by: Thomas D. Mooney
I spoke with singer-songwriter Jonny Burke last Monday afternoon. It happened to be Texas Independence Day. That morning, the news that singer-songwriter, Cheatham Street Warehouse owner, and Texas music icon Kent Finlay had passed away.
Finlay was a mentor to many singer-songwriters and musicians over the years, including Burke, who was understandably saddened by the news. We talked for a few minutes about Finlay before I actually turned on the recorder. We’d go on to speak a few more about Finlay’s vital role in the Texas music scene.
Calling a singer-songwriter a “singer-songwriter’s songwriter” is, in a way, kind of a backhanded compliment. It’s a little dismissive. You’re saying a songwriter’s work isn’t relatable to many outside that exclusive “songwriter club” and that an audience isn’t bright enough to get what the “singer-songwriter’s songwriter” is throwing out.
But Burke, he’s kind of a singer-songwriter’s songwriter–though I’d say that it’s maybe just that the rest of the world just hasn’t caught on just yet. Still, there’s a reason accomplished songwriters tend to be avid Burke fans. His songwriting is sharp and clever. It has a point. The storytelling is always there.
On Burke’s latest, the 2014 three-song EP Jonny Burke, he finds himself honing in on his warm melodies and choruses while smoothing out the edges. There’s still a rasp to his voice and a twangy ramble that carries on throughout, but it feels like Burke’s found that blend over rough and refined.
Despite its quick departure after just three songs, it’s still as rangy in sound–going from folk to rock to country–as anything he’s done on Cup Runneth Over or Distance and Fortune. And I’d assume it’s a harbinger for what’s to come this year.
As mentioned, we caught up with Burke last week. He’ll be playing tonight (Wednesday March 11) at The Blue Light opening for American Aquarium. You can currently purchase presale tickets here. In related news, be on the lookout for our interview with BJ Barham of American Aquarium being released later today.
Watch/Listen to Burke perform “Heart of Gold” on Jam in the Van below.
New Slang: When did you first meet Kent Finlay?
Jonny Burke: It must have been when I was 16 or 17. I was born and raised in New Braunfels. I was going to high school and started playing around the bars in town. Naturally, I knew about Cheatham Street and the history. I kind of made friends with all of Kent’s kids and started hanging around there. He just really made you feel welcome. I think songwriting, if you’re going to do it, you have to take it seriously as a craft. When you’re doing Kent’s weekly songwriting circles, that’s a good place to start out. Even in just the past couple of years, if there was a Wednesday night where we were hanging around San Marcos, I’d say, “Let’s stop by Kent’s songwriter circle and play a couple of songs.” He had a great quality to make people feel welcome, but also instructing them about the craft of songwriting. If you’re at Kent’s songwriter circle, they make an announcement every week that nobody says a word. If you want to go to a loud bar and drink, go down the street because this night is about songs.
NS: I can’t remember where I saw it, but someone said that they don’t think anyone cared more about songs than he did. You always hope that people care about songs and songwriting, but you know it’s not always the case. You’re really aware of it when someone cares about the craft of storytelling and songwriting. It shines through.
JB: Definitely. You know, around that time, 15 years ago, I didn’t have the circle of friends like I do now. Now, all my friends are songwriters or work in music. But back then, I was just a kid who had some songs. And for an icon like that to be so welcoming, talked to you about your songs, and made you feel like you were on the same level, that was great. He was always so great at encouraging artists–whether they’re young or fifty-years-old writing their first songs. You’d come in, play your songs, and make you feel welcome. He made you feel like you were a part of a songwriting community.
NS: Yeah. You need those kind of people in your life. It’s important to have someone encourage you, but to also make you accountable for what you’re writing–letting you know when a song isn’t working or just simply is a bad song.
JB: Yeah [laughs]. There’s a show, I was maybe 18 at the time. I had a band called The Dedringers that me and another buddy had formed. We had a show booked a Cheatham Street one night. We started drinking early in the day. Our bass player, he had the fun idea to go to the thrift store and all get dresses to wear to that night’s show. It was like the day before Halloween or something. Like I said, we’d been drinking all day, our friends were the crowd, and we were putting on sort of a sloppy show. We’re all wearing dresses and switching instruments. It was just a sloppy show [laughs]. One of those “Oh god, I can’t believe we did that” moments. And after the show, I was talking to Kent. He’d been sitting at the bar watching the entire time. I was still in my element enough to thinking “Ah shit. Kent’s watching us” the entire time. He didn’t jump my ass or anything. He was never that kind of guy, but he gently put it “Well Jonny, I see what y’all are going for here, but I just don’t think it’s the route you want to take.” And that spoke more than anything any other bar owner who’d be jumping my ass. I said, “Yeah guys, I don’t think we should do this ever again [laughs].”
NS: Yeah, I know that feeling [laughs]. It really does work when a parent, a grandparent, or just somebody you really respect and look up to, if they say they’re disappointed in you rather than screaming and yelling, it just automatically gets you.
JB: Yeah, it really does. It’s way more effective. Needless to say, I never wore a dress on stage after that [laughs].
NS: That’s probably a good thing [laughs]. These past few months, I’ve spoken with a few people who said they’d been writing a couple of songs with. I believe RC [Edwards] mentioned you’d been doing some writing with Evan [Felker of Turnpike Troubadours]. You have an idea on where that material is going?
JB: No, not really. Obviously, people do co-writing for a living and there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Most of the people I write with, it’s not a “Hey, we need songs for a record.” There’s not really this is mine and this is yours. With somebody like Evan, I’ll go and stay with him for a week or so. We’ll just go out hunting and in the afternoons, we’ll sit down and write. It’s never a “this is a song for you, this is a song for me.” I like writing where you can tell the other person, “No, that sucks. I don’t want to go that direction. No, that line just isn’t going to work. It fucking sucks [laughs].” I’ve done co-writing with a ton of people, and if you don’t know the other person that well or you’re walking on eggshells around them, it’s really to finish a song in one or two hours–and the song may be good–but I always try and say that if you’re going to finish a song and play it on stage or record it or whatever, you want it to be great.
NS: Yeah. I’ve always been so fascinated with the co-writing process because of all the different dynamics involved. There’s different attitudes, ideas, egos–all these different things–that effect a collaboration like that. I was speaking with somebody and they were talking about how you really have to trust that other person. Essentially, if you have this really great idea for a song and you bring it to someone and the finished product didn’t meet your expectations, you really just wasted that idea. When you have an idea that you bring to the table, you’re really trusting that other person to not ruin it.
JB: Definitely. There are songs where I didn’t know the other person that well and we finish the song and I look at it and say, “Well, I’m not going to play that. I could have done something with those lines and now I can’t go back [laughs].”
NS: Has there been anybody you’ve written with who surprised you by their writing style–the way they worked, their process?
JB: I’ve written a bunch of songs with Hayes Carll. He’s really good at not saying “OK, the song is done.” You’ll think the song is done and then you’ll sit there for five more hours. I write a lot in the mornings where it’s a quick burst of inspiration. If I think it’s good, I’ll write on it as long as I can. Then I’ll come back to it. Writing with Hayes over the years, that taught me a lot. You can finish the song and then go back and rewrite every verse and revisit it six hours later. That discipline. Writing with him when I was 19, that taught me so much about discipline.
NS: What’s been literally the last song you were working on about?
JB: I had this past Saturday off. You kind of have to not be around a bunch of people. Kind of have to lock yourself up–or at least I do. I sat there for about five hours and wrote a song that I think I’m calling “Where’d The Time All Go?” Me and a couple of band guys I’ve known since I was a teenager, we were saying last week, “Man, how long have I known you?” We were trying to figure out where all the time went. They’re in their thirties, but they’ve known me since I was 15 or 16. I just had my 29th birthday so I just was writing a narrative on the things that’ve happened over the years.
NS: Yeah. It’s strange how time goes by. You always look back and think about how those were the “good ol’ days.” You never realize when you’re in the good ol’ days though. Very rarely do you have that moment of clarity and say to yourself, “these are the good days we’re in right now.”
JB: Yeah [Laughs]. That’s a good way to put it. Something to try and remember. Don’t always look back at the good ol’ days in hindsight. You have to realize these are those days.
NS: Yeah, I think it’s just human nature. Anyways though, you started writing at an early age. Was being a songwriter what you always wanted to do or was there other things?
JB: Yeah. It’s made it a lot easier to do since I’ve always wanted to be a songwriter and started out so young. My dad, he was a songwriter and singer. Never professionally, but my first memories are of him playing the guitar for me while taking a bath at two or three-years-old. Him playing before I went to bed. A lot of my influences come from him and his record collection. I played gigs with him. Being that it’s Texas Independence Day, I’ll throw this out there. I think my first gig was with my dad when I was six-years-old for The Daughters of the Republic of Texas [laughs]. I was sitting there playing for a bunch of old ladies that run it. It might have been Texas Independence Day for all I know. I was playing all these Guy Clark songs and old historical Texas songs. Got a free lunch out of it and everybody seemed to like it [laughs]. Then playing my first show at fifteen-years-old, next day in math class or whatever, reached in my pocket and found a hundred dollars worth of sweaty tip jar money and thought, “Well shit. I know what I’m doing [laughs].” I guess every once in a while, whether it’s been a girlfriend or a parent figure asking, “Do you maybe have a backup plan? What happens if it doesn’t work out?” My answers been, “Well I don’t know; it’s worked out this far [laughs].”
NS: [Laughs]. A lot of people, when they talk about their influences or they’re talking about Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt, they kind of always make it seem like they always had been familiar with their work. That’s really not the case. I know for me, I didn’t start listening to Townes until I was 18 or 19–and it was really only because I read about him in an indie rock magazine. For you, when was it that you really started digging around for songwriters and really starting to digest lyrics?
JB: Yeah. Like I said, those songs were always around when I was a kid. I can remember my dad playing “Pancho and Lefty” and “Home Grown Tomatoes.” But I first started getting it in that time around middle school. You’ve just hit puberty and you just feel lost in the world. That was what I related to. I played sports and stuff, but I’m kind of a shorter guy. I was never the first one picked for football. There’s only so many things to do as a kid in central Texas besides hunting, fishing, and football. That’s the one that chose me–those songs. I can remember staying up nights listening to those records and thinking, “Man, if I could just write one song that was anywhere close to any of these songs, my life will be worth while.” It was around 13 when I first started writing songs and a few years later when I finally had worked up the courage to go play them at the local bar. I wasn’t supposed to be at that bar and no body gave a shit about a fifteen-year-old playing songs there. It’s like a Joseph Campbell quote–which is cliché now–but he says “Follow your bliss.” I think because I was so young, it made it that much more easy to do it. If you’re fifteen and you say, “Fuck it. This is what I’m doing with my life,” it makes it easier now when there are expectations of you to hold a steady job and a stable place to live [laughs]. It’s made it easier for me to just believe the most important thing is the song and the show on the road. That’s what it’s all about for me.
NS: Yeah. I’m kind of surprised that Joseph Campbell quote hasn’t been overtaken by that whole “Texas gypsy hippy free spirit” movement going on. I’m surprised that’s not their battle cry.
JB: Maybe I’ll find one of those boutique girls and feed that to them and say I want 10 percent off every shirt sold [laughs].
NS: Really [laughs]. I’m a really big fan of Bob Dylan and read this interview he did–I guess the interview was from the mid-’70s–but it was a few years back when I read it. He was talking about how the most difficult thing for him as a songwriter is to get that initial inspiration or idea–the reason he sat down to write in the first place–to get that in the final version of the song. Is that difficult for you?
JB: Yeah. I think you’re right about that first flash of inspiration. I think Keith Richards says that it’s like a bolt of lightning. I can always feel it. Even if I’m in a group of people, I can feel needing to go and find a room with a pad and paper and write down what’s first coming to you. But naturally, if you have the discipline to sit there, I think naturally it does evolve. I’m of the school to let the song go where it wants. So usually, if I sit down with that first flash of inspiration, the song is going to turn out with a completely different story or whatever.
NS: I guess it’s easier these days to just type a line or idea into your phone when it pops up. But what’s the strangest thing you’ve jotted down a few lyrics on over the years? Napkins?
JB: Oh yeah. Bar napkins. I think one time, we had some leftover barbecue in a van. I had a sharpie and all I had to write on was some butcher paper I had from this leftover barbecue [laughs]. I threw the barbecue out the window or gave it to the rest of the band and wrote on this greasy butcher paper. You had to do those kind of things. Looking back on it now, I think, “Well nothing came of that song.” I woke up the next day and looked at it and thought, “Well this shit sucks.” I lost my leftover barbecue [laughs].