John P. Strohm: American Way of Lie
The first time I laid eyes on John P. Strohm was backstage at a Lemonheads concert in 1997, Rio de Janeiro. While Evan challenged interviewers about the existence of UFOs, John kept a straight face (his trademark), but not necessarily a bad one. He was like living in a parallel universe. Little would I know that one day I was just a few feet away from one of the most humorous and witty guys on twitter, the “nerve” of the late Blake Babies and who is now releasing what I consider to be one of the best independent albums of 2023: “Something To Look Forward To“.
What is most incredible about the career of this musician-executive-lawyer is precisely its versatility. The fine balance between humor and serious matters, between fun and despair, between the madness promoted by Evan and the austerity of his guitar. Yep, John is also a good guy and now he’s coming to secure what was rightfully his: recognition as one of the great artists/songwriters of his generation. “I want to write great songs that are authentic to who I am, not this 20-year-old kid sharing a room with 3 bandmates, but a 56-year-old professional with a family and all the challenges middle-aged people face“, he says.
About the new album
In a market used to the frenzy of songs under 3 minutes, the 10-track album still manages to be concise. Each track works as a chapter, a chronicle that captures much of John’s growth not only as an original artist, but as a person dealing with the uncertainties of the future brought by the pandemic and “denialism”. While the Blake Babies were basically concerned with singing about broken hearts and a space in the world, John’s solo album is much more down to earth, but without giving up the touch of tenderness that always marked the trio of which he was a part. “Something To Look Forward To” is much more a sort of pass that John gave himself to enjoy the good things in life while he can, and while others can’t. Especially things that got him to where he is.
We all have things, big and small things, that we look forward to, which keep us from despair. As long as we have something to look forward to, we’re OK.
John P. Sthrom
It is confessional and motivational at the same time, but never boring.
The sideman is now definitely at the forefront. And he seems to be enjoying it.
2 7 Things about John P. Strohm
RC – Hey John, long time no news from you, at least in the music world… How are things, are you still leading a career as a lawyer?
JS – I left professional music in 2001 to go to law school, became an attorney in 2004, and then for the next 13 years I practiced in the music business, mostly working with musicians. In 2017 I was recruited to be an executive, running Rounder Records, a folk and country label that is part of a large company called Concord. In 2022 I left that job and returned to law practice, so I’ve been a lawyer again for a little while. I’m doing basically what I was doing before, working in technology, but also representing musical acts.
RC – On “This American Lie” , I was taken by a nostalgic vibe that reminded me of John Lennon solo work, like “Watching the wheels”. Can we say that this track reflects your state of mind as an American in a country that retroacts every day in terms of conservatism?
JS – I live in the suburbs outside of Nashville. I’ve been disturbed by changes in the way people treat each other since before the 2016 election. Politics are so factional that people become convinced they can’t be cordial to anyone outside of their political tribe. I’ve taken pride in being able to find common ground with practically anyone, but I don’t feel that as much anymore, as extreme as things have become. The song is from the point of view of a character who is feeling very paranoid and distrustful of his neighbors. It isn’t me, but it’s from my experience.
RC – In “Don’t Tell It To Your Heart” we have a more Blake Babies footprint (I could say that the backing vocals sound like Jules). Speaking of the band, you said in a post that the songwriting was totally divided and democratic back then. And how does it feel to write without the support of other people? Is it harder to tell your own story? Afraid that people won’t find it convincing enough?
JS – I wrote most or all of the songs on I think six albums prior to this one, and I learned to write on my own. For these songs, I really tried to get back to the mindset I had when we wrote those Blakes songs. I was naive enough at the time to think we could actually write hit songs, so I’d approach it thinking “what sort of melody could elevate the song to appeal to a lot of people?” We weren’t trying to write underground music – we wanted to reach a large audience. I don’t have any expectation that I’ll reach a large audience with my new music, but I’ve tried to be similarly ambitious in my writing. I want to write great songs that are authentic to who I am, not this 20-year-old kid sharing a room with 3 bandmates, but a 56-year-old professional with a family and all the challenges middle-aged people face. I wanted to give voice to that, but with music that’s compelling enough for people to want to sing along! Maybe this is an impossible challenge, but I guess we’ll see.
RC – Your album has an undeniable indie-folk/Elliott Smith/Wilco-esque soul. How do you see the predominance of this genre today, which even contaminates heavyweight artists like Taylor Swift? Do you still listen to punk-rock music anyway?
JS – I listen to music across practically every genre, I’m a musical omnivore. For the music I make now, I’m not trying to shoehorn it into any particular genre or style, I just try to serve the songs. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with on the business side are in that genre, some of the leading acts. I’ve had three different clients feature on Taylor Swift records, which is disorienting (Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers, and The Civil Wars – all former clients from before I became an executive). It’s disorienting for that to happen – all those acts were playing to small audiences when I met them, now they’re in the mainstream. But on some level I’m not surprised, because they’re all great acts, and they belong in the mainstream – I believed that from the start! Also I have daughters so I’ve been a Taylor fan since the first album. If you have little girls who make you listen to the same music over and over, it becomes very clear which music actually holds up.
RC – You recently made a special appearance at one of the shows on Evan Dando’s solo tour in Nashville. How was meeting your “fucking guy” after so long? Any chance you could play in his new album?
JS – Evan is one of my best friends of my entire lifetime, and he knows that it’s a huge priority for me to do what I can to help him with his career. We’re actively in touch these days, and I’ll be helping in a variety of ways to get his next album launched. Maybe that means contributing music or performing, but it definitely means I’ll help on the business side. I’m thrilled that he’s doing well these days and has a great, supportive community around him. It’s something I’ve wished for for a long time.
RC – In today’s world, what do you define as “Something To Look Forward To”?
JS – The album is a Pandemic project, to be sure. During the worst part of the lockdowns, when I was feeling sorry for myself, I wrote a lyric that included the lines “All I need is time away/and something to look forward to today.” I wrote it down in a notebook and forgot about it. Then last year I was trying to write a song about a close friend and longtime collaborator, Ed Ackerson, who passed away in 2019. I’d visited his studio a month before he died, where he was declining with terminal cancer. We recorded a track together that needed a lyric. I found that line, and I realized it was deeper than I realized when I wrote it. Like several of the songs on the album, it’s about end of life, reaching a time when there’s really nothing to look forward to. The second chorus is “All I wish for you my friend, is something to look forward to again.” It’s futile, because he’d already passed. But the message is that we take too much for granted. We all have things, big and small things, that we look forward to, which keep us from despair. As long as we have something to look forward to, we’re OK. But what about when we don’t have that? That’s what I was struggling with as I thought about what my friend faced in his final stretch.
RC – Come to Brazil, Evan, Antonia and I… We’ll be glad to meet you here!
JS – It will happen, and that is absolutely something to look forward to!