Two decades of touring, nine studio albums, ten EPs, 23 charting singles and highly loyal fan base. You would think that much work would have robbed Switchfoot vocalist Jon Foreman of his enthusiasm, but a single look at the vocalist’s Twitter feed shows otherwise. The 38-year-old singer appears equally thrilled and appreciative of his occupation as he was at his first festival performance.
Foreman’s latest efforts include a four EP solo-project titled The Wonderlands. Each of the four include six songs (with the exception of the Darkness EP) for a sum total of 25 songs, one song for each hour in the day – and another because he is Jon Foreman and can do what he wants. The third of the four EPs dropped in early September, and the final is set for one month later, in late October. The Wonderlands contain arguably some of Foreman’s most open lyrics of his career and should keep people thinking long after listening. Through this stripped down solo project, he shows he’s just another person whose days are filled with hopes, fears, faith and uncertainty. Hear what he has to say about the experience of recording the EPs and his take on faith and doubt in this interview.
First off, I got to say, you’ve been putting out music for nearly 20 years now. God only knows how many shows you’ve played. But I looked over your Twitter feed while setting up for the interview and saw that you seem just as excited as ever to play shows. How do you keep yourself from getting tired of the industry?
Ah, well… The business is the business. Fortunately, I get to play music. Music for me is really life-giving. As long as I’m not balancing the checkbook, trying to washing dishes or run a restaurant (I’m fine) (laughs). I’ve had a real job before, so I really appreciate my line of work.
I’m glad. I love seeing how you interact with fans on social media and after shows. It looks exhausting after a while, but I’m glad you can do it.
I mean, there are moments of being tired and stuff, but I always say I play the shows for free – I get paid to get on an airplane and spend weeks away from my wife and daughter. That’s what I get paid for. The shows? That’s just fun.
You also do an after party show after pretty much every Switchfoot concert. When did that begin?
That started years ago. I think I was inspired (while) hanging out with my friends in a band called Nickel Creek. They come from more of a bluegrass perspective. It’s not uncommon at a bluegrass festival to see the headliner just jamming around a fire with a bunch of people after the main stage performance. At least that’s what they tell me, and that’s what my experience was hanging out with them.
It’s acoustic music, so you got your mandolin, your guitar, your fiddle and you’re ready (to perform) anywhere. With guitar rock, you gotta have your amplifier and drums, you know? It’s a lot more complex (when) electricity is involved. But I was inspired that they are always playing. As a songwriter, I thought, “Wow. That’s so fun. I could play all the songs that no one ever hears.” Because after (a Switchfoot concert), I’m in the dressing room playing anyways. I may as well share the experience, you know?
So that’s where it came from. You find a parking lot or a coffee shop or bar, somewhere that feels conducive for playing a few more songs and you let it fly.
You’ve also played some weird places. Didn’t you recently play on a random bridge in Nashville or something?
Yeah, that was fun. That was weird. There’s an optimal number of people (a venue fits), right? Well, that was too many! It got to a point where I was like, “Thanks for being here, but I don’t have a PA, so those hundred people over there aren’t going to hear anything” (laughs).
I like that your solo work has become a major part of your career. You put out three EPs this year and you’re about to put out one more. Tell me about that.
Yeah, this concept has two main elements. First, there are 24 songs for 24 hours. I wanted to create this musical planet where you can explore themes like faith and doubt; pain, hope and joy; purpose… To ask what it means to be human with the metaphor of light and darkness. For me, that’s what the wonderlands was – creating a musical planet out of melody and lyrics.
The other concept is that even though it’s a solo project, I wanted to have other (musician) sparring partners in the ring with me to hit back with their musical muscles. The question became, “How do you make a record while you’re touring?” because (Switchfoot was) touring Fading West. I had all these songs, so I started giving these songs to different producers to produce. You know, handpicking friends and musical heroes to make it happen.
That’s exactly what we did: We started giving songs out to people like Taylor from Paramore, Darren from Mutemath, Andrew from Grouplove, Jeff Coffin from Dave Mathews Band, Charlie Peacock and all these different people. I would send them a song at some phase whether it was a full demo or a clip. The one I sent to Darren was just me playing this song on a little Casio keyboard during an after-show that somebody sent me from YouTube. I sent him a link to that video and he produced the song based on that. It was a really enjoyable process.
The only tricky thing was trying to reel everyone in so that it felt like every song was distinct and unique, but a part of the same family.
Right. I’m sure with 24 producers, a lot of them had different producing styles.
Yeah, it’s so interesting. Some would send me the first draft and I would be blown away. “Wow. That’s it. I’m ready. Send me the files, and let’s take it from there.” Other ones would send over the first draft and like… I’ve heard the expression “talking about music is like singing about architecture.” Like, how do you say, “I want something that sounds purple and feels gritty?” You do your best with words, but, ultimately, you almost have to play it, feel it and hear it before you know what you’re talking about or what you’re listening to. So some of the (producers) required a lot of back and forth. But only one of the songs was such that I had to scrap everything. Usually what they were doing was adding to the song in a way I never would have chosen to go, but it was beautiful.
That’s really cool. Who are some artists you haven’t collaborated with yet that you would most want to work with?
I think it comes down to who I’ve been listening to lately. I’ve been a huge fan of Sufjan Stevens throughout the years.
Michael Keywanuka would be phenomenal. He has so much soul. On the pop side, maybe someone like Twenty One Pilots.
That’d be rad. I’d love to see what they could do. I’ve noticed that while Switchfoot has spiritual undertones (in the lyrics), your solo work has spiritual overtones. Is there a reason why there is more of an open approach?
That’s a good question. For me, the solo stuff is a different place, a different time of day. Switchfoot is made for the party – the rock show. Lights are up, there’s a smoke machine, a drum set. (Pause) It’s really hard to be confessional when you’re playing an electric guitar (laughs). You know, you’re singing anthems.
(My solo work) is the stuff where there are two or three people hanging out in someone’s apartment late at night and the concept of faith comes up. It’s a little more confessional in nature. You can put those feelings and thoughts out there in melodies that feel like they’re conducive to the environment.
“If you’re going to have a conversation about predestination or freewill, it’s best to have that conversation while serving the homeless and feeding the hungry.”
One concept that hit me a lot from the EPs is the concept of doubt. How do you personally see doubt play out in your life?
I think doubt is present in any issue that requires faith. I think it’s neither good nor bad; it’s present. To ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist is to do yourself a disservice because it powers the doubt. There’s a line from our very first record that I heard my dad say once: “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs.” So the question isn’t whether you have doubts or not. You can doubt that your wife loves you, you can doubt that your friends have your best interest in mind, you can doubt that our government is going to withstand another year (laughs). Some of these doubts are very real. I can doubt whether Congress is going to come up with a budget in time. They have a track record, so that’s a very legitimate doubt.
When it comes to issues of faith and doubt, I think it might be best to talk about these things with actions rather than words. My brother in-law, David, says, If you’re going to have a conversation about predestination or freewill, it’s best to have that conversation while serving the homeless and feeding the hungry. So that’s the way I view doubt and faith. They’re always there, but I think they’re best displayed by the way we live our lives rather than what we say with our mouths.
I like that a lot. Are there times in your life when you feel your doubts are stronger than your faith?
Yeah. There are moments. The thing about doubt and faith is that they’re both equally logical. To say this world is inherently evil, that pain is the end and meaning is absent from the human story, these are things you can neither prove nor disprove. You can logically deduce that from many stories.
Or you can say, “No. Pain has a purpose. The human story has a bigger story than pain and that’s not the end. There is hope, there is meaning, there is worth.” That’s equally logical. But it’s a choice. Both doubt and belief are a choice. I find that the choice becomes heightened when pain is present. When everything is fine, you know, my car has full tank of gas and I’m going surfing with my friends, I’m not usually thinking about belief or doubt. It’s only when there is suffering and I’m at the end of myself, asking God, “Why am I faced with these questions?”
But I do think that those questions can actually bring us to belief. That’s where the human choice comes in: The terrible beauty of the freedom we are afforded. What a beautiful, wonderful, horrible thing it is to be free.
One song I enjoyed most out of the EPs is “Patron Saint of Rock and Roll.” It hit me personally because I often struggle and get turned off of Christianity because of other Christians. How do you keep yourself from being jaded towards fellow believers?
You know, I think the church, as a human institution, is doomed for failure. Soren Kierkegaard called it “Christendom.” I see Christendom as distinct from the Bride of Christ.
There is a commercial and social enterprise of being Church that is different from being the hands and feet of Christ. Separate those. When I’m hurt by people calling themselves believers, when those people are acting with anything less than the intentions and actions of Christ, I can somehow say, “OK, this is part of what it means to be human.” And then I see similarities in my own heart: I also hurt people. I also have let people down by saying I’m a believer and failing to adhere to these high standards. That’s one way that I get through.
I grew up in the church. My dad’s a pastor. I’ve seen the beauty (of people loving) each other with selfless love, and I’ve seen the horrible monster of power (where people) say, “I’m telling you this in the name of God!” But, wow, that didn’t feel very God-like at all.
“But I do think that those questions can actually bring us to belief. That’s where the human choice comes in: The terrible beauty of the freedom we are afforded. What a beautiful, wonderful, horrible thing it is to be free.”
I think for me, being able to distinguish between those two elements helps me forgive and helps me identify those same horrible monsters within me.
Right on. Finally, if there was a patron saint of rock and roll, who would that be?
Well, my friend heard (the song) and was like, “Oh, are you talking about Bono?” (Laughs.) You can’t go with someone who’s alive, right? You can’t be a saint while still living. So maybe it’s Johnny Cash?
Jon Foreman was posted on September 28, 2015 for HM Magazine and authored by Sean Huncherick.