The talented new singer-songwriter chatted with PopMatters about his affinity for storytelling and collecting keyboards, and what inspired his debut LP, a collection of power pop songs that shine from Chicago to Charlotte.
In a year in which the indie pop scene saw lots of bands return to classic sounds, from chillwave to '80s dream pop, you may have missed Jon Lindsay's debut LP, Escape From Plaza-Midwood. Released late last summer on Chocolate Lab Records, the 15 tracks on Escape From Plaza-Midwood pass over shoegazing for wide-eyed power pop, and are as generous with their melodies as they are with their homegrown charm. Classic power pop bands like Big Star and the Posies are strong influences, but the album sounds most at home alongside the very best from Matthew Sweet and Fountains of Wayne.
PopMatters recently caught up with the Lindsay at his home in Charlotte. Though he was busy balancing work on his new album and on making final preparations for an upcoming solo tour, the singer-songwriter had his immediate sights on something else: a free keyboard. Someone from a local paper had called and left a message saying he could have a Hammond organ if he wanted one. "I'm a pretty obsessive vintage keyboard collector," Lindsay said. "So it'll be hard for me to say no to hoarding keyboards." It's no surprise that keyboards dazzle on some of the best songs on Escape From Plaza-Midwood, from Brendan Benson-like rocker "My Blue Angel" to the ballad "Frequent Flyer".
At a robust 15 songs, Escape From Plaza-Midwood seems like an oddity in an age streamlined production. While the album never feels too big for itself, Lindsay still knew his approach was risky. It's "fresh in an ironic kind of way," he tells me, and it's clear that Lindsay wanted the album to stand apart from other popular releases.
"Escape From Plaza-Midwood was kind of borderline reactionary against what I saw going on in the industry at the time. You know, everybody’s making a 30-minute, nine-song record, and I just thought, there are a lot of different sides of myself as an artist, and if this is going to be the world’s introduction to my music then let me do something that’s hopefully a little arresting, a little singular."
People and places fade in and out of Lindsay's songs, but stick around long enough to feel like old favorites, from Merle Haggard ("Remember at the river house you told me about Okie from Muskogee?") to Chicago ("I'm waiting for her at the Damon stop"). A bard through and through, Lindsay honed his writing skills at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned an MFA in Fiction Writing. Not surprisingly, storytellers have been a big influence on his music.
"My heroes are great singers who are also great writers. When I look at the majority of my influences, they tend to put a premium on vocals, whether they’re technically great singers, like Freddie Mercury and Jackson Browne, and people who put tons of premeditation into their lyrics and their arrangements. On the same token, Elliott Smith, Robert Pollard, folks like that."
Some of the songs offer insight into what makes Lindsay tick. On "My Blue Angels", he sings about not following in his father's footsteps as a minister ("No, the family business wasn't for me / Could you see me saving souls?"). He calls "Frequent Flyer" a "semi-autobiographical" tune, though you wouldn't know it based on the music video, which filmmaker Marc Wilkinson gave a creative spin. Wilkinson, Lindsay explained, "eschewed the norm with the treatment that he sent in to the label, with this kind of Boys Don't Cry take on the story." The video chronicles the romantic fits and starts between two young women, with a marching band (literally) shadowing their every move. (Also be sure to check out the psychedelic video for "New England Magazines", which LA filmmaker Colin Rich made using the substance from glowsticks. Rich is handling the remainder of the music videos for songs off Escape From Plaza-Midwood, with one for track "These Are the End Times" in the works.)
Like on Escape From Plaza-Midwood, Lindsay is co-producing his next album, Summer Wilderness Program, with good friend Chris Waldorff. The two are taking care of most of the recording and are inviting friends from other North Carolina bands to play strings and horns. But unlike Escape, Lindsay said, Summer Wilderness Program has "a really well-developed roadmap". And listeners can expect a more streamlined record.
"People say about my music that there are a lot of orchestral flourishes in the context of a two-and-a-half minute guitar pop song. But we're looking at things that we didn't look at last time, like where can we lose parts that are maybe a bit gratuitous. I think it'll be a smart record as far as the arrangements go in an attempt to make it bigger actually. That's what we're trying to do: have the highs be higher and the lows be lower, and make it more dynamic but using a more limited palette."
Lindsay imagines Summer as being more "focused and kind of conceptual from a confessional standpoint lyrically." The album title certainly evokes summer camp and images of leaving home. Maybe Lindsay's finally getting his chance to escape from Plaza-Midwood, a quaint neighborhood of Charlotte.
"I initially got the idea from the classic adventure trips of yesteryear that families would pack Junior off to the minute school was out. There's the implication of vastness and bleakness to me in the idea of those types of experiences, but also hopefully the foil of the possibility for bliss and vivid technicolor revelations. The idea that really all of us at some point life find ourselves completely alone, at the some relative Midquest of our lives, emotionally or chronologically, whether we know it or not at the time."
Lindsay hopes to finish work on the album in May. Before then, he'll have completed a short solo tour along the West coast, followed by a gig at the SXSW Stop-Over Festival in Savannah, Georgia (for up and coming bands on their way to Austin). And if all goes as planned, Lindsay will return with his full band for a 15-date run beginning in June, before embarking on a national tour in late summer to promote Summer Wilderness Program.
But first on his agenda: getting that Hammond. "Hopefully the early bird will get the organ," Lindsay said. It's a comment befitting a man hard at work on introducing his excellent brand of power pop to a wider audience. No one should overlook what Lindsay has in store this Summer.