RGM INTRODUCING – WE INTERVIEW AMERICAN ARTIST UNCA JOHN
Hiya folks thanks for joining us in the virtual RGM lounge today, grab a brew and take a seat.
What made you decide that music is a thing for you?
I was actually a music major for one semester back in college (early 1980s). At that point I was focused on being a clarinet player in a symphony orchestra. What I learned in those few weeks are (1) I wasn’t very good on clarinet compared to the other students, and (2) I really didn’t like practicing. So I switched to arts and sciences and eventually became an Economics professor, my current main job.
But I never stopped loving music—I played sax in jazz groups, sang in community and church choirs, even wrote and published some choral music. I would get rock song ideas in my head but never worked on them, since I figured it wasn’t possible to make rock records given that I couldn’t play piano or guitar.
During the pandemic, I learned how to use Audacity and I bought a copy of Guitar Pro, an RSE (Realistic Sound Engine) synthesizer program that has a wide range of realistic bass, guitar and keyboard sounds. Once I figured out that I could create a plausible backing band with just music notation and my laptop, I started writing and recording songs in earnest, and here I am.
Introduce us to you and your musical history.
I do all of the vocals and play sax and drums. Everything else is Guitar Pro. I have no band! I know lots of good musicians and at some point will probably form a band to play Unca John songs, but my first priority was to get my songs written and recorded.
What was life like for you before music?
Well, I started playing clarinet in 3rd grade and got pretty good at it by the time I was 12, and have been involved with music as a serious hobby ever since, so there isn’t much to tell. I do think that there’s been a frustrated rock songwriter inside me for most of my adult life, and I’m only getting to develop that part of my musicality now because of recent technological advances. If there was no RSE, then there would be no Unca John, because prior to RSE there were only MIDI synthesizers readily available, and MIDI guitar sounds terrible.
What was the first song you heard that steered you into a music path?
My dad had exactly two rock records in our house growing up: Sgt. Pepper and Revolver. So the Beatles were my first music love. My mom loved Benny Goodman and that was probably the reason I started playing clarinet. Aja by Steely Dan was my favorite record growing up and that pushed me in a jazz direction.
Where do you feel you currently sit within the music industry?
I’m just at the starting line, one of thousands of DIY amateur musicians trying to break through. “Your Opinion” is my second single and I will release my debut album “Midlife Crisis Vanity Project” in September.
What’s the biggest thing you have learned from someone else in the industry?
Daniel Carlson is a talented singer and songwriter who went to my high school. (His latest album is called Cartoon Babylon and it’s very good—his voice and musical sensibility make me think of what a Colin Moulding solo album would sound like). He convinced me that it’s worth paying the extra money to have my songs professionally mixed and mastered—up to that point, my project was 100 percent written, programmed, performed and produced by me.
Tell us Two truths and a lie about you.
I once dated the actress Joan Cusack, who went to my high school. I worked for a year in the first Obama administration. I once got kicked out of a concert (it was the dBs) for smuggling in beer.
If you could wish for one thing to aid your career what would it be?
I just wrote a song called “Always”, which I’ll work up and record for my second album. It’s a Harry Potter-themed song about Professor Snape’s doomed love for Harry’s mum. I think it would be awesome to have Molly Rankin of Alvvays sing harmony on it.
Do you ever worry about people taking things the wrong way or cancel culture? Discuss….
Speaking of Harry Potter…actually, I have a song on my upcoming album called “Mona Lisa” about sticking up for freedom of creative expression in the face of attacks on both the left and the right. I think people who insist that artists be morally impeccable are only hurting themselves, because they will miss out on a lot of great art, music, literature, etc. Artists are flawed just like everyone else, and maybe their amazing talent makes them even more likely than others to be deficient in other aspects. I don’t agree with JK Rowling’s trans-exclusionary brand of feminism but I’m still glad I read her books to my kids. I can’t condone Wagner’s anti-Semitism, but that’s not going to stop me from listening to The Ring or Tristan and Isolde. Condemn the artists, but don’t condemn their art.
Do you sign up for any conspiracy theories? If not why not?
I still don’t believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
What was the worst experience on stage?
Unca John has yet to appear on stage, but I’ve played sax in jazz groups for years. The worst thing that ever happened was in college when I suddenly couldn’t make a sound on my horn. The concert got held up for several minutes; the band director even jokingly asked if there was a saxophone doctor in the house. What happened was that some paper that was wrapped inside the mouthpiece to improve the fit had gotten sucked into my horn. So everything worked out, but it was hugely embarrassing.
Tell us something about you that you think people would be surprised about.
I’m hoping that listeners will be surprised to find out that I don’t have an actual band and that the guitar and bass are synthesizers! Part of trying to break into music as an independent artist these days is submitting your songs to blogs and playlists, hoping to attract some attention. Of course, you get lots of rejections—people don’t like my voice, or they think I sound too retro, or they want a stronger melody, or don’t connect with the lyrics—but not once has anyone said “the guitar and bass sound fake”. Hurray for Guitar Pro!
What makes you stand out as an artist?
I’ve followed maybe an unusual path to making rock records, but I’d rather be known as a songwriter with a broad harmonic palette, who can write catchy earworm hooks and pointed, literate lyrics.
I hear you have a new single, what can you tell us about it?
“Your Opinion” is my second single. My first single, “How the Hell?” was very personal, it involved a guy getting older and realizing that he hasn’t accomplished what he had hoped. “Your Opinion” on the other hand is very political. I’m honestly pissed off at 30 percent of the US population that has taken over the Republican party and injected conspiracy theories and Christian nationalism into mainstream political discussion.
The song is a satire aimed at these MAGA types; each verse starts by saying “You’ve got a right to your opinion,” and then says exactly what I think of their idiotic opinions. Musically, the song is propelled by a loping bass line and a catchy lead guitar part. The bridge provides some musical variety by introducing some new chord progressions and a prominent piano part.
What was the recording process like?
For all of my songs, I always start by making a lead sheet (lyrics, melody and chord changes). Next I write out the full bass and rhythm guitar lines—those form the backbone of most of my grooves. Once I have those tracks programmed and realized in Guitar Pro, I can record my vocals and drums over the groove in Audacity, and also write out and add the lead guitar and any other parts. I spend a lot of time editing my drum tracks—I’m not very good at timekeeping, but I still like “real” drum sounds more than synthesizer drums.
What was the biggest learning curve in writing the new tunes?
I started writing “Your Opinion” while giving an exam, actually! I was looking out at my students working on their sheets and for some reason the phrase “you’ve got a right to your opinion” popped into my head along with a melody. Before long I had the basic pattern established of how the song would go, but it took me a long time to come up with a good lead guitar hook and a harmonic structure that would sound interesting under the main melody during the verse.
Would you change anything now it’s finished?
Yeah, I’ve realized in recent days that I could have made the melody for the phrase “You’ve got a right to your opinion” a little more interesting without too much effort. You live and learn. I don’t regret any of the lyrics though, even though some curators have pushed back on them for being mean-spirited.
Is there anything else you would like to share with the world?
Parents, make sure your kids learn how to read music. You don’t have to be musically literate to make music, but it sure does help.