Songwriting is a deeply personal experience.
At least, that was the case for musician Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards musician behind 70’s classic ‘Sunshine’ credits his mom and dad for encouraging his love of music when he was just a boy.
LISTEN TO JONATHAN EDWARDS AND OTHER MUSICIANS
2017 marks the 50th anniversary of Edwards and his blues bands (Sugar Creek) big move to Boston. This move along with their 1969 album Please Tell A Friend would help propel Jonathan’s career.
We’ve decided to spotlight this past interview with Edwards and focus on his many career successes through the years.
Jonathan Edwards musician, artist, singer-songwriter, and so much more.
In a recent interview with Art of The Song’s Viv Nesbitt and John Dillon at his home in Maine, Edwards touched on his parents’ influence.
Jonathan Edwards Musician Reflects
Below are excerpts from an interview with Jonathan Edwards:
Nesbitt asked Edwards what helped him decide to become a musician
“I started to listen to recorded music that my father would bring home from wherever he went. He’d bring home these 78s,” he said.
“I started listening to gospel stuff. I started listening to the Mills brothers. My mom was a preacher’s daughter. My adopted mom.
“So she was always pushing me to be in choirs and that sort of stuff from a very early age and I remember singing a solo.
“They pushed me out of the kid’s choir into the adult choir to sing a solo one Sunday in this big church and I can remember my little voice how it sounded in that church and what an impression that made on me. ‘Oh, listen to that!’
“That sounds pretty good, you know? I kind of just resonated with the whole idea of making music and expressing my feelings through that.
“I was always in the school plays and the minstrel shows and you name it. I was wanting to do that for some reason.”
For Edwards, who was adopted as a child, the real meaning of family has come full circle, after he gave up his daughter for adoption, he said in an August interview with WickedLocal.
Fortunately, he and his daughter Gracie have reunited.
It's been a good experience, he added
“We’ve all reunited over the decades,” he said.
“For me and all my people, it’s been a terrific, beautiful reunion.
“The album. The album is loosely based around that concept, which so many people can relate to. The last song, ‘Jonny’s Come Home, sort of sums the whole thing up.”
Indeed, Tomorrow’s Child is full of gentleness and sweeping guitars and a swelling choir of voices.
Bluegrass and resonator guitarist Jerry Douglas also appears on the CD.
And accompanying those voices are the sounds of mandolin, mellotron, accordion, steel guitar, and piano.
Sunshine: Edwards Protests 'The Man'
But the song “Sunshine” is really what catapulted Jonathan Edwards singer songwriter to fame.
With its catchy lyrics and tuneful melody, the song became an instant hit.
Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
“Sunshine go away today, I don’t feel much like dancing
Some man’s come he’s trying to run my life, don’t know what he’s asking
When he tells me I better get in line, can’t hear what he’s saying
When I grow up I’m gonna make him mine, these ain’t dues I been paying
How much does it cost? I’ll buy it!
The time is all we’ve lost
I’ll try it!
He can’t even run his own life, I’ll be damned if he’ll run mine, sunshine…”
Sunshine as a Form of Protest
Released in 1971, Sunshine brought people of all stripes together to protest the Vietnam War.
“If there’s any doubt I erase that before I sing it each night.
“I tell them the finest time I got to sing it was at the May Day End The War Rally in 1971.
“It’s a protest song about the war and how people can get us, peace-loving creatures, into these wars that have no end, no plan, no nothing, but are for people who make the machinery. It was true in 1952 when Eisenhower talked about it, it was true in the 60s when we were getting killed on college campuses for protesting it, and it’s true today.
“I try to draw that parallel between then and now. Meanwhile, I try not to bring the audience down too much. It’s a tricky balance.”
While talking to Nesbitt and Dillon, Edwards noted...
that songwriters tend to keep to themselves when composing and it’s a difficult habit to break.
“All of us songwriters, when we’re not collaborating, when we’re doing it all by ourselves, fall into certain patterns because they’ve worked in the past or just comfort zone or whatever.
“And it’s really hard to break out of those habits, then that’s the beauty of collaborating.
“And when you find a kindred spirit to actually take the time to understand your story and interpret it onto the page, onto the guitar, onto the piano, it’s just such a profound gift.”
Then there was a bit of banter back and forth, with Nesbitt noting that singing in a choir is “a full-body experience.”
Edwards agreed, and she noted that Tomorrow’s Child is “an extraordinary album.”
Hard Times By Jonathan Edwards Musician Extraordinaire
Then she referred to the Stephen Foster song Hard Times, which is on the album.
And it is indeed a beautiful and contemplative song, wrapped in human voices and surrounded by the bell-like notes of a piano and mandolins.
So it was natural for Nesbitt to ask about the choral and gospel influences on the song.
“What was that like?”
Edwards noted it was a collaboration between him and acclaimed songwriter Tom Snow.
“Well, I had recorded that with Tom Snow on his album called ‘Friends.’ He got a bunch of us together and did a bunch of classic songs and he’s my lovely and talented piano player.
“Love that song.
Known that song my whole life of course.
“I joke on stage that it was written in 1851 by a friend of mine named Stephen Foster. And he was a friend of mine.
“I learned all his songs on piano at an early age by ear. I just loved the song and my brilliant producer Darrell Scott for this album thought we should do it, but he didn’t want to do Tom’s arrangement.
“He wanted to do a new arrangement.”
Music Is Serious Business For The Otherwise Jovial Edwards
“I started arranging it because I take everything so seriously, believe it or not, despite my public persona. I started trying to arrange it. ‘You do this part and you do that part.’
“Darrell took me aside and said, ‘Jon, we’re just going to be a bunch of people on the back porch singing songs we love, and this is one of them. We’re going to put up a live mic and go for it.’
“That’s what we did.”
No one, he said, was assigned any parts.
“We just kind of went for it.”
Dillon added that this arrangement of Hard Times sounds “just like a church choir.
“It just sounds beautifully arranged.”
But things were kept casual.
“To the best of my knowledge, it was not arranged. It just happened,” said Edwards, “It just literally happened, as did much of this album.”
Then Dillon Asked What It Was Like to Work With Scott
“He was okay,” Edwards deadpanned to the sound of laughter.
“No, he’s a wizard. He literally is a wizard and a genius and all the kind things I can say about him won’t come near who he really is.
“He’s an amazing person, a wonderful man, totally right-thinking kind, Just, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it and you’ll love it.’ And I did.”
Tomorrow's Child Production
Then the subject came around to how Tomorrow’s Child was produced, with Nesbitt asking if he wanted to work with Scott, or was it “something that came or was it something that came about organically?”
“It came about organically. I’ve got a manager now, which is a real luxury to have,” Edwards said.
“Mike Robertson out of Nashville and he suggested Darrell as being one of his favorite musicians ever and he didn’t even know if he was a producer.
“He just called him and said ‘listen, do you have any interest in producing a new record for Jonathan?’ And he said ‘yeah, yeah, I’d love to. Let’s go.'”
And Scott, Edwards added, “is brilliant on everything.”
“I didn’t know until recently he’s played pedal steel for, I don’t know, twenty years or something.”
Scott and Edwards Have Divergent Backgrounds
But, they share common grounds on some things.
“He does have a different style but we come out of the same nest of feelings and emotions,” he said.
Nesbitt asked the Sunshine composer to elaborate a bit on this. Could he describe some of those feelings and emotions?
“Yeah, the love of acoustic music. The love of traditional styles and a real reverence for all that went before and a real vision into the future as well.
“He’s been a tweener, like me in terms of ‘where do we put him?’
“He’s not bluegrass, he’s not folk, he’s not this. All the things you’re not. No one ever really talks about all the things you are. So we share that a bit.”
Edwards Added That Scott Kept the Music Uncomplicated
“He said ‘we’re just going to do this record like we used to do them. Everybody in the same room staring each other down and counting them off.’
“And that’s the way we did it. Just all in the same room looking at each other.
“We had one evening of rehearsal and dinner (he made dinner, he’s an excellent cook).
“I met the band and we had this amazing dinner. We went over the songs. Here’s the songs.
“We went in the next day and literally the songs you hear, the results on the record are maybe second takes, usually first takes.”
Tomorrow’s Child comes out fresh; there’s not much over-dubbing, and there’s no click tracks. Edwards kept it lean.
“How refreshing,” Nesbitt remarked, “that must have been to just be able to go in and sit down and do what you do so well.”
“It was lovely and there was never any talk of over-dubbing except for when I brought in some friends to overdub some harmony vocals because they couldn’t be there for the sessions obviously.
“There was never any talk of click tracks or anything like that. We don’t need click tracks.
“We do this every night, all our lives. Click tracks? I don’t think so! I’ll never do another record, hopefully, any other way than this.”
A Raw, Real Sound
Nesbitt noted that this CD has a raw and ultimately very real feel to it, yet at the same time is expertly produced.
“We were talking about it on the way over, that this, sonically, is just so rich,” she said.
“Well, we got the best players we could find and a really, really beautiful studio with vintage mics and really sensitive people at the controls. It was a joy, and it happened in three days!”
Choosing which songs wound up on Tomorrow’s Child turned into a labor of love, Edwards said.
“I sent Darrell a couple dozen song ideas and he sent me a couple dozen in return and some of them were the same and some of them were different and it was a consensus.
“It was really a love fest. ‘I love that!’ ‘Yeah, but I love this one more! Let’s do this one!’ ‘I love it more!’ ‘No! I love it more.’ We brought a couple from some of my old records.”
Then at one point, the discussion ranged on how Edward’s songwriting has changed much over the years.
“That’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve changed much over the years at all. I feel like I’m singing better now. I feel like I’m listening much better now than I ever have.”
“Listening?” Nesbitt asked.
“Listening to other people. Listening to what I’m doing. Listening to other people’s input musically.
“But my writing? I don’t know. I just try to go deeper and dig deeper and make the muse more and more comfortable when she comes to visit.”
Nesbitt asked how he did that.
"Do you make her a cup of tea?"
“Yeah, kind of. A psychic cup of tea. I wake up in the middle of the night and most people are sleeping and that’s a perfect time to start writing and thinking about songs.
“I don’t sing or play them in the middle of the night. I just write lyrics that have a rhythm and a groove and what I’ve been about that day. What happened in the news. Things that run through my head.
“A lot of fun. It really is a lot of fun. It’s a joy to write, which I think it’s always been, in terms of your question of how’s my writing changed. It’s always been a joy, and it’s always been, I don’t know, a necessary part of my life since high school. I started writing poetry and songs.”
That prompted Dillon to ask if expressing himself through writing is what helps him function in the world.
“Absolutely. I would probably go quietly insane a little more than I already am if I didn’t have that outlet to write and go out and sing these songs to people every night,” Edwards said.
“It’s a gift and I’m so, so grateful to still be able to be doing, and still be doing it. It really feels better and better every night.”
Why So Direct?
Nesbitt asked him what made him decide to make his songs so direct for this CD.
“There’s other ways you could have couched it in a metaphor that you’ve done before or gone in telling your story under the guise of something else. But this is just ‘Wham! Straight up.'”
“It just seemed to be the natural evolution of my writing and my thinking. With me being almost 70 years old, let’s face it, I’ve got to get down to the point,” he said.
“But yeah, like ‘Gracie,’ for instance, the song ‘Gracie,’ I just sat down at the piano after taking Grace back to Nova Scotia, where she was born on a musical tour of New England and the provinces she and her husband and Sandy and I went.
“Sandy arranged this amazing tour to take her back and show her the little cabin where she was born on a hill in Nova Scotia, way out in the woods. When we got back, Grace and I had been separated through life’s situations, life’s circumstances for many years and we’re just starting to get back to being with each other and knowing each other the way we always have, but just have been separated by geography.
“We got back from this amazing tour and it was just lovely. People loved to see the three of us on stage sharing stories and songs.”
Daughter Gracie, he said, is also quite accomplished.
“She’s a brilliant, brilliant artist in her own right, with a gold record in France.
“She was walking around the living room up there sort of wandering around looking at all the memorabilia that I’ve acquired and accumulated in her absence and I sat down at the piano and I was looking at her across the room and watching her and literally I put my fingers on the piano and this song literally came out.
“The riff came out, the lyrics came out, everything. All I had to do was get out of the way.”
Gracie - Favorite Song Of Jonathan Edwards Musician
Of all the songs he’s written, “Gracie,” Edwards said, is one of his favorites.
Throughout the interview, Edwards came back to the same point — that the connections to each other make us who we are.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate that connection between kindred souls and the convergence that comes to bear if you just get out of the way. Like the convergence between Darrell Scott and me. The convergence of the band that he assembled for this.
“The way that people were drawn to this magnetically from Darrell to Shawn Colvin to Jerry Douglas to Alison Krauss.”
Tomorrow’s Child is a celebration of life and the things that bring all of us together as family and friends.
By a man who specializes bringing family and friends together to create beautiful music.