Jonah Parzen-Johnson describes himself as a saxophonist living in Brooklyn, NY, writing “lo-fi music for solo saxophone and analog synth about the feeling of joyful melancholy that comes from leaving stuff behind as the world conspires to push us away from our memories.” He recently took some time out to sit down for an interview with AMN.
You can listen to some of this works here: http://jonahpj.bandcamp.com/
How did you come to focus on lo-fi music and solo sax?
I’ve been interested in solo saxophone for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Chicago around a number of incredible creative musicians, many of whom were active in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The one’s who I was lucky enough to study with, always put a high standard on the skill of putting together sets of solo music. However, it took me a long time to find a sincere way of approaching that kind of playing. It wasn’t until I started listening to solo recordings of Neil Young and then a lot of Appalachian Folk singers that I discovered a way of performing solo that really inspired me. Most of my solo writing is about finding the intersection between those two creative worlds.
I try to capture a certain vocal quality in my playing, and because of this I am always looking for singers who are in the same range as my horn. Bill Callahan, who is a pioneer of the lofi movement, is the guy I end up coming back to the most. At first I just loved the way he phrased his melodies, and the way he used his voice. But eventually I fell in love everything about his music, from the way he put songs together, to the sound of his recordings. I draw a lot of inspiration from every element of his music.
Can you compare the experimental music scenes in Chicago and New York? Why did you choose to move to Brooklyn? For instance, do the opportunities outweigh the competition?
This is a really tough question to answer, and something that I think about a lot. I’d like to think that I’m an American musician, and that my style of playing isn’t tied to a certain region. But, obviously, I’ve been hugely influenced by both of these cities.
There is an incredible experimental music community in Chicago that I was just barely becoming familiar with when I moved to New York (at age 18). What I’ve loved about living and working in Brooklyn for the last 7 years is the refusal to declare allegiance to any kind of music. Having an eclectic musical interests is absolutely essential to the music community in Brooklyn, and I am definitely a product of that attitude. The music I write for solo saxophone is influenced by Appalachian folk, experimental music of all kinds, indie rock, West African music, jazz, lofi folk, electronic music, Americana. All this different music is just woven into everyone’s playing, and that is a special thing.
Describe some of the techniques you’re exploring with sax and synths.
With my saxophone playing I try incorporate of a bunch of extended techniques with a focus on creating textures to enrich and contextualize the melodic elements of my music. I use a lot of circular breathing to build depth in my phrases, and I often sing independent melodies into my saxophone while playing lower notes to create multi-phonic sounds. On top of this, I’ve been working with a sort of self assembled analog synthesizer. The synthesizer is set up to be controlled by the tone and volume of my saxophone as well as a set of pedals and buttons that I can play with my feet. When I started incorporating the synth my goal was to create an instrument that I could play with my saxophone, instead of using it to effect my saxophone. What I’ve ended up with is two independent instruments with a lot of overlapping control parameters.
How do you balance “free” playing and structure?
I am a big believer in finding the freedom within rigidity. I consider myself a composer, as much as a performer, and I spend a lot of time putting together all of the facets of my solo music. But as soon as my structure is built I get to work on getting lost inside of the unlimited ways I can interpret every element of a composition. From the tonal character of my instrument, to where I place notes in the melody, to how crazy I make the textural elements of the songs, there is a lot of room for exploration.
You spent a lot of time on tour recently. How did that go? Will you continue with such a heavy schedule in the future?
I love being on the road. I really like to drive, and its an incredible way to meet people all over and see this Country up close. I hope to continue doing it as much as I can. Its definitely my favorite way to play music.
How much of a living can you make as a musician, as opposed to working non-musical jobs? Do you expect this to change over time?
Trying to make music into a source of livable income is a challenge. Its always been a challenge, and I don’t think I am going to be the exception. However, it is definitely possible, and the longer I struggle, the more it feels like there is a way to make it work. I feel very optimistic about it all.
What music have you been listening to lately?
My new favorite band is Sylvan Esso, they only have a couple songs out so far, but I really like the way they combine a lot of the different ways of playing music that I love. I’ve also been enjoying Diamond Terrifier, Meredith Monk, Volcano Choir, and Cuddle Magic a lot lately. I’ll always come back to Wayne Shorter and Fela Kuti.