Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
My first contact with Jon Troast was via e-mail. He was a stranger to me, but I was writing about him and his music, so we started getting acquainted. The parenthetical portion of a particular sentence in that first email caught my eye: “I’ll send you a Dropbox link to my latest EP, titled ‘E’ (I’m working my way through the alphabet).” He does know there are 26 letters, right? I thought, remembering how Sufjan Stevens planned to record an album for each of the 50 states and managed to only get through Michigan and Illinois.
My second contact with Jon Troast was during the Local Show Special Edition concert at Hutchmoot 2015. He was introduced by Andrew Peterson, who mentioned that he heard Troast had done something like 100 house shows in 100 days for 100 dollars each. Peterson paused, mentally crunching numbers, and beamed an almost conspiratorial smile. “That’s ten thousand dollars!” Troast smiled back, and said, “Yeah, for over three months of work.” I marveled, bluntly reminded of the cost of making music. I wondered if he had any days off, and how much his gas cost, and how on earth he booked all those shows, and then I was jarred back to the present as Troast sang.
Ironically, his song was about the work people do, and in a room full of disparate individuals and professions, he managed to speak encouragement to each person. His second song was profoundly emotional, a song about his brother who died in May, and he managed to speak grace and tenderness to each and every person present.
My third contact with Jon Troast was the next day, in a nursery at the Church of the Redeemer in Nashville. We sat on the far end of the sunlit room, in rocking chairs, and talked about making music. The conversation was easy, laminar, occasionally touching on deep truths of life but mostly talking about what has shaped the artist and his tunes. Troast is affable and easygoing, and there’s just enough undercurrent of quirkiness there that you’re not entirely sure what he might say next. I like that in a person.
Troast’s grandmother was a church organist, and she gave him and his many siblings free piano lessons when he was a kid. “I was not a great student,” he recalls, and though the lessons ceased when the family moved away from Michigan to Wisconsin, he had enough of a foundation to return to the instrument later for the bulk of his songwriting. In between, he had a dalliance with the guitar. It was the ’90s, and guitar plus nineties equals grunge. “I knew the songs from the radio, but one day I heard some friends playing songs. There they were, outside of our high school, just waiting on a ride, and they were making these sounds. Hearing that was kinda magical.”
Later, in college, Troast caught concerts by artists who would shape his own onstage manner: Jack Johnson, Patti Griffin, Bebo Norman, Ben Harper, Dave Wilcox. Bebo, in particular, was a bit of a revelation for Troast. “Onstage he was so humble and seemed like he was just letting you into what’s going on. It was a performance, but it felt more like a guy up there just talking about his life. It gave me encouragement as far as a route I could take as an artist. I didn’t feel like I could shout ‘What’s up everybody!’ from a stage. I could do that, and it would be funny, but it wouldn’t feel right.”
That lack of pretense led Troast to the first of what would eventually amount to over 800 house shows. The format has become his niche, and even inspired a song called “Living Room Tour.” The lyrics tell a lot about the songwriter. “I travel ‘round from house to house, playing songs on my guitar / I eat your food, sleep on your couch, ‘cause it’s better than in my car.” And then the chorus: “I fell in love with your daughter, but I couldn’t tell her / ‘Cause your neighbor had too many questions.” The elements are all there: autobiography, charm, observation, and the freedom to spin a good tale that might or might not be entirely true.
Troast’s stories from the road are remarkable. There was the time he slept on a rooftop patio overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, only to wake up drenched in dew. Or the time he played in a rented house at a law school and felt entirely obligated to respond in the affirmative when asked, “Well, we have a beach in the basement. Do you want to play there?” And then there was that audience of 15-or-so that was completely silent. “Nobody made a sound!” Troast recalls with a bit of a chill. “I tend to ask questions during a show–do you guys want to hear a love song or a breakup song?—to give them options. Nothing. They just stared at me. They didn’t even clap at the end of songs. The strange thing about it was once I got done, people were very nice. ‘Aw, this was great! We really enjoyed it!’”
Though he’s new to many in the Rabbit Room community, Troast has a rich catalog of tunes, most created under the production talents of either Mitch Dane or Andy Osenga. Here’s a primer: He writes lots of love songs, some autobiographical and some based on keen observation of others (but often sung in the first person), and his ability to take a simple or even quirky story and turn it into a meaningful truth reminds me a lot of Andy Gullahorn. There’s a Bonnie Raitt vibe in much of his music, but he’s remarkably versatile. To wit: “F is going to be a country album, just because. There will be a frog with a fiddle on the cover. Why not?”
His songs can be sweet (“Without You Knowing”), wise and perceptive (“Bench Building Blues”), heartbreaking (“Lying Awake”), and poignant (“At Least They’ll Know”).There are several full-length albums that precede the alphabet series, and a compilation album for letters A through D (you can figure it out from the title). Given this body of work, my forced encounter with Troast has felt a bit like stumbling upon a treasure chest that had been right out in the open for years, only I’d failed to open it. I shouldn’t have missed it. Beyond the multitude of living rooms, Troast has been invited to play on Prairie Home Companion, he’s sung live on ABC, and they play his tunes on SiriusXM.
Given that he can humbly craft musical stories that give voice to our lives and emotions, I imagine Troast felt right at home at Hutchmoot. If you, like me, start mining these treasures and feel like diving in, you can join Jon’s 1000 Fans effort to build a group of sustainers. Or, you might want to open up your living room, or rooftop, or basement. Just – please – clap at the end of the songs. And keep an eye on your daughter.