The best part about running Power of Pop for over 15 years is the opportunity to interact with artists who are as obsessed about music as I am. Case in point: singer-songwriter Jonathan Rundman whom I first got a review request from, in 1998! Since then, we have remained in contact whenever Rundman had a new release – which I was more than happy to review. So it’s particularly satisfying to write about Rundman’s latest release – LOOK UP!
Rundman is the classic pop-rock singer-songwriter as he combines elements of country-folk in a smart amalgam of 60s and 70s pop and rock influences and certainly fans of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Neil Young and Bruce Cockburn will warm to his music easily. After all, when melodic pleasure meets with clever lyricism, it isn’t too demanding to desire further investigation.
The opening tuneful rockers “Prioritize Us” and “Northbound Traffic” set the tone perfectly. Along the way, Rundman slows down the pace thoughtfully with numbers like “The Ballad of Nikolas Rungius” and “Second Shelf Down” prove the songwriter’s versatility. Still, it is in catchy concoctions of “Helicopters of Love” and “Flying on a Plane” where the unbridled joy trumps all other considerations and true pop junkies can simply revel in the goodness.
As befitting the significance of this release, I threw Rundman a couple of thought-provoking queries and true to form, he responded in kind.
Since 1998, you have been on your DIY music journey – has it become easier?
It was 1998 when I got some wide-range media and radio attention, and I started touring across North America regularly. However, my first album came out in 1992, and I had been playing music full-time even before that…since 1989. So I’m at my 25th anniversary of being a musician! In some ways its easier now: easier to connect with fans, venue bookers, and media outlets online. But in other ways it’s much more difficult: more difficult to make an income selling CDs and/or downloads, more difficult to get noticed because there are so many other independent artists. It’s also trickier at this stage of life because I’m a middle-aged person now, and I have children at home…the logistics of touring are more complex.
It is impressive that you have stuck to your guns vis-a-vis your musical agenda – is non compromise the key to satisfaction?
This might sound a bit funny, but I don’t mind a little compromise. I’m always open to adjusting my approach and making some artistic compromises if it would mean more opportunity or a wider impact. If some record label or manager or booking agent had come along and said to me “We’ll really support you if you make a country album,” ….or an all-acoustic album, or an instrumental album, or a synth-pop album, I would’ve happily obliged. However, in my 25 years nobody has ever tried to intervene in my musical path, so I’ve just continued to zig zag around, doing whatever seemed interesting to me.
I get the most satisfaction out of momentum. If listeners respond to the music, and I keep getting invited to travel around and play concerts, then I’m very satisfied. The music itself is very flexible. As I get older, I’m learning that I feel fulfillment when I can really meet the audience where they’re at, and have a meaningful moment with them, and I’m happy to steer my own performances and expressions in order to connect with them.
How has writing and recording changed for you in the last 17 years?
When I first started as a songwriter, the lyrics were very intellectual and journalistic, and the music was composed in moments of inspiration. Now that I’m older, the lyrics have become much more emotional and personal, and the music is composed with a more craftsman-like or construction-worker approach. It’s strange…I’ve become more heartfelt as a lyricist, and more clinical as a composer.
Walk us through the process of making Look Up.
It’s been 10 years since my last album of all-new pop/rock songs. That album was called Public Library, released in 2004. From 2004 to 2010 I was busy raising my infant children, so the only albums released during those years were compilations, remixes, etc. Then from 2010-2013 I had an amazing opportunity to record and travel full-time, playing acoustic instrumental Nordic folk music with the band Kaivama. It was deeply inspiring to connect to my ancestral traditions from Finland, and I had a chance to play new instruments and collaborate with many wonderful Finnish folk musicians.
By 2013 I had a fresh perspective as a Father, as an instrumentalist, and as a composer, and I was very excited to return to rock & roll music…I had a lot of ideas and sounds I was ready to explore.
In the Summer of 2013 I approached producer Matt Patrick here in Minneapolis to see if he’d be interested in working with me on a big, loud, hi-tech, collaborative and anthemic pop album. Matt was excited to produce, but he had other projects on the calendar, so I spent the Fall of 2013 writing and arranging new songs. By 2014 I was in the studio with Matt working on LOOK UP. For the first time, I tried a crowdfunding campaign to fund the album…I used PledgeMusic, and the campaign was successful. It took most of the year to complete the recording process, manufacture the album, and fulfill my crowdfunding obligations, and now in January of 2015 I’m thrilled to release the album, one year in the making!
There are songs that stand out lyrically for example, The Ballad of Nikolaus Rungius – what was the inspiration for that?
That particular song was inspired by my three years of playing Finnish folk music. Many Nordic folk tunes are composed in honor of friends and relatives from the past. Nikolaus Rungius was a distant great-uncle of mine, who died in Finland in 1629. He has become quite a well-known figure in Finnish history, and his corpse is mysteriously mummified and on display up near the Arctic Circle. I’ve traveled there to see him in person, and I thought he needed a song! I wrote the song in a very traditional folk ballad format, but in the studio chose a very atmospheric and rock-band inspired arrangement. Other songs on the album are tied to my Finnish heritage, too, such as “Painter” and “Home Unknown.”
Thematically, what were you trying to achieve with the songs on LOOK UP?
I had very specific thematic musical goals for the album. I wanted it to be high-tech and electric…in the past I have recorded primary as an acoustic guitarist, so on this album I wanted lots of electric guitars and keyboards. Also, in the past I have played most of the instruments myself, so on this album I wanted to involve many other musicians…in fact, I made a rule that I was not allowed to play guitar myself. I focused on keyboards instead, and we used other guitarists, who were amazing! Lyrically, I wanted the songs to be uplifting and optimistic…which connects to the title LOOK UP. Also, a common thread about the passage of time developed in the lyrics…past, present, and future. And I wanted the album to ultimately point towards the future.
“No More Old Times” seems very anti-nostalgia – is that what it’s about?
Exactly, yes, that is an anti-nostalgia anthem. In American roots music (especially the new-country hits of recent years) there is a underlying theme about longing for the past. I just saw the new video by Kid Rock, called “First Kiss,” and here are some of the lyrics:
How I’d wish that I could go back in time
When forever felt like it would never come
And we never thought we’d turn 21
So young, we thought this could never end,
Oh how I’d wish we could go back again
I wanted to write a song that was the direct opposite of that sentiment.
What does the future hold for you and your music?
I’m very excited and passionate about the LOOK UP album, so my main goal is to support this recording and these new songs. I want as many people as possible to hear the album. I want to find opportunities to perform for as many audiences as I can. I have never invested so much heart, soul, passion, energy, and emotion in an album before, and I look forward to spending 2015 dedicated to this new music.
What do you hope listeners will take away from Look Up?
I hope they bring the album with them in their cars and play it loud while driving! And I hope they say to themselves, “I’ve never heard songs like these before.”