By Harriet Kaplan
Jonny Polonsky has been writing, playing and recording songs since he was a teenager. He reached out to several of his musical heroes early on and they recognized his talent and over time he began to live out his dream of working with them. Some turned into creative and collaborative projects outside of the realm of his solo output. Taking those invaluable learning experiences with him, the critically-acclaimed alternative rock artist has continued to hone his craft and to date he has released a combination of seven albums/EPs. Those include Hi My Name is Jonny (1996); There Is Something Wrong With You (EP) (2001); The Power of Sound (2004); Intergalactic Messenger of Divine Light and Love (2012); Vision (EP) (2014) and now his most recent effort just released last week, The Other Side of Midnight (2015). In an interview with Black on the Canvas, Polonsky discussed why The Other Side of Midnight in a departure in sound, style and his singing from previous material, the trajectory of his career and how the industry has changed since he first got started.
The earliest songs you wrote and later send out on cassettes seemed to have been named to shock or make outrageous claims. Was that mean to get attention or be funny?
Jonny: I was a teenager and was just making stuff that was reflective of where I was at at the time. I called myself The Amazing Jonny Polonsky because there was a character in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure named Amazing Larry (older guy with a Mohawk who Pee Wee chewed out for speaking out of turn in the secret basement meeting to retrieve his bike), and I liked the ring it had.
The title of my first self released tape, Aw Blow it Out Your Ass, was a line from Shakes the Clown.
I wrote I Love Madonna because I loved Madonna.
You get the picture. Typically teenage hoo hah.
What effect did that have on getting you noticed and what were the reactions like?
Jonny: When I first started handing out those tapes, I wasn’t that sure they were good (whatever that means), but I knew they were funny and outrageous. The vast majority of people who heard them loved them. Fun times.
It was probably easier hooking someone’s interest by making them laugh, rather than handing them yet another demo tape of some rock band playing songs. That was my thinking at the time. It worked.
How did the musicians you admired and respected react when you called them out of the blue using 411 public records?
Jonny: I think they were surprised and flattered. Most of the people weren’t household names by any means. Two big heroes I reached out to at the time, Marc Ribot, and Reeves Gabrels, are really well known guitarists now, but at the time it seemed like they were tickled that some 18 year old kid from the Chicago suburbs liked their work enough to hunt them down.
Initially, how were you able to convince them of your talent over the phone? Did you play some of your music over the phone?
Jonny: I would tell them who I was, how much I liked their music and I would send tapes to them. Usually we’d end up talking a lot about questions I had regarding the records they’d made.
What was the result of that effort making those contacts?
Jonny: It was really, really fun and exciting. Eventually, Reeves Gabrels introduced me to Frank Black. And the rest is rock n roll histrionics…
Did you always see yourself as being ambitious? It seemed like you had no fear or hesitation putting yourself out there. Is that just your natural and level of confidence.
Jonny: I was really shy. Contacting people on the phone was always way easier for me than doing the same in person. I didn’t think of myself as ambitious, I just felt compelled to meet these people. I saw the world of rock n roll and I wanted in. I guess in retrospect I felt like I needed approval or permission to enter, or like I wanted to be knighted or something, before I began the Great Rock Quest. You don’t need to be knighted. You just do it.
How is the Jonny today different from the Johnny then?
Jonny: Well we’re talking about me as an 18 year old versus me at 41. Everybody’s different than they were as a teen, no? In lots of ways I’m exactly the same though. I still get really excited and inspired my music and art, and I like having heroes–not to worship, but as inspiration and fodder for my imagination. I was really tenacious, passionate and devoted to living a creative life. I still am those things.
Do you think your musical aspirations have changed alot or the focus?
Jonny: Well the world has changed so much, and the music business has changed so much. I entered at the last gasp of the old era where you could win the lottery of a big record deal with a demo tape. Get on MTV and the radio and make it big.
Those were really thrilling things to me then, in addition to the sheer joy of making records and touring.
Not much has changed really. All I want to do is make records and play shows, reach people. Roam the earth and make music.
Are you a self taught on the various instruments you play?
Jonny: I took guitar lessons from about ages 10 to 13 or 14. I had great teachers, they were really helpful.
Most of what I’ve learned has come from listening to records, watching other musicians, and the experience of playing with other people.
Do you think you play one better than others and why?
Jonny: I’m most fluent on the guitar. I’ve been playing it pretty much non stop for 30+ years. It’s an instrument I can understand and I really love it. I love all instruments, and find different ones interesting and inspiring for various reasons, but I always gravitate back to the guitar.
What did you get out of playing creatively with someone like Johnny Cash?
Jonny: He had already died by the time I played on his last two records. But it was an amazing experience recording them.
It was Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Smokey Hormel, Matt Sweeney and me. All great players. Mike and Benmont I had been listening to since I was a kid, I grew up on Tom Petty.
It’s sort of hard to articulate what you pick up from the experience of playing with people. One thing that immediately struck me was how easy it was to play with all those guys. No struggle. It just flowed.
I wish I could have met Johnny Cash. Actually I could have but chose not to.
Years earlier when we were both on American, I went to see Cash play at the Pantageas Theatre. Rick Rubin asked if I would like to meet him but I declined, as I was hammered and didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Alas…
Did your heroes live up to your expectations and if not why?
Jonny: Pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with or met who are really great at what they do are usually really nice, too.
“The Other Side of Midnight” is your fourth sold full length? Do you see it as a departure from the material you have written, sung and arranged from past efforts?
Jonny: Yeah, that was intentional. I didn’t want to make another rock record with loud guitars. I’ve always loved Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, Bowie’s Low, Gary Numan—I wanted to make a record along those lines. I was also really into the Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now soundtracks.
I wanted to make something introspective with a real strong atmosphere, a little world the listener could enter.
What can your fans expect with “The Other Side of Midnight”?
Jonny: Good songs, lots of melody, lots of weird sounds.
The first song, “Chip Away The Stone” seems sung in a completely different style than the songs you have previously recorded. There is a sparseness sound and moodiness there. What has influenced this style? Is it a new direction or experiment?
Jonny: It just came out that way. I was listening to a lot of Prince when I was writing these tunes, I’m sure that had an effect. I love Leonard Cohen’s records from the 80’s and early 90’s. Angelo Badalamenti. Depeche Mode. I’m sure it’s all in there somewhere.
We all come from somewhere. The hope is you take it somewhere too.
Photos by CHRIS DEFORD