Poet. Rapper. Optimist. Generous and compassionate human. All of these adjectives describe Jonathan Brown, but they aren't enough. Some people are magic; Jonathan is one of them.
I met Jonathan on the Midwestern leg of his last tour, in the dead of an Ohio winter. Hailing from the south, Jonathan had never encountered such a harsh winter. -19 degrees, snow drifts up to your knee, ice, hail, wind. All of it in a rented van because his car went belly up part-way through tour. Shows were cancelled or rescheduled, his tour path rerouted. January is a hard month. But Jonathan, who currently resides in New Orleans, met all of it with enthusiasm and wonder. I saw him perform three times during that Midwestern winter run, and each time, his set was compelling. I was humbled by the humanity and humility of his writing.
I first saw Jonathan perform at a dive bar in Lexington, Kentucky. A group of us had come down from Dayton for the show. Jonathan shared the bill that night with some local acts as well as Dayton legend Paige Beller. We spoke briefly before his set and I could tell already we were in for something special. His songs were compassionate, smart, self aware, covering topics as wide ranging as high brow art, the death of a friend, the meaning of home, and washing a chicken. That night, Jonathan Brown and our small group of Ohioans stayed up till four AM in a Lexington B&B talking about life and eating White Castle veggie sliders before going our separate ways in the light of day.
Later in the tour, he played dates in Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton, Youngstown, and Dayton again. For the duration of his stay, he got to experience the peak of an Ohio winter. Now, on the cusp of summer, we are met with heat, humidity, and tornado wreckage, as well as the imminent return of Jonathan Brown. We had a little long distance chat before he set off for the “We need to talk because the last time we did, I was a totally different person and worlds have been destroyed and created since the last time we had coffee” tour, joined again by Paige Beller for many of the dates.
Kelly Dillahunt for Sound Valley: What were some of your impressions of Ohio from your last tour?
Jonathan Brown: I got a lot impressions. The first that comes to mind is a smooth nihilism.
KD: That was your first time driving in the snow?
JB: Yes! That was the first time I’ve ever seen weather like that. I even left the last Columbus show at 2 AM to drive to West Virginia to beat the snow that was coming. Really felt out of my league in all that winter weather. But everyone else pretended it was normal, so eventually I did too.
KD: How much of the year do you typically spend touring? What does a day in your life look like when you’re home?
JB: I’ve spent about half of the year on tour for the past three years. I love it.
A typical day in New Orleans? This is a hard one to answer. Sometimes I waffle hard between exhaustion and exuberance and I wonder if I’m addicted to stress itself. If so, I’m looking for a good kind of stress. Whatever that means.
I’m a super private person and I love spending time alone.
I like to read and write all day. I like to make weird fax machine beats on the Push and the Moog.
For money, while I’m not on tour, I ride a giant tricycle through the French Quarter. I’m basically some version of a cyclist for hire/carni/mule/good times provider/where do the locals eat question answerer/ safety advocate/ who has never been hit by a car or hit a car’s mirror, but I may or may not have squished a few tourists’ toes.
I have two master’s degrees so riding a giant tricycle can feel like a fork in the life path, but the freedom trikelife provides is pretty unparalleled. I can tour whenever I want, come home, and I still have a job.
I taught American Lit, AP language, and creative writing for the better part of eight years. I’ve been essentially an art hustler and a tricyclist for the past four. I love teaching, but it’s no way to tour.
KD: What are some memorable things you’ve experienced while on tour?
JB: One time I played Frackville, PA. It’s a coal town and unemployment is high. The prison puts a lot of people to work up there. There are Trump signs all up in the windows of what little business there is to be had in the downtown area. It was a confederate-flag-stickers-on-the-back-of-big-trucks type of place. Which surprised me because I didn’t expect to see that so far north.
I thought the show itself would be a bar fight, but I considered bar fight a metaphor. As in, I thought the locals might be hostile towards my art, and I’d have to win them over.
The owner of the bar was kind and communicative when I arrived. She made sure I had a place to set up my merch table and told me I got a free meal for playing.
After my set, the bar fight became literal. From what I could tell, somebody said something to somebody’s girlfriend. The whole table had loud opinions. Then, the whole other side of the room had louder opinions. Then, people got out of chairs and squared up. Somebody pushed somebody. The two sides coagulated violently.
While this was happening, I was sitting at a bar stool holding a basket of fried broccoli bites. I hadn’t had a beer all evening. But when the fight broke out, I ordered a Miller Light.
The bartender gave me a look like, “this shit again.” And we both sat back and watched from what I was hoping was a safe distance. I got the vibe bar fights were normal in this place.
I sold one shirt that night. To the owner. The shirt says “what would Gandhi tweet.” It’s kind of a conversation starter and a line from a song.
I do regret not taking a pic of the fray that night so I could have an image of the owner throwing haymakers, wearing the Gandhi shirt.
I have a friend in Charleston, South Carolina who got one of my poem titles (I'm Possible) tattooed on her arm. I was speechless when I saw it. I'm still super humbled by that.
Last West Coast tour I got to perform with Daphne Gottlieb. She was my thesis advisor another lifetime ago when I got my MA in Writing and Consciousness from The New College of California. I was pretty star struck.
It's not exactly one big moment that stands out. It's all the tiny things. The small acts of kindness.
Having a stranger cry during your set and then hug you afterward and tell you why a song meant so much to them. Then, that stranger becomes a life long friend and you send little messages to wish each other well and pick each other up when life gets hard. And that story for me is one that gets replayed often. It happens about every third or fourth show while I'm on the road. People tell me their secrets. It can be heavy sometimes. I think it's because my music is so personal it feels like a secret sometimes. When you tell someone a secret, they feel safe enough to share one of theirs. It's human nature I think. I don't know how to say that other than people tell me stuff. They tell me things they don't tell anyone else. I'd give you some examples... but they're not my stories to tell. It's my responsibility to listen. So I guess what I'm saying is that the trust people place in me opens my heart. It reinforces the faith I have in what I'm doing.
The connections I've made while on tour stand out to me as some of the most valuable things in my life. The memories of late-night diners. The home cooked meal once in a while. The hugs. Longtime friends bringing their kids to shows. The moment when you tell someone it's so good to see you and you really mean it. My friend Silas in Terre Haute telling me how he died and came back to life. My poetry friends in the Carolinas saying they miss Tavis too and we can almost feel him in the room with us.
It's because of the tight-knit network of hard working artists of all different genres I've become friends with over the years. I can honestly say my friends make my favorite music. That's pretty cool.
Another thing I love doing while on the road is conducting creative writing workshops at high schools and colleges. Helping people feel the power of their own voice is still a strong passion of mine and it's what I probably miss the most about teaching full time.
My favorite shows are usually kind of a listening room vibe. In a place where I can move from reading page poetry or essays to doing spoken word to playing songs and back again. Those are kind of my favorite gigs because I really get to play with dynamics. Reading from a book is not really what's up in front of a bar crowd. And screaming like I'm on fire is not really a thing that's cool to do in a bookstore. But every once in a while, I get a type of stage where I can wear all the hats. And that's fun.
KD: You will be sharing the stage with Dayton’s Paige Beller for most of this upcoming tour. Tell me a little bit about how you met and playing with her on your last tour.
JB: Paige and I met at The Britisher in Lancaster, California. We were playing a show put on by Burger Wolf. It was an odd show, but I’d thankfully play it again.
I was really moved by her set and we kept in touch. Then we met again for a handful of shows during that snowy adventure. I’ve never driven in weather that weird.
My Chevy Volt, Sparky, died halfway through the last tour. The dash said, “engine unavailable.” A kind soul helped me push Sparky out of traffic. Sparky’s carcass is still in Orlando and I have to pay off the note before I can sell it for parts.
Maybe it’s good that Sparky died when it did, cause I’m not sure how a Volt would do in a blizzard.
Thanks to the quick generosity of friends and supporters, the show went on. I created a gofundme campaign called The Show Must Go On. I had to be in Nashville in four days to start the second half of the tour. We were able to raise enough in a day to rent a van. And that’s when I met you.
Jonathan’s tour comes through Dayton and nearby areas on the following dates. Be sure to come out and also pick up some of his amazing and unconventional merch.
06/13 Blind Bob’s, Dayton OH (Tornado Relief Benefit)
06/14 Northside Tavern, Cincinnati OH
06/16 Yellow Cab Tavern, Dayton OH
06/19 Jack Elstro Plaza, Richmond IN
06/19 Park Road Tavern, Springfield OH