by Donovan Wheeler
—–photography by Tim McLaughlin
The entrance to Darrin’s Coffee Company is tucked under a dark awning hanging from a tiny, beige brick building…
…which is further tucked between larger structures to either side. Meandering the winding, cobbled-brick surface which makes up Zionville’s eclectic Main Street, I must have passed the place four times before I finally spotted it. When I did, I knew it was the perfect spot to have a chat with a blues musician, so when Indy’s own Jon Strahl and I settled into the cozy leather sofas in the coffee shop’s basement—throw in a ping-pong table and a video game console, and odds are most people have spent their childhood in a place much like it—all formalities ended, and honest conversation followed.
—–I first saw Strahl and his band play a handful of years ago at the Slippery Noodle Inn (where his crew still plays a regular gig the last Wednesday of each month as the bar’s host band), and I still vividly remember his stage presence. What I remembered the most, and what every subsequent performance has reiterated for me, is the voice. A relatively deep-voiced speaker, Strahl can hit low tones when his tunes call for it, but he spends a great deal of his time vocally bouncing from mid-range octaves to rhythmic crescendos at higher levels. We’re not talking falsettos or anything like that, but Strahl’s solid high notes do command the room…and also the band for that matter. Given the sheer power of the front man’s pipes, it’s not surprising that, in his most recent album, The Ladder, his vocals dominate. As a genre, the blues often garners much of its reputation as a guitar-oriented niche, punctuated by lengthy, improvisational riffs. But in The Ladder, Strahl has managed to combine both his voice and a series of well-crafted melodies into a very approachable and adeptly catchy arrangement.
—–“I am glad that you picked that point up,” Strahl says, “because I, too, get very tired of hearing guitar music all the time. Granted, I’ll listen to [The Ladder] now and, depending on your perspective, it can sound like a guitar album—it does have a lot guitar on it. So, for someone used to electronic music, it will sound like that. But I don’t write songs with the guitar in mind. If there’s a place in a song for a solo, then one will be there, and I’m going to try to make it cool, but I’m also going to try to make it melodic and tasteful as well.” Strahl’s decision to focus on the song as a whole is not a move the singer makes in isolation. Across the nation, and even in Indy, other blues singers (many consciously, others maybe not as much) move their music away from long guitar runs. But in the blues genre, trying to harness an audience’s attention away from the style’s centerpiece instrument sometimes comes with consequences.
“A lot of people think, ‘If you’re not making a living doing it, then why are you wasting your time? Why would you even bother doing it? Why not just sit in front of your TV?’ And I don’t know how to respond to that. Why does anyone do anything? I’m not going to make any money as a chef, so I guess there’s no reason to try to make dinner taste good…”
—–“In some ways, my emphasis on melody does hold me back as a live performer,” Strahl explains. “You’ll go to the Noodle and see some guy shreddin’ and the crowd is cheering him on. There’s a lot of dudes who do that, and they keep at it because they get that kind of response from the crowd. But then they hit a certain level where, that’s it. That’s when you ask, ‘Well, damn, where are you going to go musically now?’ They look at me and say, ‘Huh? Well, I shred, man…I kick ass.’
—–“Much of this is a byproduct of the YouTube culture,” Strahl continues. “The new question in music is, ‘Can you get somebody’s attention in 15 seconds?’ Are people going to listen to an entire song? And I’m guilty of this, too. I’ll go through my Facebook feed, and I’m bombarded with options. So, [on YouTube or similar sites] if the song or the video isn’t doing something crazy within the first few seconds, then many listeners are just done with it.”
—–A working-class singer who balances his music around marriage, fatherhood, and very real day-job, Strahl’s mild frustration is not only understandable, it’s palatable. In a world where the middle-class has watched its standard of living erode off the face of the mountainside, local musicians (as well as regional and signed artists to boot) have had to make peace with the cuts-both-ways effect of the music industry’s primary culprit behind the slide: technology. Just as the Internet has allowed artists like Strahl—and fledgling writers such as myself—to connect with a larger audience via YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, etc., technology has also re-wired those audiences and flooded the music market with waves of competition for time and attention. None of this has made Strahl jaded (he’s not), nor has it made him cynical (he’s not that, either). But it has made him a realist, and when he watches would-be youngsters dream big and get carried away during their early moments on stage, he can still reflect on it with a laugh.
—–“Every time some kid gets into it on stage,” he says, “everyone just falls over themselves and says, ‘Oh, he’s going to be the next Joe Bonamassa…’ I mean, who the hell wants to be the next Joe Bonamassa?” Cue the aforementioned laughter.
—–Ask Strahl today what he listens to, and he’ll tell you it varies from the Rolling Stones (whom he has long admired for their song writing) to blues renditions by Ray Charles, sometimes preferring that over the Texas blues style popularized by the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn. But decades earlier, it was indeed the late Vaughn who had cemented Strahl’s then-blossoming love not only for the blues but for music as a whole.
—–“[When I was a kid], my brother was still home living with us, and he called me into his room: ‘Check this out,’ he said. On the TV I saw Stevie Ray Vaughn on Austin City Limits…I had never seen him like that before. I mean, at this point in my life I’ve watched a ton of MTV, and I’ve seen all kinds of ‘Hair-Metal’ bands, and I’ve seen Eddie Van Halen videos over, and over, and over again. But…wow…! Here was this dude who was just possessed and simply killing it, playing this blues which was so deep, so soulful.
“That next phase is seeing if other people can find some value in the work, and that’s really the payoff: you find people who are really listening. Reactions like that provide the fuel to keep going, especially when you hit lulls where you catch yourself thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
—–Already casually interested in music when his brother would jam with friends in the presence of a younger Jon—who sat among them keeping a beat—Strahl was firmly sold on the blues as a musical style thanks to a weekly radio program he rarely missed.
—–“Tom Roznowski was a local DJ on 92.3, back when it was in Bloomington and when it was less corporate, and he hosted a program called ‘Blues Sunday,’ an hour or two of tunes at night. And I first heard it when I was in junior-high, then through high school. I was so bummed when I turned it on one Sunday night, and Tom said, ‘Yeah this is my last show.’
—–“It was my thing,” Strahl says. “When I first listened to his show I thought, ‘That sounds right to me.’”
—–As he matured Strahl gradually developed and honed his talent, much of that happening after the Stevie Ray Vaughn episode of City Limits which had finally convinced him as a youngster to discipline himself, learn his scales, and get a handle on his technique. Following a stint in Bloomington, first moving there to attend IU, he returned to Indy because as he put it: that’s where the work was located. Gradually, as he developed his stage presence, Strahl also began stockpiling ideas, bits of music, and lyrics.
—–“Moving from playing to writing is a natural progression,” Strahl explains. “I’ve always wanted to write. It’s an impulse that’s always been there. Your mind is always congealing these thoughts…the pieces of ideas, and suddenly you’re thinking, ‘Wait, where did that [idea or lyric or chord arrangement] come from?’ Once that happens, you’ve just got to get it out.”
—–“Then [once you’ve written a large body of work], you think, ‘I’ve put in all this time putting these different bits together.’ And next you meet other people who play and you eventually say, ‘Hey, you want to put a band together? I’ve got all these tunes,’ and they say, ‘Sure, let’s see what we can do.’ And [forming a band and creating your own music] becomes an entirely new experience: learning how to get along and work with people and to get everyone to perform a song or a bass line or a chord…that is something that took a long time to learn how to do.”
—–Strahl’s natural progression eventually led to the recording and debut of his six-song EP Can’t Look Back in 2012, and while that disc helped spread his online and media presence, The Ladder changes the dynamic completely. Rather than a loose collection of a handful of songs, Ladder embodies a more deliberate method of both song development and organization.
—–“I thought a lot about how I wanted the songs to flow,” Strahl says. “When writing it I had an idea in mind which I mostly abandoned because it didn’t coalesce in the way that I thought it would. We recorded probably 16 different tunes, and we chose the 11 that we liked. And there might have been a couple in the first session which we abandoned after we tried tracking them once. In fact, a few of them just never saw the light of day other than a first try or two at them.”
—–As a result of that sustained effort Strahl’s band has produced a record that is stacked with distinct and individual melodies artfully connected by a series of overlapping chords. As expected, Strahl’s voice bellows, telling a story which I interpreted as a journey through all the major emotions life throws at us. From the opening series evoking youthful excitement to a middle section expressing near despondency to a resonant mixture of optimism and peaceful acceptance at the end, Strahl’s album is aptly titled.
—–“That’s amazing to me,” Strahl says reacting to my interpretation. “That’s super cool, and I definitely think your take on it is one of the elements of the songs. One of the hopes of any artist is that there’s a sort of life to the thing once you’re done with it. Once it’s out there, I really don’t own it, anymore. I’ll go back and listen to them (and I’ll always play around with them on stage, too), but creatively thinking about these tunes…that’s in someone else’s hands. So that next phase is seeing if other people can find some value in the work, and that’s really the payoff: you find people who are really listening. Reactions like that provide the fuel to keep going, especially when you hit lulls where you catch yourself thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’”
—–One writer’s reaction to his album, however, is not the only reason someone like Jon Strahl makes music. And even though writing, recording, and performing is something that he would love to do full time, he also understands that when he contemplates that option that he’s staring in the face of what he calls “an ephemeral fantasy which leaves you wondering, ‘How does anybody do that anymore?’” But when we speak of passions, even a force as cosmic as the US economy doesn’t supersede the source of the flame within: the man creates and plays his music because it’s who he is.
—–“A lot of people think, ‘If you’re not making a living doing it, then why are you wasting your time? Why would you even bother doing it? Why not just sit in front of your TV?’ And I don’t know how to respond to that. Why does anyone do anything? I’m not going to make any money as a chef, so I guess there’s no reason to try to make dinner taste good…”
—–“Whatever you want to call this experience:” Strahl adds, “my ‘free’ time [he loathes that phrase], my music time, or my hobby time…I just can’t think of a better way to spend that time. Some guys like to go fishing, others hunting, some guys like to work with cars, other people like to travel…I just like to get together with guys who are like-minded and try to create something.”
—–That “something” Jon Strahl has created is an evocative and reaching body of work, one which definitely qualifies as “blues” but doesn’t box itself in by a set of textbook shuffles or standard themes. In other words, it’s fantastic music, which we can enjoy every fourth Wednesday, in an intimate setting only feet away from the man who made it real.