Writer of the Week: Jonah Tolchin

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We first met Jonah Tolchin when he stopped in for a session this past summer. We caught up with him again recently and chatted with him about his new album Clover Lane, his songwriting heroes and his all-time “dream co-writer.”

How would you describe Clover Lane?

“Clover Lane” is a recorded experience. It’s meant to be listened to all at once in sequence. When you go see a movie, you don’t skip between scenes. For me it’s the same thing with records. The writing is inspired by many songwriters and styles. 

How would you compare it to your last album?

It’s a different trip. My last record was more stripped down and focused on political and environmental issues. This record has a bigger sound, and draws from all geographical influences; from New Jersey, to Washington State and everywhere in-between. 

Where does the name of the album come from?

My parents bought the Clover Lane house in 1996. Fast forward to 2012. At the suggestion of a friend, record producer Marvin Etzioni came out to a show of mine in Los Angeles (Room 5). After an inspired conversation, a few weeks later Marvin and I were recording an album together in Nashville.’ The meeting with Marvin was set up by my friend and singer-songwriter, Alex Wright, who had met Marvin through another friend and neighbor in Los Angeles. When I eventually met this friend and neighbor, Anna Serridge, at the Wright’s place, I found out that Anna had purchased and lived in the same house on Clover Lane 16 years prior.

What drew you to acoustic blues and other traditional forms?

My father ran a record store in Greenville, MS before I was born. He brought a lot of music into my life.

Ronnie Earl asked you to play onstage with him when you were 15. How did that happen?

Ronnie invited me to play onstage with him after he heard me play in a music-store called “Retro Music” in Keene, NH. I was a freshman in high-school…

How did you learn to play guitar?

I had various teachers, but I learned most of what I know from playing along to records and jamming with friends. Guitar become my preferred choice of communication over the English language when I was about 16. It’s easier for me to say what I want to say on a guitar than in words.

Who are your songwriting heroes?

Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Nick Drake, A.A Bondy. 

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.

“Criminal Man”, the title track off my first full-length record, is the first song I wrote that I was happy with. I wrote it when I was 15 after developing a “Criminal Record”. 

How do you go about writing songs?

Songs write me. I remain open to the supernatural or mysterious forces that inspire creativity. As a writer, it is my job to capture the spirit of the feelings and idea’s that come to me through words and music. It’s a learning process…

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

For me the song is all about capturing a feeling. Sometimes I’ll create a story; most of the time it’s more like painting a picture with words. Each word provokes a different emotion.

What sort of things inspire you to write?

The inspiration can strike anywhere. A hotel room, car ride, cloudy morning, or from the steam rising off a hot cup of tea. I like spending time in nature, being among living things that don’t talk. Silence is key for me. 

What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?

I’m really proud of the song “Diamond Mind”. When I sing that song live, it always makes me feel better then before. More peaceful and centered.

What’s a lyric or verse from the album you’re a fan of?

“The girl was standing naked, her figure like a goddess in her prime” – Motel #9

Are there any words you love or hate?

I like the word walrus, but have yet to incorporate it into a song. Manatee is pretty good too. Aquatic creatures have the best names.

What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?

“Diamond Mind” has gotten a lot of positive response. Also, a new song called “Completely” has gotten more great feedback than any song I’ve ever written. That will be on the next record. 

If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?

It would be pretty cool to write a song with Jesus or the Buddha. 

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

Ian Fitzgerald from the Boston area. He is easily one of the best songwriters I’ve ever heard.

What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?

“The Weight” by The Band or “These Days” by Jackson Browne. Both of those songs are timeless and provoke a very nostalgic emotion in my soul… A feeling of going home for the first time in a long time.