Jon Regen‘s Higher Ground arrived 4 October via the Ropeadope imprint and continues the New York-based troubadour’s tradition of delivering emotionally honest songs that draw upon a wide range of influences. Produced by Jamiroquai’s Matt Johnson, Andy Summers of the Police, Benmont Tench of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran all make guest appearances.
Regen, who is the editor of Keyboard magazine, also now has a hand in acting as he appears in the new season of Amazon’s series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (season three, episode four). He’ll also close out 2019 with two late-night gigs at New York City’s Blue Note (dubbed “Jon Regen: Blue Note Late Night Take Over”) on Friday, 20 December, and Saturday, 21 December, following Chris Botti both nights.
It’s fitting that his new video, “Hole in My Heart”, was captured at that very location. A live rendition of the track heard on Higher Ground, the song, Regen says, began as something of a fragment.
“I had that little piano figure and the phrase ‘I got a hole in my heart,'” he recalls. “That idea had really stuck with me, but I didn’t know what it was about. I dug into that song, and Matt found an incredibly inventive way through it. I decided to triple track a piano solo. I got everything in that I wanted to. I think the video is a pretty good representation of what I do live.”
An example of Regen’s blend of gravity and levity, the tune carries a sense of buoyancy and hope, while its lyrical content tackles familiar feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction without wallowing in them. In the end, there’s a sense of resolve and, catching Regen and band work through the tune’s emotional complexities in the video, provides added dimension.
Regen recently spoke with PopMatters from his home in New York City.
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Does the material on Higher Ground represent a particular moment in time?
It came together through complete happenstance. Since my last album, [2015’s] Stop Time, I’d gotten married and we had a kid. There were a whole bunch of life changes going on. I knew I didn’t want to be on the road all the time. I also knew I didn’t want to make the same record twice. I was watching my kid during the first 18 months of his life all day because my wife has a traditional job. All these things were percolating: A new beginning in my personal life, the end of an album cycle, I knew a change was going to come.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to record right away. I wrote the song “Higher Ground” just as a test of where I was as a new family guy. Most of my past records were about love or breakups. Loss. Then this song came along. But I didn’t have a concept of a record.
Then you met up with Matt Johnson from Jamiroquai.
About a year-and-a-half ago, I went to one of their shows in New York City. Matt and I started talking after the show and started to realize that we shared a lot of the same keyboard influences and had the shared notion that good music is good music. It could be blues; it could be jazz; it could be pop. That got my wheels turning. I had just bought this vintage Roland Juno-60 synthesizer. I stuck it on top of my Wurlitzer piano and started messing with it.
I had this idea for this arpeggiated synth line that would continue over a sequence of chords. I sent it to Matt, and he sent it back to me so spectacularly expanded and produced. That inspired me to write words to it. I wondered if we might have a fertile partnership, even though he was in London and I was in New York.
What do you hope a producer brings to a project? Are you thinking, “Push me a little bit. Don’t just tell me what I want to hear”?
A lot of times, you don’t have someone around to edit you. “Why are you going to that chord again?” My hope is always that the producer will bring out the best version of myself. Mitchell Froom was a particular kind of producer. He wanted to get a great band together and have them track live in the studio. That was how we worked. That was exciting.
With Matt, he had a completely contemporary take on things. I came up listening to Billy Joel, Randy Newman, and Bruce Hornsby. Matt is a British synth whiz who comes from a jazz/funk synth background with an appreciation of classic songwriting.
I wrote “New Sensation” about waiting for my child to be born. I thought it was going to be a little piano piece, like a lullaby. It came back sounding like Coldplay. It was exciting to be with a producer who was eager to hear my ideas, but who had opinions. I felt like I was in good hands.
Do you think that the write-as-you-go approach impacted the emotional arc? There’s levity and gravity, and they seem to balance each other out.
I think so, but it was also a very emotional time. I’m an older parent. There was a tremendous emotional awakening. I had the literal responsibility of watching my son during the day. It was one part of my life ending and a whole other part of my life beginning. You can’t get that idea when you’re younger. I was mesmerized by the process but terrified by raising a child in this age of worry. Then I made this album I didn’t plan on.
You have some incredible guests on this.
It’s like the Live Aid of records.
Do you come to a moment in writing a song where you say, “Benmont would sound really good on this”?
I didn’t write with guests in mind. The exception is “The Last to Go”, which is a love letter to my wife. Benmont is older than I am, but we had children on the exact same day. We’ve gone through new parenting together, through moving our houses together, a lot of these things together. He also got married around the time I got married.
When I was up late and working on that song, taking stock in all the things in life, I thought, “Benmont would probably get this because he’s probably feeling these things too.” I played it for him and he agreed. He went over to Mitchell Froom’s house to cut the organ. The first time I ever really remember hearing an organ on record was Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over”, which Mitchell produced.
I can’t think of a bigger compliment than when the people who made you believe in music and taught you how to be a better musician take an interest in the music you’re making and come out to make it with you.