Music to the Musician: An Interview with Jon Benward

On Saturday, March 31st, 2018, at 4PM EST, I called up Jon Benward, the Californian and longtime friend of mine, to talk about his experience(s) as a musician. From playing in bands, to touring, and to working on a long awaited, brand new-solo-project, Jon has the musical experience to talk about the visions, optimism, and passion within him. He uses those things to inspire others to pursue their dreams and figure life out in trilogies.

Tell me about your experience with music. What has music meant to you, in your life?

It’s everything. It’s something I started out listening to as a hobby and I never thought that I could make something of it. But it’s one of those things, the more that you try and work at it, that you dive deeper into. There’s just layers on layers of things that you find. When I was younger, I never thought I’d be a musician. I always wanted to be a skateboarder, it was my dream to be on Thrasher magazine. It wasn’t a part of my life. But it was cool to hear stories through songs, I always thought writing was interesting, poetry always stuck out to me. In some songs you can hear the poetry, some songs are more of just a good time. That contrast always stuck out to me in lyrics. Now I do it full time and I do a lot of writing. It’s like therapy but it’s exciting. I wouldn’t be good at anything, if it weren’t for music, except for being cool with my cat. She gets me. Other than that, music has become my thing. It’s almost my identity, and it’s great.

Who or what turned you onto music?

I always had a lot of things to say, but never knew how to say them. Some things were sad, some were funny. When I was younger, I was really shy and held back. And so whenever I would have thoughts or something to say, I would rarely say it. It just never occurred to me that I could say it. What pushed me out of my comfort zone was Relient K. In 2003, the first record I was ever gifted, and technically the first album I ever owned, was The Anatomy of the Tongue and Cheek by Relient K. It was so weird to hear someone say their thoughts, unfiltered, to a beat. So, I started to hum things, and I started writing poetry verses and freestyling. It was a way to get things out, I guess. It was a way to express stuff. People listen if there’s a guitar behind it.

What is the writing process like for you? Do you begin with a poem/lyrics or does it begin at the piano?

It varies. A lot of the time it starts with a voice memo. Then, 3-4 months later, I’ll be digging for ideas and stumble across [the voice memo]… It varies from a melody, if I’m in traffic and I get a sudden [melody] I’m like, “Oh, that’s catchy.” I’ll pull over and I’ll put some catchy lyrics behind it, and I’ll voice memo it. A couple weeks later I’ll see it and go, “Oh man, this thing is cool.” It’s nice, even though I won’t have a full idea, when I throw it on my phone. I feel like the best things happen in pieces, and overtime they’ll build up into something, as opposed to having a full idea upfront. All things change, and I get a better sense of the idea as I work on it. Sometimes I have a concept. A lot of the record that I’ve been working on this past year or so, was an idea before I had the songs. I knew what I wanted the message to be, what I want the story to be. From there, the songs are written to fit the story. And so, it depends. Sometimes you get an idea that is neither a melody nor a lyric. It changes from song to song.

You’ve been in bands, and have written for them. Now you’re working on a new project, for yourself. What is the biggest difference between working with a band and working as a solo artist?

I hate sharing ideas. If I come up with an idea, I’m a control freak. Not that everything has to go my way, not like a diva, but when you’re with a group, there’s no one person that has all of the say. In a band, it’s a good way to get your foot-in-the-door. Collaborating with the group is the best way to get started. Writing for a band can be fun, or be the most frustrating experience. As you go on, you develop a group sound. Somewhere down the road you think, “This would sound even better,” and for me, I prefer writing for myself. You have to allow yourself to go where you want to go. I know people who feel like their bands are their identities. They’ll stick it out even though they wanna do something different. And that works for some people but I’ve always had a sound that I wanted to do. It used to line up with the band. The band dynamic is wonderful because you’re with your best friends, doing shows, if you’re touring you’re with them nonstop. It’s a little bit more pressure if you’re going solo cause you are your own driving force, but it can also be the greatest experience.

You’ll pull a Justin Timberlake.

Hell Yeah.

So, I know you don’t like to share ideas, but what can you tell me about the new project you’re working on?

Absolutely, I’m gonna keep it vague with the names, but everything is finalized. It’s not been released into the ethos yet, that’ll happen [cough cough] this year. I’ve always been obsessed with trilogies. One of the first movies I ever saw was Star Wars, which is a trilogy, and I think stories are best told in trilogies. The project that I’m doing now is a singular storyline, coursed across three records. The whole idea is the experience of an emotion. The emotion doesn’t stay with you, as you change. So gradually, the sound of the records, is gonna start out one way and end in a different place. I always write things from different perspectives. It’s not even the story itself sometimes, it’s the way it’s told. The way you saw something that another person didn’t see. So the way this project works, is that it’s all perspective driven through sound. The first EP, is going to be very orchestral. Think Hanz Zimmer. That’s the beginning of an emotion. When you first get angry, you feel it. It’s heavy, it’s tough. If you’re going through grief, it won’t stay heavy. The story mostly focuses on a female protagonist. It’s her going through understanding there is a problem, you know, you’re angry, bitter, blaming everybody. You look back at that phase and you say, “Alright, I just destroyed shit. What can I do now? What’s the next step?”. That’s the second record. And the third record is all about action. What do you do, once you have this in mind? You can learn something from every situation.

Right, a lot of artists seem to get caught up in a cycle of highs and lows. You never hear about calls to action. A lot of young people are beginning to take action in the world, so I think that’ll be a great addition to have in music.

Yeah! In pop music, there’s always one story. It can work that way, but the project that I’m doing is a response to that…Every time I listen to songs like that [pop] I think, “Well are you still in that spot? What…happened?”.

Yeah, it’s like you want to help your favorite artist out.

Exactly. You want closure, you want to make sure they’re okay. To me, this project is.. I want to tell you a story that you can relate to. Being in a place of anger is very relatable. But I want to show you the lowest point you can get to, with the first record. I want to show you the dark side, the drug use. I want to show you what you use to cover up the pain. But then, I want to flip it. I want to show you, you can move on, and what are you gonna do now? Are you going to learn from it or do it again? What if you actually did what you thought about? What if you took a solution, and instead of bragging, or telling a friend about it, what if you actually did it? The Wonder Years, I know you know them right?

The Wonder Years? Yeah I’ve heard of them, maybe I’ve seen them.

Around the time I felt my music taste changing, The Wonder Years put put a record called Suburbia I’ve given you my All and Now I’m Nothing. In that record, sonically, it was a departure from the first record. It wasn’t as fast, or as pop-punk, nor did it have a double-time bass drum. It had more of a relaxed tone. It was reflective, that was the point of the record. I watched interviews because I was fascinated by the way their sounds had changed. The frontman was saying, “You’re not in the same spot all the time.” And it was right then and there, he said that this project was a trilogy. Then the third record blew my mind. Right then and there, I knew that that was what I wanted to do. There was a point to what they were doing.

How did growing up in California influence your music? Did you ever get caught up in the LA lifestyle?

It goes as far as to say, it was both the best and the worst influence. There was no middle ground. The scene is whatever is popular on the radio. For example, what’s popular now is whatever Blackbear is doing, everything is trap and house. Some artists only go with what’s popular and some go against everything about pop music. I’ve always been about blending both sides. You know, how can I write about what I like, but also have it appeal to as many people as popular? The second record that I’m putting out under my project is going to have an atmospheric, indie rock, 1975 style, feel to it. Around the time I was writing it, the 1975 had just put out  the second record with the really long title.. I don’t remember.

I Like it When You Sleep, for Your are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware of it?

Yes! So there’s a song on that record called “If I Believe You”. That song blew me away. They made it sound amazing. That had a lot of influence on the record I wrote. Not only do I want to vent, but I want you to listen to it.

What are your goals with music?

The first answer is the long term answer and the second answer is the answer I’ve has since I was 15. The long term answer is that my whole goal behind it is to make, to make people look at situations from different perspectives. Many people see the world one-sided…I want people to know. Everyone can relate to a song over a situation. I wanna push music with a message. The message that no matter what you’ll be okay, and I’ll tell you how to make that happen. The second answer is that I really wanna play Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I really wanna play the Pontiac Stage. I’ve been trying for a long time now, since I was 15. All Time Low and Cobra Starship played Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Everyone thought that Alex Gaskarth has the coolest hair and guitar. And I thought, “Wow, things that I like can be cool?”. That was always the goal. I’m determined to get there.

A Playlist About Jon:

Follow Jon Benward on Social Media:

-Bri Born

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