Growing up in San Francisco, I have been around all kinds of music. I’ve always been interested in how different influences can shape a musician’s creations. Having been fortunate enough to work with artists from many different genres and backgrounds, I have been exposed to a wide range of styles. Through the Outfluence series of interviews, I hope to learn about the journeys of the the musicians who have mentored me most over the years and possibly discover how these musicians have shaped me and my creations as well.
For my first interview, I spoke with Jon Bernson, a songwriter/recordist/teacher who introduced me to the world of modern music.
What is your instrument of choice?
Lately, the computer. I use lots of different instruments, but the computer session is where it all comes together. As much as I love singing, guitars, synths, and beats, at the end of the day, the computer/software combo allows them to intersect in really creative ways.
Is there an artist you draw inspiration from the most?
I have respect for so many different artists. Most of the time, there’s a particular aspect of an artist’s style that will grab me and inspire me. Off the top of my head, the lyrics of Leonard Cohen, David Berman, and Yoni Wolf; the sound worlds of of Phil Elverum and Brian Eno; the rhythms of Tuneyards, Kraftwerk, and Samiyam, and the chord progressions of George Harrison and Jeff Lynne. I may not love every aspect of any artist (including myself), but I’m inspired by certain aspects of many. I’m really influenced by the people I play and collaborate with — in the end, they are my greatest teachers.
Exray’s performing live in San Francisco.
What are you working on at the moment?
The main creative project I’m working on is an Exray’s multi-genre story called Vessel XII. It’s a science-fiction tale that’s communicated through music, imagery, and video, as well as an interactive map and a few other physical pieces. It’s been really fun, but the broad scope has required a lot of time. There are a few completed albums by another project I’m involved with called THEMAYS which will come out in 2014. Also, I wrote a one act play called A Guide to the Aftermath which was performed as part of the Storyworks in May. Storyworks is a collaboration between Tides Theater and the Center for Investigative Reporting that transforms investigative news stories into plays. Seems like I am going in a direction that includes multiple types of media at the same time. Sunset Media Wave really plays into that too.
A scene from Vessel XII
How does teaching inspire the music you create and vice versa?
When I teach, I have to find a way to articulate things that I do intuitively as an artist. The process has to be broken down into understandable pieces so it can be shared. The other trick is keeping the big picture in mind in the midst of all that. Beginning with a person’s passion is the key. If a student isn’t passionate about what they’re doing, then there’s no art, just craft. I didn’t really start creating until I started trying to make things I didn’t know how to make. The things I wanted to do were beyond my immediate abilities. That is the ultimate environment for learning. I feel like that has affected my teaching because I’m primarily interested in what people are motivated to do. Then I can help them take a few steps back and develop the skills they need to be able to achieve their goal. The other thing I would say is that, when you are teaching, you are reminding yourself of what you believe in. It acts as a double reinforcement. So when you go back to what you are working on, your muse becomes stronger. It just makes me more conscious of what I believe in and how I feel art should be made and how I like to make it when I am at my best.
Teaching the Auditorium class for the Sunset Neighborhead Beacon Center.
What are your first memories of music?
My family used to sit around and sing folk songs. We would take traditional songbooks, go through them, and pick songs. I started singing in school plays and musicals when I was in Kindergarten. I’m pretty thankful for those experiences because I started singing before anyone had a chance to tell me whether I was good or not. I just did it because I enjoyed it. No one in my family could sing, that’s for sure! I think this influenced my taste because I tend to like singers who don’t sing very well!. I’m looking for some personality and hoping they have something to say. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer vocals that are in tune, but I also feel like singing is more like storytelling: having something worthwhile to communicate is more important than having perfect grammar.
Exray’s Ancient Thing 7″.
Have early experiences with folk music played a part into what you create now?
When I was really young, my singing style was more earthy and folky. Folk songs showed me how clarity can be powerful in music. They’re never very abstract. In the beginning, my style was rooted in that idea, but over time, I started getting into more experimental territory. When I look at a great abstract painting, I don’t need to know what it’s about. It’s powerful for different reasons. And the same can be said for music. These days I ride the pendulum between these two and get off when it feels right.
What is the musical journey/process that you have gone on that has taken you to where you are now?
Early memories, folk songs and musicals, choirs in middle school, rock cover bands and rapping in the shower in high school. When I was in college I started getting into jazz and tried to get my slow hands to improvise. When I was seventeen, I started working on original music for the first time. Some friends and I formed a jazz-rock-instrumental quartet. We didn’t know what we were doing, but our attempts to make something new were really exciting. Toward the end of college, I started writing my own songs. Again, they weren’t very good, but for the first time, I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to in life. Without writing my own autobiography, I will say that everything has grown from that feeling: the desire to learn more about sound, software and recording, to become a better writer and learn more about music theory, to teach other people, to score plays and films, to collaborate on videos, on and on, it never stops.
Scene from Jon’s play ‘A Guide to the Aftermath.’
Was there ever a distinct point where you knew music was going to be a big part of your life?
There are lots of different points. Around junior and senior year of college, I started to realize that I was an artist. I’ve always been into music, but didn’t know that when I was a kid. As I got older, I started to look around and see what other people were good at and think about what I was good at. After a certain point, I realized that music was what I was best at, and what I loved the most. It’s not something I over-romanticize. It’s not easy, and it goes hand in hand with many difficult choices, but it fuels me and has given me a deep sense of purpose and happiness.
Are you happy with were you are musically? Where do you hope to be in the next 5-6 years?
I am happy. I’ve invested a lot of energy into learning how to make the kind of music that I want to hear. I’m getting to a place where I can have fun and be serious at the same time. I have goals for the future, but I also feel like those external goals can get in the way of moving forward. The way I’ve decided to work, both from a career standpoint and from creative standpoint, is to try to always be connecting with people who are doing things that are genuinely inspirational. Its all about people. Things tend to happen and fall in place when you are collaborating and developing good relationships. Whether it means being on a bigger label, getting better shows, or meeting someone who wants to write about you. In my experience, those types of things are not the result of intention alone. They are the results of making genuine connections to people who want to build with you.
Exray’s performing live in Los Angeles.