Q&A with acclaimed songwriter/guitarist Jonah Tolchin, grew up listening to blues and American roots music

"My hope is that more artists will be able to make a living from music, and not just from live touring… I fear that the problem will never be solved."

Jonah Tolchin: The Dockside of the Blues

Jonah Tolchin grew up listening to blues and American roots music. His father ran a record store in the Mississippi Delta before he was born, and Tolchin soaked in the music from cassettes, vinyl records, and CD’s. Tolchin’s new album “Dockside”, out oct 20 via his newly-formed label Clover Music Group, was co-produced by Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) and Tolchin at the Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana. The album features Tolchin on lead guitar, harmonica and vocals, Dickinson on rhythm guitar and clavinet, Terence Higgins on drums, and Nic Coolidge on bass. Guests include Chris Joyner, Carey Frank and Chavonne Stewart. Born and raised in central New Jersey, Tolchin began his career as a DIY artist, hitting the road as a teenager and self-releasing his own music until signing with Yep Roc Records for his critically acclaimed 2014 label debut, Clover Lane. Recorded in Nashville with a slew of special guests including Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Deer Tick’s John McCauley.                     (Photo: Jonah Tolchin)

Tolchin followed it up in 2016 with the similarly well-received Thousand Mile Night, which racked up more than 12 million streams on Spotify with its title track alone, and 2019’s Fires for the Cold, a bittersweet meditation on loss and redemption that featured appearances by Jackson Browne, Rickie Lee Jones, and Sara Watkins. In 2022 Tolchin released a completely different feel with “Lava Lamp”, inspired by more of his indie rock/rock influences. Along the way, Tolchin toured the US and Europe extensively, sharing bills with the likes of Watchhouse (Mandolin Orange), Chuck Prophet, Gregg Allman, Chris Smither, Dave and Phil Alvin, and Tony Joe White, etc. 

Interview by Michael Limnios                    Special Thanks: Nick Loss-Eaton Media

How has the Blues/Roots music influenced your views of the world? How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Blues music, in particular playing blues guitar, provided me with a much needed creative outlet as a kid. I grew up in a house with various mental health issues, and being able to lean on the guitar provided me with a way to express my troubled emotions.

I would say that the spirit and music (for me) are inextricably linked. They are one and the same… I think about the concept of spirit like the Jedi’s think about “the force”. It’s all around us, everything, everywhere, all the time. In my human experience, it is easiest for me to tap into “the force” through playing the guitar.

In terms of the meaning of life… Well, after thinking about that for the last decade and a half quite frequently–I have concluded that it is not the correct question we should be asking ourselves. A more pragmatic question would be, “how do we create meaning in our lives?”, or “how do we make our daily lives meaningful?”.

I’m still figuring out the answer to this question. But so far I have found that it is not possible to build significant meaning in my own life without both rhythm and balance. For example, without staying physically active, eating well, and sleeping well–I have no foundation for which to create anything. So that is the first thing… After that, I am able to enjoy the simple moments of life more like spending time with my wife and daughter, enjoying a walk in nature, playing my guitar, or being with friends.

"I’ve written songs and records that were meant to have more of a political or social message… For this record, my intention was really just to make the music that I love–and hope that each song could resonate with different people in different ways… If one of these songs makes a positive difference in someone’s day, that will be enough… In fact, it’s already a success to me–because it has made a positive difference in my own life making the album." (Photo: Jonah Tolchin)

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

I no longer force my creative drive. I allow it to come to me… Sometimes I will go months without writing a song. In terms of where it comes from when it does appear… That’s an interesting question. I would say I can be inspired by the work of other great artists, and also by strong emotions within myself that need to be expressed.

Much of my philosophy that I have weaved into song has to do with staying in the present moment, and overcoming challenging emotions and experiences. 

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Probably being invited to play on stage with Ronnie Earl when I was 15… I wonder if I would have pursued music if it were not for that confidence booster early on.

Getting to work with Jackson Browne was a mind blowing experience for me, because I am such a big fan… I will say though, that this last record that I just made “DOCKSIDE” that is coming out on my new label Clover Music Group on Oct 20th, was a top 3 highlight not just of my career, but of my life as a whole. It was such a special time getting to work with Luther Dickinson, Nic Coolidge, and Terence Higgins down in Maurice, Louisiana…

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I would say the biggest thing that I miss from music of the past is authenticity. The music of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and early 00’s was tremendous. I’m not sure if we are creating new decades of great music or not… Certainly there is some amazing stuff coming out all the time, every day… But is it history building music that has the same impact? I’m not sure.

My hope is that more artists will be able to make a living from music, and not just from live touring… I fear that the problem will never be solved.

"Blues music, in particular playing blues guitar, provided me with a much needed creative outlet as a kid. I grew up in a house with various mental health issues, and being able to lean on the guitar provided me with a way to express my troubled emotions." (Photo: Jonah Tolchin)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Artists and songwriters being paid more for recorded music via streaming.

What's the balance in music between technique and soul? What touched you from fingerpicking style?

As a guitar teacher, I think that soul drives us to learn and get good at something. It is challenging to learn how to play, and we need that soul-drive in order to climb the first mountain of the beginner stage… After we have gotten that foundation, it’s much easier to allow the soul to come through in our playing.

Like many others, I love fingerpicking because it sounds like nothing else and has formed some of the best songs of all time. It’s a very intimate way to connect with the instrument, and with music itself.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

I’ve written songs and records that were meant to have more of a political or social message… For this record, my intention was really just to make the music that I love–and hope that each song could resonate with different people in different ways… If one of these songs makes a positive difference in someone’s day, that will be enough… In fact, it’s already a success to me–because it has made a positive difference in my own life making the album.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

I think for most musicians, it is important to diversify your income streams. For example, I make my living through a combination of: recording, writing, being a session musician, producing, teaching, etc.

This is a tough industry, and it has taught me a lot about resilience. There is no way to survive without falling down over and over again… I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I can say that I have learned from all of them–and that has made me a better person.

Jonah Tolchin - Home

(Photo: Jonah Tolchin)

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