An Exclusive Interview With Jon Hayes

Could you share the story behind your latest song and what inspired its creation?

“Between You & Me,” was written in late 2019/early 2020 during a musical chapter where I was leaning into the tender, singer-songwriter genre.  I had tried to avoid this style in the first year or two of officially launching my solo artist project, wanting to lean more into influences like John Mayer, Tom Misch, and such.  But after going through a really painful season, being inspired by a friend’s simply arranged EP, and growing to be okay with whatever music was coming out of me,  I really embraced it.  This song is a relief-inspiring confession after a season where I had isolated myself from a lot of the people who were trying to love me.  My wife and I had gotten married in February of 2018 and I had moved from Massachusetts where I grew up, to Kalamazoo, MI, where we’re based now, to start our life together.  I was fresh off of some tension and strained relationship with my family, which was a driving factor for us starting out in Michigan: giving me space to really be on my own and figure myself out.  The only problem was that I still carried all of the hurt and confusion into my new context and now I was separated from everything I had known for most of my life.  I hunkered down, not really wanting to open up, find a new community, and let people in.  I struggled in this spot for just under two years until slowly over the course of that time, my heart was softened and chipped away at by a whole collection of conversations, experiences, and small revelations.  In the end, I was really tired of keeping all of the burdens and even myself locked up inside away from everyone and so I started opening up bit by bit.  As I entered into the writing season I mentioned earlier, this song came to me and I immediately knew it was the core of what I wanted to say with all of these songs.  It was the thesis statement, really.  And so it became the title and title track of my first album.

How do you approach the process of songwriting, and are there any specific themes or emotions you tend to explore in your music?

  I approach songwriting pretty organically.  It usually starts with a little snippet of something: a feeling that I want to get out and so I search for the words and melody, or a short lyric, a melody, a guitar riff, or a chord progression.  I continue to explore that tidbit until I find the stream that it’s sitting in/I can channel it in.  In my early years, I was a lot more commanded by the song, accepting lyrics that didn’t necessarily fit the song and just getting it done, now I’ve started getting better at not just letting whatever’s easiest/most natural dictate where the song goes.  Instead, I use my gut to know where I’m trying to go and use my mind to correct and tweak even in the initial moments of inspiration to make sure the song heads in the direction that my emotion or inspiration is desiring.  After the initial build out of a song (usually a verse and a chorus and maybe another element) I’ll come back to it and build it out more to craft it into a full song.  Eventually, I record it in Logic and start to flesh out the arrangement and sonic tone of the tune.

As an indie musician, how do you navigate the balance between creative freedom and commercial appeal?

As far as the “expression vs industry” thing, I feel I’m in a spot where I feel like I can hold these both at the same time decently well.  Often I’ll worry too much if something will be “cool” enough to “make it” and that will suppress and limit my creativity which is something  I want to work on, but I think I’m able to tell while I’m writing if something is “commercially viable” just by that writing critique running in the middle of my mind trying to make sure that the song is impactful and well written and actually getting across what I want to say.  I’m inspired by genres that are pretty common from an industry standpoint so I don’t have to worry too much about marketability.  As long as I write something that is good, an extension of myself and what people enjoy about me and my music, has parts that I’m proud of/can dig into emotionally, and is saying what I want it to say, then I think it checks both sides of the equation.

What do you find most challenging about being an independent artist in today’s music industry?

I think the most challenging part about being an independent artist is how much you have to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling on your own.  I got really discouraged at a lot of different points in the first few years of my solo project just trying to figure out all the different elements you have to handle: booking shows, growing a fanbase, releasing music, finding money to release music, growing your online presence.  I would look at the mountain in front of me, knowing no one was really going to care to help me professionally until I did the initial work on my own and would get overwhelmed and kind of depressed.  I still have times of discouragement now, but I’m glad that God sustained me through all that and helped me to at least do a little bit of work in the areas that I did to where now the mountain isn’t as daunting all the time and there’s the encouragement of some ground conquered.  I’m in a place now where I’ve been able to make some consistent money month to month playing gigs outside of my full time job to give my music career some budget for reinvestment while supplementing my family’s income and paying down debt.  So now there’s the feeling of “I’ve got some momentum, now it’s time to keep working hard and scale up.”  And I have had times of encouragement knowing that I think I’ll draw the attention of some music industry professionals soon enough.  But, spinning all of the plates at the same time by yourself is definitely a challenge and not everything can be done as well as it should until you get some help.

Can you talk about your experiences collaborating with other artists or musicians? How does it influence your creative process?

I’ll be honest, I haven’t collabed with other artists a lot.  I think there’s a fear of not being in control there for me but I think if I came into it knowing we were going to create something fresh that was really a product of both of us that would help me a lot and I would enjoy that.  The closest I’ve gotten was on my album “Between You & Me,”, my friend Joe Stilwell from Calder The Band played piano on a couple of the tracks and he KILLED IT.  I was really able to see how much having a talented writer and fellow artist as an instrumentalist can help an arrangement.  I think we’ll be doing more projects together.  

What role does technology and social media play in promoting your music and connecting with your audience?

Right now, social media has not been a huge platform for me.  I haven’t really invested in it, I’ve been playing shows, house concerts, and gigs and getting to meet people face to face and that’s been a really good way for me to start building some following.  My friend Joe (same guy from the last section haha) says I do a really good job connecting with people in performance and I think it makes sense why that’s the direction I’ve leaned towards to get the ball rolling.  I have used social media ads to help grow my listenership on spotify, corralling my first few hundred regular listeners over the past 4 releases and as I look to the future, instagram, tiktok, and youtube are going to be the main platforms I focus on since I enjoy doing covers, acoustic performances, and long form content.

Are there any particular artists or genres that have had a significant impact on your musical style?

 I answer this question almost the same way each time, with some variation, but it always includes John Mayer!  I was born in ’96 and remember hearing his early stuff regularly played in my elementary school art class.  I didn’t keep up with his work for years after that, until finally I started listening to “No Such Thing” and “Why Georgia” on an old mp3 player of my dad’s years later in middle school and then in high school a friend challenged me saying I wasn’t a real Mayer fan since I only knew a handful of songs… challenge was accepted.  I started delving more deeply into his work throughout my senior year of high school and  freshman year of college including “Where the Light is Live From LA” and “TRY!” and some of his studio records and became a total Mayer fan.  “I am invincible.  As long as I’m alive.” from “No Such Thing” was even my senior quote haha.  He’s had a huge influence on me and I’m a diehard fan to this day.

Indie musicians often have a close relationship with their fanbase. How do you engage with your fans and build a dedicated community around your music?

For me, I’ve built a connection with my fans and supporters largely through live shows.  Whether it’s been self promoted DIY shows at coffee shops, house concerts or pub gigs, I’ve really connected with people and grown connection with them at shows.  House concerts have been a big part in this,  it allows me to activate my most excited supporters, having them bring their community out for a show at their house which has allowed me to find even more fans.

Could you describe a memorable live performance experience or tour that has had a lasting impact on you and your music?

My most memorable gig was not the biggest!  I played for 30-40 people and it was my most cherished gig yet.  My first time playing at a venue in Grand Rapids, MI, 45 minutes north of where I live, was in December of last year.  It was my first real show back in Michigan that wasn’t a house concert since moving back to Kalamazoo.  I was just getting into the swing of trying to book shows and this was also within a few months of leaving the church job I had been at for two years.  The church leadership and I had a bad break and my wife and I were pretty hurt by it.  We had hopped on the road for a month in August, 2022 right after it all went down and I had been fleshing out how to just be an artist on stage again and not the worship guy.  It was refreshing.  And over the course of that month I started finding my pace as a performing artist.  It got honed in further at a house concert in October of that year.  Then it was December and I had just decided to finally do something I had thought about for a long time: crowd fundraising to get my album out the door.  I had just opened up preorders a couple of weeks before this show at the Stray and so I was coming into the night with some excitement for getting to perform, excitement about fundraising along with some nerves at the same time, dread about how much work I would have to do to get this record done in the time frame I had in mind, joy because of some people already having backed the project, and calm/relief because I was finally feeling the way I wanted to on stage: able, confident, and pleased with what I was doing.  I had invited friends from Kalamazoo, GR and funny enough, even some friends from High School back in Massachusetts since they had moved to GR.  In the end, I ended up having a room filled with people from almost every chapter of my life: elementary/high school with my friends from back home, my Bible college days (in the ADK, NY) with people who were based in GR, my Kalamazoo days with friends from our church who came up for the show, and my current music chapter with some fellow artists who were friends on the bill with me along with my friend Zach Rumley who mixed the record and came out to support.  I got finished with my set and all these friends were blown away and so excited to see me doing this and performing at such a high-quality level.  My friends from high school, whom I hadn’t seen for over 8 years, were so thrilled to have seen my show and to reconnect with me.  One of them was so thrilled that he preordered 4 copies of my album and threw in $100 saying “Whatever you need this for, I just want to support you and want you to do this.”  It was absolutely insane.  After a season of heartbreak, feeling rejected and swept under the rug by the leadership at the church I had served at because of conflict we had, to have so many people who loved me and believed in what I was doing in one room was absolutely incredible.  I would love to go back and play that show again and feel all those feelings all over again.  That’s a biography/origin moment.

In an era of streaming platforms, how do you feel about the changing landscape of music consumption and its impact on independent musicians?

The streaming era is a plus and a minus.  In the first couple of years of my project I used to think a lot about how I would have made a lot more money off of the “listens” I get now if it had been 10-15 years ago when people had to buy individual tracks, digital albums, or a physical copy.  But, Spotify also has the potential to introduce my music to new listeners and has already done that a lot for me as I’ve fed it with listeners brought in by Facebook ads and playlists.  A lot of these people that Spotify brings to me won’t become diehard fans, but a handful of them probably will.  As the overall numbers grow, so too do the odds of bringing in the fans who really love my music and dig in.  I’ve also been able to counteract the “streaming problem” in a small way in this past album release cycle by releasing the album in full physically first and then finishing the digital release 8 months after.  I was able to get 50 preorders to help fund the album’s finishing process and then sold around 50 copies on the road in the months following the album’s release (along with some freebees that I gave to different supporters).  So it’s a strength and a weakness, but you can still get the benefit of physical sales if you have a supportive crowd and offer it the right way.