Jonah Parzen-Johnson is a Brooklyn-based baritone saxophonist and synth player who makes something to the effect of experimental folk music. There are elements of Appalachian folk and early electronic music, but the eerie, meditative result is entirely his own. Parzen-Johnson is worried about the deadening effect of nostalgia, and what we can do to stop wallowing in memories of how things used to be and instead focus on what we can do to make them better.
The video for his song “I Wrote A Story About You, Without You,” is a fascinating depiction of an indulgent aspect of New York City life: imagining the life stories of people one sees on the subway or in the street. It blends surreptitious video footage with screenshots from Google Street View, creating an effect of dislocation and alienation. These are the city streets Parzen-Johnson (and the rest of us) are familiar with, but we would rather look at them labelled, on a screen, in our homes, than go out into them.
Can you tell me a little more about the video? Who made it? What technology was used to animate the Street Views?
The video was made by Vanessa Haddad and Adam Gundersheimer. They used Adobe After Effects, along with other software, and a ton of time and energy, to distort and blend still images from Google Maps into video, and then combine them with video taken around Brooklyn.
How does the video connect to the title of the song and the greater theme of the album?
The original idea is rooted in the struggle of coming to terms with how easy it is to make up imaginary histories for people we don’t really know, as we trick ourselves into thinking we understand them better than we really do. I find myself making up stories about people all the time. Sometimes those imaginary stories become memories and influence my perception of people. I want to acknowledge the assumptions we all make about strangers as well as people we interact with daily. Those assumptions are a source of a lot of the divisions in our society that show up along racial, social, and economic lines.
What drew you to Street View as an artistic medium?
The idea to use street view came from Adam and Vanessa. I approached them with some ideas for a video taking place on a subway train, and involving imagined stories about strangers on the train. Something about the way a person looks when they’re day dreaming about the person sitting across from them. They immediately thought of this artist Jon Rafman who does a lot of work with Google Street View, and it evolved from there. They definitely came up with a really cool way to represent what I had in mind.
I read you don’t use any looping, but the record sure sounds like you do. How do you create that effect?
Ya, I have a strict no looping or overdubs policy. Looping is a way to escape the feeling of alone-ness that comes from playing solo, and I think that feeling is kinda the best part. The way I build up these songs is by using a lot of circular breathing with my saxophone. That’s a technique where you breath in through your nose while pushing air out of your mouth at the same time. It makes it so I can play a long time without stopping. For the synthesizer stuff, I use a set of expression pedals, and latches with my feet while I’m playing the saxophone with my hands. That way I can create moving lines in the synthesizer and saxophone at the same time.
What do you mean by you thought “the best part of our generation’s lifespan is gone?” Like being a kid in the ’90s was the best it ever was? Because there is some truth to the narrative that the ’90s were the peak of American civilization thus far.
I think its really easy to feel like things were much better in the ’90s. In a lot of ways, it was a good time to be around, but there were still a ton of problems in America, and the rest of the world. We all get very nostalgic. I definitely do. But the truth is that there have always been problems, and there have always been people who are inspired to find and carry out solutions. Its definitely the case that we, as a civilization, have made some pretty big mistakes that have led us to a much darker place than I’ve experienced in my lifetime, but that just means that we all need to take responsibility, admit that all of these problems are all of our problems, and start thinking about solutions every day.
How does the album combat the cynicism of nostalgia? What solutions to the broken systems do you hope your music helps jumpstart?
This record is meant to be a documentation of the power of nostalgia to take over our perception of the world. I’m a very nostalgic person, and what I started to realize, in the process of working on this record, is that nostalgia is a kind of crippling condition. Something that I struggle with. I think we have to admit that we’ve all become obsessed with counting what has deteriorated around us instead of talking about why it’s deteriorated, and how we can start to repair it. The only way to escape the foggy numbness of nostalgia is to think about the future, and the solutions we can find to the messed up ways we relate to each other, our planet, and our government. I think that those solutions come from dialogue. I’m hopeful that this music helps start a couple conversations about how we can address these issues.
Do you consider your music electronic music?
A lot of my music is built around synthesizers so in that way, it is definitely electronic music. I’m also heavily influenced by the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) which is an organization from Chicago, where I grew up. My teachers who were in the AACM would always call the music they played Creative Music, because it embraced every element of every kind of music they could find. I really like that.
It may be tough to grasp the political and storytelling intentions of the music without some preparation or background. What would you like people to know before they come see you live to help them get the most out of the performance?
I want to create an environment where everyone feels connected to what I’m doing. I think that a big part of that is leaving time to talk directly to the people in the room at every show, and because of that, I’m always going to talk about my songs on stage. That’s one of the great luxuries of playing solo, and a big part of what connecting with a listener means to me.
Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s album Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow is out June 2nd via Primary Records.