To Find God Is All I Want: Jonah Matranga On Water And Solutions
Jonah Matranga is on the road again. Not to sing but to listen: a time-honoured old-school road trip through the California desert, near 600 miles from San Francisco through Santa Clarita and into LA to hear Janelle Monae at the Greek Theatre. The Dirty Computer tour. It’ll be remembered. But you sense that what matters most is not merely seeing the pyrotechnics of a pop star in her prime, but the simple unity of standing alongside 5,000 others in love with what’s being offered onstage.
He usually drives a 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser, bought for less than $3,000 with 100,000 miles on the clock. Since then he’s added 60,000 more, but rarely with other people in the passenger seat. The engine fan doesn’t work. The paintwork is faded from the sun. The AC needs to blast to keep the mechanics from overheating. “I will subject myself to that,” he says. “But I will not subject other people to it. This car is one of the uglier things that’s come out of product design. But I like that. And I like that Michael Scott from The Office had one.” There is, he says, simply no way to be cool in this vehicle.
“I really live by the adage ‘travel light, travel far,’” he says, adding a chuckle. “Far. Ha! I’d never thought of that. Okay. But yeah, I’ve never lived in a house with a laundry machine or dishwasher. I’ve never owned a new car.” This isn’t a signal towards the rich man’s pious minimalism, nor a lecture on frugality. Jonah is explaining how he has managed to survive in music now that the big-money heydays have passed, now that Spotify executives take home more than a million a year while paying something like $0.0084 per play to musicians.
Livin’ Small, onelinedrawing
“I don’t quite know how I make a living,” he says. “One of the most common rumours about me is that I have a trust fund, because people can’t understand how I live the way I do without having another job. But I don’t have a trust fund. I wish I did.”
He has worked constantly, with backing or without, releasing elegant and heartfelt music directly to an ever-more devoted community of fans. People need Jonah to make his music as much as he does. We could take Far’s major-label albums, Tin Cans With Strings to You (1996) or the revered Water And Solutions (1998) as a starting points, but his story continues like an arrow through the bands New End Original and Gratitude to the recently-published book Alone Rewinding, found on the makeshift merchandise tables of this summer’s modestly-sized and independently-organised Water And Solutions shows.
Travel light, travel far. The sensitive and caring child, born in Massachusetts in 1969, has become a beacon as a songwriter and sincere artist trying to make sense of the world using little more than ideas, effort and a soaring roar which has only become more impassioned, angrier and more soulful over the years. This life emerged from very little indeed, from nothing other than witnessing the contradictions of his own America and paying attention to the contradictions of his own heart.
Credit: Phill Mamula
“When my dad was around, no-one had jobs as far as I remember,” he says. “We were kind of ‘hippie poor’. I really don’t know how that works. When my dad left, it was my mom and me and my sister.” Before he was 10 years of age Jonah recalls moving after the family home was robbed twice, once by a man coming in through a window holding a knife. Burnt-out cars on the block. Rats in traps. “It was just a kind of apocalyptic existence. But you know, my Mom, I want to say, she was out there kicking as much ass as she could, and trying to figure it out.”
Life changed when the family made it to the quieter surroundings of Brookline, Boston. “It was much more well-to-do. But my formative years were… yeah. Partly, I now love limits. I love the phrase ‘necessity is the mother of invention.’ So I really like that I don’t need too much gear to make a noise. That’s fine. Partly it’s just that I grew up super, super fucking poor, and I think that’s kind of never left me. For better or for worse.”
Lost, Then Found - A Song For My Father
Jonah Matranga in the air once more, flying to Heathrow and arriving in the UK to discover a heatwave. An airplane window can offer the chance to see the world clearly and as a whole, which he has always tried to do in his songs even if his words haven’t always made sense at the time.
With Water And Solutions he’s prepared to tentatively use the word ‘prophetic’ to account for the gentle and poetic sociopolitical streak that runs through the record, through songs like Bury White, Really Here and the title track. With the current run of shows, people are coming to feel the connection he creates, a connection that comes from admitting that we’re comprehensively failing to get along.
“Maybe these are resonating because on a really broad level they’re songs,” he says. Some are really riff-heavy, which was the kind of dynamic in Far. Shaun [Lopez, former Far guitarist] loved the riff and I loved the song. So I was either always wrestling his riffs into something like a more traditional song, or I was writing a traditional song, and they were doing what they did to it and beefing it up and stuff.”
Mother Mary, Far
His lyrics were snapping at ideas that feel like revelations today, about patriarchy, about the unvoiced marginalisation of the poor or the black or of anyone outside the god-given, corporate-sponsored, twice rubber-stamped and legally approved ideal of white male prosperity. The very fact that Jonah and his peers wrote as they did in that post-Nirvana, pre-nu metal window suggests that the history of modern rock – and why not – the history of modern America might have been elbowed in a kinder direction had the music industry of the day admitted something more feminine into its ranks instead of foisting red baseball caps on its front rows.
“There’s a lot of things I think the songs were on to way before I was,” says Jonah. “About patriarchy, white supremacy – I didn’t really have those terms in my lexicon or whatever at the time. I understood those concepts, but there’s a lot that’s happened in the public consciousness, and certainly in my consciousness, about recognising those systems and the futility it can engender.”
There was a new sincerity in songs like Really Here, which at the time seemed to be a hymn to sobriety, with the lines, ‘I wonder / Why I am always sober / Everyone gets loaded / It gets old’.
Credit: Liliana Burke
Today, the opening lines, ‘I noticed it / On my way out / My small white world / Was closing down’, mean more to Jonah as a recognition of a crumbling echo chamber before the term ‘echo chamber’ had arrived.
“It’s interesting, because the sobriety line was sort of literal,” he says. “That was the line that got all the attention back then. ‘Small white world’ is a line that I don’t recall anyone ever commenting on. But now it feels like a really powerful pronouncement. There’s a lot of this idea of ‘whiteness’, and what even is that? Back then, we were still where a lot of people are, which is that whiteness is just like asking the fish, ‘How’s the water?’ Whiteness is the water. It’s what we live in, it’s the air we breathe. But there’s starting to be a recognition of what the ramifications are.”
Album opener Bury White carries more of the religious imagery that comes from the buffet of ideas that Jonah grew up with, beginning the record with the words ‘To resurrect ourselves / We disembowel our saints / We never underestimate / The destructive power of change’. Later in the chorus there’s the longing line ‘Soothe me lover’, which led to producer D Sardy giving the then-unnamed track the working title ‘Barry White’.
Bury White, Far
“I switched the title at the end,” says Jonah. “The song Water And Solutions is a bit more obtuse, but it has some stuff to it. Socio-politically, I would always sing and talk about that stuff, but frankly I would talk about it more. There’s a larger conversation to be had about male and female archetypes, but combining a feminine kind of emotional quality with a more male aggressive quality or whatever, has always just been how I express myself. There’s a very different understanding of it in rock’n’roll now than there was then.”
Water And Solutions, with ‘rumours of aliens’, remains more symbolic, with the line ‘Soon my doubles / Will pull off all of my stunts’ now experienced as a comment on the performative nature of our lives online.
“I really didn’t know what I was writing,” says Matranga. “That’s just a really evocative line to me. It’s pretty obtuse, but there’s a less obtuse bit: ‘Define God is all I want / To treat my love as me’. But even that… I didn’t know whether to sing the words ‘define’ or ‘to find’. And I still don’t really know…”
Alone Rewinding by Jonah Matranga is out now. Find more information at www.jonahmatranga.com, and see him in the UK this week with the following Water And Solutions shows:
Friday 6 July: Newcastle, Think Tank
Saturday 7 July: Sheffield, The Corporation
Sunday 8 July: London, Boston Music Room
Monday 9 July: Nottingham, Bodega
Tuesday 10 July: Brighton, Sticky Mike’s
Wednesday 11 July: Plymouth: The Junction
Asylums frontman Luke Branch takes us inside their new album Genetic Cabaret, one song at a time
Hear Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony perform Nothing Else Matters and All Within My Hands.