Seth Jones is a man of many talents and wears many hats. Being both a songwriter and a producer requires him to not only be a skilled musician, but demands him to essentially live and breathe his craft. Whether it’s taking things that inspire him and turning them into melody or soldering endless connections of wires in his studio (which he built himself), he’s up to the challenge.
I had the incredible privilege to be able to photograph him in his studio as we talked what he does, what he loves, and what keeps him challenged and creating.
1. How did you discover/decide that songwriting is what you wanted to do?
It was something I discovered over time. I played in a band in college, and when the lead singer and I met we began to write. That evolved into me writing across different genres. I got a later start than most people, but once I began I found that I loved it. At one point I had written a few songs and a friend of mine gave them to her boss at the publishing company where she worked. He called me in for a meeting, and listened to them. At that point I was just writing because I loved it, but he told me that I had what it took to be a writer in the commercial, professional sense. It was very encouraging because it was the first time that I really thought about writing in those terms.
2. What do you think is different about you as a songwriter from other songwriters?
Well I think every songwriter has their own fingerprint. It comes through melodically, musically, and lyrically. I’ve heard songs on the radio for the first time and been able to guess the writer! For me, I have a certain tone and vibe attached to my voice which leads me to write in a certain melodic direction. The fact that I’m a producer and play a couple different instruments has helped me a lot. I can hear something in my head and go there immediately. When I write country music I’m able to come from a pop angle musically and melodically, and when I write pop, I’m able to come from a deep and colorful angle lyrically. It can be a challenge for me to jump between genres, but sometimes it works in a cool way.
3. What are some of your biggest influences?
This is a hard question. Since you didn’t limit me to “musical” influences I’ll give you a little broader answer. In a general sense I would say my biggest influence and inspiration is emotion. The times in my life that have the deepest emotions are the times I’m most naturally stirred to create a song. Many times it’s relationship based—heartache, loss, happiness—other times it’s something about the human condition, big questions or contemplating our place in the world.
Musical influences of mine are diverse. I love great songwriters like Billy Joel, John Mayer, and James Taylor. U2 is also a big favorite of mine. I’m a huge lover of soul/neo-oul/R&B music. I love Stevie Wonder, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Lauren Hill, Ledisi, Brian McKnight, Tommy Simms and of course Michael Jackson. There will never be another. I love artists with rich musical textures like Jonsi, Sigur Ros, and Dustin O’Halloran. Nineties music is another huge influence. Female music in the 90’s was incredible, Paula Cole, Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb. There were great bands too, Goo Goo Dolls, Third Eye Blind. They were all lucky enough to make music in an industry climate that wasn’t as tense as ours is now. I think it led to greater creative freedom, both as writers and creators, and in the studio. Many times I’m influenced by specific songs. I could list them for days.
4. What are 3 essential “tools of the trade”?
Easy. Guitar. Piano. Pad of paper.
Oh.. and a pencil. Can I have four?
5. If there were a fire in your studio and you could only take what you can carry with you, what do you save?
Ha, this is a good question. One I’ve actually thought a bit about. On a practical side, I’d have to say first my computer and hard drives. There are hours and hours of work saved on them that would be hard to recover if all my drives were lost. Other than that, I’d probably leave every piece of gear in my studio there. It’s easy to replace, and it has little sentimental value. That’s what insurance policies are for. The other things I would reach for first would be my instruments. Those have history, and many of them are impossible to replace exactly. It’s almost like they have souls. You can get a new guitar that might be special in it’s own way, but it won’t ever be the same.
6. What’s your favorite part of songwriting?
My favorite part of songwriting is the connection that you make with a listener. That’s why everyone does it. Songwriters are like the conquistadors of the heart. They venture into these new places that not very many people go so that they can come back and tell others what it’s like. Sometimes the story is just their own journey, their hardships and discoveries. How they wake up and put one foot in front of the other, their little victories. Other times it’s someone else’s story, the way they see it, and the things they observe along the path. Our hearts are vast places, and not everyone can return from it’s depths and be able to tell another person about it in three minutes and thirty seconds. The best songwriters are actually prophets. They call us to action. They wake us up. They mourn. They can identify and delineate our common humanity in ways we all wish we could. It helps us live better lives when we understand ourselves better. They’re able to tap into the mysterious river of creativity that flows over our heads like a jet stream and pull a bit of it down for everyone else.
7. What one piece of advice would you give to someone that wants to do what you do?
Create create create. Practice the discipline of creation. I think every successful songwriter (or creative person in general) overcomes two main obstacles. They learn how to push through the dawn of their craft, meaning that when they first start writing songs they know they’re not good. That can be disappointing because the reason you start writing music is that you love GOOD music. It’s frustrating not being able to create the quality of song that you wish you could. Once I heard someone say that the first hundred songs you write aren’t going to be any good. You just have to get them out. For some people that can represent years of writing. That’s a long time to suffer through the process but it necessary. Be open to critique and put yourself in positions with writers who are better than you.
The second thing is related to the first, but a little different. I’ve seen it paralyze people. When someone gets involved in a creative community (like everyone does who is a creative professional), they fall into the trap of compare and copy. They look around and they see writers and creatives who are much better than they are, and they think one of two things. Either, “It’s no use and I need to stop,” or “I need to try and do what they do.” Both meet the same end: frustration and ultimately quitting what you once loved. I say don’t quit. Keep creating. Everyone struggles with the balance of having their work be a part of their identity and having their work define them. Find a balance that allows you to continue, and above all do not fall into the trap of copy. Everyone has something unique they bring. They have their own fingerprint and it has absolutely nothing to do with their talent. They are mutually exclusive. Some of the greatest songwriters, poets, painters, and authors were laughed at by their contemporaries. Just write songs!