Jon records music in his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two kids. He also hosts the podcast PLAY DISC, in which he and his brother Harrison host in-depth discussions about full albums of pop and rock music.
Jon Porobil Blog
By home, 2021-04-25
Tell me about the cover art.
Sure! The cover art was done digitally by my friend Ben Wright-Heuman, whom I've known since college and worked with on a few other projects. He drew one of my other album covers, did some visual processing on a photo I took for another of my albums, and a lot of promotional art for my (now bygone) podcast.
So around Summer 2020, I was just wrapping up this song contest that runs in the Song Fight community every year, called Nur Ein. And I came out of it knowing that I'd just put together some of the best songs I'd ever done, and I almost definitely have enough material for an album. But I don't really know what that's going to look like yet. Even so, I reach out to Ben and say "I'm starting an album. Not sure of the title, not sure what I want the art to be, but I'm pretty sure I want you to help with that side of things."
Ben and I had a brainstorming session over it.
I compiled all the Nur Ein songs and a handful of other recent (and one not-so-recent) song that I thought would all fit together. And he helped me kind of talk through the themes, and what's been on my mind during my creative process in 2020...
The thing about 2020 was... I mean, we're still living it now, but between the pandemic, the economic uncertainty, the murder of George Floyd and the enormous scale of the protests that set off (which in turn triggered an escalation in police violence), all during an election year where a lot of Americans were (and still are) legitimately concerned about the collapse of democracy as we know it... Point is, 2020 was a uniquely horrible and stressful year.
And I feel like the songs reflected that, in various ways.
Talking it through with Ben, I kind of stumbled on the thought that we were all in a state of grieving, and that writing songs was, for me, part of a prolonged process of grieving.
Grieving for all the loss of life, for the potential loss of stable livelihood for so many people, and for the collective trauma of all those 2020 things I just listed and more.
That angle - describing the creative process as part of grieving - led me to think of the five stages of grief. So I started organizing the songs into the different categories: Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression, Acceptance. And most of the songs did actually fit into one or more of those categories.
(And so I ended up cutting the songs that didn't. Maybe they're for another project)
Anyway, from there, the cover art concept clicked into place. Each of these "stages" of grief would be represented by a literal stage. Denial was the guy standing in the fire, a nod to the iconic webcomic with the dog saying "This is Fine." That was also one of the song titles, which came from Nur Ein, almost certainly inspired by the same webcomic. (Attribution where it's due: that webcomic was called Gunshow, by KC Green.)
I chose to depict "Bargaining" as a child and a beleagured parent. The kid is angling for more stories before bedtime, holding out two books. My kid was four years old when I was working on all this, so that particular brand of weariness was certainly on my mind.
Anger I chose to depict as two people boxing. Simple enough. The cardboard crowd in that panel was Ben's idea, but it worked really well, I think.
Depression was the figure slumped over a kitchen table full of paperwork, presumably bills. He's either crying or has fallen asleep at the table, and his partner is behind him, trying to console him.
The other layer under all these choices was that the positions of the characters happens to line up with the "Loss" meme, another webcomic joke that has transcended its source material and kind of seeped into the world.
"Loss" was originally also a visual depiction of grief, so given the opportunity to cram one more allusion in there, particular one that's often depicted kind of steganographically... Well, I couldn't resist.
The fifth stage, Acceptance, is the bottom one, with my logo. That stage is empty. Take that however you will
My original plan was to find a school auditorium or some other space that I could borrow for a Sunday afternoon or something, and buy some props, and act out the different scenes. But, y'know, global pandemic, public spaces closed, etc etc, so eventually I asked Ben to just draw the scenes himself. We went through five drafts and a couple of minor revisions after that for things like the font, positioning of text, the thickness of the gutters between the panels and the border around the whole thing. Ben did a wonderful job, and I'd recommend him to anyone who needs to commission some promo work. https://bwhcomics.com/
So. That answer was wider in scope than I expected when I started writing.
So you're still working on acceptance?
I mean, aren't we all?
Do you consider Stages a concept album?
I wasn't thinking of it as a concept album, but I admit that a lot of the pieces are there. There's kind of a narrative arc to it, and those sound effects bridging the songs.
It's certainly no Dark Side of the Moon.
I think I'm hesitant to embrace that "concept album" designation because I didn't write any of the individual songs with a concept in mind - if the album has a concept, it was added after all the songs had been written and chosen.
But I do love concept albums in general.
Why did you choose Tolling Bell as the first track?
Sometimes, for an opening track, you go through the list and figure out which makes the best first impression. And yeah, you don't want to start on your worst song - can't get away with that unless you're Bob Dylan. But in this case, I put "Tolling Bell" at the beginning because I didn't think it would fit anywhere else.
Ben suggested that it felt more like a closing track, but I never agreed with that. "Tolling Bell" presents a world after a cataclysm, one with a small amount of hope and an ambiguous path to recovery. And to me, that felt like too much of a downer to end the album on.
But as a beginning? Opening on a song with no intro, with lyrics that have a sense of urgency and immediacy, and a story that presents a broken world like that, it felt to me like that could grab the listener, and then kind of pull back and let the rest of the songs address, "How did we get here?"
I don't know how well this comes across to the average listener, but I think of that sound effect fading from "Tolling Bell" into "This is Fine" as kind of a cinematic dissolve to flashback.
What DAW are you using?
I've been using Cubase since about 2010. I had my old install of Cubase 6, but near the end of Nur Ein, I upgraded to 10.5. Maybe making such a huge version jump in the middle of a competition with tight deadlines was a tactical error, but it worked out for me in the end!
You and I started song fighting right around the same time (you were a couple weeks ahead of me). It doesn't seem like 18 years ago. Several songs from Stages come from song fight activity and your winning Nür Ein. Tell me about that.
Yeah, I remember being blown away by your stuff when we were both new. It sounded so full, sonically, and well produced, and I was a 17 year old teaching himself guitar in his walk in attic space.
There's only... (checks notes) Two Song Fight songs on Stages, which I guess isn't typical for my stuff. But also out of eight Nur Ein songs, six of those made it to the album. And one other Song Fight related track, "Fisheye" was from a Circle of Titles side fight.
Oh, and one was from an older FAWM. Different community, but yeah, so many of these songs came from community projects.
Being in Song Fight, Nur Ein, FAWM, and Spintunes, it's been huge for my creativity. They offer these prompts, groups of people who are into the same crazy hobby, and getting so much feedback and education, I definitely wouldn't have accomplished half of what I've done without all that.
Especially, thinking about it.... My first few years on Song Fight were before YouTube. There's a ton of great home recording and production advice on YouTube now, but back then there wasn't much of anything unless you could find a website with a bulletin board full of people who knew what they were doing and were willing to invest the time to try to share that knowledge.
You have a graphic story about a song you wrote in college. Tell me about Phantom.
Wow, you really did your research!
That one's a long story, and I'm running around the house doing chores... Give me a few minutes.
All right, so. I grew up in New Orleans. I graduated high school in 2004, and I went to college in Ohio. For all intents and purposes, I moved to Ohio permanently at that point. I spent the summer after my freshman year of college back "home" in New Orleans, but I left early to go back to Ohio, and haven't spent more than two weeks in New Orleans at a time since then.
That summer I spent back in New Orleans was in 2005. I left in early August. At the end of August, Hurricane Katrina struck.
That's the house I grew up in.
I was up at college, but mom, stepdad, and brother, all stayed behind.
It was actually the first day of classes for me when Katrina made landfall. I couldn't get in touch with anyone in my family. Honest to god, I thought they were dead.
Phone calls to and from New Orleans phone numbers weren't working. And so, for every class, I had to go introduce myself to my professors and say "Hi, I know you don't allow cell phones, but if this phone rings, I'm answering it."
It was about 48 hours before I heard that my family was ok.
I was spamming all their phone numbers every spare moment I had.
So, I had this pent-up frustration and anguish and rage and all this stuff, and I was 1600 miles away and couldn't really do anything, or even find out if they were okay.
And I just strapped on the guitar and vented.
"I got half a mind to destroy the world that destroyed me" was one of the first coherent lines that came out. I'm not really sure what that means, even after all these years. It's an impotent threat, you know? How am I going to destroy the world? But it's a pure expression of frustration, and I've resisted the urge to edit that purity.
Anyway, the rest of the song was built from there. I tweaked a lot of the lines in it, and in the end I was still ambivalent about some of the lines, but everyone I showed it to liked it more than I did.
I was in a college group that met every Friday, and we played acoustic guitars for a couple of hours, and ate pizza together. Really nice times. We had these enormous 5" binders full of guitar tabs for classic rock and country songs, so we could all flip to whichever song someone called. If you didn't know a song, you could fake it until you figured it out.
Ben, my artist friend we were talking about earlier, he was in that group too. I'm pretty sure it was his idea to print the tab for "Phantom" and ask the professors to add it to the binder.
So it became a bit of a "sacred text" in that group. Everyone knew it, most of them really liked the song, but I never got around to recording a version of it I liked.
I did put a version of it on an EP I released in 2009. But I still didn't think of it as "done" at that point.
I guess at that point, the song seemed greater than I could do justice to.
I keep saying I'll revisit it someday and really "finish" it. Talking about it now, I still think I might.
I'm certainly more musically capable now than I was then. We'll see.
In 2015, Ben surprised me with that comic. We'd recently gotten back in touch after not talking for a while
It was an early draft. He published the final version in January of 2016. ( http://www.bwhcomics.com/store/p1/Phantom.html)
I was talking about doing a re-recorded version of the song that he could include as a CD insert in print copies to sell at cons and such
That never happened, and it's just as well, really, because CDs are getting increasingly uncommon.
If I ever do get around to it, I'd probably just make a QR code and ask him to add it to the last page or something
I just read the comic again for the first time in a while. Ben really did nail the feelings I was going through back then. The frustration, the desperation... All that soup of emotion that led to the song.
He gave an early draft to me to review. If I recall correctly, I had no notes. It really touched me.
Why "Phantom"? What does the title mean?
Some songs, after all the lyrics are written, it's still not really obvious what the title is going to be. Unfortunately, this was one of those cases. I considered a few possible titles at the time. "Half a Mind" was obvious, but I didn't like how it potentially looked to someone seeing the title not already familiar with the song. "Never Get to Miss New Orleans" was up there, but somehow both too clunky AND too on-the-nose. "Phantom" is just one word at the end of the second verse, which frankly is only there for a loose slant-rhyme, but it's also evocative and blessedly brief, so that was the title that stuck.
One weird thing is that, if I were to mercilessly edit the song up to my current standards, the line with the word "Phantom" probably wouldn't survive. In fact, I'd likely rewrite that whole verse. But since it's the title of the song, that part feels untouchable now. And anyway, it's never a good idea to scrutinize old work THAT closely. If I were to edit it today, the process would probably kill that spark that made it special at the time.
How did your family end up faring Katrina?
My mom, stepfather, and brother, stayed in the house until the water got too high. They eventually kicked out one of the boarded up windows and waited on the roof. Someone came by with a motorboat and gave them a ride to a nearby overpass that was high enough for the water to never reach. They camped out there for three days, then found passage to Baton Rouge, where they finally got in touch with me. My biological dad evacuated, so he was never in serious danger, but his apartment was ruined too. He was able to move in with his long-time partner after all that. My mom bought a new house one town over, and spent years trying to refurbish the ruined house from that photo I showed you. I think it took them until 2019 to sell it.
One of my long time backburner projects has been a concept album about water, floods, and natural disasters. Back in Spintunes #3 (oh my... TEN YEARS AGO?), I submitted my longest song ever. It was a nine-and-a-half minute suite in five parts telling the story of a man who moved away from New Orleans after Katrina and found a home in Fargo, North Dakota, only to be caught in devastating floods there in 2011. I still like that song, but I admit that the recording and parts of the performance are very rough. The idea of re-recording it and making it the centerpiece of this concept album is appealing to me, but very intimidating.
I really do think it would be worth it to bring that piece up to my current standards. But it might take two whole months for that one song alone.
What lasting impact did that disaster have on you and your family?
For me it's a little weird that it happened during this time when I was in transition, not spending much time in the home I grew up in at all. I created this kind of "hard break" in my life - I moved away from home, and then home was basically wiped away. I often wonder whether I'd visit New Orleans more often if Hurricane Katrina hadn't happened.
I don't keep in touch with many people I knew in high school anyway. I don't have a childhood home to visit. So... I just don't.
That's interesting. I don't have a childhood home to visit either; due to us moving around so often. Have we lost some grounding or does it free us?
Now, circling back to the new album, Stages. The lead track, "Tolling Bell," has a deeper level within the context of your life. Among others, the line, "Mind and body will be all you need in this new world, Cast the rest of it aside."
Yeah... That line in particular was a late revision. The original version read "All that you will need are lessons from experience." It scanned awkwardly so I re-wrote it.
I had in mind the possibility of a literal societal collapse - my aim was to evoke the idea of letting go of creature comforts, especially electronics.
Just like the lacking a home to return to, such a loss could be a double edged sword: Have we lost something? Or does it free us? Like yeah, if the Internet stopped working and never came back, I would lose a lot. Musician friends I've never met in real life. The news. Video games. But on the other hand, I'm trying to suggest with the song, not just "Drop the laptop case" because it won't work anymore, but also maybe you're better off without it anyway.
Is the effect between "Tolling Bell" and "This is Fine" burning fire?
Yes. I nabbed it off a free sound effects site, nothing special.
THIS IS FINE
Outstanding vocal, Jon! It feels like you hold back on the "fine" until you let loose on it.
Thank you! I think "This is Fine" was one of the more vocally challenging songs on this album. It took a lot of rehearsal and several versions.
"I think I finally got it." [Three days later] "Agh, I have to redo these vocals again."
Lots of sublte things in this song I love. Like the electric guitar note that slides up after "fine".
Thank you so much! It really feels great when people notice that kind of thing
The humming lead-in to the bridge and the filtered vocal is like a horn. I kind of thought it was a clarinet for a moment. And the G#dim into the solo is GREAT.
I love Phil Graham's solo. I like how you are resolving the chord sequence in this break with a major E. The acoustic guitar gets hyperactive here. Really nice.
Phil really came through here. The original Nur Ein draft of this song had me whistling the solo... off-key. I was having a hard time figuring out how to fill that space. I know Phil mostly from his solo work, which is more low-key acoustic, but he offered to solo and I took him up on it. He slayed.
He submitted the dry guitar track, and I used an amp VST. I had one version that was more a clean sound, not quite acoustic, but less distortion, and the other version I came up with was the one you're listening to. Phil and I were both torn on which sounded better.
In the end I thought his bends sounded better with that extra bite.
Do you have a link to Phil?
Yeah, he's not the only "Phil Graham" out there unfortunately, but this is the right one: Here's his page: https://philgrahammusic.bandcamp.com/
I met Phil on Twitter, by the way. He's really active there. https://twitter.com/twigsays
The Handbook is impressive. You're doing all the instruments here. The strident, overdriven electric rhythm guitar. There's a piano doing interesting things. The way you change up the backing vocals, harmony ahhs in the chorus and more spoken in the bridge. The drums are particualrly rambunctious; love them. And the lyric is another very strong one. The line, "Plot a course through your doubt," among others.
Tell me how this one came together.
Well, it was a Nur Ein prompt. Round 1. The title "The Handbook" was given, and the non-optional challenge was "Step by step instructions."
There's kind of a narrative to my Nur Ein experience last year. First of all, it was the biggest Nur Ein ever. The previous biggest had, I think, 25 people in Round 0. Last year, there were 41. Just huge. I guess there were just a lot of people newly unemployed, sheltering in place, processing a lot of feelings about the pandemic. I was honestly a little appalled at the number of people who got run from Round 0 to Round 1, and many of them were acts that I thought were much better than I was!
I mean, it's a fun little competition; it can really light a fire under you creatively. But I never enter with high expectations. I usually get cut in Round 3 or 4. And, like, I did make the cut for Round 1, which was more of a feat than it usually is, but I wasn't expecting much.
I struggled to find an approach to this title and challenge. At first, I was thinking some kind of Stephen Stills inspired hippie anthem about how it's easy to thrive when you love, or some sap like that. The chord progression I wrote felt fun to play, but the lyrics were insincere and struggled to gel because of that.
So, three days into a seven day deadline I scrapped it all and started over.
And then the next day, I started over AGAIN (this time I did kind of save the idea, but threw out all the music and most of the lyrics). So the entered version was a bit of a rush job.
Have you ever heard someone say, "I feel like everyone except me got some kind of handbook for how to be a functioning person in the world?"
It's a relatively common way to describe mental disorders like depression or autism-spectrum. Like, "normal" people have some baseline understanding of how things work, and neuroatypical people are struggling to operate without that information.
That's what I was getting at with the lyrics here. Note that each chorus section instructs the person to do a task but without some item that the task would typically require: Row a boat without an oar. Navigate without a compass. Dig a tunnel without a shovel.
Given that it was such a rush job during the competition, and was in fact the lowest average rank I received during the whole competition, this one was one of the most dramatically changed when I was doing it up for the album. Most of the details you pointed out were things added in the album draft.
Also, the original version had a really bad ground hum that was driving me absolutely bonkers, I couldn't figure out how to mitigate it. I ended up buying a whole new electric guitar! Not specifically just for this song; it was more a reward for myself after winning Nur Ein, but being able to record with less worry about that ground hum was a big motivator.
The new guitar arrived late in the album process, so it only made it to a few of the songs on Stages. It's most prominent here on "The Handbook"