Big on Tidal: Jon Solo Makes Ocean Music From His Railroad Apartment

Jon Solo at his home studio. (Photo: Media Scheme)

We all have those musician friends we never hear from until their band is pulling a gig that starts at 2 a.m. in Bed Stuy. That person who is in their sixth band since moving to New York and “this is the one.” The bartender who is “really a musician.” Jon Solo is not one of those guys.

If you happen to bump into him in Brooklyn when he isn’t touring, you might not know he’s a musician (his mustache/chivito doesn’t really count as a beard in these parts). But in the last ten years, he’s been a regular band member for Angus and Julia Stone, Brett Dennen, and Passenger.

In addition to impressive recording credits, he’s played Letterman, Leno, Conan, Kimmel, and Good Morning America. He’s played Coachella, Bonnaroo, Governors Ball, Austin City Limits, and a ton of European music festivals, including last summer’s set at the Montreaux Jazz Festival as his solo artist persona, Naneum.

Naneum’s first record, Home for Hemingway, came out last year. A solo piano effort, its gentle, compelling melodies include welcome oddities, such as found footage of Brooklyn conversations, or the soothing wheezes and creaks of the breathing piano itself. The recording seems to catch not just the music, but the sunlight in Solo’s Greenpoint studio.

I caught Solo last summer with Brett Dennen at the Prospect Park bandshell, which was cancelled after the first two songs were deliriously enhanced by a lightning storm. In November, Dennen headlined Irving Plaza to a raucous crowd, and Solo surprised by not just playing piano and guitar, but even taking a verse. Realizing his versatility is perhaps just getting warmed up, I caught up with him via email to see what’s next, and to get an early peek at his new record, Open Sea, which drops February 13. You can play a track from it, “Accretion,” directly below.

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BB_Q(1) This music is quite different from the bands you tour with as a supporting player. What’s the dynamic for you between the different styles of music, or between playing on others’ tracks versus being the sole creator?

BB_A(1) When I work with other artists, I try to get inside their head and play what they’re hearing, to the best of my abilities. Everyone hears music differently so it’s a challenge.  I’ll start with how I hear the music first, and tweak it to their desire. Collaborating helps me grow as a musician, but you have to be open and not get upset when someone says they don’t like what you played. That’s why I really love creating my own music, because I get to play how I hear a song. I feel the ultimate freedom when I’m in my studio creating whatever I feel comes to me. I like to work quick and play off first reactions more than sit and think about what to add.

BB_Q(1) What are your influences for this output? And how would you compare the new record to Home for Hemingway? 

BB_A(1) A few influences are Jónsi & Alex’s album, Riceboy Sleeps. Also Ólafur Arnalds, Slow Meadow, Goldmund, and Islands of Light.  These guys are all making incredible music. I went into making Home for Hemingway with no concept in mind. I just wanted to record an instrumental record, based around the piano. After I signed to Electrofone Music, I wanted to write a group of songs that were more cohesive. A good friend of mind suggested I should make a record based around sounds of the ocean.

BB_Q(1) Speaking of touring versus making your own music— is this part of a broader lifestyle change? Are you hoping to do more studio work and less work on the road?

BB_A(1) Yes, after many years on the road, I’m not as excited as I used to be before heading out. I’ve been extremely lucky to have toured at the level I have, and will continue to do so, but I’d like to explore other possibilities as a musician. I’ve always been a creator, and I need that in my life in order to feel balanced.

BB_Q(1) What’s the story behind the artist name Naneum? And the cover photo for Open Sea?

BB_A(1) As a kid, my father would take me fly fishing just north of my small town in Washington state to a canyon, called the Naneum. I have fond memories of spending my childhood in the woods and exploring. I felt this music reflected the landscape and openness that you don’t get living in Brooklyn. The cover was shot by my friend Jarrad Seng, a photographer from Australia, while he was on a trip to Antarctica.

BB_Q(1) How long have you lived in Greenpoint? I know you used to have a baby grand in your railroad apartment, which seems crazy. How has the neighborhood changed for someone who’s so often on the road?

BB_A(1) In September of this year it will mark 19 years of living in Greenpoint, and my apartment! I did have a grand piano in here; yes, that was crazy, and overkill.  Obviously, there’s more to do in the hood than in 2000, but it still feels relatively the same to me. Every time I’d leave on a big tour, I’d come back months later and see a store has closed, and a new one has opened.

BB_Q(1) Favorite Greenpoint hangouts—or favorite foods to order in during late-night studio sessions?

BB_A(1) My wife and I really love Cherry Point on Manhattan Ave. for dinner. Goldie’s on Nassau is a great bar, and Keg and Lantern cause I love sports. I’m excited that Greenpoint Palace reopened recently.  The best Thai food is from Amarin and I’ve been ordering from them for years.

Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels “The Painted GunandKilling Williamsburg,” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”

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Punchland Staff
Punchland Staff
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