimented with mostly instrumental tracks. Did that project provide a comfort in the sense that it’s a style that is elevated by the type of sonic effects that you now may have been able to tap into in a different way?
I didn’t think of it in that way at the time. I guess at the moment it was sort of therapy. It was all I could really do because I was just struggling to kind of make sense out of the new way I was hearing everything. And when I say that I mean that when I lost my hearing, it wasn’t just deafness. It was a lot of aural hallucinations and hearing things in an underwater kind of way, and there was a lot of weird electrical sensations and sounds I was hearing. So I was hearing a lot of stuff that wasn’t necessarily there, it was all neural. It was really driving me crazy.
In that moment, the best way I could try to cope with what was happening and understand it was to try to recreate some of the sounds I was hearing, or at least the atmosphere I was experiencing. And so that’s what turned into the first Aarktica record, which is called No Solace in Sleep. It wasn’t something I planned or anything, it was just those were the things I was working on when that all happened.
You’ve said in the past that “I think the hardest part is to define your artistic center,” and how people reach that at different times in their life, and for you it came recently. Your work with Dead Leaves Rising, Aarktica, Pale Horse and Rider, is all very different. In addition to representing a varied musical taste, would you say those projects were part of discovering where you felt most at home creatively?
I’m always in awe of people who do one thing and do it really well. I think that shows a lot of dedication, a lot of perseverance and a lot of heart. I wish I was one of those people, but I’m a little more mixed in terms of being eclectic in what I absorb, what I listen to and then how it comes out. It’s hard as an artist because most music fans, most listeners really tend to want artists to be one thing. In some ways, I think people interpret genre jumping as a disingenuous quality.
I do think that when you start putting out music early in your life, for me, I started putting out music releases when I was like fifteen or even maybe younger than that, you have to understand that there’s going to be some kind of evolution that happens at some point because you’re not at a full level of maturation yet. I think that our tastes are always changing. So for me, I think I’m just reaching the point where I’m able to combine elements of previous work like the atmospheres I was doing in Aarktica, with the more songwriter stuff I feel drawn to, and that’s kind of what my solo work right now is turning into. So it’s sort of got elements of a little bit of everything from the past.
You’ve said that when it comes to touring, “I feel like there’s always a stigma for the solo guy with the guitar. I feel much more comfortable with a six or seven piece band.” Is it partly the solidarity that comes with a band or does it have more to do with achieving the sound you want onstage?
As a music fan, it’s really interesting to see bands have that synchronicity where everybody’s making something happen together. There’s something really special that happens when you’re seeing bands performing songs that have an atmospheric vibe to them and they’re pulling it off live because it requires a lot of unity. But then again, there’s amazing solo performers that can do a whole lot with just a voice and a guitar, as well. So I think it depends on the venue, it depends on the atmosphere. If you’re playing a festival or you’re playing a big venue, you’d want a little bit more of a show. If you’re playing something intimate, I think it’s interesting to do something scaled down.
Your only solo EP, Anchored, is very serene in terms of production. Did you always know that you wanted to release those songs together?
That’s a good question.
I really like it a lot and they just fit so well with each other.
Well, I’m a huge fan of EPs, I love short play records for that same reason. I think that it’s more likely that you’re going to be able to put together a collection of four or five songs that really fit as a whole into that format, as opposed to a ten or twelve song album where they might be great songs, but they might not flow as well as part of the whole. For a full-length record, it’s also one of those things where if the elements are too similar, then you have ten or twelve songs that get a little zany. With an EP, it’s the perfect format for having songs that will be memorable that flow together and you can kind of have that experience of listening to it in one sitting and really absorb it all.
There’s a bit of darkness to your music and as album titles, A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes and Black Halo capture that. How did those titles come to you and why do you think they fit both collections of songs?
Well A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes, that album in general is leaning more towards the big band influence and more of a fifties sounding influence, the early rock. Visually, I was thinking about the movie, Night of the Hunter, which has Robert Mitchum starring as sort of this evil preacher. The visuals in that movie are some of my favorites and the title is a reference to that- A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes.
Black Halo, I’m not exactly sure where it came from other than this album, there’s a lot of supernatural themed songs on it. It talks about a lot of spiritual elements and takes a little bit more of a metaphysical bent to what I was doing previously. It’s a little ironic because I’m someone who is more attracted to the light than the dark these days. I guess it’s a little bit of a nod to my past which including a lot of more Goth sounding stuff (laughs).
I really like the arrangement on the song “When Daddy Took the Treehouse Down.” Looking back, do you have a favorite on the album or a favorite memory of recording?
Well, that song’s pretty special to me because I co-wrote it with Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields and he’s a huge influence. I regard him really highly and obviously it was an honor to work on something with him. I would say, personally my favorite song is “High and Lonely.” It’s a little bit more from my personal perspective, whereas a lot of the other songs are a character perspective. It’s one of those songs like we were talking about earlier, which has a simplicity in the lyrics, but that I feel conveys the most meaning. That one and also “Dancing in a Dream,” which I wrote with Carina Round who’s a really amazing singer. I love that one as well because there’s sort of a delicate, fragile nature to it and I always love male and female duets. There’s just some really beautiful atmospherics on there and she really brought an amazing presence to it.
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Black Halo is available in-stores and online now
Don’t Miss Jon DeRosa at Saint Vitus in Brooklyn on 6/3
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Article: Caitlin Phillips