Inspired by a love of the jukebox, Wonky Tonk is producing country music but with a noticeable difference.
When hearing the debut solo album from Kentucky born and bred singer-songwriter Wonky Tonk, you get the impression that she is a genuine fan of music, such are the various influences at work throughout the aforementioned long player.
With country music providing the main source of inspiration in terms of references, and serving as the musical backdrop to the narratives created by Wonky Tonk (real name Jasmine Pool), there are tinges of other influences ranging from a 90s-indie sound via Evan Dando’s The Lemonheads to Throwing Muses for example, to snippets of doo-wop in the backing vocals, honky tonk, pop and punk rock.
The difficult part no doubt arose when trying to assemble all of the different components of references together, in order to bring some form of cohesion to her debut album ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’, because the variety of sources is most definitely wide, not to mention Wonky Tonk’s passion for other cultural influences such as film and, in particular, Cameron Crowe’s ‘Almost Famous’ that depicts life on both sides of the musical fence of the highs and lows of a rock band and the experiences of a fledgling journalist.
With so many loose ends to tie up in order to get a grasp on the life and times, not to mention the eclectic range of styles underpinning the brand new album from this refreshing and talented artist, Famous Last Words (FLW) simply had to ask the questions which have been burning a sizeable hole in the notebook ever since the first few songs of ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’ entered our lives.
Clearly smitten, FLW sent word of our interest Stateside and within a matter of days the response was positive as Wonky Tonk provided the details, with no better place to begin than where this all started for this country musician with a difference.
“Well, [it was during] high school that I discovered live music and the movie Almost Famous, both of which resonated with me incredibly as a spectator. However, I always imagined myself as Penny Lane, not Russell Hammond [from the film]! To this day, I wake up and wonder how in the world I am one of the music makers. It is a long story but I heard Against Me!, Ramones, Rilo Kiley, Moldy Peaches and Modest Mouse and my whole life changed. I started writing funny tunes for school projects because I have an incredible fear of speaking in front of people, but if I sang the presentation I aced it. Anyway, I teamed up with my best friend at the time for a chemistry project, after which we started playing shows just for fun. The first show I booked that my family could make it to…well, we all showed up and found that Doc’s Show Bar was not for music but a strip club! My grandmother was a good sport though! We went under the name The Wonky Donkeys and released an album ‘Out of the Barn’. A band called Curious Hair even came from Miami, Florida, to play with us! After that, college came, and we all went our separate ways.”
How did you manage to get the singing career back on track, especially considering your fear of speaking in front of people?
“I am shy and awkward,” replies Wonky Tonk. “I needed a way to get people to talk to me without me having to talk first. I also wanted desperately to meet Michael Cera [actor] and, in order to do so, I needed to get famous. So, I started telling venues around Cincy [Cincinnati] that I had a 30 minute set and would love to play. To my surprise, a venue called the Mad Frog responded. I didn’t expect anyone to respond, so I didn’t have any songs or a name! When I got the gig, I had to write tunes which ended up being about Michael Cera, Neverland and food additives. At the time, I was learning banjo and falling in love with cowgirl boots, so since I was deemed the ‘Wonk’ by the Curious Hair [see above], and was part of the previous band I mentioned, Wonky Donkeys, [the name became] Wonky Tonk, and so it began, and now here we are! Life is weird!”
What were the initial blueprints for the ideas behind Wonky Tonk?
“This is an interesting question as it feels very poignant and also broad,” considers Wonky Tonk before continuing, “like you have something specific in mind but are leaving it to interpretation. Aside from that big long rant above, I suppose the blueprints are fluid and ever evolving, and just like my songs, where I sit down to write with my guitar and turn on my recorder and just play. I have no idea what is going to come out. Then I sort through it and build from there. I also love to doodle, and I do the same thing [where] I don’t think, ‘I will draw that stool, or that girl,’ I just think ‘I need to draw’ and then a line appears and then it grows into a chicken with five feet or a cloud full of hearts. The same with [the name] Wonk, I just tried to get people to talk to me and meet Michael Cera. That led to getting booked. To having to write a set! To local and regional press. To award nominations. To festivals and tours. To lovers and school. To life. To trying endlessly to finish a record. Giving up too many times, and then internalizing ‘A cowgirl gets up in the morning, decides what she wants to do, and does it’, as well as ‘the best revenge is living well.’ Wonky Tonk used to be a hobby and then it became my solace, my mantra, how to live well. And it is still evolving!”
It’s time to find out about some of those influences in terms of the Wonky Tonk sound. Therefore, who do you regard as influences in terms of your music?
“All of it,” which makes sense once your ears have been treated to the contents of ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’. “To begin with, my friends Langhorne Slim, Joe Fletcher, Billy Wallace, Angela Perley, Dawg Yawp, July Talk, I could go on. I am so blessed to know such talent. In addition, Miley Cyrus, Jenny Lewis, Feist, Modest Mouse, Ugly Casanova, Moldy Peaches, Otis Redding, Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Ros, Malajube, Tim Kasher,Dead Milkmen, Against Me!, Karen O, Rancid, First Aid Kit, Caitlin Rose, The Cramps, Loretta Lynn, John freaking Prine, Blaze Foley, Townes [Van Zandt]. Also, music that has quirk, emotion and blends topics and styles so that it becomes its own genre and the people behind that who have the imagination and courage to not only create it, but share it with the world. To me, there are three kinds of elements that influence my life and therefore my music: (i) The lyrical genius (John Prine, Guy Clark) (ii) The musical badassery (Sigur Ros, Dawg Yawp, Feist) (iii) The fusion of the two that use both music and lyrics as a vehicle to cope (with happiness, love, heartbreak, life). Also, something that may not be a timeless masterpiece but gives life a bounce in its step, shines some light in a beautiful and unique way (Langhorne Slim, Modest Mouse).”
How would you describe your own sound as there are a few different influences when it comes to your album, ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’?
“Well, I would describe it as ‘figuring it out’,” Wonky Tonk starts explaining. “I had no real intention of what the album would sound like, as my goal was to finish enough songs to make one. I know that is something I probably shouldn’t admit, and to make something up, but that’s not Wonky. The thing is, the record took a quarter of a decade to complete, and almost just as many sound engineers. Since I began Wonky Tonk, I had no formal training or much experience at all when I was approached to record. Recording is an ENTIRELY different world that requires, above vision even, confidence and endurance. Since it was not my original dream to record, the endurance was not there because I hadn’t played for long and people were actually listening, and the confidence was not there. It took many years to learn about myself and life in the studio. I gave up too many times. So each song was a product of that start/stop [process], and in that way documented life from that very moment. Even the album name evolved [from] ‘The Little Big Secret’, ‘Hope For The Flowers’, [but] somehow, magically, the record came out pretty cohesive in sound and spirit. In the same way that when each moment became stuff I needed to let go of, hence the final name.
“Sorry, I was never good at summarizing. I love the big picture, but I am fascinated by the details that create it and thus I am not terribly succinct. Anyway, the sound! Townes [Van Zandt] has a line, ‘she just has to sing for the sake of the song,’ and this is the way I approached each song on the album. Forget ego, forget what I meant when I wrote it, and forget trying to sound like something; stay true to the song, make it all it is supposed to be, represent it the way it is meant to be heard. Music is ours. It is innate. It is human. I think these songs chose me so I could represent them for the world to finally hear, I do not view the songs as this message brought to you by Jasmine Poole, now listen. I just heard the song and where it wanted to go and what it wanted to be, and produced each in that way. Sounds like ‘figuring it out’.”
Having established, therefore, that Wonky Tonk’s solo venture was a steep learning curve in terms of song writing and the actual recording process in terms of studio work, the length of time it has taken for the ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’ to finally make its entrance in the music world becomes clearer considering it began eight years ago. However, with the additional help of Eric Cronstein, Jake Tippey, Mike Ingram and Brian Olive, Wonky Tonk was finally able to overcome a number of obstacles relating to confidence, vision, timing and even ownership of her own artistic creativity as she explained to FLW:
“Wherever I went, I ran into me. I think that until 2015, I never owned Wonky Tonk, I just played pretend. It wasn’t until April 2015 I finally accepted that music was what I was supposed to do, and from there everything went pretty smoothly.”
Do you think that these struggles that you were experiencing in terms of confidence and ownership in relation to your music, helped inspire the album title for your current record?
“The evolution of the songs came and went just like the album titles,” replies Wonky Tonk. “Then I realized these songs were mile markers from the life I had been blindly trudging through, and that I had survived! But in order to move forward, I had to acknowledge and embrace the journey and the weight of lessons learned and leave it all behind. Like the last scene of Darjeeling Limited [film] where the characters shed the literal baggage they have been holding onto the entire film in order to catch the train to the rest of their life.”
Do you have a favourite song from the album and why?
“Every time I think that I do, I fall in love with another one,” says Wonky Tonk. “I think all in all I love ‘One For The Juke’, but it also might be because it is the newest and still kind of a fresh song from the sonic chronicles of my life. It’s about how ‘heartbreak makes the jukebox play’, and that I was finally learning I was looking for love in the wrong places and that my life was on the road with music, not stationary and compromising with a person. The moment you realize the heavy things [in life] are just stuff, then you can let them gooooo! But I think this is an interesting question because each song is this window into a memory of my past, so these songs resonate differently to me than anyone else because of proximity and reference, and then even more so because of consequence to how much I have left behind. For example, some songs that used to make me angry, I have found peace with the memory, and now it makes me laugh instead.”
FLW is very impressed with the entire contents of ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’, but there is one song in particular, and it is the one that kick-starts everything, ‘Turn The Radio On’, that continues to send shivers down the spine on repeat visits. Therefore, can you shed some light on this wonderful opening ditty?
“(I’ll) Turn The Radio on is a cover by Walela [a trio of singers],” answers Wonky Tonk. “Grandmaw Wonk is into our Cherokee heritage and loved this tune. I remember her showing it to me in her kitchen and her singing along. It was a beautiful tune and a beautiful memory. I asked to hear it again just so I could hear her sing and see her smile again and hear the words, which reminded me of the scene in Almost Famous when shit gets dumb (paraphrase) ‘and if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends’. This particular tune resonated with my life at the time, as the album was almost finished and it was becoming stuff I was leaving behind, and the sentiment of when there is nothing left, I turn my radio on; I visit my friends. From there, I latched on to the idea of it being a solemn intro to an already sporadic album, it was a punk beginning. We recorded this in the Church of Martini (which is a church/punk venue) acapella. My Dad’s ex‐wife, my dad’s current secretary, a dad’s ex‐lover, and a lovely musical friend all came together to make this happen.”
Where do you see your music in terms of the wider music scene? Also, is your music about trying to change anything in particular?
“I have never thought about this,” she ponders for a moment. “Where do I see it? I see it as part of small communities, in movies and in commercials. The music is about how we all go through good things and bad, and while not trying to be sunshine and rainbows all the time, seeking and finding a silver lining is a lesson in even the meekest of struggles. If anything, trying to change apathy and self-defeat into possibility. Like me, I don’t think it fits anywhere but moving.”
If you’re seeking something with a bit more originality behind it, then you’ve come to the right place with Wonky Tonk and her album, ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’. By holding a suitable moniker, considering the wide array of influences skewered into the ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’, this singer-songwriter is ferociously independent as indicated by her creative toying with the so-called rules when it comes to different genres by applying her own touches, and bringing out a largely country sound fused with a variety of different elements from indie to pop music. With her actual roots stemming from a love of punk music, the attitude of this genre goes some way to explaining the amalgamation of sounds making up Wonky Tonk’s solo album, and a definite reason to investigate this fascinating artist in far greater detail due to her refreshing honesty, delightful sense of humour and knowhow when it comes to writing a stirring ballad or two! For all of those reasons above, the final words of the day really are reserved for the country singer with a difference, Wonky Tonk!
“It’ a Wonky world and we are just living in it,” she initially jests before adding. “Ha, no, I think live well, support one another, strive to be better, and listen to music!”
(Photography courtesy of Gary Mitchell and Panda)
I had no real intention of what the album would sound like, as my goal was to finish enough songs to make one."
FLW - From the Tapes
Wonky Tonk provides some details to the inspiration for the album cover of her solo record, ‘Stuff We Leave Behind’.
“I bought the skeleton suit a few months earlier [before the album] just because it was neat and I hadn’t seen anyone wear one. When thinking of the cover, I had painted something earlier with this cowgirl on the highway and a hotel sign (Vagabond Hotel in Wyoming) in the background, and the buffalo on the back. It turned out that it felt a little too literal, so I thought maybe I should make it into a photoshoot. Then I thought, stuff we leave behind is bleak and I am leaving behind the bones, the marrow of lost love and youth. Let’s just use the skeleton and put it on white [background], but of course I had to keep the tonk involved, hence suitcase and boots. Matt Mooney of Royal Holland helped me navigate Photoshop and Scott Beseler took the photo.”