Working Musician Personified
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The term “working musician” was created to describe guys like Jon Durnell. Having played over 175 shows last year with several different bands and working toward at least 125 shows this year, Durnell epitomizes the term. It’s his love of music and the ongoing pursuit of creating that perfect song that keeps him energized to keep going, even after 15 years of playing gig after gig after gig.
“I have been a huge music fan ever since I can remember,” Durnell said in a recent interview. “I have always been intrigued by the power that a song has to transport the listener to another time, place or feeling. In that respect, I think music has a very unique allure.”
Music has always been a part of Durnell’s life, just not the most important part of his life, though the importance has grown over time. “I started taking guitar lessons in the 6th grade because my teacher saw a talent in me that she thought that I should pursue,” Durnell said. “I did well early on, but the songs that I was learning meant nothing to me and held zero interest for me. I was also very involved in sports and being a happy kid, just running around and enjoying life, so guitar took a back seat at that point.
“As the years went on,” Durnell continued, “I grew more and more interested in music, but never really even thought about playing.”
Then he discovered Rush.
“That took my love for music to a new level. Neil Peart played drums how I would hear drums in my head when I would listen to songs – complicated fills, upbeat accents, etc. I then started to think that maybe I could be a drummer some day.”
After graduating college and taking a job while looking for teaching jobs, Durnell met a fellow worker who owned a guitar and knew a few chords.
“I had an old guitar laying around from the 6th grade lessons, so I picked it up and learned the basic open chords with help from my friend. I distinctly remember calling in sick to work one day because I needed to be able to get that damn C chord down. I played until my fingertips bled (just like Bryan Adams), either from excessive playing or a crappy guitar or a combination of both. From there I was addicted and have never looked back.”
Eventually Durnell started jamming with friends.
“Playing with others in that setting only served to further my musical addiction,” he said. “I have been in at least one band from that time until now.”
While some of those bands were more successful than others, “all of them have served a purpose and all of them were and have been an absolute blast,” said Durnell.
“I have been able to stay in music because I surround myself with great musicians who are also great people. You can have the best drummer or bassist in the world, but if they have a poisonous personality or destructive habits, they will destroy what you are trying to build. So, the combination of endless passion for music and making sure that I play with quality people have allowed me to play in successful projects for the better part of 15 years.”
Two of those bands made a significant impact on the local music scene. One, Tenfold Back, was a semifinalist in the 2007 whatzup Battle of the Bands and put out an album, In Motion (reviewed by Jason Hoffman on whatzup.com). A reformed version of that band made the whatzup Battle of the Bands finals in 2008 under the name What She Said. That band has carried on, but with some personnel changes and a focus on strictly cover tunes.
In 2009, Durnell formed April’s Alibi, for the first time taking the role of lead singer. He also began putting together a solo acoustic show.
“I did this because I wanted to make a living playing music and I knew two things: (1) I would need to be in several projects to stay busy enough, and (2) I was going to need to be able to play solo acoustic so that I could play lower paying shows through the week and be able to make more money than playing in only multi-piece bands. I learned by seeing what Mike Conley, Adam Strack, Kenny Taylor and Hubie Ashcraft were doing or had done. I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel.”
Having played just about every place in the area that hosts or has hosted live music over that period of time, Durnell can be considered an authority on the scene.
“I actually think that the Fort Wayne music scene is so much better than most people even realize,” Durnell, said. “There is so much talent in this town that most people have no clue about. I think that’s due to poor marketing and, probably, partly due to musical tastes changing. I think that there was this heyday in the late 90s and early 2000s when you could go into Columbia Street West on any given weekend or M.O.M.S. on Tuesdays and be blown away by bands like Rosemary Gates, Abraham, Sunny Taylor Band, Homeless J, Rushville Whig, Zig Zag Railroad, Blue Moon Boys or Strut Train … they were all putting out great original music, too. We had record label A&R reps all over this town at that time because they knew the scene was hot, but since then things have cooled down, music tastes have swung away from bands and more toward beat producers, solo acts and hip-hop. That’s okay; it’s all cyclical.
“What has not changed,” he continued, “is that there is still an abundance of talent, an abundance of venues, an abundance of fans and an abundance of opportunity here. I always get upset when people say that they need to leave here to do something with their music. I just want to ask them what venues they are selling out here and how many of their albums they have sold. The truth is that if you’re a huge success in your own town, people outside of your area will hear about you and the opportunities will come to you. The internet has shrunk our world, increased our opportunities and made major record labels unnecessary anyway. There are people right here making a living with their music and doing what they love on their own terms without touring the world and being owned by a corporation. We just all need to get to know each other, work together, support each other and get the word out.”
As much as Durnell loves playing live, songwriting has taken over as his newest passion. He dropped about 50 shows off his schedule this year in order to concentrate more on original music. Instead of playing other people’s songs, he now enjoys introducing audiences to the music coming from inside his own head.
“I think that music has a very unique allure,” he said. “Songwriting inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but I find, for me, most songs start with musical ideas on guitar. Those little riff or chord ideas will paint a picture and the rhythm will bring out random words that fit the cadence and that picture that the music paints. Those words then become more focused lyrics. I also will occasionally just latch onto an idea or phrase and build the song around that. I think that happens less than 10 percent of the time. It’s mostly the other way.”
For further inspiration, Durnell doesn’t have to look far. He tends to draws from what is most important to him, his family. “My wife, son and extended family are also huge influences,” Durnell continued, “because I am so emotionally moved by them. Three of my best songs are about my wife, my son and my mother who recently passed. I naturally gravitate to writing songs that bring out an emotion for me rather than just throwing random lyrics to a great groove … I put so much value in the power of the lyric, and I don’t want to waste a single word or a chance to reach a listener on a deeper level. The songs that I hear and love tend to connect with me at that deeper level, and that’s what I strive for. My musical style and sound now is along the lines of groove-oriented pop with just a hint of jazz influence. So that is the sound of the Jon Durnell Band that was in Battle of the Bands X this year.”
Though he has cut down the number of gigs he is playing this year, finding Durnell on the music calendar is still pretty easy. In addition to playing as Jon Durnell in his solo band, you can catch him playing with and as a member of What She Said, April’s Alibi, Tandem Acoustic Duo (with Beth Toth) and Solar Buskers (with Fernando Tarango), all primarily cover groups with a few originals thrown in for good measure from time to time.
He is currently in the planning stages for a solo album he hopes to put out within the next six to nine months and will begin to look for opportunities to promote his original music from there, including looking into licensing to film, television and music libraries.
“Although I love what I’ve been doing, I want to make a living with music in ways other than just playing cover gigs in bars and clubs,” he said. “I’m also in the process of starting a wedding/corporate event band so that I can play better hours for better crowds and make more money while having more fun. I will also pursue recording an album with my Empires Fall project (his prog rock studio alter ego with music in the vein of Porcupine Tree). So, in a nutshell, more original music, more recording, music licensing, better paying gigs and more family time.”
Wherever or however he plays music, Durnell’s focus is his audience.
“It’s so important for local music lovers to know how huge their role is in our lives as musicians. We literally could not do what we love to do if it wasn’t for them.”
Jon Durnell is a working musician. Unassuming and humble, he has his priorities in order and a plan in place. His occupation is also something he loves with his whole heart. We should all be so lucky.