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J. Hoard of Sonnymoon on Why Singers Should Strive to Be Like Water

Welcome back to Soundfly’s monthly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft. Sign up for our weekly email magazine, Soundfly Weekly, to get these conversations delivered to your inbox! 

Jonathan Hoard is more than just a vocalist. The singer-songwriter has written, composed, and arranged music for bands such as Sonnymoon, The Love Experiment, Dynamo, and BIG YUKI among many others. But anyone who has had the pleasure of working with him knows he’s also a dynamic ray of light through and through.

Over the last four years, Hoard has become a staple in the New York City hip-hop scene as a regular member of Gentei Kaijo, who host a weekly improvised hip-hop jam session known as The Lesson. He has lent his vocal prowess to artists like: Jean Grae, Quelle Chris, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Ray Angry, and has performed with hip-hop legend Pharoahe Monch. In 2017, he was awarded a Grammy certificate as well as a Grammy nomination for contributing lyrics to Chance the Rapper’s smash hit with 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne, “No Problem.” Born into a musical family, Hoard’s journey has shaped who he is as an artist, musician, and person. In this interview, we explore his path to becoming that artist and the lessons he’s learned on the way.

A note from the curator: I’ve been a fan of Hoard’s work for a while. It’s true that Hoard is not only an exceptionally gifted musician and performer, he also seems to be (from my few encounters with him) one of the warmest, brightest, most present people in any room at any time. And this is of course inextricable from his work as an artist. Hoard says “I allow myself to yield to the present when performing live.” I’d honestly venture to say that’s an understatement. On stage, he is captivating. He seems both entirely inside himself and completely in sync with his audience, as if somehow channeling the audience’s energy through his own embodiment, through his own sounds.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by Charles Burchell

Tell me about your musical background. How did you get into music and what were your early influences?

My musical background is heavily rooted in my family. We were raised singing and playing instruments during church services. My father was the former lead guitarist and frontman for The Ohio Players (on Graduation) in the mid-1980s. After finding my mother, and then the Lord, he devoted himself to using his music to tell the good news. Usually, we, his eight children and slew of nieces and nephews, were his band.

You studied music at Berklee College of Music. How did your time in Boston influence what you’re doing now?

Boston gave me time. It allowed me the time to literally play the piano. I would sit there for hours at a time tickling the ivories and exploring the sounds, chords, and shapes that I’d learn in class. Living in Boston also allowed me the time to work with various groups and artists like Rashad McPherson (gospel), The Love Experiment (urban contemporary), and NwaSoul Project (urban jazz fusion) outside of my existing eclectic academic ensembles.

Most of all, I learned how to use my time efficiently. I began to understand how to balance preparing for gigs while preparing for exams and projects, alike. While I was in school, I didn’t have the luxury of not working, so music, along with my retail jobs, paid for rent and books. This is something that has remained with me and has helped me successfully balance multiple artistic endeavors.

How did you get into songwriting?

The church, of course. I would rewrite popular R&B tunes alongside my siblings for special church services and events, changing the lyrics to reflect my spiritual themes (cue: Sister Act).

Then there was the Neo-Soul movement. My siblings loved Bilal, Donnie Hathaway, India.Arie, and that whole early 2000s soul movement. Those sounds, matched with the songs on Brandy’s Full Moon, came at the onset of my adolescence and I found a way to express that physical, intellectual, and emotional territory via the pen.

“I feel my role is to enhance the stories we tell. That’s my role in all the projects I participate in. I’m there to be glue for the music, as applicable as water, and bring joy via honest portrayals and reactions to music.”

What was the biggest thing you learned after moving to New York City?

The biggest thing I learned was not to underestimate people. There are so many Grammy Award-winning, Emmy-nominated, and record-label-owning musicians out there who are super unassuming, playing wedding gigs around the city. Not casting judgement during first encounters became a major lesson. Another lesson is to never be ashamed of work, and always work to acquire gigs that will lead to better accommodations, pay, opportunities, etc.

These days, you work a lot as both a recording artist and a live performer. What do you feel is the difference in how you approach either situation?

As a recording artist, I’ve learned how to record clean — which for me means using fewer riffs and allowing slow build-ups in a song rather than drastic range switches. All this is for the purpose of being understood by listeners for generations to come. Live performance is completely in the moment; responding to unexpected feedback from an amp or finding a smooth resolution after hitting a wrong note. In the studio, you can edit things in order to tell a lasting story. I allow myself the space to yield to the present when performing live. Most importantly, always working with instrumentalists has helped me stay “in the pocket” more while recording and performing live.

You’ve been working regularly with Sonnymoon since 2015’s The Courage of Present Times. How did you start working with Sonnymoon and what do you feel your role has been?

I feel my role is to enhance the stories we tell. That’s my role in all the projects I participate in. I’m there to be glue for the music, as applicable as water, and bring joy via honest portrayals and reactions to music.

How did the latest Sonnymoon songs take shape?

After Anna [Wise] finished touring with Luis Del Mar, I had my tours in Europe, and Dane [Orr] had wrapped up engineering and production commissions, and Trump was elected, we all came together and decided it was time to make music as a new unit.

For the past four years we all had very particular roles — Dane, producer; Anna, songwriter and lead singer; me, background vocals and choreography. We made a very conscious effort to engage collectively. So we all sang, we all provided production elements, we all contributed lyrics and melodies. And most importantly we never went for a certain sound, nor did we say “no.” The songs were allowed to flow freely without chopping or arranging before being recorded. Five days were spent upstate and we left with the songs: “Role,” “Ideas,” and “Root.”

You recently started touring with a fantastic band out of Nashville called Dynamo. What is it like working with that group? How does your approach change when you’re doing lead versus background vocals?

They are my dream band. Each tour I’ve done with them was as a frontman, although I sing both lead and background vocals in their videos. Their songs, including “Carried Away” which I cowrote, are magic. Their arrangements are intelligent and the lyrical content fills the soul.

My approach for all musical endeavors is to be water. To be what is needed: fire for funk, rain for bossa ballads, just whatever the music calls for. This approach is magnified for background vocals. It’s my goal to deliver exactly what the artist needs. That is a very different approach from my personal live performance attitude of “give it all you got.”

From The Greenhouse People to your latest releases, your journey as a solo artist has been interesting to watch. Can you explain your progression as a solo artist and what’s next for you in 2018?

Grandiose to self-efficient. That’s been my solo artistic progression. Started out with a 10-person crew with J. Hoard & The Greenhouse People and now I rotate between a quartet and a duo with guitar. It’s my intention to perform with the quartet I have now, which has only been around for about a year. However, by end of this year I will release a solo project featuring only myself on piano and vocals, so…

What’s next for me is that I’d like to eventually take my quartet on the road. Unfortunately, touring is expensive and until I can financially take care of my band the way I want and was raised to, I will have to go at it alone accompanying myself on piano and using vocal loops and Ableton Live.

You are a regular member of Gentei Kaijo, the house band for The Lesson. How important has that residency been to your musical development and career in New York City?

That residency is the reason I now work with Sonnymoon. In 2011, Wise proclaimed I’d work with Sonnymoon after a shared bill with them in Boston. In 2014, Sonnymoon was a featured artist at Gentei Kaijo’s anniversary show at Le Poisson Rouge, and after that I became a member. Gentei Kaijo has also put me in the faces of Meshell Ndegeocello, Ray Angry, and Robert Glasper. Most importantly, that residency paved the way for some of my first and longest lasting New York friendships.

Performing every week with this group has poured so much hip-hop and creativity into my being. I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop, given my church background — and I am now a major part of this era’s hip-hop scene in New York. Each week I learn new and old hip-hop classics and listen to the most amazingly crafted freestyle verses from emcees.

I can hear your signature sound on Meshell Ndegeocello’s cover of “Atomic Dog” from her new album of covers Ventriloquism. This version is dramatically different from the George Clinton version. What was it like working with her and how did you get involved with this record?

Meshell saw me perform at The Lesson, and was working closely with David Cutler, who is a mutual friend. After sitting in with them both, along with Abe Rounds (drums), Jake Sherman (piano), and Justin Hicks (vocals) at her Rockwood show in December 2016, and then again two days later at her tribute to James Baldwin at Harlem Stage, she made a promise that I would record for her cast in March 2017.

The session was heaven. I recorded it with Hicks who I jammed with at her shows in December and had the pleasure of touring with separately in Austria that same year in September. Automatically, I felt at home in the company of people I’ve literally been hired by before and had known for years (Jack DeBoe, producer). Meshell is a genius (duh) and she knew what she wanted. Being able to have her sing notes to me and see her process of recording is absolutely invaluable. I learned how to create a positive atmosphere that showcases the best of all of talent involved. She worked with me (us) to deliver the best product. Even though it is her record, she wanted all of us to shine so that the song would shine.

“Music education has influenced my path by making music more understandable, which, for me, strengthens the experience of performing and recording.”

You’ve had the opportunity to teach internationally and at your alma mater. How has music education influenced your path as an artist?

Music education simply helps me understand the various ways in which music can be understood and perceived. I’m able to explain my musical ideas better due to my background in education. This makes rehearsals and sessions easier for both myself and those I hire. Most importantly, music education has enhanced the way I write and perform.

Knowing that if I clap an important rhythmic figure in a live performance it can improve the audiences experience by having them take part is a fun way to make a more engaging performance. That all comes from working with young people and teaching them basic concepts. Music education has influenced my path by making music more understandable, which, for me, strengthens the experience of performing and recording.

You were awarded a Grammy Certificate for your work on Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem.” How did you get involved with that track and what was your contribution to the song?

Ivan Rosenberg of Brasstracks gave me a call while at a wedding gig in Puerto Rico back in April 2016. The session was on April 21st, the day after Prince’s death. That session found all four singers involved (me, Jaime Woods, Lakeithsha Williams, and Rachel Cato) providing lyric and melodic ideas as Chance wasn’t exactly certain what he wanted in regards to vocals. After countless takes of our innumerable ideas, we left the session knowing that we’d be given a writing credit and not knowing exactly which takes or ideas would remain! That’s the music biz, yo. Two Grammy Award Certificates and one nomination later…

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Charles Burchell
Charles Burchell

Charles Burchell is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and diplomat from New Orleans, LA. He has studied at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the New England Conservatory (B.M. ’12), and most recently completed the Masters of Arts in Education program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (Ed. M ’13). Burchell has recorded and produced albums with Wes “Warmdaddy” Anderson, Delfayo Marsalis, Ran Blake, Ciel Rouge, his band The Love Experiment (featured in Touring on a Shoestring), and has performed and given master classes at various music festivals around the world. Burchell also works as a cultural diplomat with the Next Level Program and is currently a teaching artist for Carnegie Hall’s Digital Music Production Workshop and Musical Connections Program in which he works with court involved youth and students from various boroughs throughout New York City. Burchell continues to perform regularly around the U.S. and internationally as a DJ, drummer, and bandleader.