5 Questions: Jon Camp

The evocative instrumental compositions of DC-based fingerstyle guitarist and composer Jon Camp harken back to a style of American Primitive guitar playing made influential by music legend John Fahey, and later Leo Kottke and Jack Rose.

nashville(1)(Photo: Mike Mannix)

Like his heroes, Jon uses fingerstyle guitar as a gateway to explore wider sonic worlds that defy easy categorization. His compositions are just as likely to reflect the influence of drone or ambient as traditional folk or country.

What makes Jon’s music particularly transfixing is his knack for crafting miniature musical vignettes that burrow in your head and spark your imagination. Listening to Jon’s recent self-titled release on Centripetal Force, I am struck by how these compositions possess an elemental quality — as if they were somehow birthed in the wild. Indeed, spending time with these compositions is like visiting a luminous, bucolic place that forces you to notice its natural beauty.

Good news, then, that Jon is teaming up with guitarist Dave Jones (The Caribbean) and percussionist extraordinaire Scott Verrastro (Kohoutek) to perform a special live show at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE on Friday, Jan. 6 at the Marx Cafe in Mt. Pleasant. With such an exciting occasion upon us, I took the opportunity to ask Jon five questions via e-mail. As you can see below, Jon has some interesting things to say about finding inspiration in the natural world, how to come up with titles for instrumental compositions, and what it means to be a music lifer…

1) Congratulations on the new self-titled album. It’s a remarkable collection of instrumental pieces that evoke feelings of wonder, longing and nostalgia for calmer, simpler times. What was it like for you to make this album during the pandemic? Did making the record become your escape?

Jon: Thank you for the thoughtful listen and words, Rick! I recently read Rob Young’s “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music” about the ‘60s and ‘70s folk music in the UK. I connected with how these musicians found inspiration in a past that was more connected to the natural world while stopping short of pining for some of the regressive worldviews associated with times past. They weren’t wishing to return to the past but to state an alternative possibility for the future that isn’t an ever-expanding concrete slab. I likewise find inspiration in the natural world, and I want to live in a society that appreciates and takes into consideration the preservation of it and the interests of animals. So again, if there is a pining, it’s for a different version of the present. As for the instrumentation/sound, I tend to gravitate towards analog instruments, though I’m open to using anything in the toolbox.

I started recording this record pre-pandemic at Developing Nations in Baltimore, and shortly after that, Covid hit the US. It was more than a year until vaccines were available, and I returned to record shortly after getting vaccinated. During the interim period, I wrote some new pieces and also started teaching myself the mandolin. So when I returned for part 2 of the recording, I had some new tunes to record, and I also was able to add some mandolin and other instrumentation into the mix.

2) One of the things I love most about your work is the way you find just the right instruments to color certain compositions in inspired ways. For example, the gorgeous pedal steel guitar, bass and gentle percussion on “Habitat” are the perfect compliments to your fingerstyle guitar, while the fiddle playing on “Throughline” is nothing short of divine. But then you have tracks like “Beyond Alms,” where it’s just your guitar and it sounds perfect. What’s your philosophy on when to add shades of color to a piece and when to keep things as minimal as possible?

Jon: One of the things I most enjoy about listening to music is piecing together what the instrumentation is. And I listen to a lot of non-guitar music, so I’m regularly inspired by tone colors that aren’t guitar-driven.

To me, some compositions just seem to call for extra instrumentation, whereas some, because of the rhythmic fluidity or delicacy of the piece, are best served solo. I want the music to be interesting, to have that ear candy, to have some emotional punch, and it’s a fun challenge of adding or subtracting until I feel I have the right arrangement.

I’m glad you picked out that fiddle. That was performed by a longtime musical hero of mine, Mike Gangloff, of the legendary drone ensemble Pelt, as well as The Black Twig Pickers and more. I was hearing a fiddle in that song, and I thought, “In my ideal world, Mike Gangloff would play that.” I had met him recently and so shot him a message asking if he’d be game, and to my delight, he was and delivered such a gorgeous part.

3) You have some evocative song titles on the record, from “Fleeting and Forever,” “Yesterday’s Facts” and “Cursed Left Foot” to “Archaic Echo.” As an instrumentalist, what goes into your thinking when it comes to titling your compositions?

Jon: When reading, listening to podcasts, chatting with folks, ruminating, etc., I note interesting phrases or words that arise. Sometimes when I’m playing a piece, there’s an obvious title. Other times, I free-associate or consult that list until something clicks. Often the titles incorporate events in my life. For example, I had melanoma removed from my left foot during the making of the album (“Cursed Left Foot”). Or they might reflect social/political thoughts (“Yesterday’s Facts,” hinting at conspiratory/regressive ideas). Still, I don’t intend for any song to reflect one exact event/idea. I like lyrics and titles that are open to multiple interpretations, and I hope that mine serve as a springboard for the listener to connect their own meaning or feelings to them.

(Cover art: Crystal Hurt)

4) I love the album cover art by Crystal Hurt. Like your music, it has a quiet power that is very affecting. How did you end up connecting with her on this project?

Crystal is great! And she’s done the last three albums of mine. There were a couple of albums that came out about 4-5 years ago whose covers I loved and were done by Crystal. So I reached out to her about doing the cover for my 2019 release, Headwinds & Tailwinds, and she liked the idea and gave me something beyond my wildest expectations. And the releases after that seemed to call for her work, and so it’s been a great partnership.

283395871_10158341767395899_7511255508789092699_n (1)(1)(Photo: Sarah De Munck)

5) You’ve been making music for a long time. I believe we can safely refer to you as a “LIFER.” What keeps you going? Is there a particular source of inspiration that fans the flames of your creativity?

Jon: It means a lot to me that a clear lifer such as yourself would recognize that in me! I do envision myself making and performing music for as long as I’m able to.

What keeps me going is ultimately that I’m a music obsessive, listening to hours of it each day and having a nightly ritual of working on music. And so I’m regularly hearing new sources of inspiration and pursuing new ideas that keep me excited about music.

There’s also something encouraging about getting better the longer you’ve been at something, in being able to articulate on the instrument musical and non-musical ideas you have, and to find new opportunities that come with knowing your instrument better.

Finally, it’s helped to not put too much emphasis on external expectations. I just give my sincere best, and if what I do resonates with folks, great. If not, I’m still finding the process engaging and meaningful.

Listen to and purchase Jon Camp’s music on Bandcamp. Be sure to catch Jon Camp at WE FOUGHT THE BIG ONE at the Marx Cafe (3203 Mt. Pleasant St NW) on Friday, January 6, 2023! Michael Kentoff (The Caribbean, Washington Hebrew) will be joining us behind the turntables. The fun starts at 10pm! Join us!


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