From Chaos to Perspective: Jon Strahl Amid the Pandemic

Before the pandemic, Jon Strahl was bouncing back from personal tragedy and gearing up for a big summer on the stage. Then the world just stopped for a while.

by Donovan Wheeler

photos by Bryan Reed

Every seat along the bar at Plainfield’s Bru Burger was filled.  For a Tuesday night, the place was packed.  But why wouldn’t it be?  On that January night… Right there… In the infancy of the calendar year 2020, I sat there with Jon Strahl oblivious to all that we had gained.  After a decade of growth in the region’s bar culture, a “Friday night crowd” on a Tuesday had become as ho-hum as morning coffee.

We were all about to lose that, of course.  We were about to lose pretty much all of it.  But as Strahl and I sat across from the two TV sets, taking in college basketball scores and NFL playoff commentary, our conversation was in a far more important galaxy. 

“It’s obvious that J.J. Abrams is playing to his crowd, you know?” Strahl asks, upending his first beer. “Rather than just saying, ‘Hey, what’s an interesting story with this?’”

He’s talking about the ninth episode of Star Wars, of course.  Back then those of us who nerded out hardcore on that Galaxy Far, Far Away really cared about our anger.  For starters, most of us still nursed twenty-year-old grudges over Lucas’s decision to give us Jar-Jar and Hayden Christensen.  Then we had to watch Episode VII rehash the 1977 plot because…?  Sighing, we walked into Episode VIII, that thing Rian Johnson made…and walked out even more pissed off.  So, by the time Abrams “fixed” the story arc with Star Wars: Now, Nobody Gives a Fuck About Skywalker, we were all pretty much done.

“And there’s a reason I care,” Strahl continues.  “The reason that I end up caring is because I’ve seen Star Wars stuff done really well in such a rich world with all kinds of complexities and conflicting moralities.”

“Man…” he adds, his eyes still on the episode of SportsCenter blowing up the flat screen in front of us, “it’s such an opportunity for someone like Abrams, who’s obviously so talented, to really get down and do something interesting…and he just doesn’t.  But I do think that great things are going to happen.  They’re going to come. They are. Mandalorian, even the Clone Wars and all the cartoon stuff that they’ve done. That dude, David Feloni…”

“And Jon Favreau,” I add.

“And Jon Favreau,” Strahl repeats. “Those guys are doing something. Like, they get it. They’re like, ‘Man, this is a blank slate. This is just a world we step into and there’s all these really cool things that happen. And we can tell any fucking story we want in any style.’”

The Jon Strahl Band

We would talk about Star Wars for another 10 or 15 minutes, if not for the next 30.  When I sat at that bar with Strahl, five years had passed since we last spoke.  In 2015, he was a married father of two balancing a 9-to-5 with his musical ambitions.  When we met again in 2020, was a divorced father of two, settling into his new 9-to-5 just happy to still be making music.  After taking months off to record his second full length album, Heartache and Toil, he and the new incarnation of his band—one he was especially excited about—were planning for a hell of summer.

Rather than releasing all of the LP’s track in one dump, Strahl opted to release one song at time, building a gig around each track, celebrating the best tunes in the isolation of the moment.  Other artists were doing it, and streaming platforms catered well to it. It was—on its face—a smart idea.  By the late summer, with the best songs already out, the rest of the album could follow.  Lots of gigs.  Lots of music.  Good money.  After a rough few years, the good times were coming again.

Then came March, and the World Health Organization had its say.

First my dad passed away. Then the company I was working for went out of business. Then, while I was going through my divorce, I changed jobs a few times, moved houses a couple times, and right when things were stabilizing, the dog my girls and I adopted came down with a severe illness and died. It's damn near surprising I didn't make a country album.

January 2020 – Bru Burger Bar – Plainfield, Indiana

Donovan Wheeler:  When we were talking about Star Wars, you were talking about how good artists give things a chance to breathe. Listening to your new record, and listening to your old record, [2015’s The Ladder], I do feel like the new one breathes a lot more. Is that a misinterpretation?

Jon Strahl: I think you’re probably right. I don’t know that I necessarily set out to do it. I certainly feel more comfortable in what I’m doing now. I feel more comfortable as a songwriter and musician.  It’s like the stuff we were discussing about Star Wars—what happens when you’re trying to do something to please people.

Wheeler: Are you talking about your divorce, here?

Strahl: No. I’m talking about something bigger than that.  I think, when we spoke in 2015, I was still trying to be someone I wasn’t, a kind of fake version of myself. I was not happy on a lot of levels for a long time.

Strahl moves off the record, here.  When it comes to the divorce, he’s not that interested in blame or finger-pointing.  Instead he directs me back to his journey, his pursuit of a musical ideal that seemed noble at the time.  Proper, even.  Giving the people what they want.  But as his own life unraveled under his feet, he found that the best moorings he could find wasn’t the sort of traditional blues music he once believed he had to sing.  Instead, calling for him in the seas of his despair, were the lights of a new musical buoy.  The lights of his own story and his own music.  The stuff he really wanted to make.

Strahl: The blues is a great genre, don’t get me wrong.  You talk about a world or a base for creativity, right? Same type of thing. It’s definitely a world that has a lot of things that go into it. And it’s got possibilities to take music in all these different places. I pride myself on being very fluent in many styles of the genre, but I think most people end up doing one thing and that’s it. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in not being so one note or one trick ponyish with it.

Strahl: I don’t think I could ever not have blues in the music that I write or perform. But I also studied classical music, and I have all these other influences. And there’s so much of that R&B and jazz and blues just kind of in my soul, you know? So, completely divorcing myself from that I don’t think is realistic.

Wheeler:  Yeah, I know that feeling.  It happened after my own divorce.  That idea that it’s time to go a new way.

Strahl: I took the opportunity to rewrite myself, to take charge of my own kind of fate.

Wheeler:  And that gets me back to your record.  I’m thinking a little bit about what I heard in that record. To what degree am I hearing something traditionally blues? And to what degree am I hearing somebody say, “You know what? This is where I am. This is the journey I’ve been on. This is the story I’m going to tell.  I’m just going to do it and lyrically and musically. I’m just going to let it happen based on how that feels?”

Strahl:  Totally. Probably my least favorite tunes on the album are the blues, the more traditional kind of riff blues, bluesy tunes.

Wheeler:  Explain that.

Strahl:  I was not in a place where I could tolerate restriction. I had dealt with it for years, trying to fit into this set of musical expectations, expectations I put on myself because I thought that’s who I was supposed to be. Instead I ended up being this person that I wasn’t comfortable being. And while I want to make kind of a more traditional kind of blues album to pay homage to the different styles and the more traditional elements, I don’t know that my voice lies in that traditional universe. For me it’s just more of like a jumping off point.

Wheeler:  Traditional blues do follow a lot of set norms.

Strahl:  Well, lyrically the blues is great because you have this wealth of styles and these tropes. And they’re great to rely on at certain times. But then people always ask me, “How do you write these songs? Why are you so sad? Did really such terrible things happen to you?”  I would think, no, that’s the genre, you know? That’s the style. That’s the thing. But I wasn’t relying on that. I had plenty else to write about from just real-life shit that I needed to get through and process.

Wheeler: I can’t help but kind of marvel at the irony of that. A genre that’s steeped in despair and misery and the best way to express your own particular stretch of despair and misery is to kind of break away from that genre.

Strahl:  It is really ironic, but it’s also very true.

Our conversation shifted from the process of making the new record to Strahl’s plans for releasing it.  In his words, the album would begin dropping “sometime in the spring.”

“One of the things I’ve decided,” he added, “is that I’m not in a rush.”

Some six weeks after our conversation, the world shut down.  Strahl would get a lot more time than he needed.

A year would pass, and that January conversation would sit on my phone.  Strahl would cope with the gap his way. Spending time away from his guitar.  Spending time investing in his new life.  I spent mine a bit less constructively: drinking way too much beer, writing half of a novella, and arguing with my 23-year-old stepdaughter about politics.  Strahl did release his first single.  Then his second.  And then, very quietly, the rest of the album just appeared online.

February 2021 – Zoom – Westfield and Greencastle, Indiana

Wheeler:  So, I assume you sort of gave up on the singles release plan after the pandemic hit.

Strahl:  That’s how it started.  But you remember the early days of the pandemic, when people were flooding the internet with online performances.  We had considered that, but the more we looked into that, the less enthusiastic we felt about it.  So, we just put the whole thing out in one drop.  Putting out an album then…?  It just felt stupid.  I’m like, “Oh, great… Who cares about this?” Seriously on the grand scheme of things people are worried about going to the grocery store… People are losing their jobs left and right… And I’m supposed to be over here saying, “Here! Buy my CD, man!”

Strahl laughs as he speaks, but in eyes the passion is evident.

Strahl:  And everywhere we play… We’re friends with all those folks, from bartenders and servers to the owners.  You feel bad for them.  It’s just like, “Shit, here I was talking [last year] about my experiences as if I were dropping off of a cliff, and in one second all those folks are gone.”  I really feel for those people.

With that discrete album drop, Strahl and his band “took a bath” Financially.  He believes that, given vaccination and a gradual return to normal the group can gradually recoup their investment.  But, it’s not about turning a profit.  For all local musicians it’s never about that.  But the chance to work their way back to the “breaking even” stage means the chance to say that the work, the love making the music, was at least validated by a little bit of returned love as well.

And for Strahl, that sort of validation is important, not just because this record is declarative personal and artistic time stamp of sorts, but because it’s the most collaborative project he’s done, with a version of his band which he considers one of the best he’s put together.

January 2020 – Bru Burger Bar – Plainfield, Indiana

Strahl: [The band is] a completely new group of guys I’m with right now, and to a man it’s a group I’m super happy with. One I want to work with again. If that happens, it’ll be the first time that I’ve been able to keep the same exact group of guys together for two albums in a row. So, I’m crossing my fingers.

February 2021 – Zoom – Westfield and Greencastle, Indiana

Wheeler:  When we spoke last year, you were pretty stoked about the band you had put together.  How has that held up?  Is the group still a thing?

Strahl:  It’s good, still. After some fits and starts, we finally got to go to pretty regularly last fall, and then things kind of slowed down over the holidays.  But since the turn of the new year we’ve been getting together pretty regularly, at least once a week, working on new music. But even then, we’ve had a couple times where we’ve had to cancel because [someone] might’ve been exposed.

One of those mates is his keyboardist, Bill Mallers.  An older gentleman, and the father of his drummer, Strahl discovered the value bringing a seasoned artist onto the team.

January 2020 – Bru Burger Bar – Plainfield, Indiana

Strahl:  He’s been in the music business for his entire life, and he owns a studio called Ripple Effects.  He also used to make his living doing jingle work and stuff like that. Working with him has been awesome.

Strahl:  We were working on one of my favorite tunes on the album which was also the last one we wrote. At one point Bill said, “Try using this chord here.”  After I played it, I was like, “Oh, shit. That’s so cool.”

Wheeler:  What chord was that?

Strahl:  It’s an E minor seven. Normally you just do a minor or a dominant seven or a major seven or anything, and the minor seven kind of has this ambiguity between the seven chord and the five chord, it kind of combines the different harmonic things.

Wheeler:  So, he really solved a logistical, creative problem at that point?

Strahl:  Yes.  Exactly.  I was having serious trouble with the song.  I knew where I wanted to take it, but I couldn’t figure it out when I played it.  Once he unlocked the riddle, I thought, “I never would have thought to put that chord right there.”

Strahl: But just that type of collaboration was so enjoyable on this album. Bill wrote 80% of the horn parts. And working with him on this process was incredible.  I’ve always been someone to say, “Nick (Mallers) you know drums better than I ever will, or Mitch (Millhoff) you’re a better bass player than I will ever be you know bass, so do your thing, and let’s all make this cooler. Make this song as good as it can be.”  They all really allowed this to feel more collaborative, and the album is so much better for it.  And especially Bill because he let me feel good about relinquishing control of things from a writing and arranging standpoint.

In the grand scheme of things people are worried about going to the grocery store… People are losing their jobs left and right… And I’m supposed to be over here saying, “Here! Buy my CD, man!”

As was the case on multiple occasions during that pre-Covid conversation, “relinquishing control” proved a prophetic bit of word selection.  It also proved symbolic in a much larger sense as well.  As he talked settling into his new life, he described that early upheaval as “being thrown back to the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy” and of his mental state locked into a “survival mode” akin to “becoming feral.”

When we spoke recently, as the talk of vaccinations and the pandemic’s end began to gather around us, Strahl once again reflected on the impact of upheaval.  Like his divorce years before, the pandemic’s disruption unnerved him, untethered his moorings.  But unlike that first emotional cataclysm, this one happened on a much safer harbor.  His home life is good. His girls are happy. He’s newly engaged. His band is solid.  There’s music in the can, and more music ready to be made.  When Jon Strahl finally picks up his guitar on the regular, he will still be the same technically masterful musician he was when we first featured him six years ago.  But when this Jon Strahl resumes work on the stage, he’s going to be the most authentic form of himself that he has maybe ever been.  This version of Strahl will carry more some exposed warts and maybe a few raw nerves.  But it’s all good.  Because that’s a story he can tell honestly in his music, with a band that’s going to make sure he tells it all was beautifully as possible, too.

Donovan Wheeler
Author: Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches English to a horde of bright and lovably obnoxious high school seniors in a small college town. He has written in the past for Indiana on Tap and STATE Magazine, and is an occasional contributor to NUVO, Indy's alternate news website. Since picking up the guitar three years, he can now play a dozens songs while singing them quite badly.

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