In writing music for families or adults, as a solo artist or with his band, Billy Jonas keeps a certain set of queries in mind: “Why is the world the way that it is? What can I or anybody do to move it in a beautiful direction or to help it change? How can we all participate in the project of beautifying and improving the world?”
Those questions are with him all the time, Jonas says. “It’s just part of the way I’m wired. It’s part of my spiritual path. It’s just part of who I am, and the songs are a manifestation of that.” The local singer-songwriter, guitarist and percussionist performs at The Grey Eagle, on Sunday, Nov. 23. The shows (at 4 and 7 p.m.) launch Build It Back Again, Jonas’ seventh record overall and his third family album with the Billy Jonas Band.
For his previous adult and family albums, Jonas served as producer and arranger of everything, but Build It Back Again marks the first album completely co-created with his bandmates Ashley Jo Farmer, Sherman Hoover and Juan Holladay. Whether workshopping material in the studio or taking a half-finished song and running it onstage at a performance, the whole band was instrumental in creating each track. Many of the songs are co-written ventures, and “L-M-N-O-P Break,” “Hairy Things” and “Caveman” were born in practice sessions.
“We’d take a break, and someone would start playing something that sounded really good, and everyone else would join in, and we’d sort of improvise lyrics and then record it spontaneously,” Jonas says. “These were things that were not planned. We didn’t come to the rehearsal saying, ‘Let’s write a song about cavemen.’ It just sort of erupted out of the rehearsal and out of the vortex of creativity that we created.”
From there, the band embarked on many months of refining the songs, including significant time working on harmonies. Sitting around with a handheld digital recorder, the four tried out choruses, sometimes hundreds of different ways, before deciding on one. “There was a lot of hammering to get things in shape — hammering and sanding and polishing,” Jonas says. “Songs that I love the most are the ones that have been delicately and perspicaciously edited.”
Having creative input from multiple sources allowed the songs to go in directions Jonas says he wouldn’t have thought of on his own. The end result, he says, are his highest-quality family songs yet. “Of course, you can have too many cooks in the kitchen, but we did not have that. We had a good number in the kitchen,” Jonas says. “Each person in the ensemble brings something unique to the creative process.”
Farmer’s voice consistently receives the most acclaim from audiences. Plus, her skills with social networking, photography and video (she shot most of the band’s lyric videos and promos) make her an even more valuable asset.
Noting that Build It Back Again offers a hint of the soulful quality of singing for which Holladay’s band The Secret B-Sides are known, Jonas also praises the distinctive creative sensibility and copious laughter that Holladay brings to the group.
Rounding out the quartet is Hoover, the band’s best musical ear in terms of theory and arranging. “Where we might have gotten stuck in the past, [Sherman] can provide a musical solution to something based on his knowledge of music theory and how structures work,” Jonas says. “That’s something that I don’t have the knowledge to do.”
While combining these strengths into songs that young people love, Jonas remains equally mindful of parents. He makes sure to include subjects with which he and other adults grapple on a daily basis and in ways that promote education and understanding for younger listeners. Among the topics on Build It Back Again are rush-hour traffic and road rage (“Monkeys Driving Cars”) and the linguistic notion of spoonerisms (“I Mean”), in which the first sounds of two words are switched — whether erroneously or intentionally — for the sake of wordplay (e.g. Shel Silverstein’s book Runny Babbit).
“Families have adults in them, so family music has to be for the adults as much as the kids, just like any Pixar movie has to keep the adults entertained or else the adults aren’t going to take the kids to it,” Jonas says. “It also has to be music that means a lot to me. Like, I’m not really interested in singing [the nursery rhyme] ‘Five Little Monkeys’ for the rest of my life. That’s children’s music, pure and simple, and I don’t really do children’s music.”
WHO: Billy Jonas Band
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Sunday, Nov. 23, at 4 and 7 p.m. $12 in advance/$15 day of show