April 29, 2010
I’m downstairs at Hyde Brothers Booksellers, lost in the endless aisles, on the hunt for a used copy of Francois Truffaut’s Hitchcock book. With me is singer-songwriter Jon Keller, who is sneaking sips of whiskey while looking at issues of something called Armchair Detective. “What’s an armchair detective?” Keller laughs. He pulls out a new issue from the endless stack; on it is an older, oddly thin man sitting in a wheelchair, holding a magnifying glass and looking serious. He’s wearing some sort of leather hat. Keller erupts into laughter. “Okay, I see.” Another sip.
Twenty minutes prior to the armchair laughs we’d been upstairs at the West Central apartment Keller keeps with his wife, Amy. After playing me some new songs he’d been recording in the corner of his bedroom, Jon disappears. Minutes later he resurfaces with a goofy smile. “I couldn’t find my flask.” He takes a drink and looks at me awkwardly. Jon Keller has spent the afternoon drinking some dark booze he and his friends brewed, and is now onto the cheap whiskey.
For the week or two leading up to this day, Keller had been working two jobs, essentially keeping him busy from 4 a.m. until the late evening each day. After work he’d come home, spend time with his wife and maybe work on a new batch of songs for his second album, Deceiver. Today, though, was different.
“Are you going to keep the second job?” I ask, knowing that it’d been cutting into his recording time.
“I actually just quit it,” he laughs.
Amy, in the other room, overhears this news. “You quit it already?” she asks.
“Yeah. Just now,” Jon says, smiling at his flask. “Over e-mail.”
We all laugh our middle-finger laughs as Jon takes another swig from his flask and looks out the window; someone is outside, calling his name repeatedly. “Hey man,” he says out the window before turning back my way.
“So, we’re just now telling people about this. Friends and stuff. We haven’t even told our families yet,” he says to me. “But we’re gonna move soon.”
The rest of the afternoon we drive around, looking at books and talking. At some point Keller tells me that, thanks to the nature of Amy’s work-at-home job, they could move pretty much anywhere they wanted. They chose Nashville. Later, and now with red face, he tells me about how by happenstance he discovered his songwriting hero, Elliott Smith, by listening to a jazz record of contemporary covers. Before I drop him off back at his place, I ask two things: (1) “Why Nashville?”; and (2) “Do you think Elliott Smith killed himself?”
The first answer is easy. “For my music, I guess,” he says. “Er, my career,” he laughs.
We pull up to his place, feeling weird. I realize, suddenly, that I won’t be seeing too much of this guy I’ve come to admire quite a bit – mostly due to the unimaginable quality of his new songs.
“I hope he killed himself,” Keller suddenly says, now outside my car window. “I think it’d be more tragic if his girlfriend killed him. If he did it himself, if he decided that he was done, then that’s okay. But if someone else killed him, then I’d be sad because he probably would’ve made more albums. And they probably would’ve been good.”
Before walking off, Keller tells me that he has the home address and phone number of Jennifer Chiba, the woman some suspect stabbed Smith in the chest. “Maybe I’ll call her and ask,” he says with a goofy smile, next stumbling towards his front door.
After releasing his first solo album, Down In a Mirror, late last year, Keller found something he’d never had an abundance of: self confidence. No, he didn’t like Mirror as a whole, but he saw many others flip for it, and it changed him.
“There are a few songs on [Down in a Mirror] that I think are pretty good, and I am proud that I made it and got it out there,” Keller recently told me in an e-mail. “However, I don’t think the songwriting on most of it is very good. I know that I hadn’t really learned how to use my voice yet, which I think is something I’m improving on all the time. And, back then, I really didn’t have confidence in my songwriting, or myself in general.”
Since the release of that album Keller has been working, pretty much every day, and constantly, on his second album, a record called Deceiver that he plans to release before heading to Nashville at the end of August.
“I knew before recording this new album that I didn’t want to rush it, and that I wanted to spend time creating all sorts of different instrumentation and sounds for the songs,” Keller said, also explaining how he initially intended to have as many of his musician friends on the record as possible.
“I had completely written most of these songs before I started recording them, which helped me out with some of the formats of the song,” Keller continued. “Right now, I’m working on mixing. Of course, when I say that, I should state that, when I mix stuff, I often find things I have to go back and re-record. So I’m mixing and recording all at the same time.
“I’ve been imagining recording solo albums since I was around 12 years old or so. I remember thinking that I’d at least have one out by the time I was out of high school, and I’d already have a name for myself in college. But, of course, that didn’t really happen. I didn’t even write a song till I was around 21 years old.”
When asked about the record, Keller says that it’s the first thing in his life that he’s been proud of. Along the way, he’s played me his demos as they’ve changed from voice-and-guitar cassette recordings to big, thick productions, some featuring over 60 tracks. And his very serious, very dedicated approach to making the record has paid off.
“Once I finish the album I’m going to have a release show at the Brass Rail on August 26. It’ll sort of be a going away party as well,” Keller said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a very emotional show. The Brass Rail has been a Fort Wayne staple for me.”
“After the album release show my wife and I are moving to Nashville, Tennessee so that I can work on music there,” he said. “If I were to be completely honest about my aspirations, I hope that I manage to get some sort of record deal, and I have enough money to not work a day job. That’s it, really. I just want to support myself financially while doing something that I love. Of course, I hope people like the music and it means something to them, but that is probably a loftier goal than supporting myself by making music. I realize that is the exact same goal that thousands of people move to Nashville with. It may work out, it may not. If it doesn’t, we’re only tied down as long as our lease.”
But really, why Nashville? I couldn’t help but ask again.
“Nashville is obviously a Mecca for musicians around the world. And, of course, it is the country music capital of the world. I mean come on, they have Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus,” he laughed. “But really, I don’t care at all about the modern day country music that comes out of Nashville. Most people don’t know it, but there is actually a pretty big, thriving non-country music scene there. So that’s what I’m going there for.
“After deciding on Nashville, it was a bit chaotic. I mean, where do we live, how do I find a band down there and so on. We don’t really know anyone that lives there. We are excited that it’ll be a new adventure, and we’re sort of stepping out into unknown territory. It was hard telling our parents, but they were both really supportive, which made things easier. The hardest part was telling our friends, though. I’ve got a really close-knit group of friends here, and I was dreading telling them that this is our last summer in Fort Wayne. But we finally did, and as sad as they were, they were very supportive and excited for us.”
Once settled, Keller plans to continue to take his writing, recording and playing seriously, referring to his music as “my career” repeatedly.
“The first few things that I’m going to do down there is try to put a band together, find places to play and try to meet other musicians and bar owners. I don’t know what else I would do there,” he explained. “My music isn’t exactly open mic/coffee shop material, so putting a band together will be my first priority.
“I think leaving is definitely bolstering my confidence. I’m at a place in my life and career that I finally have confidence in what I’m doing. This seems to be the only foreseeable time in my future that an opportunity like this is going to present itself. I’m young, don’t have kids, and have the freedom to move. Of course all of this freedom and moving and whatnot is really stressing me out. I’m constantly thinking about what happens if nothing takes off. If, after a year or two, I’m at the same place with nothing to show for it. It definitely is scary. But I’m trying to just ignore those feelings and feel confident about everything.
“Man, this city has been great for me. I love Fort Wayne,” Keller said without any lack of sincerity. “I’m sure as long as my friends and family are still in Fort Wayne I will always be thinking about it. I know I will always cherish West Central, specifically Wayne and Berry streets. I did so much growing up and discovering who I am on those streets.”
Well then, I ask, why leave the place you love?
“I wouldn’t say Fort Wayne was holding me back, per se. Not yet at least. I think that if I had stayed here another year or two then that would have certainly been the case. But I think it’s been more of a town to grow in and work out what I want in music and in a music community. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have anything negative to say about it, but I’m not going to get into all of that.”
As any fan of local music already knows, Keller, at age 24, has already long been a staple on the city’s best stages, playing guitar for many of our best bands before going solo.
“I’ve been helped by so many people,” he said. “All of the musicians I’ve ever played with up here in Fort Wayne have helped and inspired me so much. Lee Miles, Mark Hutchins, Josh Hall, Kevin Hambrick – those guys.
“Also my close friends are always encouraging me and backing me up. And my parents were huge in helping me pursue music when I was growing up. I don’t think they could have stopped me if they had wanted to, though. My brother helped me a lot with teaching me some guitar stuff early on, and continues to be an inspiration. Amy, my wife, is of course my biggest help and inspiration. She is always pushing me creatively and musically. She is really the reason we get to move to Nashville. If it wasn’t for her and her job freedom, we couldn’t afford to move.
In closing, I ask Keller if he has any words for the city that has been so good to him through his early 20s.
“Well, I guess maybe I want people to know that I’m not as weird as I seem,” he says with one of his signature creepy smiles. “Or maybe I am.
“Also, I guess I want to say that I made this music all by myself, and I’m really proud of it. So if you have any interest in local Fort Wayne music, please come out August 26 for my show at the Rail. Or even August 27 for the free Dessert show after Taste of the Arts, which I’m also playing at.”
Having heard his new batch of songs, I can’t help but also offer a big, shining endorsement. Keller’s new record will get plenty of “Best Fort Wayne Album Ever” talk amongst the scenesters. Deservedly so.