A game, I say. I toss out a word; you respond any way you like.
“OK, sure,” Billy Jonas agrees via cell phone as he navigates Philadelphia-area traffic, bound for another show.
“Rhythm is what I live by,” Jonas notes. “It’s how I organize my creative life, as well as my more mundane life. It’s also how I organize my songwriting — the rhythm of conceptual challenges with the rhythm of total silliness.”
The animated Asheville singer/songwriter stuffs big ideas in happy little packages, but then throws audiences a curve by sliding serious ballads in between a song about, say, peeing outdoors — which gives his live shows a dynamic sense of, well, rhythm.
In concert, Jonas bounds around with a guitar in hand and bundles of bells strapped to his ankles, all the while banging away on plastic storage drums, kitchen pots and water jugs with a mix of joyous abandon and percussive expertise. And he encourages audiences to join the fray, to plunk and thunk and whap on anything they can — to literally tap into the rhythm.
Too, he gets crowds to shout and sing out key repeated words to songs, until fans are joining in to help create the … you know.
It’s seems fitting, then, that along with this week’s release of Live: 8 Songs for his core audience, Jonas is also putting out the delightful What Kind of Cat Are You?, his first kids’ album — though he prefers the term “young listener.”
But the fact is, Jonas has always made kids’ music; until now, it’s just been done for adults.
If you’re reading that as anything but a big, fat compliment, then go back and read it again. Jonas’ songs, though often intricate and complex, work to strip away barriers between artist and audience, to encourage people to join in one big communal sing-along like they would have unashamedly done back before anyone came along to suggest that they shouldn’t.
Jonas “most powerful and fun musical experiences” were at summer camp as a kid in the early ’70s, he confides, back when songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” were still pretty new.
“We used to gather ’round the campfire and sing that and ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ and all that stuff, and it was so vital and powerful to be a part of this tribe of people that was singing and playing together.
“I remember looking up at these [camp] counselors leading us on harmonicas and guitars, and just loving it,” he continues. “Feeling so enveloped not only by the sound, but by the spirit [it] generated, of everyone in a circle gathered around a campfire, singing.”
Jonas grew up wanting to recreate that sense of camaraderie — to get listeners intimately involved in the very process of making the music.
“I always think of my primary instrument as being the audience,” he admits.
Jonas, then, is a true folk artist; his music asks us to claim ownership of it for ourselves.
But this is all getting a bit too analytical. And games, after all, should be fun.
“Joy is the place that I would like to take everybody and leave them,” Jonas says with a laugh.
There are many opportunities in life to not have fun; Jonas sees his job as finding prospects to the contrary.
But when it comes to performing, he notes, fun is not an end in itself.
“I’ve learned the truth of what George Bernard Shaw said,” he relates. “If you can get people smiling and laughing, their mouths are open. Then you can insert the truth.”
While the crowd is giddy, you’re speaking their language, Jonas notes, and you can move them toward weightier concerns — to consider different and sometimes even uncomfortable points of view.
“Love is what it’s all about,” declares Jonas, the kind of guy who can say such as that and not sound like a goofus. The difference with him: He means it.
He’s not alone. Asheville has carried on a love affair with Jonas since his days as one-half of local get-the-crowd-to-bang-anything-at-hand folk duo The Billys.
Jonas developed much of his egalitarian approach to performing out of necessity, he notes. While cutting his teeth as a musician in Chicago, he wished for a full band, but couldn’t afford one. To make up for that, he would get the audience involved in making the music.
“Like having everybody jingle their keys for a song about the snow,” he explains. “Everybody became a performer, and the … entire space became a stage.”
Not long after his arrival in Asheville in 1990, Jonas met fellow musician Bill Melanson through mutual friend David Wilcox, who lived here then. Following Jonas and Melanson’s Black Mountain Music Festival performance of an improvised song (“Snuggle and Squirm, Make Like a Worm”), complete with garbage-can and bucket percussion, a lasting partnership was born. The Billys had a five-year run, releasing two albums.
“We got relatively famous in the folk world,” Jonas remembers. “It was a very powerful, special duo.”