Asheville’s Jon Stickley Trio has been putting in the hours this holiday season. After releasing a brand new five track EP titled Triangular earlier this month, they’ve been recording their upcoming album at Echo Mountain Studio, to be released in 2017.
Ahead of the Trio’s winter tour and Stickley’s appearance at this week’s Bluegrass Ball at Isis Music Hall, our editor had the pleasure of chatting with Stickley over the phone, getting in deep with the new EP and his ability to express emotion through music, as well as uncovering memories of his bluegrassy Colorado past.
The Poke Around: So the Jon Stickley Trio just released a new EP (Triangular), you’ve got some exciting winter tour dates underway, and you’ve got a new album in the works. You’ve been busy!
Jon Stickley: Yes, very much so!
You guys recently did a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for your upcoming album currently being recorded at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville. How’s that going?
We’ve actually finished all the tracking, so we’re just now stepping into the mixing phase.
And you surpassed your Kickstarter fundraising goal by a little over $1,000, totalling at over $29,000. Exciting, so how does it feel having such successful support from your fans, and how has that affected the way you carry out your work?
Well, it’s a really cool experience. This is the second Kickstarter campaign that we’ve done. We did one for our last full length album as well, and the first one was a really intense experience for me. We launched the campaign to raise the money, and this was at a time when we weren’t really sure how many fans we had or if we had any at all, or if there was really anyone other than our close friends and family that would be interested in this. A lot of self doubt crept in there when we launched the first one, but then when we ended up reaching our goal, it turned out that so many people were so supportive and so happy to be a part of it. Everyone was like ‘thanks for asking, of course we want to be a part of this!’ So ultimately it turned from something that was kind of scary to me into something that gave us a real boost of energy, not to mention we got the funding we needed to make the album we really wanted to make without having to cut too many corners financially. So the first one was big, and then this next one we kind of realized that we needed more money. So we shot higher this time, which was a little scary, but having the fans come through again and express nothing but support and love for the music, it’s a really cool boost in a lot of different ways.
What do your fans have to look forward to on this new album you’re making with the money raised?
It’s more us than it’s ever been. It’s more original material, a lot of brand new material that I wrote and then worked the songs up together as a band, and there’s some songs that Lyndsay (fiddle) wrote on it, too. I would say it’s more original, more of the real music that we have in our brains as opposed to covers and other music that we enjoy playing. This is a lot more of what we have in our hearts, so to speak.
Cool! Can’t wait. So let’s talk about your new EP Triangular for a second. It’s got five tracks on it, and the first listen for me was “Plain Sight,” which you supposedly penned after the mass concert shooting in France, saying that it was “as much an angry response to the perpetrators as it is a mournful tribute to the victims.” So you guys don’t have a singer, and I was wondering how exactly you were able to portray an emotional response to such a situation through music that doesn’t have words. The intensity is there, I can feel and hear the highs and lows, but what’s your process in making that seem so tangible without words?
That’s a good question. I’ve never really been very good with words, or putting my feelings into words, and I think that’s something that’s fed into my interest in music, and expression of emotion through music, as opposed to words. It’s something that I’m kind of always thinking about, and different emotional experiences and feelings creep in and out of our live performances too, depending on how I’m feeling or what’s been going on in the world or in my life. It really has a big impact on our musical performance. So, a lot of the time when I’m feeling sad or upset or happy, when I sit down to play my guitar, a musical response comes out from those feelings, if that makes any sense. That’s a song that I wrote kind of in that headspace. I wouldn’t say that it’s a song about that specific event, but it was kind of a snowball of all these things that were happening, and that one really pushed me over the edge a little bit for a little while. So, I was sitting down and just playing music and that song is kind of what came out. It has some angry parts in it, but I didn’t want it to just be an angry song. It needed some sadness too, but also maybe some hope for the future.
For me, music is a real release of emotion. Where other people might write a song expressing things poetically with words, I do it by writing music. And it’s cool because people can kind of take what they want out of it and maybe personalize it a little bit more than if it were specifically expressed with words.
What’s your favorite track on the EP, if you have one?
You know, I really like the EP a lot. There’s a lot of different things on there, but if I had to pick one it might be the tune “Echolocation,” which is a tune I wrote, and I’d say more so than any of the other material on that EP, that this song is a step in a more original direction creatively for me. You know, I’ve never written a song like that before, it kind of goes to a lot of different places. It’s one that we wrote and then the meeting came about where we decided that it was obvious that it reminded us of whale songs. So, we were just kind of kicking around names and eventually I mentioned that we were still trying to name it at a gig, and someone came up after and said “Echolocation,” and we were like ‘Oh, that’s great. It’s a perfect name for the song.’ So I would probably pick that one, but there’s a lot of different cool feelings on the EP.
Speaking of names, have you guys come up with a name yet for the new album?
We’re kicking around some ideas, but it’s still unnamed.
Had to ask. So, you’re a Durham native, but as far as I can tell the other counterparts of the Trio did not come from North Carolina. How did you guys end up together in Asheville?
It’s really cool, we are all from different parts of the country, and we all have very different musical backgrounds, with some common threads. Lyndsay is from Jacksonville, Florida, and went to school in Nashville, and then moved to Asheville after college. She’s been here since 2009 or something like that. Then, Patrick (drums) is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and from there he moved to Hawaii, and then from Hawaii he moved to Asheville. He’s probably been here the shortest amount of time, maybe six years or something like that. We all just met through the Asheville music scene. Lyndsay and I met about six years ago when we were on a gig with a mutual friend, playing in a bar, and I just instantly connected with her. I was doing a lot of side band work at the time. I hadn’t started my own project yet. It was just around this time that I had just started booking gigs as Jon Stickley Band or Jon Stickley Trio, just playing at bars around Asheville. Lyndsay was the first person I called when I started doing solo performances, and then the trio kind of slowly took shape with Lyndsay as a member and a few different third members. Basically, our first drummer ended up going to Europe for an extended period of time and we needed somebody kind of in a pinch, and Lyndsay suggested Patrick. So, she hooked me up with Patrick, and that’s been the band ever since, for the past four years. It’s very Asheville-based, you know, we were all kind of in different scenes in the Asheville music scene, and we kind of got brought together by Asheville.
Asheville is definitely a place where those things will happen. So, to go a little further back – but first little bit into the future – you’ll be playing this week at Isis Music Hall for The Travelin’ McCourys’ Bluegrass Ball with some other musicians you used to play with, Travis Book and Andy Thorn. At one point you were touring with them (Book, Thorn) and Anders Beck (Greensky Bluegrass) as Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band. I’m guessing you and Andy Thorn might go way back, since he’s a Durham native as well. Or is that a coincidence?
Yeah, we knew each other, and we were early musical friends. We met in high school. We took guitar lessons from the same teacher and we played on the lacrosse team together. We met through that, and then we started our first bluegrass band in high school with my brother, Jeff. We’ve been pretty much best friends, and we played in a band all through college. After college, Andy had met Travis, Anders and Robin (Davis) in Durango, Colorado. They were really serious about starting a band, and Anders told Andy, ‘If you come out, I’ll book all these shows, and we’ll tour around Colorado. It’ll be great.’ So, they did it, and Andy went one summer before me because I was still in school and had an internship in Alaska. But that summer went really well, and then the second summer they decided to do it again and I became available, so I went out and did it. That was 2004, and it was basically the time of my life, riding around with those guys and playing festivals all over Colorado, not really worried about anything else. It was an extremely cool and memorable period of time in my life that I’ll never forget.
I can imagine! So can you speak a little bit to where you were musically back in the Broke Mountain days, as opposed to where you are musically today?
Another good question. I would say that, you know, I was a lot younger. That was 12 years ago, and at the time I was really, really into bluegrass music. Contemporary bluegrass, classic bluegrass, and I was focusing really hard on learning the fundamentals of bluegrass guitar. I was copying the people I heard, like Tony Rice and Doc Watson and Bryan Sutton. That was really all I was concerned with. I wasn’t trying to do anything new, per say, or find my own voice. I just didn’t care about that at all, I wanted to sound exactly like my heroes. I listen to recordings from back then, and I’m like ‘Oh man, I was really trying to sound like Tony Rice right there.’ But that focus on that and learning those fundamentals really gave me a cool foundation to stand on to try to go new places when I was ready, which didn’t happen until around 2010, after playing in a few other bands after Broke Mountain. I started thinking, ‘What can I do differently? What original ideas can I add to this basis of bluegrass guitar?’ It was right around the time when we started forming the trio, and I had never really written a lot of music before that. So, I started writing music based on not just bluegrass ideas, but other stylistic things from my past, which included all the different kinds of music I’ve listened to over the course of my life, and trying to incorporate all of that into, kind of, seeing through this bluegrass lense. The technicality and the fundamentals of bluegrass really got me into the music hardcore. So, it’s like, I’ve got all these bluegrass elements now, and I want to try to expand on those while still staying true to those fundamental ideals of bluegrass guitar, if that makes sense.
Yeah, I think it’s so interesting how you’ve transformed by taking what you’ve learned and grown with it and just been really productive with your music. I’m sure there’s lots of excitement in your future, musically.
Totally, I think there’s a lot we can do. I’m excited about the future, for sure. And, I’m really glad that I get to still be a part of this bluegrass world, getting to go back and do shows with Travis Book and Andy Thorn. I really love that side of things, too.
Check out “Echolocation” below, off of Jon Stickley Trio’s EP Triangular, and learn more from their website here.
Interview by Meredith Warfield
Photo by Austin Steinsick