In 2003 Switchfoot released The Beautiful Letdown on Columbia Records, which was their first major label album and included the Top-20 hits "Meant to Live" and "Dare You to Move." In 2009, they put out Hello Hurricane on their own label and won Best Rock Gospel Album for their efforts. As Jon mentions, making it on your own allows a certain freedom, which they utilized on their next release, Vice Verses, in 2011.
Along with Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek, Jon has recorded in the acoustic act Fiction Family, and has put out a few solo discs. A man with many ideas and a talent for the written word, he has stretched out and written essays for the Huffington Post, an experience that, as he tells us, has impacted his songwriting. We spoke with Jon about his HuffPo experience, covered some new songs and old favorites, and found out why we never hear a fun, bouncy song from Switchfoot.
Jon Foreman: Yeah, I'm always looking to find order within the chaos. And sometimes when my life gets fairly chaotic, I'll take a walk outside. And in this one particular instance, I remember I'd driven off into the desert and was looking up at the stars. I had a pretty good view away from the city lights out in the high desert, and I remember thinking about the order and the perfection of galaxies of planets in orbit and traveling around space and thinking how chaotic the wars and divorces and riots on our planet must look from outer space. So that's where the song began.
Songfacts: It's definitely a song that I turn to when I'm in a similar place where I can't understand, as you say, some of the chaos in the world. And I think we need to be reminded that there is order and that there is purpose.
Jon: Yeah, absolutely.
Songfacts: The new album, on the title cut "Vice Verses," you mention the earthquake. Was that written before the Japanese quake?
Songfacts: I think it's almost prophetic, though, at least when I heard it, thinking about our connection on the West Coast with Japan and how the ocean separates us and how the tsunami effected the West Coast. It's almost as if you could have very easily been writing specifically about that quake, even though you wrote it beforehand.
Jon: Yeah. During that particular quake I had taken some time off and was hitchhiking around Maui with my best friend from college and sleeping on the beach. It was our first night on the island and that's when we heard these warnings. And we ignored the first few, and then started to take it more seriously. But I will never forget where I was when that earthquake and tsunami happened.
Songfacts: Yeah, that's pretty scary. Because Hawaii was one of those areas that they were concerned would be effected by the tsunami, right?
Jon: Yeah, there were a lot of beaches that were very effected, harbors that were very effected. Fortunately, where I was it wasn't as destructive. Certainly not as destructive as it was overseas in Japan.
Songfacts: One of the singles from the album is "Restless." Could you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to write that song?
Jon: "Restless" was inspired over in the UK. I was listening to the rain and watching these individual drops drip down the window and thinking that every one of them is in pursuit of the ocean, that they will stop at nothing, and gravity will eventually one day lead them to the ocean. And I began to think of my own life and wondering if I had that same drive, that same pursuit for that which is right and true. And then I was thinking through C.S. Lewis' idea that this life, when we're aware of beauty, it's kind of a bittersweet thing, that it's a transient reminder of eternal beauty, which someday we will be face to face with.
Songfacts: Wow. It's fascinating to me that you can be inspired to write a song by a simple raindrop. You must be one of those people that almost always has his tentacles out looking for ideas, looking for things that might become songs.
Jon: I'm always thinking about songs, I'm thinking of life maybe a little bit more lyrically than a computer programmer or someone like that. But the good songs I always feel like they have very little to do with me. It's like the inspiration carries the idea all the way through to completion, and my fingerprints don't mess it up along the way. For me, those are the good ones, the ones that come really naturally. There are certain songs that you rework and rewrite and the craft becomes very evident, but a lot of times those aren't my favorite songs. The favorite songs are the ones that I can't even hear my own voice in.
Songfacts: I've read some of the things that you've written for the Huffington Post. And I've been really impressed by the way that you can write an essay to make a statement and to prove a point. Is it easier for you to write an essay, or to write something that has to be condensed to a 3-minute pop song?
Songfacts: It sound like that new venture has opened up new avenues for you.
Jon: Yeah, it really has. It's funny, too, because it was a friend of mine who's a publicist, and she would say, "Hey I really like the way that you write your songs. Have you ever tried to write an essay?" And that's when I thought to myself, Yeah, let's give it a go. So I'm really glad that I was challenged in that way.
Songfacts: One of the things that I was wondering about you, you don't write a lot of frivolous, fun songs. Do you ever have a desire to write a happy summer song?
Jon: (laughing) I love a good pop song. I have no problem with the concept of doing that sort of thing. For me, it's usually what I'm inspired by, what I'm thinking about. And most often, those aren't the fun, happy things that keep my attention. When I'm happy, when I'm enjoying life, I'm home, I'm surfing, I'm spending time with my wife, my friends, and maybe we're playing cover tunes - we're playing Tom Petty or The Band, or we're covering Bob Dylan, and I'm not thinking about the pain. And then the moment I encounter something that feels difficult, I feel like that's when, for me, I turn to writing and thinking and maybe a song comes from that.
Songfacts: I was thinking about U2 and how Bono reacted to always being the sincere issue-oriented guy, and he kind of created the alter image, which I think showed up on Achtung Baby and some of the music that came after that. Do you ever think about trying to create an alter image so that you can show your lighter side?
Jon: Bono might be a better actor than I am. (laughing) I have horrible acting ability. I can only be one thing and that's it. So for better, for worse, that's all I've got to offer is me. I've got nothing else. And I think there are other sides to myself - everyone has multiple layers - but I've been fortunate to have Fiction Family and the solo projects and the work with Switchfoot to be able to express myself in plenty of ways. So I've never felt the need to wear a mask.
Songfacts: You've said that many of your inspirations for previous songs were biblical. When it comes to the Vice Verses album, what kind of things - books or films maybe - inspired those songs?
Jon: Hmm. Good question. For your question, I think that this record was a little more personal than it was taking from other subject material. And most of the songs are in the first person and - I mean, the first word of the whole record is "I." (laughs) But I think the whole thing is definitely a little bit more of an inward look at the struggle rather than being inspired by books or something I was reading. I'm trying to think if there were any inspirations that I could name, and I can't - I'm sure there were subconscious things, but I can't think of anything off the top of my head.
Songfacts: Would you say, then, that to be able to write from your own personal perspective, does that show that you're more comfortable using the band Switchfoot as a vehicle for your own personal thoughts?
Jon: It might be. I've always felt comfortable with this band, but I feel like with our own studio and the platform that Hello Hurricane has given us, there's a new sense of boldness and strength that comes from operating from a place where we're not afraid to say exactly what we mean and mean exactly what we say, and maybe in a way that we've never felt as a band before. I feel like that couldn't exist without going through the hard times of Hello Hurricane.
We spoke with Jon Foreman on August 11, 2011. Get more at jonforeman.com.
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