Current home: Brooklyn
Years making music: 13
Artist bio: Still only in his mid-20s, Jon Itkin has already put on plenty of miles. After an Upstate NY boyhood, Itkin moved to Oregon where he released his first two albums, the aptly titled "Oregon" and "Big Gold Guitar in the Sky." He recently moved back east, settling in New York City and into a new day career as a freelance writer. If his recorded output is any indication, he should do well with that new gig: he writes richly detailed roots-rock songs, the kind that hit their mark both with a full band and when stripped down for a solo show. He's taking that leaner approach for his third release, now in the works, which is aiming for a sound akin to Steve Earle in "Train a Comin'" mode or Springsteen's "Seeger Sessions."
CST's Take: Carries echoes of your basic roots/country/rock all-star team – Van Zandt, Young, Earle, Farrar – but also sports plenty of moments that are clearly pure Jon Itkin.
Country Standard Time: The protagonist in "Ten-Pack of Years" seems weary beyond his years--and beyond your years. ("We used to make love out in the back lawn/Now we're eating dinner with the TV on") Is it hard to get into character to write a song? How do you approach that part of writing?
Jon Itkin: It's hard and it isn't. This song in particular just came to me in its entirety one day. I can't say that I sit there and wrack my brains before writing a first-person, character-driven song like this one. But I can say these types of songs are some of my favorites, and they don't happen every day. They sort of seep out of the ether, and I write fast to catch them in their entirety.
My approach to this kind of deep character writing is rooted in concepts I learned as a journalism student. In essence, it's about getting to the core of a person's thoughts and feelings, but showing it using very specific details from the person's life. A journalist describing someone in a hospital waiting room might say "Mary is anxious." But the journalist could do better saying something like "Mary twisted her battered People magazine in her hands."
When I go far away from myself to write a song, I try and take details and blow them up to show the entirety of a situation. But to make it authentic, I take real feelings and emotions from my own life and transfer them onto others. In the case of "Ten-Pack of Years," I took my own feelings of bittersweetness and gave them to different people.
CST: Which came first: the story or the phrase "ten-pack of years"? How did that phrase come about?
JI: Like I mentioned earlier, the song pretty much happened one day. It came out whole, with melody, chords and all. I lifted the title from the first line of the bridge. The idea "ten-pack of years" comes from growing up in a suburb with parents (not mine) buying huge packages of stuff, cereal and junk food.
CST: The line "I remember you" is key to the song, and the delivery of that line has a different tone at song's end, closing things on a hopeful note. Was that always the plan for the song? How do you make those kinds of decisions?
JI: Once again, the song sort of decided where it wanted to go, and I was there to put it to paper. With a lot of writing, the burst of inspiration happens and you get to decipher the meaning later. I never had a master plan for the song, but I absolutely agree that the chorus following the last verse is different. It shows some ambiguity, which I like a lot. Being so short, songs often paint situations in simplistic terms. One thing I aim for as a songwriter is to show different colors and angles of a situation. If I had a rulebook (I don't), I would say that as I write, I try to show complexity, but do it in a simple, attainable way.
CST: The protagonist in the song listens to the album Nebraska. Why that album? And what are two or three other albums that would be on his short list and why?
JI: Nebraska in particular means a lot to me. My dad used to play Nebraska for me when I was a little kid, and I loved it. For many years I forgot about Bruce Springsteen, and then about 4 years ago I gave it another try and loved it. My dad gave me his vinyl copy of the record, and I treasure it. It's just a stark, beautiful, quiet record. The guy in "Ten-Pack" chooses Nebraska because it's the middle of the night and he's chewing on his nostalgia. He plays the record quietly through his stereo and it nails him. This is a guy who has (or used to have) a lot of lust for life, a product of the '70s, so he'd have a lot of Stones records, some Al Green, and a lot of Waylon and Willie.
CST: On a similar note, what are some albums and artists that you turn to for instant inspiration?
JI: Sonically, I get a lot from stuff like The Band, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, early '70s Stones, Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe, guitarists like Roy Buchanan and Jim Campilongo, old soul records, stuff like that. Lyrically (and sonically too, actually), I love Townes Van Zandt, a lot of Steve Earle's stuff, Dylan, and a lot of prose writers like William Faulkner, Denis Johnson, and Raymond Carver. At the moment I'm totally blown away by Larry Campbell's production work. He's known for being in Dylan's band for most of the 90's I believe, but he is an absolutely killer multi-instrumentalist and producer. He did Levon Helm's new record and a recent Dixie Hummingbirds record called Diamond Jubilation, both of which I can't stop listening to.
CST: This borders on cliche, but the song is rich with scenes (meeting the father) and details (the ice machine in the night) to the point it could qualify as a short story or film. Do you have aspirations in either of those areas?
JI: Well, actually I'm writing a screenplay right now, based on the time in my life when I wrote this song, incidentally. It's a music film not unlike Once, but it has multiple musicians written into it. I'm part way through my second draft, so hopefully mentioning it to you will help me finish it.