Published Jul 25, 2010"People say it's very earnest. I'm not quite sure what that means," laughs Jon Janes. Whatever it means, Janes certainly knows that it connects with people. As the force behind the morphing cast of musicians known as the Mountains & the Trees, Janes is winning hearts nationwide with his delicately upbeat indie folk. "It's an amazing feeling to get on stage and play songs that I've written about my life and see people relate them to their own lives," he says.
Though he's released two EPs and an acoustic full-length since 2006, the forthcoming album I Made This For You has the feel of a debut. With more ambition and a wider release, it showcases Janes' gift for melody and his knack for building subtly layered arrangements. Humble and heartfelt, the album also contains enough candid lyrical optimism to bring the gloomiest of cynics to their knees. Although metaphor-heavy lyricists like Sufjan Stevens and Iron and Wine are among his musical inspirations, Janes' own lyrical approach is more straightforward.
"I grew up on a diet of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Sunday morning CBC so I'm used to that frank, storyteller type of songwriting," he says. "And I think that's where I tend to lean when I write. There's no need to hide behind really deep metaphors or huge words a lot of the time." And he relies solely on his memory to tell him when he's hit upon lyrical gold. "I don't write any of my lyrics down," he says. "I've probably forgotten as many songs as I remember."
Janes' unfettered songwriting style is complemented by his fondness for eclectic instruments. In addition to mandolin, banjo and ukulele, he employs instrumentation that spans the ages - from the modern bass pedals he runs through his laptop, to his 1980s drum machine, to the floral-patterned '60s Samsonite suitcase that acts as his kick drum, right back to his 1914 Gibson Archtop guitar.
"Yesterday I went to tune it and one of the pegs cracked clear off the guitar," he says of the Archtop. "So now I need to use a set of pliers to tune my D string. It's really beat up and it smells horrible, but it's so inspiring to play something that's 96 years old. The neck is super thick, it's like a baseball. You have to work to make it sound like you want it to sound."
Janes views the battle with his Archtop as an opportunity to push himself as a musician; an openness that undoubtedly facilitated his collaboration with the parade of musicians who contribute everything from tuba to bodhran on his album.
But the true measure of his expansive spirit might be the gang vocals at the end of his paean to self-doubt, "The Times." It's a choir composed of sound files sent by musicians and friends from across the country, some of which Janes insisted on using despite concerns about their quality or tunefulness. "I just wanted to get as many people involved in my album as possible," he says.
With its inclusiveness and sincerity, Janes' music condenses the distances between us, illuminating our similarities and our ineffable bonds. Its appeal is apparent, in fact, from the album's very title. He made this for you. And it's a gift you'll want to receive with arms flung wide.