TJ Foster: A CONVERSATION WITH JACK YOUNG
Jack Young is an indie-rock group from NYC, started by singer-songwriter Greg Darling and featuring a revolving-door backing band from all over the city. Earlier this year, they released their debut full-length Heart Strings, a collection of Americana-tinged pop/rock songs oozing with sincerity. Greg is one of my oldest musical friends and we’ve spent a lot of time in studios and on stages together, and I was lucky enough to sit behind the board during that aforementioned record.
When I decided to start doing these conversational interviews, I couldn’t think of a better person to start with. The following is an unedited interview that took place through the wonders of Gmail.
If you are interested in being interviewed like this for a future installment, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
First off, just wanted to say thanks for agreeing to do this and being one of my guinea pigs for this feature. I can only hope this will either be incredibly a) fun and insightful or b) awkward and uncomfortable. I’ll try not to bring up your Britney Spears obsession throughout the course of this interview…
So, you and I have known each other a long time—going to date myself here—it’s been over a decade somehow. We both grew up in different suburban areas of Connecticut—not exactly what you’d call a music mecca, but I think you’d agree with me when I say that we actually had a pretty cool scene there growing up. This was back in the early 2000’s, aka the “Drive-Thru Records era.” I remember there being a lot of opportunities for young bands to perform, not only with each other but with bigger bands in the scene, and even more importantly, kids would make a night out of going to see these local shows even if they didn’t necessarily know anyone playing.
Since the “good ol’ days”, you’ve started a few different projects ranging in style from pop-punk to acoustic pop to indie rock to your current foray (Jack Young) which I will dub “pop-rock with a sugary americana glaze.” These projects have also come together as a result of moving from place to place (Suburban Connecticut to Boston to the Big Apple). How do you view your experience as a musician/songwriter now vs. when you first started out? I’d love to hear your thoughts from every angle—the difference in age, difference in genre, difference in location. And overall, do you feel that independent artists like us are in a better environment nowadays with the improvements and efficiencies in technology vs. say 10-15 years ago, or do you think things are only getting tougher?
This whole experience is my pleasure. Candidly, I was fairly ecstatic when you asked to do this interview. Hey, as Chris Crocker said, leave Britney alone…
It’s funny you say this because I have reflected on [that scene] a lot as well. My high school band had no issue pulling a 50-100 person audience despite elementary chord progressions and uncontrollable voice cracks on stage (which I think we can all relate to). I also contemplate whether it was more about timing. Like you mentioned, we “came onto the scene” right when the Drive Thru and emo wave hit. We lived in a time where vocal quality and musical theory meant nothing and lyrics and band image prevailed. Regardless, it was a fun time to start out learning what it took to play in a band and write music. Oh the angst, oh the growing pains, oh the anguish of having to listen back to those recordings over 10 years later. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
It was not only easier to pull kids to a backyard show run by teenagers, but at one point my high school band mates and I were opening for bands like Panic at the Disco, The Click Five and Teddy Geiger. The venues we played dictated the opener and they had no problem throwing a local group up there based on ticket draws from previous shows. If you recall, you and I even opened up for Boys Like Girls in June 2006, a few weeks before they released their debut album. Their single “The Great Escape” was on the radio by August.
But yeah, it was great. As long as you made curfew, the world was ours. Not only were we out playing music for all our friends but then we had an excuse to hang out a Taco Bell late night. The dream…
The biggest difference [between now and then] has to be life experience. When I was first starting out I was 14ish and it wasn’t until post-college where I felt I had so many more meaningful things to write about. I have always used music as an outlet and as we struggle with growing pains, it is the ultimate therapist. To take it a step further, I also feel that now I can write much more honestly than I ever have. For years starting out, I was mimicking what I liked, heard, etc. I was writing my version of other people’s feelings and songs. Heart Strings is hands down the most honest collection of songs I have written to date.
I’ll touch on my Boston band where I did a lot of learning when it comes to building a sound and my strategy after taking those lessons to NYC.
The Enlightened Machine was an indie rock band a few friends and I started in Boston post-college. It lasted about two years and we played primarily in Boston and around New England. Boston has a decent music scene (probably should be bigger with Berklee in the Back Bay; it was a nice stepping stone to NYC. My only criticism is that it was limited when it came to mid-range venues. You went from dive bar (please pull 10-30 people) to Paradise Lounge (please pull 200-300 people), so it was hard to find places to bridge that gap as you grew.
This project was very collaborative when it came to writing the music as everyone had equal input on the final product. While it catered to the personalities of the group, I found it to be incredibly stunting to the growth process (over two years together, one six-song EP recorded before the project faded). First and foremost, writing this way caused some clashes due to differences in musical preference and took an excessive amount of time to make decisions regarding the band’s ultimate sound. Secondly, I found that I was molding my abilities to meet someone else’s expectations. For example, well we think this grungier song is cool, please sing harder and more rock like. We always talk about “in the wheelhouse” and I determined it’s important to create a cohesive sound and signature style to the music.
I had a revelation between The Enlightened Machine and Jack Young where I realized that if I wanted to be successful I needed to write 100 percent in my wheelhouse. When I moved to New York City I was determined to start my own group vs. a collaboration between friends. I found a group of musicians who were not interested in the writing process but rather putting their spin on the production of the music. It was a perfect marriage accentuated by the fact that we released a three-song EP and 11-song full-length in the first 12 months.
What I have learned in NYC is patience is the ultimate virtue when it comes to succeeding in music. I run on turbo most of the time, I have acquired a patience to allow this project to unfold. I needed to understand that I will not go from 0 to 100 overnight, as much as I want to will that to happen. I have put a strategy in place to maintain growth. The goal is not to become a working musician overnight but to ensure that our next gig supersedes the last. And so far, we have played from January 2016 to today. Starting at dives and next gig is at The Bowery Electric, a mid-range venue in a prime lower east side location. Lastly, growing in the sense that we attract new listeners. Successfully, we had an album release party a couple months ago where I saw my friends’ roommate mouthing the words to every one of our songs. To the layman, that doesn’t sound too impressive, but to a songwriter, you are taken to cloud 9. Immediate goals just continue to be to progress as a group, songwriter and everything that goes along with that because once it gets stagnant, the fun ends.
To answer your last question… First and foremost, technology hit turbo between call it 2006 and 2012. The ability to self-distribute music has become as easy as clicking a button. I laughed, I shot a voice memo to some friends to show off a new song idea and two different people came back with, “what did you record this on, pretty good quality.” I couldn’t believe it and find it’s not uncommon to find myself thinking about how quickly this digital distro era evolved for local artists every time I try to record something. With that said for acoustic artists, I find it hard not to draw a correlation between the emergence of “EDM” style tunes in the last 5 years. I recently met a girl who was a “songwriter” because she sang on an EDM demo that has more plays on Spotify than my entire discography combined. Besides recording, what started as electric drum tracks, has become a predominant genre. That is something I’m fascinated by. Then Ryan Adams comes out with Prisoner and I am reminded that all is right with the world.
I totally remember opening for Boys Like Girls with you, but honestly didn’t remember it was so close to their breakthrough—that’s crazy… I remember you were doing a solo set of sorts and wanted me there as backup for some reason—you graciously let me sing a new song that I had written and my voice cracked. To this day, I still can’t believe I did that on purpose just to make you look better….
You said that one of the growing pains as a songwriter was that you basically write “your version of other people’s feelings and songs”—I think that’s very poignant. I think about that a lot—like “why is what I’m doing any different than what so-and-so is doing, and why would anyone give me a chance over him/her?” At the end of the day, as cliché as it sounds, all you can do is be true to yourself. Nothing’s 100% original anymore; there’s no shortage of songs about heartbreak or love or politics or rebelliousness and there’s certainly no shortage of songs with four-chord structures or whatever, but maybe that doesn’t matter. Your stories are unique to you, mine are unique to me, and somewhere in there we hope to stumble on something resembling a truth that someone somewhere can learn from. And if not, at least you’ve forever got a snapshot of that specific moment in your life—a musical diary of sorts.
That voice memo story is hilarious, and such a sign of the times (in so many ways…). First of all, the fact that you can record something through a tiny mic in your phone and have it not sound like a jumbled mess is insane to me. I recently discovered some super old recordings from the first band I ever formed—I think I was 13 or 14—and we had recorded them all through a single computer mic plugged into what was probably a Dell computer. Back then, that was a “demo,” but you couldn’t make out a single thing clearly. Technology’s come a long way—both a blessing and a curse as you touched on. Second of all, the fact that someone could listen to a voice memo like that and marvel at its quality is such a testament to how people consume music. I don’t need to dive into that (there’s plenty of evidence out there supporting why the quality of music—not from a songwriting standpoint—has been compressed to an all time low) but I’ll return your anecdote with a personal experience of mine: the most common question I get asked by people who learn I’m in a band or who just saw us play a show is “are you on Youtube?” That’s how people find music nowadays! And that’s in an age when the music video is a dying breed. Mind boggling.
In terms of Jack Young—you just released your first full-length a couple months ago. Some no-name square from upstate NY did all the recording, I hear it was a lot of fun. You touched a little on the feedback you’ve been getting at live shows, which is phenomenal—how would you say the reaction has been to the record overall? And what have you found to be the most and least successful aspects of marketing the release? We both know it’s hard to push a release and gather buzz in the midst of hundreds of other releases that could be coming out just that same week.
Oh, and Ryan Adams has made me felt like all is right with the world for the better part of a year now. You’re right on the money—what a masterpiece Prisoner is.
Yeah it was pretty cool to see a band I played a dive with all over the major media outlets three months later. “You’re a damsel in distress, you’re my angel in a black dress”…I always loved that tune! I will leave the voice crack alone but yes it was…apparent… haha.
The musical diary is a good way to look at it. When I decided I needed to be more candid with my writing I decided to write openly about my experiences because at the end of the day, those are the most relatable lyrics. I’ve had a sentiment about writing for a little while now I am sure I have expressed to you: Artists have thankless jobs and can be some of the most selfless people in the world. Musicians wear emotions on sleeves so that at the click of a button we have someone in our ears understanding us, sympathizing with us, supporting us, or validating whichever emotion we need validated that day. Because the truth is, despite where or how we grew up, the color of our skin, the way we communicate with one another, we are all born with the same fundamental emotions. And sometimes it’s hard to ask someone to listen. That is what music is all about. It can come off as depressing at times or conflicting, but really all it is meant to be is a place where you can privately access your deepest and darkest depths. I know there are songs on Heart Strings that will resonate with everyone one way or another. Recording and putting out records is not only therapeutic for me but my way of telling the world, I get it. Life is hard, but we are in this together.
So far, the recording is received well by everyone who has explored it and provided feedback, to my face anyway. Marketing is hard though. I am a songwriter and singer first and foremost. I do my best but I am not a distro/marketing wiz, I just hope the music does the talking for me but unfortunately with the plethora of music out there, that’s like wishing for a winning lottery ticket. I just keep playing out in NYC and try to talk to as many people as I can about it, including this interview.
Okay, well I won’t keep you too much longer. Thanks for taking the time to do this – was a lot of fun! I will leave you with one final, very important question:
Your soul mate: Marissa Cooper or Summer Roberts?
“For the record… the boat was named after you.”
You tell me. J