Interview: Jonathan Terrell on being finally ready to break out of Texas

Member of the Midland family and now part of Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Festival family.

Though he has toured the UK five times, Jonathan Terrell’s star still burns brightest in Texas, particularly as he is a member of Midland’s touring band and is part of Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Festival family. While he has released a number of independent releases, he has now signed to a major label, Range Music/Virgin, and he is hoping to bring his Texas success to the wider US and hopefully Europe. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Jonathan Terrell in Lockhart, Texas, over Zoom to discuss his new EP, ‘A Couple 2, 3’, produced by the Texas Gentleman’s Beau Bedford. He gives an insight into his approach to songwriting and explains that while his new EP only has six tracks, he started with seventy-five songs. For aspiring singer-songwriters he gives a hint at the difference working with a supportive major label makes compared to being an independent artist. Finally, he consoles himself with the fact that it isn’t just Texas that has a government that is out of step with the majority of the population.

How are you?

I’m fine and in Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles south of Austin.

A lot is going on in Texas these days.

It’s very special at the moment and going through a lot of changes, and hopefully a lot more. So, fingers crossed.

How do you navigate all that in terms of your music?

I feel it changes pretty drastically every so often. There is nothing to really do other than make your vote count, and be supportive of people who are going through hard times. Hopefully, those things can change on their own, and there are a lot of people in Texas who are ready for a change for the better. We will see how it goes.

Texas is a big part of you though, isn’t it?

Oh yes, big time. I think I’m dealing with it like anybody else, it is just that it is always going to be changing. Just like the UK or any state, I don’t know of any country that feels fully represented by its leadership, those points will never touch. It is best to keep it going and keep moving, to be honest.

What is your relationship with Midland?

Sensual, haha. They are good friends of mine, and I’ve known them for a long time. They have me out to open shows a lot, then they had me fill in for Jess, Jess Carson, for a little while when he was dealing with some health issues. That run of five months certainly brought us closer as a bunch of friends. They are great dudes, and they have always treated me with a lot of respect and a lot of love.

You have some co-writes with them as well, I believe.

We’ve written a lot of things together, and they have played some pretty big shows and they have had me out to support those. They have given me a spotlight on their stage, certainly, and I’m really thankful for that, to be honest.

Why is now the time for an EP ‘A Couple 2, 3’.

It is part of the game plan with the whole team after the deal I signed last November. As I’m sure you know, people digest music differently now, unfortunately, and the best way to capitalise on that is to just go with the flow. So, we felt the best way for these songs to get heard and put a deep footprint in the path we want to take was to start with these six songs, and that way we can put multiple singles out for it and see what happens next. There are a lot more songs to come, I think there were seventy-five songs set aside for this EP. We are going to see how the EP does, and up to now, it has been really popular with people taking to the videos and checking out the music. So, we will see if there is another full-length or EP coming in, and we will keep it cooking.

How did you pick these particular six songs, if you have that many songs to choose from?

As part of the narrative if this was going to be my first conversation with the world, and I’ve been putting out serval albums in the past independently and mostly in Texas, and we felt that these six songs stretched over the territory that we really wanted to cover. They felt friendly as singles, they felt deep from a good songwriter’s perspective, and I think they just covered a lot of bases for us. What are the first impressions we want to make and what do we want to say? We started with a ton of them, and nobody wanted to hear all of them so I narrowed down to like twenty-five, and I then sat down with my producer and we narrowed those down to fifteen. We then showed those fifteen songs to my team, and we ended up recording eight of them, I think, so there are still a couple of songs in our back pocket. We wanted the EP to have the right vibe and the right flow, and the six songs really worked well together and built each other up.

What’s your approach to songwriting?

I take notes, daily. If a song grabs me and it is like it’s time then everything gets cleared, and I’m sitting down and I’m on it, that is what is happening. But sometimes, you’ll chase it for a minute or whatever, and I’m like, OK, I’ll keep that melody in my back pocket, and I’ll write that line down. Sometimes it will stay in my book for a week, sometimes for a year, and I might be working on a song even with someone else, and I’ll use this a line I have in my catalogue. Even like the song ‘Texas’, I wrote that song in ten minutes, and it just came out, but there are songs I have that I’ve been working on for three years, and one day they will be ready, haha. You want to massage them, but you don’t want to push them. I’ve recorded songs before when they didn’t really feel ready, it was like OK, I guess this is what it is, but it is the most important thing to have full communication with that song and a full relationship with that song before it is ready to be recorded.

In terms of the recording, what was Texas Gentleman Beau Bedford like to work with?

He is a sweet dude, he is very Zen, he has great ideas, and honestly, even if Beau and I weren’t working on these songs, we would be great friends. He is just a really positive dude, and it is such an easy flow in the studio. We have never argued about anything, it is normal that we are both in the mindset of this all for the sake of the song, in terms of the Townes Van Zandt song, we are all here to be vessels of the song, conduits. And so, we are only doing this to make the song better and there is no ego between us, is this song going to be the shit or is it not, haha? But you need to be on the same page for that.

You make it sound very easy, particularly from a relationship point of view.

Sure, but you have to have a relationship first before you can get in there and work with somebody. We’ve had disagreements in the studio, hey I really want this part to go like this, and Beau is like, I think it should go like this., and then we are, well let’s just try both because the song will tell us which one is better. It is not like a competition, if you believe in something you fight for it and you are in there with your partner and producer, and I trust his opinions and feedback, and if he feels strongly about something I trust that and respect it, and vice versa.

How much is Range Music/Virgin helping you these days?

They got me here with you, haha. They have been great, and it has been night and day since putting music out as an independent, I’ve never had this much support or this many eyes on what I’m doing. As I said, it is night and day from where I was a year ago. I know a lot of people on their team, and I knew a lot of people before I signed, and they don’t put their weight behind something unless they believe in it, and they don’t drop the ball on anything either. It is a 100% commitment with them, and that is a big reason I wanted to sign with them for sure. I knew whatever they put their weight behind it would be a full commitment. You hear these label horror stories of being shelved and left high and dry, and they have no relationship with people on their team, and what I’m doing means a lot not just to me, but also to them. They are happy to see me as an artist and their friend. I’m pretty stoked about it.

You played Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Festival this year, what was that like?

That was pretty cool, it’s not a bad name association, haha. There are some great bands on that whole bill, and I’ve been a fan of what they’ve been doing at Luck for years. You always kind of hope that they see what you are doing, but it wasn’t until I started making the right moves and being a little smarter about things like the presentation of what I’m doing that made me a little bit more visible to them. They are really sweet people, and they call it the Luck family because once you are in the family there is nobody on that team I couldn’t call right now and ask a real favour if I needed it. I feel pretty lucky about that, no pun intended, haha.

Who are still your own personal musical heroes that are still valid for you?

I would say to start, Tom Petty because he really changed the page for me because I was like this is the lifestyle I want, this is the job I want, these are the things I want to say, this is how I want it to look on stage, and this is how I want my shows to feel. Tom Petty was a big breakthrough for me, on songwriting my big influences would be Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Dean Dylan would be a big one, and I think I check in with those names on nearly every song I write.  I kind of pass it through my mental test of is this everything I want to say, is this the right way to say it? There is so much poetry in Kristofferson’s lyrics, and so much of less is more in Willie’s lyrics, as well as Dean Dylan’s. They really paint a picture, they just dig in and say it in very few words, so their words are so much more meaningful than what is happening on the seventh verse, or about the opening line.

What are your solo shows like?

Riveting, haha. They are super fun for me because I feel like if I’m playing a listening room up to 15,000 people it is the same, I feel my job is to get in there and grab them with the first song, keep their attention, and tell them some stories. I treat it like a show I would want to see, and if I went to a show and it is just like I sit there and play a song, play a song, and there is no investment and there is no communication with the audience, I’m like OK, I saw it, but I’m not like emotionally invested in it. With my solo shows, I do try and make an honest connection with my audience, and hopefully, with that connection, they will pay that little bit deeper attention and maybe digest some of my lyrics a little better, and maybe they will find something in my lyrics to take home with them.

Are you still playing the same venues?

I’ve been mostly playing solo shows all year because that is one of the deals we have when they said we are going to put you as a support act for about a year before you start headlining your own shows. So, they are putting me in front of several thousand people every night and once we’ve built that up we will come back and do a headline tour. I honestly don’t know what a headline tour is going to look like after this, because before we were just coming out of the pandemic when we signed the deal. I was doing a support tour then, and I was doing really well in Texas as far as nightclubs and honky tonks go, but I honestly don’t know what it will be like when I come out on a headline tour. You and me are going to find out together, brother, haha.

Any plans to come to the UK?

I was there last week for The Long Road Festival, I had some plans for the UK, and I was able to follow through on them. That was a great festival, it really felt like a real pickathon with the vibe out there, and Baylen Leonard and his team really did a great job on that with some great acts. The people were really sweet, and on the shows, I played there the people were so attentive. There were both solo shows I played, and I probably had several hundred people there, and you could hear a draft beer poured at the back of the room, haha. I’ve heard some whispers about C2C, so keep your fingers crossed, and tell them to bring me over, haha. This last trip was maybe my fifth time to tour the UK, and I like it and it is a big change. I mean, it is so hot here the only chance I get to wear cool jackets is in the UK, haha. It gives me the opportunity to give my wardrobe a little boost.

At Americana UK we like to ask interviewees what they are listening to now, your top three artists, albums, or tracks?

I will tell you what I was listening to yesterday, me and my fiancé were driving out near San Antonio, and we were listening to the new Wet Leg album which is a great record. We went and had some dinner, and we were scream-singing Lana Del Rey on the way home, haha, and we also listened to George Strait’s first album because I was piddling around trying to learn ‘Right or Wrong’ which was a Bob Wills song. I’m leaving on a tour with William Clark Green, and we are going up through Montana and Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington, and I always like to have a couple of new covers in my back pocket for each tour because I just want to get something fresh. I’m playing with a Texas band so why not some Bob Wills, I thought. It is a great song, and a great arrangement, you just got to get that Bob Wills call right, haha. I stayed out a little late last night, and we saw Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, it was a really great show, and we went out for a couple afterwards so I might have to wait until after 2:00 pm Texas time to hit those higher Bob Wills notes, haha.

Is there anything you want to say to our UK Readers?

Just I really think there is some strong material on the EP, and coming out of the pandemic I feel that I have written so many songs that are introspective, that I think on the EP I’m ready to dance, I’m ready to shake some of the dust of the shoulders and I’m ready to feel good again. That is what a lot of the EP is about, just lifting my own spirit, so hopefully, I can lift some spirits over in the States, and over there for you guys. 

Jonathan Terrell’s ‘A Couple 2, 3’ is out now on Range Music.

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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