"Ghost" Stories: Jonathan Edwards explores a sparser sound on his lyrical new solo album
Jonathan Edwards recorded, produced, and performed the 13 songs on Wild Ghosts almost entirely by himself, playing everything from bass and drums to synthesizers and Wurlitzer organ.
But he could have just as easily performed the beautiful songs on Wild Ghost solely with his guitar, the instrument at the heart of the album, with Edwards displaying excellent fingerstyle playing throughout the record.
"Wild Ghosts is definitely more of a singer-songwriter album than anything I have done in the past and is something I have wanted to do for a long time," said Edwards, who studied music at Indiana University and Eastern Michigan. “Most of the songs on Wild Ghosts can be distilled down to more traditional folk tune-type influences, although there are still some more elaborate and dense arrangements with songs like ‘Paper Birds’ and ‘Mask of Bees.' Simplification is an art I am still learning."
I talked with Edwards about his musical upbringing, his influences, his writing process, Wild Ghosts, and more.
Q: How did you get into writing and performing music?
A: I started writing songs back when I was playing and touring in my first band, The Silent Years, around 2004-2007. Although I was primarily a guitarist in the band, I began co-writing and gradually gained some confidence in the process over the course of my three or four years with the band. That’s when I really got the spark and started to get more serious with both writing and recording. I followed up my time in The Silent Years with more of a lead songwriting role in an Ann Arbor-based band called Skeleton Birds. We released three records over the span of 10 or so years, which had me trying out different approaches to writing with each album we produced.
Q: This latest release has traces of singer-songwriter and indie-folk but also maybe a little country and indie-rock. How would you describe your music? Can you trace your influences back to those earlier projects you were a part of?
A: I think you pinned down the genres that describe this album well. I would often pack a lot more into song arrangements in the past and spent more time on the production elements, perhaps disguising the more traditional singer-songwriter qualities in my music. I wanted to keep things pretty stripped down and straight ahead this time around, essentially leaving more space while carefully revolving the arrangements around the vocal and acoustic guitar.
Q: Who are some of your influences and how do they inspire you?
A: As this album began to take shape and I got a little distance from the songs, I realized that many inadvertently became little homages to some of my favorite songwriters. A stylistic identity seemed to emerge from song to song while still working collectively as a record. It was unintentional and interesting to stumble upon.
I have always liked albums that move through many different feels and moods with each track while remaining cohesive as a whole. This is something I really wanted to try and achieve with Wild Ghosts, and my myriad influences across many genres I think helped to create a dynamic record in the end.
A few of the influences I feel are quite present on this album are Joni Mitchell with her lyricism and use of alternate tunings—of which I used quite a few across different tracks. The fragility and rawness of late-Beatles and Plastic Ono Band-era John Lennon tracks such as “Julia” and “Look at Me." Jeff Tweedy of Wilco with his diligent and Dylan-esque approach to writing. And songs off the Carrie and Lowell record by Sufjan Stevens, which feature beautifully stripped arrangements amongst complex finger-style guitar and ukulele parts.
I think there are traces of many more artists in the mix as well, all the while trying to find that common ground amongst each song to tie everything together and flow as a record.
Q: Lots of great artists in the mix to draw inspiration from. Is there a collection of albums from a different handful artists that could help define your own style?
A: Records such as A Moon Shaped Pool by Radiohead, The Idler Wheel… by Fiona Apple, Shields by Grizzly Bear, Pink Moon by Nick Drake, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors all feature an aesthetic and approach to songwriting, sonics, and production that I feel are evident in my music.
Q: Aside from the lyrics and arrangements, a lot of the song titles revolve around nature. Would you say nature has an effect on your songwriting?
A: I wanted the album to feel immersive and be extremely visual for those listening. All of the songs exist in a specific space for me, and I wanted to try to convey some of this through the inclusion of field recordings heard throughout and in lyrics that evoke landscapes to help paint the scene. I suppose it is also likely that the inclusion of these elements is a reflection of not feeling particularly connected to nature throughout the pandemic while confined to using a computer for most of my interactions.
Q: Do you remember the first show you saw? How did it influence your current style and writing?
A: I am having a hard time remembering the very first show I ever saw, so I trust it must have had little influence on me. I do remember seeing Wilco at Hill Auditorium on more than one occasion. The first being back in 2004 on the A Ghost Is Born tour. It left a pretty strong impression on me. There was such a powerful yet complex dynamic throughout the band during their live show that sat so effectively around Jeff Tweedy’s simply structured songs. These more simplified song structures just leave so much extra room for things to happen and develop around the core essence of the track, and the basic song itself doesn’t need to always have something changing or happening within each passing bar. I have worked to keep these latest songs of mine more open, allowing for other instruments to drive them forward and not compete for space or importance.
Q: Is there anything you have been listening to lately? What do you enjoy most about it?
A: I am all over the place with my listening right now. Being a guitarist first and foremost, I’ve been listening to a good amount of Bill Frisell and Julian Lage as of late. I find both of their approaches to melody inspiring and have been playing with longer phrasing within my vocal writing as a result. I have also been working on some instrumental guitar music recently and have found some strong inspiration from their latest work. I am a big fan of current pop music production and have been listening to the Rosalía records lately. Those have been pretty mind-blowing with such a unique mix of traditional songwriting and electronic and hip-hop music production. Her evolution has been drastic over the last few years and it will be interesting to see where she takes things next.
Q: Back to Wild Ghosts, it looks like you recorded the album over the last two years or so? Did you write these songs throughout the pandemic then? Did the pandemic have any influence on your writing?
A: A few of the songs were started in the fall of 2021 including “Sea Song,” “Hall of Mirrors,” and “Lullaby,” though they were sorted out and finished a bit later along with the others on the record. Most of the songs were written in the span of about a month or two, roughly from the start of June through July of last year.
I had gone a long time without writing very much as I became increasingly busy in other aspects of my life, so when I did sit down last summer to actively start working on the album it all came together pretty fast. I had what I felt were strong ideas coming almost everyday which was really motivating after such a hiatus, and it was just a matter of pairing things down and combining demos to create the songs heard on the album. The goal was to work fast, not second guess, and to commit quickly in all aspects of the process.
The pandemic had me thinking a lot about making an album like this, but it was only when things started to relax with the whole situation that I actually felt like I was in the right head space to actively get working.
Q: How does it feel to have the album out now after all that work?
A: It has been great to finally have the album out for people to hear. The record ended up being a very true representation of how I wanted these songs to sound, which is not always the case or easy to capture in a recording. I released the album on Bandcamp quickly and relatively quietly after finishing up the production, and I have really been struck with the response from people both close to me and from those who I have not heard from in a long while. It has been a special way to reconnect with people after such a long period of disconnect throughout the pandemic.
Q: What’s your favorite track? What do you hope people take away from it?
A: One of the tracks I am most proud of both musically and lyrically is “The Lighthouse.” It is about self-sacrifice and giving up a part of your identity in the process. I imagine many can relate, and hope that the song might serve as a way to cope through that lonesome and difficult space. “Meditation” is another one in particular that people have told me they connect with since the album’s release, and has also become one of my personal favorites off the record.
Q: So, what’s next? What’s coming up next for you personally and musically through the end of this year and into 2024?
A: My hope is to get back to more frequent live playing in support of this record throughout the rest of the year and into 2024. I also plan to continue writing music that picks up from where this album left off as well as record an EP of solo instrumental guitar works very soon.
Sean Miller is a Michigan singer-songwriter and freelance arts and entertainment writer.