Artist Spotlight: John Gardner
With a voice as pure as his lyrics are deliberate, John Gardner, known as Common Jack, is defining an edgier side to folk.
This Manhattan-based artist made his debut in 2015 with Bowl, Holland, a singer-songwriter/folk album riddled with the tickling of acoustic guitars and fiddles. His 2016 release of the album Strange New State made it clear that Common Jack was welcoming an upgraded sound that grew in stride with his personal life. And in the midst of this nearly reinventive musical breakthrough, Gardner’s fans are welcoming the rock-infused power sprinkled with the lightness of pop that is becoming signature to his sound.
Looking at how far his music has already come, and exploring where it has yet to go, we had the pleasure of picking Gardner’s brain on his influences and musical journey.
Well I grew up in a pretty musical family. My mom was an opera singer, and my dad is a much better musician than he would ever give himself credit for. One of the first records he ever played for me was a Bob Dylan album when I was 8 or 9, so he really turned me onto the folk-rock genres. My mom was always playing old jazz standards albums, opera and classical music, so I was exposed to eclectic music styles growing up. My brother, too. He spent a little while at Berklee College of Music, and he’s the one that kind of convinced me to start learning to play guitar. [My family] really encouraged me to keep exploring when I was learning how to play music.
Your music has been defined as indie folk-rock, but you’ve had massive growth between your two albums, which is incredible. How would you say you fit into that genre now?
This is something that is an ongoing exploration, and I’ve only recently started learning how to be okay with that. When I started writing and recording, especially when we made the first album, I was like “Oh, this is what the sound is,” because I was trying to pressure myself to become this easily digestible kind of thing. All the indie band blogs tell you, “You have to boil it down, you have to be able to describe yourself in a sentence to make people get it.” And while there’s definitely value to that, a part of that is really constricting and can hinder you if you let it. I don’t think I could ever get away from the folk stuff, even if I tried to. That’s just inherently how I write. But, my co-producer and I are playing around with bringing in other elements – pop and electronic elements – and figuring out how to do it tastefully. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a concrete answer to that question. It depends on the day you catch me, because sometimes I’ll be like “oh yeah, folk rock with a little bit of weird Radio Head,” or sometimes I’ll be like, “No, I just want to be Wilco,” so it really depends on my mood.
I think it’s also helpful living in the day and age that we live in now. We’re streaming music, everything is so accessible. And it really feels like there’s this hunger for, and acceptance of, smashing a bunch of genres together and seeing what you get.
Yeah your music is definitely trekking new grounds. You have your new song “Electric Circus” that came out in May of this year. Are you planning on having your stuff go more in that same catchy rock with a splash of pop direction?
Maybe. Yes and no. I think there are certain indie rock sounds I’m more interested in toying around with right now. But even if I went in to record a full album right now, I’m not sure “Electric Circus” would belong on it. It feels like such a singular song. I have no interest going back into the studio and continuing those textural explorations. The whole crazy bridge with all the electronic stuff, it gets super chaotic – it’s something that we really tried to not do. We were just going to leave that bridge open and do a Rolling Stones vibe – a bunch of electric guitars hacking at the strings. But, because of the lyrical material and the name, Harper, my co-producer, said, “We gotta do a circus, we just gotta.” So, I don’t think that’s a definitive direction, but it was a fun thing to play around with for sure.
You have two albums out, Bowl, Holland and Strange New State, what are the stories behind these works?
So, Bowl, Holland is essentially a love letter to my relationship that began in the summer of 2013, and it began in Michigan outside of a small town called Holland. On the shoreline of lake Michigan, there’s this huge sand dune, basically a left over crater. It’s like a huge bowl, as the natives call it. So much of the album revolved around that physical place. So much of the songs were written while I was there or are somehow connected to that part of Michigan. And with Strange New State, I was going to name it something else originally, but when we were getting ready to put it out the summer of 2016, things were (and still are) starting to get really weird in everyday life. That’s when all the craziness with the election was starting to get really messed up, and so many other aspects of my life were kind of following that trajectory. It just felt like I was getting blindsided by a tractor trailer everyday. So the name kind of popped in my head one morning and it felt like, “oh, that feels like exactly where I am.”
On Strange New State, you have a song called “Who’s Feeling Young Now.” That’s the most experimental I’ve heard you get in your music. Was it uncomfortable to put that on the record?
That’s actually a cover of a Punch Brothers song. They’re a 5-piece bluegrass band, but it’s basically a bluegrass supergroup. Chris Stealy is the leader and every single member is one of the world’s best at their instrument. They do some really cool things and are trying to push bluegrass into new territory. That’s a song of theirs I’ve always really loved. And in Strange New State, I thought it’d be fun to see how we could change stuff up. So, we did a full blown indie rock experimental thing with that song. That was a very very hard day in the studio. So yes, the answer is yes. It was incredibly difficult to not only try to record a really cool song, but also check in and make sure you’re doing the song justice. I don’t want to come off as being disrespectful or suck covering this band that I really love. So, we went through really methodically and really dissected the song. I think we were in the studio for 15 hours that day. I remember being totally fried when we were done.
With all that you’ve got going on, what drew you in to being a part of the Songfinch community and writing music in this different way?
I just think what Songfinch does is so cool, what it gives people who invest in getting a song for their life events like that. That’s such a cool gift and that’s something that these people will always cherish. There’s a lot of value in what the company is doing, so it’s always helpful to work for a company when you feel really passionate about what they’re doing and putting out into the world.