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Take Dylan’s poetic genius, Drake’s sombre, hypnotic folk and the hardened road tales of Rory McLeod, and somewhere along the dusty tracks you’ll meet Jonas Graile, a lone troubadour with a clutch of twisted skiffle/folk songs that hark back to a more romantic period of music, where the songs weave spell-binding tales from the deep south – deep south-east England to be precise.
Jonas’ musical paintings are all quite different, but together suit the man who is as comfortable on stage with a beaten guitar and a cardboard box in a village pub as he is with a full band in front of thousands.
Music-Zine met the mysterious Graile at his home studio for coffee and tales of kick-ass karate men….
Tell me about your musical history and what led you into writing and performing…
Jonas: It was a mistake really, as I started as a drummer, and my previous band (Fat Dragon) was one that formed almost accidentally, and lasted twelve years.
I always wanted to be a singer, from a really young age, but was too shy to do it, so I started learning drums instead. The band I eventually joined rehearsed in the barn where I practised and needed to borrow my kit. As I was there, they asked me if I wanted to have a go at singing, and it went from there.
As a front-man I was eager not to have people putting words in my mouth. I’ve always been into books, and telling my own stories and as such I’ve always been a song writer from that point of view rather than hearing a good groove or nice chords…
And does this new guise give you more opportunity to do that?
Jonas: Yes, of course. It’s utter free reign. When you’re in a band, you generally jam together to get something going, and then you trowel the lyrics on top, like icing the cake, whereas this way the lyrics are part of the cake mix. When I write, in most cases it all comes in one go, the songs come fully formed, all of it.
Sometimes there may be a lyric; Promise Of You for example, featured on the myspace site, was conceptual and the tune was in my head for 6 months. I then sat down and wrote it in about 20 minutes, because it was already formed.
Describe the Jonas Graile sound to those that haven’t yet heard your music?
Jonas: I suppose what I try and do is take some traditional things, some old things and some ideas like say, vaudeville and blues, for instance and mix them with modern subjects and modern ideas. So I suppose it’s romantic music really, it’s innocent. I don’t tend to talk about things that wouldn’t have made sense to someone 40 years ago; I try and stick with classic things. If I’m going to put it in a nutshell, I’m the soul-singing son of Lonnie Donegan and Leonard Cohen. It’s skiffle, vaudeville bar-room songs mixed with an urban twist.
What instrumentation do you use when performing with a full band?
Jonas: I have people who are multi-instrumentalists, who can switch instruments during the gig so I can have more going on, on stage. I use traditional instruments like violins, as well as keyboards and guitars, but you’ll find the band having to down tools at moments in the gig to simply clap hands or scrape a washboard…
Who are you trying to reach with your music?
Jonas: Everybody really, I knew I would reach people of my own age but I like the idea of reaching older people as well, I would like to write with depth like Cole Porter. That said it seems that kids really like some of my stuff, just the other day somebody told me that their 12 year old son has Kick Arse Karate man on his x-box and listens to it on repeat. I had no idea. It’s not an exact demographic, just actual listeners of music rather than just the hum on the radio…
Given your rock past, why the current direction? Is it more you, would you say?
Jonas: Well, yeah, necessarily it is, but I’m naturally quite an eclectic person. I always like the idea of groups like The Beastie Boys where they play hardcore and hip-hop as part of the same show, and I’d like to do that sort of thing too, with different types of music naturally. What those types of bands share is a passion, a conviction really, and that can be shown in a lot of ways. In a rock band it’s more obvious how it’s being shown, but the technique is the same.
You seem to be going for a wandering minstrel image…
Jonas: I like the romanticism of that, but I think the album, when it’s done will sound more contemporary. I’ll be bumping the image against that. One of my publicity shots is of me sitting on my guitar case on the side of the road holding a sign that reads “nowhere.” It is a theme I’m interested in. I like the idea of a band of tramps and vagabonds, but it may be difficult in practise to convince people to go that far.
Who or what influences and inspires your song-writing?
Jonas: I’ve been doing this a long time now and I find the actual influence of music itself becomes less and less important. I find books, people I meet and even things people say far more of an influence. Musically speaking, I like things that are quite eclectic and unusual; Tom Waits and Beck for example, who aren’t afraid of trying different things. In terms of singers, because I’ve spent such a long time as a singer and thought so much about my voice, because that was my job, I got into vocalists like Marvin Gaye, and Tim Buckley, who try to do different things with their voice, who try to show a broader range of use of the sound a voice can make. That said, lately I’ve been concentrating more on writing songs for the song’s sake rather than the challenge of singing them…I always have a scene or a picture in mind.
Which literary artists inspire you?
Jonas: I like a lot of contemporary writers, people like Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club amongst others, Brett Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, as well as a lot of the classics like Truman Capote. Movies inspire me too, like the Coen Brothers movies, which are funny, but inspiring also as they look at things from a slightly skewed perspective which appeals to me.
You currently write, play and record everything yourself. What’s the process you employ to do that effectively?
Jonas: It takes a lot of going backwards and forwards really. I record in a barn that was originally used for the refrigeration of apples! But it has a nice tall ceiling. I do an initial skeleton of the song, then I have to play along to myself and replace it with good stuff, playing along to a lot of click tracks. I try to encumber some of the sound of the space that I’m in, so the music’s very open because of the nature of the space and the fact that it’s out in the wild, in the middle of a field rather than being cooped up in a small studio with a lot of glass and microphones. It’s a bit more holistic than that really.
There’s always an untouchable goal aspect to recording; you start working to the sound of how it’s going down on the recording. For instance, when I’m playing the drums, when I was exclusively a drummer, I would go into the studio and record exactly as I was playing live, whereas now I’ll do things deliberately, like playing quietly so that I can make certain things sound different to how they would normally sound. So some of my recordings are acoustic music but recorded and mixed like a rock band. If you had an acoustic guitar and drum-kit in a room normally, the guitar wouldn’t be loud enough, it wouldn’t cut across; so with that in mind I’d play the acoustic differently as well because I knew that it wasn’t going to be realistic anyway, so what I would do would be to record all the acoustics really quietly so that the picked sounds were amplified even more, and it creates a fuller tone. And similarly with the drums – if you hit them quietly, then the cymbals, which are naturally loud, become like breakers, they become huge, washing sounds. It gives it quite a different feel.
Also instead of recording with up-close mics as you would in a normal recording studio, I chose to use a jazz style instead, which may make it difficult for people to compare with other music, but that’s probably a good thing.
Is it your intention to utilise the band in future recordings?
Jonas: It depends on them really. To hold onto them if they feel they need to be more involved then yes, but I will always mix the two, doing some myself and then I could put more variations in the songs by using different people to do different things. I quite like working to my own limitations. It then sounds more or less how I expect it to sound.
Are you looking to get signed by a label, or doing that side of things yourself too?
I don’t have a clear strategy yet for how I’m going to get myself out there. I think Myspace is a powerful tool, I certainly use that, but it’s not the only way. Just playing as many places as possible is the thing for me, and I can do it easily as I can play alone and that gives me a certain advantage. I’ve played places where it wasn’t the show that got the audience going so much as when I went into the bar afterwards and played in there unaccompanied. That’s what got them and that’s what they’d remember. It’s about getting people to investigate a bit further.
I think the industry has changed quite a lot and the people getting better careers out of it will be the ones thinking more laterally. Now that downloads have become such an important part of the charts, you find a top 20 act that haven’t got a record deal.
Are you referring to Koopa by any chance?
Jonas: Yes, who I haven’t heard by the way, even though they’re a local band from Colchester, but undoubtedly it was some clever marketing that was employed there.
Are you aware of, or do you follow music trends and write your music with that in mind?
Jonas: I don’t even know what’s currently in vogue. I used to be interested in those things when I was in my previous band, and I think I got a bit too wrapped up in that really. I think a bit of purity in what you’re doing is helpful, but that said I do think about whether people would like a song once I’ve written it. I don’t get totally enslaved to it, however, as you can probably tell! Some of the things I’ve done, even though I think they sound great, are not classically commercial. But I don’t have a problem with that because they’re also not deliberately obtuse. When you start aiming not to be popular just to be cool, then that’s a problem. That must be awfully hard work…
The style of your music varies a lot. How is it all linked together?
Jonas: The link is the song-writing, and by that I mean the character and the subject matter; that’s the genre. When you look at people like David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, or even Neil Young, you buy into who they are. So I’m taking the gamble that people do that generally with people that are making music on their own. So what I’m trying to do is, when I put out a piece of work, like the Skiffle Superstar EP, is the whole thing ties together as a home-made themed recording, using cardboard boxes and pots and pans and so on. There’s a couple of songs on there that could be my best work, but there’s other songs I have that would sit better on radio but I chose not to put them on that CD as I was trying to do something specific. A piece of art rather than a jukebox.
So Jonas Graile the character is as important as the songs he’s writing?
Jonas: They’re part of each-other, I think. I’m the type of person that would write that, so that ties it in. That said, it’s not like everything I write is autobiographical. I might write something for fun, I might be being silly, although some of those songs are autobiographical as well I suppose!
Is it easier to write autobiographical songs, written from experience rather than stories you’ve dreamt up?
Jonas: All the songs on myspace are written about personal experiences. A lot of them are in fact, looking at the list of tracks here on my computer. The Saddest Girl In Truro, for example is half and half – I went to the eclipse in Cornwall in 1999 and before I went I read a book on the subject and found that there are people who travel round the world following eclipses whenever and wherever they happen. So I wrote the song about a character that did that but they were running away from something going on in their own life. Young Love on the other hand is very much autobiographical and based around trying to entice somebody out of my own house. The lyrics describe my route into town from my house. There’s a Brian Wilson song that’s written for a girl he wants to come round, and he literally describes the way to his house in the song. It’s a similar thing I guess.
Songs just present themselves to me. I don’t seem to have to work at them so I can’t say which is easier to write. There’s one in my head at the moment that I need to record, which couldn’t possibly be autobiographical because it’s from the point of view of a serial killer, which sounds very serious but it’s actually going to be a comical macabre song.
You seem to enjoy contradictions in your songs…
Jonas: Yeah, Bad Pennies is one of those – I got the idea from a thirties song by Sunhouse, a story about the book of Revelations, sung with no music. English people playing blues is a contradiction. I think there’s a certain guilt factor because it’s not our music. That music very specifically belongs to those people that were making it at the time. But what was it that made it their music? It was them talking about their feelings at the time, so really you have to talk about your own things at the time to make it work. So in Bad Pennies I was singing about a day that was difficult to get somewhere where I needed to be, and instead of talking about the delta in Mississippi I talk about Halstead and Braintree, and instead of talking about women, I’m talking about Essex girls, and I say so. So that to me is of interest and makes it fair game.
Where do you play locally and do you have a favourite venue in the area?
Jonas: Not that I play there that often, but my favourite would have to be the High Barn. I also like playing Hogs in Braintree. With what I’m trying to do now, those venues are great for me.
I like going places I’ve never played before, open mic nights and things like that, throwing my hook in and seeing what happens.
I can be a lot more flexible in where I play now because of the type of music I’m playing and whether I choose to play with a band or not. I think bands need to be more flexible in order to get themselves around a bit more. I’m interested in playing places that don’t normally have live music, because it’s the people that are important and not how nice a venue is. There are a lot of places to play now, and you can play different times of day too. There’s a healthy Sunday afternoon live music scene in London going on at the moment…
Any other local bands that you like, or go and see regularly?
Jonas: I don’t see too many, but I do like The Horn
Tell me about Braintree Rock, where you played last year?
Jonas: That was actually my first gig with a full band. I don’t like to do things by halves, so I started by playing in front of 1,000 people. Call it bravery or mindless opportunism, but it was really good on the day. The weather was really heavy, but it was a whirlwind and I had to watch the DVD afterwards to really judge how we sounded. It meant for a lot of responsibility on the stage on my part for the band. I’m not used to that. We only had 3 or 4 rehearsals before the gig and I wasn’t sure if I was asking too much of them. I mean, I was virtually playing the songs single-handed with them playing along, but they did a great job.
Is it your intention to do more with the band, or more solo gigs?
Jonas: It will be whatever’s appropriate for the venue I’m playing. I like to find musicians who are adaptable. That’s why it will be worth coming to see the live performance over and over again as it will be different each time – different line-ups and songs played in different ways. That’s what I’d want to see, so that’s what I’m going to do.
Tell me about your personal music tastes- who are you currently listening to?
Jonas: Who I do really like is Outkast, which may surprise a few people, but I love their stuff and I’ve been listening to their new album recently. I prefer the last album but this new one is great too. The Buckleys, The Beasties, the Sqigglies (I made that one up). All sorts of things mixed together. I’m presently mixing sea shanties with rap music. I shall call it ship hop…a-ha.
When and where can people buy your recordings?
Jonas: The Skiffle Superstar EP is already available at gigs, or people can contact me via myspace if they want a copy sent to them. Naturally there are tracks available to listen to on myspace, but I’m trying not to give the whole game away with that.
Check out Jonas Graile on myspace - www.myspace.com/jonasgraile