“When I was 18 years old I went deaf in my right ear”-Jon DeRosa
When we all set out to begin manifest our dreams, we might be a little doubtful. Did you every have doubts or setbacks as far as pursuing music?
Only everyday for the past 20 or so years.
When I was 18 years old I went deaf in my right ear due to a rare, freak kind of thing. Incurable nerve deafness. Considering this happened the very same week that I made the decision to pursue music as a career as a freshman in college, it was difficult to not see this as a sign that perhaps I made the wrong decision. But, however devastating this setback was for me at the time and despite how long it took me to adapt to life as a musician without stereo hearing, I look at it now as simply an obstacle that I was gifted and needed to overcome for some reason in this life.
I think that as human beings, not only as artists, there is a natural inclination to resist or doubt our natural gifts and tendencies. We interpret this as a fear of inadequacy, but truthfully, I believe it’s more a fear that we possess gifts beyond our wildest dreams and it’s a fear of misusing them or taking them for granted in some way.
It can also be difficult to pursue what we desire,
because we tend to perceive this possibility, this notion of failure that comes along with it. So many of these fears are simply not real, manifested by our own heads. That said, I of course still fall victim to them myself at times. It’s a thing humans do.
What was it like being in school? Did it come hand in hand with creating music?
From high school to university, school was kind of always something that was just happening parallel to my musical life. I always did well academically with not a huge amount of effort, and in a lot of ways I always felt school was a nuisance, taking time away from making music, more than anything. Especially in college where, even though I was actually majoring in Music Technology, I felt the curriculum was completely a waste of time and ill-informed, which in hindsight 90% of it really was. All of us graduated with skills that were largely obsolete by the time we were handed diplomas.
That said, I was releasing music from the time I was about 14 years old, utilizing my high school recording studio to produce albums (or cassettes, then). We had better resources there in some ways than I had at my disposal at NYU and I took advantage of all that I could. By the time I got to New York at age 18, I was more interested in playing in bands and making records than I was with my education. So while I did complete my degree and am very grateful for the opportunity to study at such a well-respected school, I consider my true education to be coming of age in NYC in the late-90’s, playing in bands, going to shows, and making records outside of the university environment.
What was the transition like from Aarktica to Jon DeRosa?
I had been making records as Aarktica for over a decade, and there was a certain expectation that had taken over, in both my own mind and that of my listeners, as to what those records should sound like. Ambient. No vocals. Instrumental. No pop structures or hooks.
Putting out music under my own name was simply a decision to forge a new sound identity where I could do something completely new without worrying whether or not it fell under a particular “genre” or “sound.” I also was developing a new confidence in my vocal ability, and I wanted to explore that a bit, and
I was becoming more interested in writing music inspired by the sounds of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s,
which is the kind of music that I was a fan of myself. I just started to have a new vision that involved a more orchestral, cinematic and romantic scope.
Your style is definitely one of a kind, and you harvest a voice that really takes listeners inside your mind, a first person type of aura, what’s the process like from the pen to the studio? What connection would you say you have when it comes to bringing to light your lyrics?
While it’s different every time, the constant is that
I try and create a world within each song, and be completely honest in my words,
whether it is truly first person or through a character.
I write almost everything on guitar, and then the arrangement begins to take shape in the studio, mainly through collaboration with my producer Charles Newman (Magnetic Fields, Soko) and an array of really talented musicians that I work with regularly. Sometimes the song ends up sounding very much like I envisioned it would from the start, and other times it takes on a completely new life.
As far as production, what is the relationship with you and the producers you work with? How involved are you when it comes to finding the right sound?
I’ve been working with Charles Newman for close to two decades. We fight like brothers, relate like friends, and have a very collaborative approach to production. Charles has always had a gift for being able to translate my ideas into reality on tape. And he often has ideas that I would’ve never thought of. He is much more skilled as an engineer than I could ever aspire to be. Ever since I lost my hearing, I’ve trusted Charles to be my ears and to help me put my best foot forward in the music I release.
Is being on stage another world for you, or would you say it’s interconnected with the process of making music and releasing it? How do you feel being in that spotlight?
Not incredibly comfortable being in the spotlight, yet incredibly grateful that I’m given the chance to perform my music for people, if that makes any sense. I’m much more comfortable in the studio, having a bit more control of all the small details that make combine to make great recordings. But then again, there is a certain magic that can occur with live music that’s all about the moment.
What was it like touring in the UK? Had you been before? Would you go back? Tell us your favorite details.
I had performed in the UK a few times before, but my tour this Summer was the first time I’d been to London in about a decade. The last time I was in Europe was 2013 when I opened for Lydia Lunch on her dates in Germany, Norway and Denmark.
I enjoy London and have many friends there, in addition to my label Rocket Girl being based there, but it does remind me a bit of New York in that there are a lot of the same difficulties for musicians, in the sense that it can be very competitive and that it is rather expensive just to get around and just to get by. Perhaps it’s different if you live there? That said, the people are always very kind, and I did get to perform in some beautiful places like Union Chapel in Islington, for instance. I also really enjoyed getting to play outside of London in Brighton and Nottingham. I always like to get “outside the city” no matter where I am, as I feel it’s a bit calmer, a bit different vibration. Things feel a bit more real. I’ve lived in big cities all my life and have always had a harder time blocking out the noise to perform in those environments, even in NYC which was my home for 17 years.
Germany seems to bring out the best “music fans” in my experience. I’m always impressed with the warmth and kindness I’m shown there, and how many people come talk to you after the show and are keen to pick up a record or CD, even if they’ve never heard of you.
There is a certain culture of openness and appreciation that stands in stark contrast to the way we treat musicians in the US,
as a cultural thing, in my experience.
Energy is transferable. Would you agree? What’s it like to be on stage and get a whiff of the audience’s energy?
I’ve grown rather empathic in recent years, so this can be a bit difficult for me. As I said above, playing in big cities with high and chaotic energy, it’s a bit easy for me to be distracted. My approach is pacing and centering. Playing slow and deliberately. Setting the pace, rather than letting the environment dictate the pace. If the audience feels restless, stressed, distracted, my goal is to get their attention centered on the performance. Make a connection. When the energy shifts, the feeling is palpable.
With Black Halo, it definitely gives off a dark tone; however, it’s almost relieving to know that we aren’t alone. A lot of people share the same thoughts or are connected to that sound from the soul. What was the process like creating it?
I wrote Black Halo in the midst of moving from New York to Los Angeles. Some songs were written in NY, some in LA, and some were written in part in both places. So, it was a transitional time, and I think how that translated creatively was in that it involved tying up a lot of ends in NYC and becoming open to a lot of new things on the West Coast.
After living in NY for so many years, my whole adult life really, I think I had just changed personally in ways that were different than the way the city around me was changing. And I really wasn’t able to tap into that energy anymore, wasn’t able to feel inspired, and in fact it was actually stifling my creativity and inspiration to be there. Arriving in California, a new landscape with an entirely new energy, was really inspiring and it resulted in a very different sound and vision for me. It breathed a bit of new life into me really, which was quite frankly a relief to know that I could be creative again in a different way and in a different place. That my creative life wasn’t over. That I hadn’t “lost it.”
How was the approach different from Anchored?
Well, Anchored was really the first foray into this new sound for me, so it was a bit of an experiment. And so much of that was based around orchestration, the vibraphone and Jon Natchez playing like a dozen or so horns and woodwinds. I think with that EP I had these concepts of what I felt I’d like to do, but it wasn’t as much of a cohesive vision. I think we got the atmosphere 100% right on Anchored, and then we focused more on the songs themselves on the next album A Wolf In Preacher’s Clothes. I feel like Black Halo was a culmination of all that Charles (Newman) and I had built upon leading up to it. Trying to really integrate the atmospheres and orchestrations into the compositions themselves.
As listeners, it’s amazing because we get to witness that progressive blooming that our favorites “grow” through in terms of sound and every next work of art being better than the one before. Do you see your own progression? How important is it for you to have those moments to yourself to reflect and remind yourself of how far you’ve come?
All I can do is try and be better all the time. One of the hardest lessons I had to face is that we can only judge ourselves by what we were yesterday, and simply try to be better each day.
The minute we start judging ourselves against others, or by other criteria, it becomes completely arbitrary
and that’s where all those feelings of doubt, failure and inadequacy start to settle in. I try not to do that anymore. I’m proud of the work I create and will always try harder with each new endeavor.
As much as there’s a mysterious tone to your voice, as an individual, would you say you’re very mysterious? Or are you an open book?
I try and be kind. And honest. I keep some things close to my heart, but most of the time I’m happy to discuss anything if asked. But only with those who show a genuine interest. Small talk is fine if it’s about baseball, not about personal matters. I try and live by the words of one of my teachers:
“Be sure that your words are more profound than the silence they are interrupting.”
If you could hit the studio with any artist, alive or deceased, who would you work with?
Impossible to answer, because I would find it interesting to work with just an infinite number of artists. The more unlikely and hard to fathom, the better.
As an artist, your self-expression is done so through your craft, what’s that relationship with your most intimate feelings? How do you get into the zone of letting loose such thoughts? Or do you ever hold back?
I often write from the perspective of a character to express certain feelings. For me, it’s a way to express the thought and avoid emoting, avoid being self-indulgent or confessional. Overall, I want listeners to feel joy and happiness after a song, so while I do tend to write about melancholy emotions, I try and always leave a bit of hope in there somewhere.
Sadness is an important feeling to have and to acknowledge, but I don’t feel that we should live within that emotion all the time.
Your single “High & Lonely,” I feel, is so dense in terms of messages. You have to revisit and listen multiple times to let it marinate, which is so great. As we progress and inch closer towards finding ourselves and discovering success, people hold onto materialistic things and put so much of their value into them, nothing else. How has the response been surrounding this song?
Response? My guess would be that some people love it and some people don’t care for it much at all! I really don’t know, honestly, as there hasn’t been much of a quantifiable response to particular songs. For me, it’s my favorite track on the album. Both musically and lyrically, I think it’s the most personal and first-person track on Black Halo. It’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to fitting my life philosophy into a bite-sized song. There’s also a video we made for it with LA creative team The Current Sea that I think came out really beautifully.
When you truly find yourself, know yourself, you begin to have this disconnection with “worldly” things and more in tune with your spirit, soul, and become more compassionate in relation to others around you. Such realizations are transparent in your music, what’s the ultimate message you hope people grasp when they come across your music?
I can only hope that people get out of it what they personally need from it at that particular time in their lives. Even though it’s just pop music at the end of the day, and I try not to be too self-important about it,
I think it’s important to remember that perception is everything.
Each of us individually gives definition and meaning to the things we encounter in our lives. I’m just trying to put my offerings out there and hope they are picked up by people who can appreciate them.
What’s next for Jon DeRosa? What are you currently working on?
I am about halfway through recording a new Aarktica album. Mostly instrumental, atmospheric guitar compositions, inspired by my work with plant medicine in Peru.
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