In 2007, Nothing More pulled a Genesis, filling their lead singer position with their drummer, Jonny Hawkins. The San Antonio band made the move right after winning a battle-of-the-bands contest that earned them a performance on the Warped Tour. Hawkins hid behind the drum kit that first show, but he soon burst out of his shell, establishing himself as one of the most exciting (and often shirtless) young singers in rock.
He has a lot to sing about, filling his lyric sheets with penetrating real-life stories. Their 2017 album, The Stories We Tell Ourselves, deals in large part with a breakup that was both bitter and necessary, eight years in the making. It connected with listeners, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album.
In this interview, Hawkins details some of these song stories and explains how he overcame his fears by challenging his beliefs.
Jonny Hawkins: It usually starts from one person's idea. Usually Mark (Vollelunga, guitar) or myself have an idea - either a musical idea or a lyrical idea or something - and then we bring it to the group in whatever form. Usually, the three of us - Daniel (Oliver, bass), Mark, and myself - will start pulling it apart and rebuilding it. But then there are other songs that are built in the jam room.
This last record, Ben (Anderson, drums), Daniel, and Mark would come up with a lot of music, and I would come up with ideas on my own, then join the process. There are a lot of different ways it could start, but once we're in the process, it's just a series of creation and destruction. We have about 15 different versions of any given song before it reaches its final destination.
Songfacts: With the songs that have multiple versions, is there any chance of issuing these at some point in the future?
Hawkins: I don't know - that's a good question. Maybe one day down the road, when we're just releasing real behind-the-scenes kind of demos and drafts, then maybe. But a lot of them are demos, and most don't sound very good.
Songfacts: Let's discuss the lyrical inspiration behind the song "Just Say When."
Hawkins: The song was originally created in the bus, while we were on tour. Mark was just fiddling around on the acoustic guitar, and I was feeling kind of low. I had a lot of emotions that I was grappling with because I was at a fork in the road in my life at the time in regards to my relationship. I had an eight-year relationship with a girl, who is my ex. I met her the day my mom had passed away, and she was kind of an escape in my life, and also a good companion and friend along the way during that tough time.
But as the years went on, it became clearer that we both wanted different things. All the excitement had worn off - all the veneer to the relationship - and the reality was setting in that we were just very different people with very different values at the end of the day. But we had such a history and also a friendship at the beginning of it, that it was very hard to know what to do with that truth.
So, the song "Just Say When" was talking about those final moments during the end of the relationship when I had to get to a point where I knew holding on was the wrong thing to do. Even though it felt like letting go was wrong, it was a conflict between my heart and my head, and a lot of different things at play.
Songfacts: And what do you recall about filming the song's video?
It was just the perfect setting for the feelings that that song was written around, because an airport is a place where there are so many people going around in different directions, almost like life. So many times, you get stuck in this layover process where you get canceled flights, and you have nothing but time with your thoughts. And that's kind of what the relationship felt like: that waiting, trapped feeling of an airport.
Songfacts: Let's discuss the song "Do You Really Want It?"
Hawkins: That one was written in the wake of "Just Say When." It was when I was rebuilding myself as an individual, apart from that relationship. And also, looking out into the world, trying to get myself to wake the fuck up. Because life is not promised, it's a gift, and a lot of people take it for granted and waste their time. So, I was feeling kind of low and in a depression. It was an attempt to slap myself in the face and remind myself that I was one of the luckiest people on Earth.
Sometimes, our brains just don't work that way. You see these people who have the world at their fingertips, and all the success you can imagine, but they still are depressed. That's kind of what that song is about: the American demons. Because even if you are the poorest American, you still are better off than a lot of areas in the world.
Songfacts: "Go To War."
It really was a full-out switch and change in the state of mind towards someone, and towards the relationship, where everything becomes a threat, everything becomes an offense, everything is worth attacking. So, that song was really just about venting that feeling. If you've ever been with someone in the depths of the politics of love, it's that kind of thing.
Songfacts: "Here's To The Heartache."
Hawkins: That one was really an anthem to every struggle that you go through in life. Every disappointment. It's an anthem to heartbreak... or heartache.
I've noticed that there are so many times when things seem negative on the surface, but when you look back with a far enough lens and enough time between you and that event, it usually works out for the best in terms of where you need to go in your life and who you need to become as a person. If you view life like that, it really turns out to be that way.
My mom was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, and was taken from us, but in that final year of my mom's life, Jenna was just going off the rails and getting worse and worse. My mother was hanging on for dear life, having surgery after surgery just to get any extra inch she could to be a part of Jenna's life, because she was kind of the sheep that had gone astray.
Jenna is actually named her after my mom's sister, who is our Aunt Jenny. My sister's name is Jenna, but when we named the song "Jenny," it really was a warning to my sister Jenna. Like, "Are you going to become Jenny?" - who has been in a home for 30-plus years, completely checked out from society and everything. She is a full-blown schizophrenic with no sense of clear identity and very hard to communicate with.
But, when I said, "She stuck around for you," I was talking about my mother, who withstood all these surgeries and procedures to stay around for my sister Jenna. It was really just a challenge to my sister Jenna, because it had gotten so bad that she was literally harming my mom and my dad emotionally, physically, and financially, because of how deep down the dark road she was going.
It was sad to say, but I had gotten to a point where I would rather her either kill herself or decide to get better and just take steps in the right direction... sink or swim. I really felt that harshly towards her because of things that had transpired. That's the lyric:
Maybe you should just fall
Leave the world and lose it all
If that's what you need to finally see
She loved you through it all
Songfacts: Lastly, I always find it interesting when drummers move out front and become frontmen, something you wound up doing in the band a while back.
Hawkins: I started playing drums when I was seven. I tried out for the choir about the same age, and I didn't make the choir as a kid. But it was an exclusive choir - it was a small school that I went to and only two kids that I know didn't make the choir out of my age group - it was me and one other kid. So, I just assumed and accepted based on that experience that I was not a singer. It was wasn't until I was about 20 years old that I challenged that limiting belief that I had carried with me ever since I was seven years old: "Why can't I be a singer?"
I was at that phase of my life that I was challenging everything. I was challenging religious ideas I was brought up in, I was challenging the political ideas I was brought up in. I was just rewriting everything I believed in, and this came up on the docket as another thing to challenge. So, I started dipping my toes in the water by doing some background vocals here and there. It wasn't until we had gone through four to five different singers, and the future didn't look any more hopeful for another singer just walking across our path, that I jumped into the singing spot out of necessity.
I asked myself, "Could I live with myself at the hypothetical end of my life, wondering, 'What if I would have tried? Could I have been everything I wanted to be and have a music career?'" It seemed to be what was between me and a career in music was a singer. So, what happened was, we won the battle of the bands for the Warped Tour years ago. We got the phone call that we had won. Well, it turns out we had just fired our singer the week before - we parted ways with him. They said, "Oh, we'll just get another band." I was on the phone with them, and I was like, "No, no, no - we'll make it work! I'm singing now, I'll figure it out."
I had never sang lead vocals a day in my life, but the first show I ever had was them flying us out to LA, playing the Key Club on Sunset Strip in front of all these labels, and I sang from behind the drum kit just so we could get that $10,000 in prizes and musical gear. [Laughs] But it was the most embarrassing day ever, because I really was horrible.
The next two years were really uncomfortable, and I was fighting through a lot of stage fright. My biggest fear in the world was talking in front of large audiences. So, it was a full-on transformation that I had to go through for two years. Then, it really started working, and we really found a rhythm. We were like, "Oh, this is it. This is what we've been waiting for all this time."
August 28, 2018
There is more at nothingmore.net
More Songwriter Interviews