"If You Can't Not Do It, That's What You Do," with Jonathan Ray Case
Stride: We’ve featured a lot of athletes on our blog. As we grow, we’ll be featuring more of our customers and their stories. Jonathan, you’re our first artist… tell us, how did you get your start?
Jonathan: I grew up in Texas and studied film at University of Texas, specifically screenwriting. I started writing music in college… I had just recorded this one song, and the UT radio station played it. I remember, I was sitting in my car at probably 9 o’clock at night, just listening to it out there. And it took on this kind of transcendence – I realized there were other people out there, probably like six or seven of them [laughs], that were hearing the song I made, and it kind of blew my mind.
Stride: Ahhh, so that was the moment that led you into the music industry?
JRC: Yeah, my first job was with Universal Music Publishing in Los Angeles. I got thrown into the belly of the beast and saw the music industry from the inside-out. I would see them sign these artists, and if they didn’t produce a hit in a certain amount of time Universal would tell me, “You gotta put so-and-so in the morgue.” It would be my job to put “somebody in the morgue.” That was so illustrative of the hopelessness I felt being there. Here I was turning 23 and they were signing 11-year-olds.
Stride: So what did you do?
JRC: I went into a deep, dark despair [laughs]. My career as a musician, if it ever got started, seemed over. Luckily, I had a couple nice windfalls… I licensed a song to that show Felicity and they sent me a check for $25,000. That was just incredible. Then around 30, my priorities shifted – I got into this band with a friend of mine. We made some crazy demos and got signed by our favorite label right off the bat. We played LA relentlessly, three or four times a week – it was very athletic and a very-punkish-blues-driven-two-man-art-house-train-wreck type of thing. We’d just go out there and go balls to the wall, and bleed and sweat and fly off the stage. We were already old men in the game, but we were having so much fun. This was around the time the Black Keys were coming to prominence, and we thought we were gonna ride that wave – we had this very southern, very dirty thing, and we found ourselves in the studio with Diplo and MIA. We thought it was going to pop off, but it just never popped off.
Stride: So what then? Did you have to exercise some of your artist agility?
JRC: I went back to screenwriting. I moved back to Austin for three years and co-wrote (and music supervised) Satellite of Love.
Stride: It seems you have plenty of creative inspiration. Where do you find it? There have to be days you’re not feeling it?
JRC: It’s funny, every time I sit down to write, I’m like how am I going to do this? How is this going to happen? And then somehow it just miraculously comes together and starts to be a song – it amazes me every time. I always approach the creative process with this deep-rooted doubt, even though I’ve written hundreds of songs and I know how to do this. I’m scraping by in some ways, but I don’t have a lack of inspiration. My mom has always whispered in my ear a reverence for openness and leading with your heart. You can’t deny that open approach is an ever-flowing fountain for art… I don’t know if it makes the art any good [laughs], but it definitely makes art.
Stride: Is working as a freelance artist sustainable? Is this something you can do forever?
JRC: I guess you never really know. It’s funny because I’ve been let down so many times. I’ve had songs up for big movies and at the last minute they’re like we’re going to give it to U2. Like U2 needs another license deal [laughs]. But I just have this eternal optimism – I gain more confidence in my abilities all the time, and I know my source of inspiration, so as long as I continue to work hard and get better, it just makes sense to keep going. Ultimately, I’m coming into this great realization – and I feel like I sound naive when I say it – but it’s not about me or my art… it’s really about what can I share? What can I give? How can I enhance other people’s lives? If that comes via my writing or my music, then hallelujah! And I’ll continue to dig for it until I find it.
Stride: How do you stay with it when that vision feels far out?
JRC: I hold myself accountable to the art and the ideas and the words that are coming through. I feel responsible as a vessel for them. I don’t know why and that sounds a little arrogant, but here’s what I mean: when I was at UT, I got on the bus to go to midterms and this song came into my mind. It was back in the day where you couldn’t just whistle it into your iPhone and preserve the idea, and I thought if I go take this midterm, this song is dead… and this song has to live! So I rode the bus home and recorded that song. Years later, I get a random email from someone that had heard it and they said, “This is my favorite song, I sing it to my girlfriend all the time.” And you know, that’s just crazy and gives you some kind of perspective.
If I have something to offer this world, it’s somewhere within this realm of music and words and storytelling and writing. If I’m going to pay proper allegiance to my dharma, or whatever, and be who I’m supposed to be, I better not treat it too lightly. I have been fortunate to get by, it just works out. But I’m always worried about money, and that sits on one shoulder, taunting me, saying what have you done with your life? But then there’s the muse on the other shoulder, and it’s just whispering a little louder, I guess [laughs].
For better or worse, I live with this sensitivity that doesn’t ever seem to abate. I’ll cry when a quarterback thanks his lineman after the game. Not like streaming tears, but I’ll get emotional. I thought about that in terms of my health, and I was like, "Anyone that sensitive needs health insurance".
Stride: As a freelancer, you’ve never had health care before now. In an email to me, you said having insurance was out of character for you. What did you mean by that?
JRC: For better or worse, I live with this sensitivity that doesn’t ever seem to abate. I’ll cry when a quarterback thanks his lineman after the game. Not like streaming tears, but I’ll get emotional. I thought about that in terms of my health, and I was like anyone that sensitive needs health insurance. I’m kind of out there at the mercy of the universe, for lack of a better phrase… I put a lot of trust in life, and it’s done me good so far.
Look, I’m 40 now. Before I was like let’s see how far I can take it, let’s see how far I can push… I guess that’s a proclivity of artists, pushing to extremes and finding out who you are. In a really juvenile way, getting health care seemed like a compromise to that, like I don’t want safety nets, I don’t want an out. There are a lot of 20-year-olds more responsible than that [laughs]. I guess I’m just getting to the age where maybe I do want an out. Having someone in my life that I know I’m important to factors heavily into that. Beyond the legal mandate of health insurance, it was a thing I wanted to do for my girlfriend and my parents.
Stride: What would you say to someone, maybe younger, that’s been told art isn’t something they can pursue in a serious way?
JRC: I don’t know, do they say that to young people these days [laughs]? I feel like young people today are like, if you can imagine it, that’s you, go do that. We’ve heard it before, and I really believe this – if you can’t not do it, that’s what you do.
Stride: What I meant is there’s sometimes this feeling that art isn’t really art until it is – the pursuit of it is silly until you’ve made it. I think it’s tough for some parents or mentors to hear “I’m going to film school”… they know that path is uncertain, it’s risky. But, it seems that risk is baked into your soul. What do you have to say to aspiring artists or people out there who want to put more time into their art?
JRC: I see what you mean. It just seems to me that nothing is promised, everything is uncertain, really. Look at MBAs, how many of them are out there looking for work right now? Nothing seems to be a gimme anymore, everything’s so saturated. For some reason, I listen to the Wharton School business station on XM radio, and the more I listen to it, the more it encourages me, strangely. What it’s saying to all these kids just getting a jump on their career is – just find out what you are good at and go do it. If that happens to be art, if you have an affinity for words, then that’s what you have to do. And you’ll find your path. It’s not going to be easy, but what is? What worth getting is easy? It’s going to be a challenge, and you really want it to be at the end of the day, right?
Stride: Is life as an artist more volatile?
JRC: I think if you’re given to the appetites of extremes like me, then yeah. Am I safer punching a clock and going to work everyday in an office and knowing that my next pay check is coming at a steady rate? Yeah… yeah, sure. But we need people in all walks of life doing what they do, and you don’t want your artists not to be volatile, because then they’re not going to penetrate to those deeper truths that resonate with us all. It’s the only way to connect with humanity in an honest and authentic way.