Interview with American Roots and Blues artist Orphan Jon. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Orphan Jon: – Being an orphan and in the Foster Care system most of my childhood, I basically grew up in and around Bakersfield, California. My first introduction to music was around the age of 8 by a foster mother, who later adopted me and an older brother. She was very abusive both physically and mentally, but the few moments she wasn’t, was when she would put on records of her favorite artists and have me sing along with them. Artists such as Fats Domino and The Everly Brothers; to name a few. It was in those times that she showed some compassion towards me and briefly there would be a reprise from the abuse.
I didn’t give much thought for years afterwards of being any type of singer; my singing back then was just a survival tactic. Later I began to attend a Pentecostal Church seeking acceptance as a young adult. I was asked to sing “specials” by the “elders” in the church for worship and such, but during this time in my life I never had any thoughts of singing in a social public setting. It would be several years later when I was in my mid-forties and no longer attending church; nor doing any singing, that I started going to see some old high school friends perform at local music jams in Bakersfield. E
ventually I was encouraged by them to participate, and from there a local “cover” band was formed in late 2011 called English Revolver. We became popular, and after a few years of that, I got the writing bug and decided I wanted to write my own songs and see where that would lead me. So, I was fortunate to start Orphan Jon and The Abandoned; aka OJATA, in early 2015 with a very talented guitarist from the Central Coast of California named Bruce Krupnik. Together we wrote several songs; some have been recorded and released and some not yet. So basically, my musical adventure took off with the writing collaborations I had with Bruce.
It was those writing sessions with Bruce, Bassist Wil Anderson and Drummer Stan Whiting that gave me more confidence to perform live with my own material as OJATA, and that led to touring which eventually got me into the studio to record my debut album Abandoned No More with Bruce. Because of Abandoned No More, I was signed to a highly respected Los Angeles based Blues label Rip Cat Records. So it was then that the passion was realized that I could do this for a living if I so desired to.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?
OJ: – I’m still not sure what my “sound’ is to be honest. I didn’t set out to be a “blues” singer; that’s something the public decided and I’m totally fine with it. I just enjoy writing and expressing my life through music. But, if I was to give it serious thought, I know I’ve been honest with myself from the very beginning to never mimic or copy anyone. My childhood had a lot of misery and suffering, but it conditioned me to accept who I am, what I am and to be totally content with that. I’m just me. Whatever discovery or development of my sound may be currently, I would have to say it’s the acceptance of my fellow bandmates and what they are personally bringing; through their own individual experiences, to the music we create together. That’s something I find to be not only enjoyable but enlightening too.
JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
OJ: – Writing sessions! I absolutely love to write. So, I try to get with my two Guitarists Phil Martin and Ryan Baker as often as possible to write. I also have the full band get together at least twice a month to jam and workout what Phil, Ryan and I have created. We do this when we’re not touring. My rhythm section consists of Aaron Underwood on Bass and Colby Aiken on Drums. All in all, they’re some of the best cats I’ve ever been with in an original band, and they make the creative process not only fun, but a cool musical adventure too. Love The Abandoned.
JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any changes or overall evolution? And if so why?
OJ: – Definitely. I think every musician changes somewhat. Who I was as a front man trying to book, manage and promote us when I first started OJATA in 2015 isn’t who I am today. And having never fronted a band before comes with its hiccups and mistakes, both stage wise and behind the scenes in management. But thankfully I’ve always been surrounded by great journeyman musicians that have those experiences to help guide and mentor me in avoiding a lot of pitfalls and possible undoing’s that can occur in this crazy world we call the music industry.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
OJ: – Repetition. Rehearsal. Writing sessions. The three ‘R’s lol. Music is already very spiritual in of itself, so getting together as often as possible as a band keeps the musical and physical stamina up. Which is conveyed in our shows. I’m by nature, a very outgoing positive person that love’s music and wants to jam with the band every chance I can. And so, I always want that same energy we have together as a band during the three ‘R’s to be there at our shows as well. It’s a cool connection whenever the audience is into what you’re sharing with them. I’ve found that happens when you have both the spiritual and stamina going strong.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Orphan Jon and The Abandoned – Over The Pain, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
OJ: – That’s a tough one to decide on. But if I were to narrow it down? I would have to say that I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished in the studio with only a few weeks to prepare. Due to unforeseen circumstances I had to switch gears and use my dear friend; and the Producer of the album, Alastair Greene to not only play the guitar on, but to write all new material with me. All, except for one track that’s a Savoy Brown cover was either rewritten or newly written by Alastair and me. Because of the pandemic and everything being shut down like it was in California and basically everywhere, it was becoming very difficult to get into the studio to start the project of recording my second studio album.
Once the pandemic subsided, and after rescheduling the recording sessions again, a situation arose that demanded I either decide to throw my hands up and put the project on hold once more or regroup and make it happen. I chose the latter. And because I had serious professionals in Alastair and my Bassist Ray Sadolsky and Drummer Jason Blakely we were able to write, rehearse and record the album within six weeks. Of course, having a tremendously gifted Engineer in Brian Boozer at AUM Studio Productions made the process that much easier on us too. I will add, what I love most about the album is everyone involved in it, made it happen. The album is a personal, but relatable story of overcoming whatever negativity life deals you. It’s a conceptual album about loss, suffering, moving forward, deciding to be over the pain, and all in spite of.
As for today, I’m in the studio here in Wichita, Kansas; where I now live, recording tracks for future single releases. The need to release a full album to garner interest in your music is no longer as necessary as it was a few years ago. With the social media platforms, multiple internet stations, the ability to download a single track off music app stores and music services, I’ve found it’s less costly and time consuming.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
OJ: – My band The Abandoned has always had differing players since the beginning; mostly due to scheduling availability, so the need to have a permanent line up hasn’t been an issue. With that in mind, I had been touring for a few years with two top shelf Bakersfield, Ca. musicians Ray Sadolsky on Bass and Jason Blakely on Drums; the guitarists would vary depending on availability, but Ray and Jason were my two dependable constants.
With that in mind, it made total sense to have them with me in the studio since they not only knew the material well but are great cats to be around. Plus, with them having several years of experience in the studio already, it was a logical and obvious choice to make. I feel their immense talent is on full display on the album. I had asked my long-time friend Alastair Greene in the winter of 2019 to be my Producer on the album, and as I earlier explained due to unforeseen circumstances that occured at the time, I asked him to come on board as the guitarist. The end results speak for themselves.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
OJ: – I think they go hand in hand. As a songwriter there’s a desire to tell a story that not only gets you thinking but touches your heart and soul. It’s both emotional and analytical too. The balance in my mind depends upon what is going on in the listeners life and how they interpret what you’re singing to them. To one it may be more soul touching, to another it may be more intellectually resounding. The balance is the conception of the music.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
OJ: – A dear friend once told me that musicians are the physicians of the heart and soul. We can help sooth the pains, give comfort during loss, heal the heart and uplift the downtrodden in mind. I love connecting with an audience emotionally. I have only my story to draw from, as my life experiences and such, but we’re all connected in some way because of life and what it gives us. I could list a plethora of similarities we all have in common when it comes to our life’s journey’s. I think that’s an emotional delivery that’s very possible at every performance I give.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
OJ: – There are many I could share. But the one that has touched me personally the most, was after a show I performed at Knuckleheads in Kansas City in the fall of 2018. Bruce and I had just written a song titled “Everyone Knows” before we set out on my fall tour in the Midwest. I was inspired to write “Everyone Knows” after watching a documentary on Keith Richards titled “Under the Influence”. In it, there is a spot where Blues legend; and one of my most inspirational artists, Buddy Guy asks a rhetorical question “what is the blues, is it black, is it white? Nah man, it’s life. And if you haven’t got the blues, just keep on living”.
After what I went through as a child and knowing so many others that had it way worse than me, I wrote this one as a testimony of life and overcoming it. So, the show at Knux was the first time we had performed it live before any audience. And with any new song, you never know the reaction it will get until you play it live. We saved it for the end of our show as a sort of exclamation to the night’s performance. It was during the song that I had noticed a young attractive Hispanic couple sitting up close to the stage just to the right of me. What caught my eye during the song was that she was in tears and being comforted by her boyfriend. After we were done, merch sales completed, and we were loading out the young couple approached me and asked if they could have a moment with me.
The young lady still in tears asked me what was the name of the last song I performed? I told her it was “Everyone Knows”, and then she said to me, that’s my song, that’s my anthem. She explained to me that when she was a little girl her mother was a drug addict, and her supplier was also her mom’s pimp. And that to keep the law from discovering his business he would send her out on the streets as child to deliver the drugs to his buyers. This was done often, with bad situations arising at times. She told me how the song touched her deep inside and how it was her song telling how she felt then, and now. She explained that she was put into Foster Care services, and grew up in the system, eventually leaving to make something out of her torn and destroyed early life.
And she did. Looking at her in the front row and after the show you would’ve never known her childhood was what it was. She was a beautiful young lady dressed very nice and had a handsome well-dressed young man at her side. She told me how she put herself through college, has a promising career, and is engaged to be married to the young man with her. That experience that night will be with me until I am no more. I write at times what I write as a therapeutic means for myself. A self-healing from the traumatic childhood I endured. And when what I express through my lyrics, in a song, that connects with someone, especially like it did that night, I know I’m doing something with my life that wasn’t supposed to be, according to what was. And just like the young lady at Knux that night, I made something out of nothing, and I get to share it with so many that have similar experiences.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in blues when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
OJ: – I love what some Blues Society’s provide to their local scene’s. Their outreach in the schools in educating the youth on the history and influences of the Blues, as well as providing a means for these young musicians to grow and express themselves through their instruments. Two of my favorites is the Topeka Blues Society and the Wichita Blues Society here in Kansas. Both have great school programs that bring the music to life for the youth in their community’s. I feel more of this needs to be done today, even more so with many school music programs being gutted due to financial costs on the school districts. As we all know, the youth are the future, and the future can still be bright for the Blues if there’s time taken to introduce them to this amazing soul moving genre.
JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?
OJ: – We’re here for a brief time. What time is allotted to us as a musician should be used to inspire, console, comfort, encourage and bring joy to others. Give some direction I suppose, as well as answers to life’s ups and downs. It’s a spiritual gift that should never be taken lightly.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
OJ: – I would love to see the lyrics hold more weight in the Blues universe than it does today. There used to be a time that the lyrics were the center of the song. It was what moved people. Spoke to them spiritually and soulfully. It was conveyed in an emotional heartfelt manner, sincere and true and that’s what folks gravitated to.
Today, it’s all about the guitar, harmonica or some other physical instruments. I would be interested to know just how many touring, well known and established Blues bands have just a Vocalist fronting them; just a singer, that’s all. As a lyricist and a singer, it’s discouraging to see what you bring to the scene being considered an after thought by many. Imagine what the Blues would be like if every song was just an instrumental? Nothing more. How long can that endure or capture an audience without the story in the lyrics being provided by the singer?
My change isn’t a knock on those that play physical instruments, everyone, together, brings the best out of the song and they’re tremendously needed to do so. I would just love to see more attention given to what lyrics and the singer convey too. Call me selfish, but I think people still want to have the connection that the lyrical experience provides as much as the guitar, harmonica, horns etc. do as well. Other than that, I would really love to see the monetization of our music be drastically increased from the mere penny’s we make after a zillion streams on streaming platforms. It’s sad that sesac, ascap, bmi etc. can’t get this done for the artists they represent. Okay, enough with the “negative” lol.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
OJ: – I’ve always enjoyed listening to a variety of genres. Lately I’ve been hooked on Jason Isbell and I’ve been revisiting Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and John Hiatt, three outstanding songwriters. Being a lyricist and vocalist, I’m constantly perusing music platforms for unique and interesting songwriters. Most I’m finding in the Indie and Americana genres today.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
OJ: – Love, loving oneself and others, as well as overcoming life’s obstacles; both physical and mental. And, let’s have ourselves a damn good time together!
JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?
OJ: – I would want to go back to the 70’s. Knowing today what the influences that the Blues had on so many up-and-coming bands and solo artists back then, it would be cool to be there, especially at my age today, to be a part of that. To experience the birth of creativity that was still so new in the music universe during that time.
JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
OJ: – Okay, you asked lol. Do you know how many touring, well known and established Blues bands have just a Vocalist fronting them?
JBN: – Perhaps, neither with a digital image nor with a list, I can’t complete all of them, I’m sorry. Thank you for answering my questions in detail.
JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
OJ: – I’ve given free concerts for noble fundraising causes over the years, and I still will. I’m hoping this interview will gain more interest in what Orphan Jon and The Abandoned are, what we bring to the Blues and Roots world and possibly, acquire new fans and interest in booking OJATA throughout the world in doing so.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan