Jon Stancer interview
Exploring The Overtones and The Undertones of Jon Stancer’s ‘In Light Of’ EP
Canadian musician Jon Stancer relased his second solo collection, the EP In Light Of, on January 21st 2022, and with it revealed some departures and experiments in terms of his songwriting. Firstly, all the songs on the EP were influenced by darker themes that largely hailed from the pandemic period, and intentionally addressed them head on, such as climate change, the Capitol Insurrection, and relationship conflicts. Secondly, Stancer eased away from more traditional song structures to give more room to composition and mood.
Interestingly, Stancer also worked music-first on the six songs in the collection, which led to a subtle process of matching musical mood to more overt topics taken up in the lyrics. I spoke with Jon Stancer about this period of experience and exploration and how his process developed in terms of several of the songs on the EP.
Americana Highways: Can you tell me about Dan Kurtz’ involvement in Producing In Light Of? Have you worked together before?
Jon Stancer: He wasn’t on my first record, but he worked on a single with me, and several months later, I asked him to help me make In Light Of. First of all, he’s a very old friend of mine, and we’ve known each other since we were about 15 years old. Secondly, he was available, and we get along well. We have good synergy and are on the same page. Musically, he likes a bunch of different things and isn’t just into one style or genre. He plays different musical instruments and has had many experiences of his own in music. He’s a good guy to bounce things off of, so it was an easy choice. It’s not until you’ve developed yourself a little bit, and had some experience of your own, that you can put yourself in a situation where you can surround yourself with people you know are the best people for a project. I’m still learning.
AH: You’ve collaborated with so many people in various roles over the years as a musician. Do you feel that’s been useful to your perspective now, or helped you choose the right people these days?
JS: I think you can’t help but take certain things away from certain experiences, whether you’re conscious of that or not. I think certain aspects of what I do now are based on expanding or evolving in ways I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. There’s backing up a songwriter like John Southworth for a few years, for instance. He’s a great songwriter based in Canada, from England originally, and I had the great pleasure of being able to play, record, and tour with him. I’d been writing songs for years before I met him, but I learned how to do certain things that I hadn’t been doing before from his music and style of songwriting. If you work with people are good, and have a good attitude, certain things about their way of making music get into your soul and seep out at certain times when you’re working on projects. That’s what I find. I’m not always aware of it, but I know it’s always there.
AH: I understand that you had a few years away from music, and when you came back and started recording again, you found the Indie music landscape pretty changed. What did it seem like to you then? Did you perceive a shift?
JS: I think the internet has made it a lot easier for everyone to put music out into the world, including people who aren’t really musicians. It’s exploded into everyone doing their thing, which I think is a terrific thing. There are certainly a lot of advantages now, like having music come out and have it available in all parts of the world, whereas a few years ago, you were sending out stamped envelopes with your CDs, hoping they got to their destination. There are also some disadvantages now, with music and the internet, like artists not getting paid, which is a real problem. When I came back, I felt like, “Maybe there’s a place for me now because I can access people who I couldn’t access before.” So it’s easier to get your music out there, but it may be harder to be heard because there’s so much noise.
AH: That’s fair. It may be that the access has increased a curiosity in audiences to look into music they might not have tried before, but it can be overwhelming. It may have made music more diverse and increased experimentation, but it’s harder to create a situation that can support an artist.
JS: Everything is so accessible, and yet attention spans are very short, so there’s a black cloud and a silver lining.
AH: What’s the timeframe for when you worked on these songs? Are they all from a concentrated period?
JS: One was written about a year before the rest, but they are all from a concentrated period. There were even more songs, I just couldn’t get them all done before I wanted to put something out. People have been suggesting that I put out an EP, and I had enough songs that were underway, so I narrowed it down to these six. But I had been working on them, for the most part, during the pandemic, so it’s roughly November 2019 through April 2020.
AH: There’s definitely been a rise in EPs, certainly during the pandemic period, as a format that can really bring some ideas together. A lot of the themes in these songs are heavier, and I know that some of that is reacting to the darker aspects of things going on in the world. Does that ever come into the writing of the music itself, or is that something that you feel is best handled through lyrics? Is there any overlap there?
JS: Definitely. A lot of the times when I’m trying to write songs, the music comes first. I will typically have a piece of music, and quite often a full piece of music, before I’ve written any lyrics. I think it’s interesting that the music that was coming out of me during this period seemed darker than some of the music that I’d been making prior to that. Clearly, it was reflecting my mood. When you have a semi-finished piece of music for which you need lyrics, the chord sequence and the vibe is going to inform what you’re going to sing about. You aren’t singing about rainbows or lolliops to some of these tunes.
I had some songs that sounded kind of dramatic and a little more serious. The overtones and the undertones said to me that the lyrics were not going to be for a gleeful collection of songs. But the types of things coming to me made sense, and it was quite organic and natural. I didn’t say, “I’m going to sit down today and write a song about climate change.” But I do think the music really informed the subject matter, in addition to what I was thinking and feeling throughout that time.
AH: To me, as a listener, it seems like those relationships must have been pretty subtle to tease out. I felt like these songs had a sort of mellowness or neutrality which created a space to think about some of these ideas. I didn’t feel like these were downbeat songs, musically speaking. Also, the song structures are not very traditional, I noticed.
JS: That’s good! That’s an interesting point because I was trying to be conscious of not writing “verse, chorus, verse, chorus” this time. I have done a lot of that, and I am a writer who used to strive to write a great chorus. But that became a tedious way of writing for me, so I did not write that way this time. As for the songs not being bummers, that’s nice to hear, because I did want them to have some element or sense of hopefulness coming through.
I’ve heard Paul McCartney tell the story a bazillian times of writing the song, “Yesterday,” how he was just singing “scrambled eggs” over and over for weeks. You sing these place-holder lyrics over the melody to try to see what comes and might stick. Here, some of the lines that were coming would seem to have nothing to do with what the songs ended up being. It was almost stream-of-consciousness, and the fact that they came out the way they did gave me a feeling of achievement. They came out making sense, and aren’t cryptic and abstract, thankfully. It all sort of fell into place in an interesting way.
AH: That’s a really amazing process to hear about. That must take a lot of faith and perseverance to work on a song at length while not having a clear idea of what it would become.
JS: I can say that every song had dozens of tracks on it before I wrote any lyrics. I’m so daunted by lyric writing, but I love making the music part. That part comes a lot easier to me, so I work on the music and subconsciously chip away at it. But this time, having a string part, and an organ, or a trumpet was helpful in the endeavor because it helped to generate the vibe as I built the composition. The more meat you have to chew on, the better, I find. I don’t know that I would do it the same way again, but it was a really good way to do it this time.
AH: For example, with the song “One.Six,” which is about the Capitol Insurrection, were you surprised, when you started putting the lyrics together, what that became? It does have a very dramatic structure, so I can see how a narrative would go with that.
JS: I think in that case, I had pretty much the full piece of music, with a bunch of instruments going through it, probably more than ended up on the final version. That was the last one to get lyrics, I think. Then I had the first verse for a good month and put it aside. It was around the time of the Insurrection, shortly afterwards, the first verse led into the situation.
AH: I think it’s brave to write a song that talks about events like that in a way that’s not cut and dry, but more of a psychological look at things, which makes it scarier, in my opinion. This is not a purely historical approach.
JS: No. Being up in Canada and watching what was going on down there was pretty awful. It was awe-inducing. It was hard to watch, and yet, like with a car wreck, you couldn’t look away. I did think it was probably inevitable that I’d end up writing something around that. It’s not a protest song or an anthem, but it’s saying, “This is how I’m seeing it and thinking about it.” Like with the other songs, I’m giving my own impression.
AH: What about the song, “In Light of Everything”? Should we see a connection between the song and the EP title, or the EP as a whole?
JS: The album title actually came first. I didn’t have a song called “In Light of Everything” yet, though I had the music. I just really liked the album title. Later, when I needed the lyrics for a song, it was in my head. I got to a point in the song where I could use the phrase and it fit, so I built the lyrics around that.
AH: Just speaking personally, the song “In Light of Everything” felt like it could sum up a lot of my experience of the past two years. It has the idea of someone running from something or trying not to process something feels very familiar right now. It forms a great connection to all the other songs.
JS: There is something to that. I was trying, maybe, to somehow encompass everything. I’m not sure. It’s one of those things that just worked out, though it’s probably what I was going for.
AH: It works in an interesting way because the audience can kind of fill in the space of the song with whatever their greatest fear is. “A Few Degrees of Adjustment” has more of a traditional song structure, but it’s also a little retro with the layered vocals and piano. What was on your mind for that song?
JS: It was written in the same 18-month period as everything else. I was trying to write a song about a marriage that was tanking, but I wanted to find a way to talk about that without being completely direct about it. I thought of a plane crash as the metaphor for a failing marriage. So you have lines like “endless tailspin.” I had some people in my life that were struggling, and a lot of that seemed to be going on. I don’t know whether it’s my age, or to do with the pandemic, but a lot of relationships seemed to be struggling. I wanted to talk about that in a way that’s more masked because it’s a tough thing to sing about. I don’t know if it’s retro, but it’s certainly more guitar-heavy than the other tracks. I really liked the outcome.
AH: It’s a very well-defined song with a definite mood and feeling. That idea of “degrees of adjustment” could be pretty ominous because things could go either way in a relationship, I guess?
JS: It’s more of a hopeful title because people don’t need to do much to get back on track, but if people don’t do it, they are going to be fucked.
AH: It’s a shockingly big outcome in terms of aircraft if you don’t adjust, for sure. It’s a seemingly easy correction if you do.
Thanks Jon, for talking to us.
Find more music of Jon’s, here: https://jonstancer.lnk.to/InLightOf