We’ve always thought of each of our issues as a way to bring together our favorite people and things, a place for intriguing juxtapositions and unexpected concurrences. In our new series, The Last Talk, we’re bringing those pairings to life with unscripted, wide-ranging conversations between interesting people from distinct circles who have more in common than you might think. For our first Last Talk, Phillip Lim talked to blues singer Jonathon Linaberry—who performs as the Bones of J.R. Jones—earlier this summer about his inspirations, his heritage, and his fantasy self. Their conversation is below, accompanied by photographs from Linaberry’s August road trip from Seattle to Los Angeles.
PHILLIP LIM Since this is for The Last Magazine, and we’re doing The Last Talk, we’re going to start with the last question first.
JONATHON LINABERRY I like that.
PL Tenzin, you hear that? I’m good for freelance. Jonathon, you’re going to be my guinea pig. So the final question, which is actually from another fan of yours—I think she’s your number-one fan—is actually more of a request. If you could do a rendition of any song, which one would it be? I can give you a hint, too.
JL I think I know who asked this question, and she’d want to hear “Purple Rain.”
PL Bingo. I think you’d be great at that, I think your sound is perfect for it.
JL Yeah, I don’t know if I could compare to Prince. Those are some big shoes to fill.
PL It’s never a comparison. It’s like with anything. There’s never anything new, it’s the new context of it. Nothing’s new. When it’s new, it’s old the next second. If you weren’t able to make music any longer, what would you be doing?
JL That’s heartbreaking. Honestly I can’t imagine a scenario where I couldn’t make music. Regardless of if I’m armless or voiceless, I feel like I could always do something. If I was forced to choose, I’m a printmaker as well, so I would follow through with that, develop my lithography skills a little further.
PL Did you study that?
JL I did. I have a master’s in that.
PL Intellectual and talented, wow. Where’d you go to school?
JL I did my undergrad at Pratt in Brooklyn, which was what brought me here to the city originally. I’m from Syracuse originally. I moved here for Pratt and did my master’s up at New Paltz, about two hours north of the city.
PL So you have a master’s in…
JL MFA in printmaking and BFA in art and design education.
PL How’d you get into music?
JL My mother was very strict growing up. I had two brothers and it was the law of the land that once we reached six, we took piano for eight years. And once eight years had passed, we were old enough to decide whether we wanted to continue or not. Ironically, I had a teacher named Miss Hate—H-A-T-E—she lived on Pleasant Street and she kind of ruined it for me, so I quit piano after I turned fourteen.
PL You hated piano?
JL In retrospect, I realize that I loved it and I totally regret my decision to quit. I still play, but I should have continued lessons.
PL So you quit and you returned.
JL Well, kind of. I desperately wanted a guitar as a child and didn’t get one for a long time, so it was piano, piano, piano, and then I picked up the trombone, and then it was guitar finally, and then I kind of blossomed into this I guess.
PL And when did you finally get on a mike and…
JL Start singing? There are videos of me from when I was like six singing in front of the piano, writing songs on the piano, so I always felt most comfortable doing that I guess.
PL So you’re a natural-born showman.
JL I guess so, yeah.
PL What’s your sign?
JL I’m a Leo. Birthday’s next week actually.
PL Oh, well happy birthday. Let me guess…you’re going to be twenty-two?
JL You’re very generous. No, it’s a big one, I’ll be thirty.
PL What are three things you can’t live without?
JL Well the obvious answer is music, but I think I definitely can’t live without my family. I’m a huge family buff, I’m a sucker for calling my grandma three times a week or something like that.
PL Wow, that’s great. Do you speak with a family member once a day?
JL It depends who it is. I’ll call my dad probably three times a week.
PL Are you closest to him?
JL Yeah, he’s definitely the parental figure in my life, a source of guidance and always grounding me when I’m way off the mark. So definitely that, and pierogies. It’s my heritage I guess. I can never stop eating those, it’s such a sense of home for me to have those on my plate. And I guess just music, but blues music.
PL So music, pierogies, and family. What’s your heritage?
JL I’m Ukrainian, and my dad’s side has been here forever. Mainly Welsh mixed with Ukrainian.
PL What made you happy today?
JL Well we finally got Internet in my apartment, which was amazing. After nearly a year living there we finally sprung for it, which was life-changing. We can now go anywhere in the apartment and use it instead of stealing it from downstairs. But beyond that, what made me happy today was the morning. I’m such a morning person, getting a cup of coffee and just hanging out and having that decompression before the day starts.
PL What time do you wake up? That’s kind of odd, because musicians are usually night owls, right?
JL Yeah, well I’m not. Unfortunately it’s a hazard of the trade I guess. I prefer to be in bed by eleven and up at five.
PL So you’re like an anti-musician—intellectual, a master’s degree, and a morning person—triple threat.
JL I’m actually like a 65-year-old man already. Getting up too early, going to bed early.
PL I feel like that. Sometimes I feel like I’m twenty-five years old and sometimes I feel like I’m seventy-five years old. So your favorite time of day is morning?
JL Definitely, I would go beyond that to say Sunday morning, like at six in the morning, because you know everything is dead. No one’s out, the streets are quiet, you just feel removed from everything.
PL What is a perfect Sunday morning?
JL A perfect Sunday morning would be getting up real early and being able to enjoy the day before it’s too busy. I’m slightly misanthropic, so I enjoy a city or a street without anybody else on it. I like walking and enjoying the scenery without it being too busy.
PL Do you walk to get coffee or do you have coffee first?
JL It depends obviously on if we have coffee in the house. We have a nice little coffee shop about three blocks away in Greenpoint called Troost. They have a gorgeous backyard, so Sunday morning usually consists of going there early with the Sunday Times and sitting back there for a couple hours with a cup of coffee.
PL What and who are currently influencing you in the present? It can be anything.
JL Honestly, it’s always a changing thing, but I feel like what inspires me to be creative are just visceral experiences, even as trivial as that coffee shop. Part of the reason I love the coffee shop—why I go in there and stay—is these giant wood planks. People always wear big boots and you can hear them scraping across as they walk to get their coffee and it totally takes you out of Brooklyn. That, for me, is so inspirational. It’s so funny to say, but just that sound of people across the floor. I don’t know what it is, but I love it. And the thing is, most of my inspiration comes from sound. When you’re on a subway here, when you get on a train, the door closes and the tone changes. It totally changes the mood, when the doors open and close. I’m fascinated by that. Think about that.
PL I can totally hear it in your music. A lot of it is based in simple things that we don’t stop to take notice of.
JL It’s funny. That’s true I guess, I don’t think about it like that.
PL So I’m assuming you don’t walk around the city with headphones on?
JL I don’t. Well I do, but I don’t have headphones right now. I’m kind of happy I lost them four months ago and haven’t bought a new pair. It opens your eyes. I’m interacting with the city more.
PL I think that’s really important. Often times I get asked, Where do you get inspiration, what inspires you, blah blah blah, and the truth is, I could give you a grand answer, or I could give you the truth. I just have to be living with my ears on the outside, and just pay attention to everything I pass.
JL I totally agree. Going back to your point about how nothing is really new, it’s easy to say I’m inspired by a certain musician or artist. I agree, everything has already been done. You need to make it your own. How do you bring your own experience into it?
PL How do you take that grand inspiration and move it forward with what’s happening today? Because it is about today. Tomorrow we can plan for, but we don’t know what the outcome is. Yesterday is gone, so it’s about today, no? The present. What do you want long-term for your music career?
JL Honestly, for me long-term, I just want to pay my rent with it. I don’t even know, just to be successful enough that I can continue to do it for the rest of my life. Just to be comfortable, I guess.
PL You’re sure you don’t want a hip hop remix of your song?
JL [LAUGHS] Well I wouldn’t turn that down. I think it’d be really funny. I’d totally entertain that, if Jay-Z approaches me and wants to do a collaboration. I’ll tell him to talk to my people.
PL We’ll send him your way.
JL Please do.
PL That’s how it works in the music business. I think you might have to prepare for that. You might be a big star.
JL That’s very flattering of you to say, but I’ll take it as it comes. One thing I’ll definitely do is just play music, take it one step at a time and just hope it’s going in the right direction.
PL You’ve been in the business long enough, with ups and downs. Besides the fact that your presence, when you play, is unbelievable, I noticed that your lyrics are so insightful too. Like the song “Sing, Sing” is so lyrical, like a poem. For me, when I listen to music and I listen to lyrics, they always mean something to me. I always listen to a song and the artists’ lyrics, and when I hear your lyrics, I think of a much older person and I think of a very wise person, with a lot of experience to have hindsight on so that he can have this foresight of these lyrics. And you’re only thirty.
JL Not yet, I’m only twenty-nine.
PL A week!
JL [LAUGHS] A week left in my twenties.
PL Where does this come from? Is it the struggles?
JL I think it comes from going back to what inspires me, what makes me happy, or things that I can’t live without. Growing up and having that closeness with my family, I felt like I learned a lot of life lessons. Hindsight is always 20/20, and just reflecting on it as I get older, I can see what I really learned in a situation or circumstance and how I grew out of that. I wish I had a more concrete answer, other than that it takes a lot of time and practice, and obviously involves my life experiences. When I start writing a song, I sort of base it off my favorite songs, the cadence and delivery. I just take it and make it my own and grow out of that, and interpret my life through those lyrics.
PL Are you an emotional person?
JL Probably less emotional than some people would like, but I try to be. I’m extremely rational and logical and reason myself out of anything, out of being upset, so I think a lot of my emotion, what I do have and can express, I save for my music. The rest of my life is kind of a balance.
PL That’s good. You have an outlet, right? Just from your music, I’d say there’s some emotion in there.
JL Yeah, I feel like that’s a total different person from me when I’m up there, a little bit raw I guess.
PL What does “the wildness” mean?
JL The Wildness is my EP that’s coming out. You were talking about my emotion, and my performance being very emotional, and I recognize that in myself, and so I think “the wildness” for me is a way to express that, kind of letting go and really not caring, becoming a primitive person, you know? Just going back to your primal nature and just letting it all hang out.
PL Is this your first EP?
JL This is my first release under my stage name, the Bones of J.R. Jones. I’ve done a couple variations of what I’m doing now, but I think I’ve finally nailed it down. It’s been a process just like everything else, trying things out and finding what fits and what doesn’t. I feel most successful with where we’re going with this one, so we’ll see where it ends up.
PL That’s great, I think that you should stick to this one. I don’t know what you call it, but when I first heard it and tried to describe it to friends, I called it modern voodoo music.
JL [LAUGHS] That’s probably more accurate than mine.
PL I’m not a music person, and I say it’s modern voodoo music because it’s so hypnotizing and you feel like you’ve entered this secret place where you shouldn’t be and you’ve been taken into and something’s about to happen. You’re kind of possessed by the music and the lyrics get laced in and you’re like, Okay cut it off.
JL Wow, that’s wonderful, thanks. When people ask me, I usually try to describe it as simply as possible, with as few words as possible, because it’s tough. I don’t particularly like writing about my music. I usually describe it as roots stomp blues, with a little honey in there, like folk.
PL Why do you play all the instruments yourself? FYI, when you see Jonathon play, he’s a one-man band. It’s quite amazing because he plays everything by himself. You can’t believe the sound that comes from him.
JL That was definitely born out of necessity. My project before this was a trio and I put a lot of the blame on myself. I don’t think I’m a very good communicator in what I want from people and it just wasn’t going the direction that I wanted. At that point it happened to coincide with me going upstate to go to graduate school, so I was up in the mountains by myself and I needed to make music. I played guitar by myself, which was nice, but it never reached that apex, that emotional level I was going for. So I bought myself a kick drum and it got a little closer. And I bought myself a hi-hat and it got a little closer, and learned the banjo and it just felt right.
PL I should have asked you to tell me about yourself first, but now we’re coming toward the end, and you’ve been telling me already. So I’m going to ask you to tell me about your fantasy self. You can make it all up.
JL Well, like you said, I wish I was a little more emotional. I wish I was a little more honest and raw. It’s very tough, I don’t know. I wish I had some darker inner secrets I could tell you about.
PL Do you feel like you live your life?
JL Yeah, I do. I am happier now than I think I’ve ever been, and I think a year ago or a year and a half ago I couldn’t have said that. I feel like I’m finally heading in the right direction, as dry as that answer seems. I try to do everything I want to do in my life, and I’ve been very fortunate up to this point.
PL Great. Anything else you want to tell the audience that will be reading? Anything to promote?
JL This is where the PR person would tell me what to say. Um…as we discussed, my EP is available, I will have records for sale. Come see me play. The EP is called The Wildness. You can find it on Bandcamp and iTunes and all that good stuff. I guess that’s it, unless you know something I don’t…
PL Go watch him play, guys. And buy everything because it’s amazing, or I would never be doing this. Again, this is my first, and maybe my last. Maybe they’ll fire me.
JL I hope you’re getting paid well.
PL No, no. I’m getting paid in friendship.
The Bones of J.R. Jones performs on October 28 at the Ace Hotel, 20 West 29th Street, New York.