In the short time Jonny Woodrose & the Broken-Hearted Woodpeckers have been together, the outfit has grown from being a bit of a joke band vehicle for singer Jonson Kuhn's humorous storytelling into one of the most engaging and fun Americana bands in the scene. The project's early shows consisted of Jonson playing guitar and singing songs, but it quickly evolved into a full, four-piece band including guitarist Charles Kern, drummer David Vanderiet and bass player Brian Payne. Consciously or otherwise, the songs of the Woodpeckers are firmly in the tradition of songwriters and performers like Woody Guthrie and Will Rogers who both incorporated humor and sharply crafted observations on society and the human condition without resorting to being preachy. We recently had a chance to speak at length with Jonson Kuhn about the origins of the band, its songwriting, its artistic roots and Kuhn's literary projects. Read the full interview after the jump.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Can you tell me the story behind the name of your band?
Jonson Kuhn: I was in northern California a few years ago, and I was in this town called Garberville. There was a diner there called The Woodrose. It was a really cool place that had all these pictures of Joan Baez -- maybe she was a co-owner, I don't know. They were very fond of Joan Baez, as am I, and I frequented this place. I ended up meeting one of the waitresses there, and she was just starting to learn how to play the drums, and I was just sort of learning how to play guitar. I don't know how much detail I can go into, but it was a tremendous experience for me personally, and I came out of it thinking I wanted to learn how to play guitar and start a band and call it Jonny Woodrose & The Broken-Hearted Woodpeckers. Then I never did anything with it until January this year.
WW: To me, it sounds like your music is rooted in Americana but isn't obviously influenced by local Americana acts. How would you characterize the sort of music you write?
JK: I grew up in Kansas, so I have a lot of folk music experience, as opposed to growing up around country, folk, bluegrass sort of upbringing. I think my original idea was that I'd call myself Jonny Woodrose & The Broken-Hearted Woodpeckers as though I had a band, but it would just be me playing funny folk songs. That it would just sort of be a joke. Then I started playing in front of people and it was fun, and it definitely changed the style of the music. But it's all very new to me, because I don't have much of a musical background. The songs come out however they come out but my main objective is just to make them funny.
WW: You seem to have some roots in the DIY punk scene. Were you or the members of your band in punk rock bands prior to or concurrent with this project?
JK: I really like the Misfits, but I've always been kind of a quiet person, and I'm just now realizing that I can scream on stage and make it work and add it into songs. It's just something I'm doing because of a personal interest. I'm getting more and more brave with it as time goes on. [As for my playing at Blast-O-Mat,] I know a couple of the organizers pretty well, and I played there once on a whim for a gallery opening. So they saw me play and liked it and asked me at random times if I could fill in. That's how I got into there rather than a punk band affiliation, but I can see how you'd get that impression.
WW: What's the name of your new album and what are the lyrical and musical themes you explore across that album?
JK: It's called Live From the Garage [pronounced the English way], because one of our roommates is from England and he pronounces it that way. It's a tribute to his way of speaking. This album is really just a collection of songs that I've been playing around at different venues in Denver since January, that are now completed with a full band. I've been learning how to play them as we've been performing them. It's the final product of what people have seen over the last six months, with a few new songs thrown on there, as well. I felt that the songs had grown up enough for a full album. We had enough people after our shows asking us if we were selling them, and we always had to say, "No."
I'm not sure if there were any intentional themes. I just wanted to make sure we got a good representation of the songs and that people knew we didn't take ourselves too seriously. The songs are funny but we still wanted them to sound good.
WW: Seeing as you use a modified version of one of his book covers on your MySpace page, is Tom Robbins at all an influence on your band?
JK: Yes, he was very much an influence on the name of the band. That book in particular, [Still Life With Woodpecker]. There's a part in there where he gets to describing the idea of an outlaw but a much more romanticized version -- an outlaw with morals or something like that. It's an idea that the Grateful Dead used to sing about or Woody Guthrie, but I just don't think that sort of outlaw with convictions still exists. But I got goosebumps, I got really excited so I liked the idea of creating a band around that concept. I don't know if I've succeeded but Tom Robbins and that book were definitely inspirations.
WW: Even though some of your songs seem to be about unpleasant circumstances, you infuse them with a wicked sense of humor. Is that something you do consciously, and why does that mode of songwriting appeal to you?
JK: That's definitely intentional. Most of my background is in playwriting and fiction, and I've always appreciated stuff like Shakespeare that has tragedy mixed with a certain degree of comedy. So you have this balance and no one was ever overwhelmed by one particular emotion. I think that's a really effective way to write anything, especially songs because you've got such a short amount of time to convey the story. It helps to get people to listen. If they're hearing the same thing over and over again, people tune out. I love it when people stop talking because they're hearing something they weren't expecting or it caught them off guard.
WW: Can you tell me a bit about The Basics Fund and how it's involved with the promotion or publication of your book, The Midwest Travels of Cowgirl Boote & Her Bitter Buffalo?
JK: The Basics Fund is putting food in my mouth. It's a non-profit a friend of mine started a few years ago because he was inspired by my poverty-stricken artist lifestyle. It's designed to provide health insurance for artists, provided that they keep contributing artwork every so many months. They have other criteria to meet, but it seems to have changed over the years. It started in 2006, and they've moved on to providing shuttle rides to concerts and art venues and different things like that, and that's how we make the majority of our money that sponsors the artists. The Basics Fund paid for both of my books and getting those printed and sections of them published in various publications. The Basics Fund is also paying for my album. It's basically a safe haven, and you get in however you get in. You get health insurance and you get financial backing for your project.
WW: Is your creative process of writing a book different from how you approach writing songs?
JK: Yes and no. I think anything I write is based on an observation. I think any sort of art that is timeless, or that I'm certainly a fan of, it seems to be one of two things or both: It's somebody trying to convey something honest about something they saw, they observed in some form or some medium. In that sense, I think the songs, the plays, the books, the short stories -- it's something I've observed and processed and put out but I don't really have any sort of discipline or process in sitting down and writing something. It just sort of jumps out. Sometimes it's a play, sometimes it's a short story, right now, it's songs because that's what seems to be accessible. It's the easiest medium in which to tell stories right now.
I just wanted to try something different. I had lost my job and figured, what did I have to lose. It caught on, and it's still fun right now, whereas I feel like I got burned out on strictly writing stories. I figured I could bounce around between different things and keep my interest going.
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WW: What do you hope people get out of your music and your writing?
JK: I hope they can relate to it, because that's really what I'm going for. I'm trying to say things people think but don't often say. It's almost like you can identify those laughs more than others. You can pick those out because they weren't expecting those laughs. I would like to think that people, even if it's subconsciously, appreciate someone saying or doing something that they don't necessarily feel comfortable doing themselves but yet experiencing in their own ways. I really enjoy that because I feel like I relieve a lot of my guilt by being completely honest with complete strangers, because it's a lot more gratifying and it makes you feel a lot more human. It's interesting when you can take serious issues that people don't even really want to talk about all that often and make it fun.
Jonny Woodrose & the Broken Hearted Woodpeckers, CD release show, with Tailored Rags, Mercureria and the Widows Bane, 9 p.m. Saturday, November 7, Larimer Lounge, 2721 Larimer Street, 303-291-1007.