Contributor’s Note: Jonathan Brown sat down with Richard Lepre for Madness To Creation. Jonathan is a hard working hip-hop/spoken word artist from New Orleans, Louisiana, who writes like there is no tomorrow. An ex-school teacher, his work is intimately involved around mental health and is preparing to release his latest album “The Shadow of Raindrops” upcoming via Bandcamp. In this interview, Jonathan discusses the writing and recording process, coping with the Covid-19 pandemic, and mental health. Fans can find Jonathan Brown at the following locations:
Richard: Hi, Jonathan. I’ve been asking people how they’re doing ‘despite the obvious’? How are you living and loving and making music in the middle of a pandemic? How is this release different than the others?
Jonathan: First off, thanks for all these thoughtful questions. For reals. I am writing a lot during the pandemic. Almost compulsively. Writing has always been a way to help me process what is happening and there is a lot happening right now. I’m not saying all of it is good writing. Most of it’s not. And I definitely wouldn’t put most of what I’m churning out in the category of art with a capital A. But writing really helps me make sense of life. And nothing makes sense right now. So I need a consistent writing practice now more than ever.
This release is so different than my last one. I cancelled all touring for the foreseeable future. And that was kind of a bummer because I had a big sprawling wonky show nearly every night planned for May, and that got cancelled hard. And in the same breath, I gotta acknowledge how lucky I am to only have a tour taken from me. Nearly 130,000 families and counting have had their loved ones taken from them.
This release is so different than my last one. For Aggressively Vulnerable, I put everything I had into that roll out, personally and financially. We did a run of marble vinyl and a whole new merch line centered around the theme of that record. The campaign was hella ambitious, and it hit its goal. I’m so thankful for that, but these are very different circumstances. Everybody I know is hurting financially. I didn’t think it was chill to ask my audience for heavy support while everybody’s income is extra insecure. It takes a lot of cheese to pony up for vinyl and merch on the front end, and since I can’t tour right now, I didn’t think exhausting all my resources was the move right now. So this release is stripped down, for sure. It’s on Bandcamp and iTunes and Spotify and all that jazz. I might do a line of merch later. Just not right now.
Richard: The first track, Lets have some T is a meditative listen but still booming and that sample is killer, I picture the chorus “stick out your heart and say ‘ah’” live, when you write do you picture an audience in front of you and a mic in your hand?
Jonathan: Normally, no. I don’t imagine an audience while I’m writing, but for that chorus on that song, you bet I did. I think there’s a super valid argument for writing what you want, how you want, for yourself and disregarding even the smallest notion of an audience while you’re doing it. That might be journaling. That might be free writing. That might be screaming at the walls in your house. That might be therapeutic, but that doesn’t mean you should necessarily share it. I’m still learning that.
Richard: Not today hits home for me and I imagine a lot of our audience, it reminds me of your last release, Aggressively Vulnerable and your willingness to express feelings we don’t even like to admit to ourselves. You describe a scene where two friends joke about suicide, a common practice, if given the chance to say something positive in that situation, what would you say to a suicidal or depressed friend?
Jonathan: That’s a really good question, and it’s really tough to answer. Depression is so fucking real. It comes in waves and if you get too far out, you can drown in those waves. I’d probably say remember the tiny celebrations. The small acts of random kindness. A smile from a stranger can really change somebody’s whole day.
This might seem mundane, but pay attention to the basic self-care stuff. Are you sleeping enough? Did you shower today? Are you hungry? Have you drank enough water today? Are you hungover? Is your house a whole ass mess? Taking care of the little things can make a really big difference. You gotta give yourself the necessary context to not feel like shit. You gotta do what people who don’t feel like shit do, even if you feel like you’re faking it in the beginning. You gotta exercise a little, eat a salad once in a while. Call your homies and check on each other.
Oh, and the joy of food is a really big thing for me. Good fucking God, I love food. Like probably unnaturally so. I just bought chicken livers, and I can’t wait to cook them. Imma go ahead and put fried chicken livers high up there on the list of reasons to live.
Richard: Breathe. Lets talk booms and baps. The production on this album is top-notch, not a chime or riff out of place, did you produce your own beats? What’s your production process like? Beats then bars? How important is production to you?
Jonathan: Eddie Logix produced, recorded, mixed, and mastered this whole project. It was really fun to work with him because he absolutely knows what he’s doing. And in the studio, I felt like he really understood what I was trying to do as well. I had a stack of beats to listen to over the summer, and I was able to get familiar with the concepts of all the musical possibilities before arriving at Eddie Logix’s studio in Detroit. But the real blending of ideas didn’t begin until we physically got together. Then it was on. We nailed it in 48 hours.
We opened up the project files and played with the possibilities of arrangement. We were able to come up with intros and outros. We discussed where and how the choruses should land. Even the minute choices like the emphasis of certain syllables in particular lines was all very collaborative. Eddie really helped me craft this thing. Our process was so much more involved than just me spitting over his beats. We were able to get up to our elbows and ears in creativity and really make something that was larger than the sum of its parts. And I feel like you can really hear that when you listen to the record.
It’s cliché, but it does get better. It always does. Don’t look for a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
Richard: This album deals with a litany of topics you shouldn’t bring up at the dinner table; politics, death, rape, suicide, unbridled joy, meditation, self-growth. How do you approach the unapproachable topics? In conversation? In Art?
Jonathan: I’d imagine how you approach unapproachable topics in art is pretty similar to how you approach them in conversation. You gotta listen, like really listen to what’s being said and do your best to empathize.
But with art, what are we listening to? Source? The muse? Lorca’s Duende? A deeper connection to self? It’s hard to wrap words around where ideas come from. But let me offer up one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s concepts from her book, Big Magic. When you have an idea maybe consider the reverse. What if the idea has you instead? And if you’re able to follow the breadcrumbs or the rainbow or the heart of the idea, you can find out what the idea has for you. You can listen to what it wants to be. Not what you want it to be. If you open up enough, you can hopefully become a conduit and help the idea reach the place where idea wants to go.
Richard: In a past life you were a high school English teacher, how did that experience shape song like Astronaut? Do you still feel engaged in pedagogy in some way?
Jonathan: Oh gosh. I loved being a teacher. And let me circle back to that idea. For some reason, the vibe of being a square peg who’s asked to fit into a circle’s hole always resonated with me. I’ve definitely felt that way in a personal context but also in professional and artistic settings as well.
I’d rather play a punk show than get published in a journal. And in music settings I’ve been told what I was doing felt too much like a poem instead of a real song. Not on some woe-is-me vibes, but how do you sell that in an email to a music venue? I’m figuring it out. Booking is hard. It can be really hard to find a place where your art can be received well. Do I play a bookstore? A music venue? A record store? A dive bar? The homie’s attic? A friend’s garage in Savannah? A back yard in the 9th ward? The answer is yes. You play all of those.
In teaching, I always did my best to be a champion of the kids who didn’t fit in. The kids who felt like outcasts. The young people who aren’t good at playing the game of seeking approval. What about the loners? The quirky nerds? The young people who can’t conveniently fit into gender norms? Who’s gonna help all them recognize the power of their own voice? Who’s gonna make them feel seen and heard and valuable? I tried my very best to be that person in the classroom. And to finally answer the question, do I still feel engaged in pedagogy? For sure. One of my favorite things to do on tour is to conduct creative writing workshops for audiences of all shapes and sizes. It lights me up inside to see the smile of someone who’s beginning to find their own voice!
Richard: I feel like this might get genre’d as conscious hip-hop, what is The Shadow Of Raindrops conscious of or making the listener conscious of? How do you participate in mental health awareness?
Jonathan: That’s a really good question. I think the biggest way I participate in mental health awareness is by creating art where that is the focus. A mind is a terrible thing to waste; a waste is a terrible thing to mind. We have to be diligent about taking care of ourselves and each other. People are fragile. Psyches fragile. Memories are fragile. The ego is fragile. The concept of self is fragile. Feeling connected is sort of the only antidote I’ve found to keeping myself mentally safe. To know that you’re not going through it alone is a powerful feeling. Unfortunately, for some people, that sense of connectedness is so very elusive. I’m honored if what I make can create a sense of connection in someone else. And I don’t mean to me. I mean to them or their source or their purpose. We’re not in this life alone, ever. No matter how much it can feel that way in our saddest hours. I don’t mind the distinction of conscious hip hop because I really do work hard to craft words. What would the alternative be? Unconscious hip hop? I’m not really into that.
Madness To Creation: You have a blog that deserves to be plugged. You’ve been writing for a long time but the Rhino Sanctuary Blog is relatively new, how important has blogging been for you as an artist and mentally?
Jonathan: Oh thanks! I do have a blog! I write a lot on that blog. When quarantine started, I tried to publish something new every day. And really it was a mental health exercise for me. It helped me process. After about a month and a half though, I realized I was putting way too much pressure on my output. I went silent for a while and kept what I was writing in house, because maybe, just like people can be, some of the art we make can be more of an introvert at first. If you’ve been on the road for a month, there is no better feeling than waking up in your bed the morning after tour. Maybe making art is the same way. If you’ve been constantly sharing, it can be healthy to pull back and not pick up the phone for a few days. Maybe the things we create feel the same way.
And there you have it! Check out “The Shadow of Raindrops” by Jonathan Brown below: