To really test a song's credibility and worth all you need to do is unplug it. Take away the electricity, the layering, the studio magic, just strip it down to its bones and see if it still breathes. See if it survives the evisceration; if it still sounds good. Then, chances are it's a good song. Though he comes from a singer-songwriter background, Rochester rocker Jon Lewis isn't necessarily what you'd call an acoustic musician. The cat's band is electrified, but it's not drowning in fancy production or concepts. It is however immersed — emulsified if you will — in the truth, with a certain self-effacing honesty and irony that is universally relatable, be it plugged or unplugged.
The 29-year-old artist has just released a new full length CD, "Panic Rock," a 10-song (plus one hidden track) outing full of music, that comes off not so much as a command than as a suggestion. It swirls with an indie rock openness that might remind some of The Smiths without the hand-wringing, or Lloyd Cole and the Commotions. At the heart of "Panic Rock" are songs that beautifully illuminate with classic pop-rock sunshine. Artists like Over Hand Sam, Mikaela Davis, and Hieronymus Bogs — to name a few — lend their talents and added dimension to the whole affair.
Initially Lewis' problem was his versatility; he was all over the map. Producer and bassist Dave Drago had to rein it in just a bit after Lewis gave him a stack of demos and tunes in larval form.
"There was a lot of potential there," Drago says. "But there was also a lot of confusion because Jon's been making all kinds of music on his own for the past decade. So we had to pigeon-hole a bit. I said, 'This is the genre you seem to focus on in your demos — Americana singer-songwriter. But you also write songs that sound like Motown songs and pop songs that have a sort of African feel.'"
The result was two back-to-back EPs: "Trail of Dreams" and "In Disguise."
"We recorded them at the same time," Lewis says. "One was acoustic, very folk. And the next one we kind of let ourselves go kinda wacky: more overdubs, more rock 'n' roll, where no two songs sound the same."
Drago was the man for the job, having known Lewis since high school. The two musicians reconnected when Drago returned from Los Angeles to open 1809 Studios in Macedon. They did the two EPs together and brought in Jake Walsh (now a permanent member) to play drums.
A year into the project, Lewis solidified the line-up to include Drago on bass, Walsh on drums, and Shawn Brogan on lead guitar. Work began on "Panic Rock," and immediately, Lewis had a clear picture in his head of what he wanted.
"At first," Lewis says, "Dave and I had such a focused idea. We knew exactly what to ask them to do. It was like being a scriptwriter for a movie and knowing the actor."
"We're reading each other's minds at this point," Drago says.
Lewis prefers it this way. He's got that rare quality of band leader and listener.
"I think the difference, this way, is in knowing the song can become something," he says. "I had nobody to tell me anything except for me. And all I could say was 'That kinda sucks.' Now I don't feel the pressure to complete the song. Now I can feel free to create."
The songs Lewis creates evoke an emotional response in their emotional detail. Yet, how do you get sympathy or empathy from your audience? How do you make the listener care?
"At the core we're all experiencing the same things," Lewis says. "Music is a beautiful tool. You can describe emotions or very specific things that have happened to you. But when people hear them, they're relating to the experiences they've had. I've been through a lot of rough experiences with my family and if people can see that expressed in a way where I've survived, where I'm getting through it ... I have songs that are ambiguously written when people listen to them they'll hear their experiences. That's so inspirational to be able to do that."
For some artists — and listeners, even — music is a way to enjoy, interpret, process, and deal with life. For Lewis, it is his life. Drago concurs.
"This is life," he says. "There's nothing escapist about it."