20 questions with Jonathan Foster

Posted 9/15/22

Where did you grow up?

Cranberry Lake. It’s way up in the Adirondack Mountains. It’s very rural. The town over is called Star Lake, 16 to 20 miles away. I went K-12 there. Just a real …

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20 questions with Jonathan Foster

Where did you grow up?

Cranberry Lake. It’s way up in the Adirondack Mountains. It’s very rural. The town over is called Star Lake, 16 to 20 miles away. I went K-12 there. Just a real small foothill community.

Did you come from a musical family?

Not so much. I kind of figured it out on my own.

Both of my grandfathers did have musical instruments, but I didn’t hear them play much.

My dad’s dad had harmonicas. But I never heard them play; they were always in a drawer. He brought back Hohners from Germany in World War II. It’s one of my favorite instruments.

Was music a big part of your childhood?

My parents had a lot of cool friends and they had cool record collections. We didn’t have a TV until I was older.

We were lucky to have music in school, just general music class. I picked up the trumpet, and the piano was my first instrument, but they were at school. My friend gave me a guitar when I was 15.

His parents owned a thrift store. I don’t know if he was supposed to give me that guitar but I still have it.

In college, I had a band to pay the bills, doing hits of the day, doing parties, and started doing coffeehouse stuff to work on my own things. I never really put it down.

What did your mother and father do for work?

My parents met in college. They decided to move up to where I was born and grew up, in Cranberry Lake.

My mom, on a whim got a job at the hospital, the smallest in New York state.

She was an RN for 30-plus years. My dad ended up being a carpenter.

They moved up there sight unseen because it was beautiful and affordable. In the ’70s they bought a small plat of land and built a log home on it.

What place do you call your hometown now?

Redding. I’m just not there anymore. I’ll be on the road more than I’ll be in Redding this year.

I have a home and wife. As long as she don’t change the locks on me.

What brought you west?

I got an internship in Sacramento pretty much right of out of school. Biologist is my other hat I still wear time to time.

That’s what brought me out to California, was work. They [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] offered me full-time work and I took it.

[A promotion transferred him to Redding, where he’s lived since 2004.]

The last 10 to 12 years, I’ve really transitioned to being a full-time musician

I’ve released five albums in the last
10 years. I get out for a good chunk of time. It’s a 200 show-a-year setup. I’m on the road for seven months this year.

In the off-season I still do consultant work. Mostly wetland science stuff.

Who were your favorite artists growing up?

My earliest memories are basically of music. My parents played a lot of records when we were very young. My first memory from then are the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young.

I remember Canadian video hits; their version of MTV back in the ’80s. And also NPR in the morning.

And just commercial radio. It ranged from everything from pop music to really the stuff I still listen to today; from Van Halen to Dire Straits. Just a various amount of big pop culture on the Canadian side. The Tragically Hip. They grew up in Kingston, Ontario on the other side of the river from New York state.

It was kind of rock and roll. In the ’90s,  I got into grunge.

About 20 years old I started venturing into alt country and country rock, Americana and  bluegrass. That’s probably what I sound most like now.

I think my ears are getting tired of hard rock and loud speakers from the ’80s and ’90s.

I really love the sound of the acoustic guitar and what singing with it is like, and that feeling you get when there’s live music. That’s what still drives me to do what I’m doing today.

What was the first album you ever owned?

Michael Jackson. Was it “Beat it”?

[Pauses.] It was “Thriller.” I consider that as the first.

I had a Fisher-Price record player and Fisher-Price cassette player; maybe there were albums before. I probably had kids records; Sesame Street. “Born to Add.”

What was your first instrument you learned to play?

Did I really learn to play it is the question.

I did have a trumpet I would bring home that I would drive my family bananas with.

[Aside.] I was in Chicago two nights ago, and I was kicking myself: Why didn’t you learn to play that properly?

I learned to read music on piano. But we didn’t have a piano at home and wasn’t around one. The trumpet case started collecting dust. That would have been about eighth grade, ninth grade.

I got a guitar and it was all over. There was no more piano or trumpet.

What was the first song you learned?

Probably on the piano, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

The songs I wrote based on the two or three cords I could actually play. “Selfish.” I still play it on this tour.

Who inspires you now?

I’m all over the map. Every day I go into a new wormhole of who I am going to listen to.

Today, it’s Chris Cornell. I’ve been listening to his solo work. I list his voice as one of the best voices ever.

I don’t think I sound like him at all.

Yesterday was singer Jenn Wertz. She really inspired me in my younger days. I hadn’t thought of her or heard her stuff for a while.

Those were yesterday and today; I haven’t listened to either of them in quite some time.

It’s amazing what we have at our fingertips now to listen to song, or for me, to go back and see, are they still active, and reminisce on the songs that really got your heart pumping a long time ago. Every day I do that.

There’s so much good music out there. Amanda Shires has an album I’m geeking out to right now.

You’ve been everywhere, man, as the Johnny Cash song says. Favorite places that have left a smile on your face?

[Laughs.] I had some cool moments, new places I’m really excited about. In Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is where the crossroads, with Robert Johnson, was.

Did you make any deals?

[Laughs.] There were no offers.

You were saying...

It’s a great old venue, in a cotton gin. It’s called the Shack Up Inn.

It’s a big old barn. It has places to stay; they basically bring these old shotgun shacks and restore them into efficiency cabins. People come from all over the world to stay there. They have traveling acts like me come in.

On this tour, how was the audience different in Brooklyn than it was in Chicago?

It’s pretty wild. I just did a stretch of big cities. I’m in North Dakota right now. I’m so thankful for not being in traffic.

Really, everywhere — especially in major cities — the difference between Brooklyn and Chicago, it’s because of the venue. The coffeehouse show in the afternoon versus a full-bar music venue that features Americana and country rock.

In Chicago, it’s just a completely different feeling.

When you play tonight in Bismarck, it’s fun. It’s a brewery and there’s lots of people there; it’s just a different energy when you’re in Manhattan or Chicago versus the middle of the heartland in a smaller town.

I always feel more relaxed and easier going. But there’s something that also sparks when you’re on the stage in Chicago and you got 40 minutes to let it rip and you just lay it all out.

Tonight will be a three-hour marathon set, and talk to people, and have a good time. It’s just different.

What can turn a good show into a great show?

A lot of times, it’s just the audience that’s there. Are you engaged, and are they engaged.

Every night it’s different. Sometimes it’s just entertainment, and background, or it’s a pub show.

Or those nights when everybody is there for the music and the sound is good and the venue and the music fits.

Do you have an all-time favorite venue?

The Purple Fiddle in Thomas, West Virginia. I don’t get to play there this tour and I’m pretty bummed about it.

It’s not easy to get into; they have a lot of great acts that come through. People come from all over just to come to the Fiddle. It’s part of the Appalachia music trail.

If you could have a special guest join you on stage, who would you pick?

I would like to introduce you ... ladies and gentlemen... [laughs]

You know what?

Here’s Alison Krauss.

She has this angelic voice.

I could think of a million names I’d be honored to be on stage with.

But it would be, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s Alison Krauss.”

One of my favorite voices on the planet.

Where is your favorite place to write a song?

The most success I’ve had geographically is in the Trinity Mountains.

Most of my last album was written in those mountains. In the shutdown year when all the shows went away.

What is the one song you wished you wrote?

I just was geeking out on “Imagine.”

I was streaming Chris Cornell, who I didn’t realize had done a live recording of it.

Man, I haven’t listened to John Lennon’s version since the last tour.

That still kind of wrenches; it’s so powerful.

Do you have a favorite guitar?

I’m a Martin guy. I love the tone; I love the history.

Does it have a name?

No, it doesn’t.

My first steel string, six string, a Fender. I called it Plain Jane. I think that’s really the only name I’ve had for a guitar.

A Fender Telecaster, I think I’ve called Butterscotch.

It’s not really my thing [naming a guitar].

Finish this sentence: “I can’t believe people spend money on ....”

Where do I start? You’re talking to someone who basically buys gasoline every day.

I’m always amazed at the expense to take the big destination vacation. I’ve never been to Disney World or Disneyland. So I don’t have that grasp.

I get wrapped up that people don’t buy music anymore, but they won’t blink an eye on an
$8 IPA or an $8 sugar coffee every morning.

But all the music is for free now.

That’s the classic artist response, I suppose. Money and capitalism is a funny thing.