You may not know the name Jon Patrick Walker, but you've probably seen his face. The Brooklyn-based actor has guest-starred in popular TV shows like Law & Order, Sex and the City and Blue Bloods. He's appeared in the movie The Secret Life of Dentists (along with his wife Hope Davis) and the upcoming film Winter's Tale. He also stepped into the enormous shoes of John Lennon for the stage production 1969 and starred on Broadway in High Fidelity and Young Frankenstein.
But for years, Walker has also been quietly filing away original songs. Now, he's compiled them for his debut album, Jon Patrick Walker & The Guilty Party, which was released in March 2013. The lyrics are a blend of autobiography and fiction, reflecting the trajectory of the actor's life so far, stories of far flung dreams and loves lost and found. The music is an eclectic mix of classic and alternative rock and pop with large doses of Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Walker spoke with Songfacts about the inspiration behind his songs, like his first single "House on a Hill," and why he might be a little afraid of Mick Jagger.
Jon Patrick Walker: I think it was lying dormant for a long time. I always loved music, I was raised by hippie parents in the '70s, and the albums that I still love today were an almost constant soundtrack to my childhood: The Beatles and Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and Harry Nilsson and The Stones. Joni Mitchell and Pink Floyd. I grew up listening to these bands and was always a huge music lover. In high school I formed a band, then I was in a couple of bands in college. So I was always into music.
But I got bitten by the acting bug when I was probably in utero. I mean, I always wanted to be an actor. That was always my main thing, my main focus. In my 20s, I was also pursuing an acting career but making music on my own, almost like a hobby. I had a 4-track recording machine that I made demos on and even played a couple of gigs through my late 20s just solo, with my guitar. But I never really thought that I would pursue it in a serious way. It surprised me more than anybody that it happened in a kind of spontaneous way.
In the summer of 2011, I was working as an actor. I'd had a hard year, because my mom got sick with ovarian cancer. We're very close, and she moved in with us in Brooklyn after her diagnosis, because she was living up in Maine at the time, and we wanted to get her treatment down here. So she ended up living with us for a year and a half. Having a really sick person in my house, having my mother in my house, I was on the one end really grateful to have the time with her, but it was also really stressful and challenging in a lot of ways.
And so one day I was with my kids a couple of days later with my guitar and I just was fooling around and I started playing that old song, "Louie, Louie." But instead of singing "Louie, Louie," I was singing, "Foday Bojannnngg, whoaaa whoa..." And just kind of horsing around. I suddenly got the idea; that could be a song here. That could be kind of a fun song about getting friended by a guy named Foday Bojang.
So I played this in different chords and I wrote a song. I hadn't done that in a few years, and when I finished writing it after a few days and added a bridge and so forth, I just thought, Well, this is a really good song. I'm going to record this in the studio. I had this really strong impulse to take it into a studio.
A week later I ran into a friend who lived in Nashville, and I told him about my idea. He said, "Dude, come to Nashville, I've been trying to get you to come down and visit for a couple of years and this would be a good excuse. My best friend has a studio and I have these great friends who are brilliant musicians."
So we went down in the fall of 2011 and recorded the one song, really for fun - just for the experience. I didn't have any intention of making a record, but it was a fantastic experience. It was so much fun. Kind of magical.
I got back home and realized, you know what, I want to make music. This is really something that's important to me. So I started digging up some older songs that I had sitting in drawers and reworked some of those and wrote some new songs and decided to go back to Nashville a few months later and do a few more. I actually did five more in February of 2012, and then four more in April, and then another one in July. I suddenly had 11 songs, and I thought, I'm going to make a record and release it.
Subsequently, I had also put a band together. After that first recording, I put the band together and started playing gigs locally and in the city. So it's really been a very unexpected and wonderful little journey that went on.
Songfacts: Right. You know this interview's for Songfacts, and the website focuses on really the meanings of the stories behind songs. So I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the songwriting aspect. What was it like working on songs you had written long ago?
Jon Patrick: Some of these go back to my mid to late 20s, so it was interesting to revisit some of the old ones and kind of retool them and tinker with them. In the past I would write a song and get a good first draft and decide that was it, and go, "Okay, there's the song." But it was actually a good exercise to go back, and say, "Well, this is good as it is, but it maybe could be better." I've really enjoyed the process of revisiting some of the old ones.
Songfacts: Is it different now to revisit them now that you've had so many more experiences since when you wrote them? You're married, you have kids now.
Jon Patrick: Right, exactly. Some of these songs were breakup songs or songs about experience with relationships from literally 15, 20 years ago. So it was interesting to revisit them. The album has a little storyline that's totally personal, it wouldn't necessarily be clear to anyone that didn't know me or know my personal story. But the album opens with this song, "House on the Hill," which was written at a time when I had just broken up with a girlfriend. We were actually engaged. I had another big breakup a couple of years earlier from my high school sweetheart. We'd been together for 8 years. Suddenly I found myself alone. I was like 27 or 28, and was recently unemployed.
I'd had a gig doing a show out of town and that had ended. I was filing for unemployment benefits and having to find a new apartment. My parents divorced when I was a kid, and my mom was living with this flaky guy in this old rundown mansion that used to be a hospital and seemed completely creepy to me. My dad had gone through a divorce and was living in a basement apartment of this friend of his. So I started writing this song about the three of us. Some might look at it and say, "Hey, your life is so free and interesting and unpredictable." But really all I wanted was a house on a hill and some stability. That's what the song came out of.
So here I am now, 20 years later almost, I'm married and I have a house and I have a dog and I have all the things that I wanted. It's nice to be where I am - I'm very grateful for that. But it's still a good song, and I still enjoy telling that story.
Songfacts: And so you knew right away that this was the song you wanted to come out with as your debut?
Jon Patrick: For the single? When we recorded it, I just loved the vibe playing with these musicians down in Nashville. They brought so much to the songs. I was just basically the processor. I would strum the song for them on my guitar and they would say, "Okay, try this, and let's try that." It was a very free, creative experience, everyone was able to bring their own ideas to each song. It happened in a very effortless, organic way that was really, really cool.
So I didn't know that that would necessarily open the record or be the single. But once I heard it, I thought, It's a great first song. And the trajectory of the album, it opens with that song, and it closes with the song that was written to my wife, "Hopie Song."
Songfacts: Yes. That's the one that's been in my head all week.
Songfacts: Do you have to sit down and carve out a certain amount of time to write, or do you get hit with inspiration and just kind of go with it?
Jon Patrick: I definitely need some time, because I need to at least be able to noodle around on my guitar. The song might start with just a riff on the guitar or on the piano - I also write on the piano - so I might find a riff that I like and then find some lyrics or think of something that I want to sing about that seems fitting with the vibe of the riff.
Or the other way around, I'll come up with a line in my head that will trigger a song, and then I'll find music that fits the line in my head. "Hopie Song" was a lyric that just popped into my head. Actually, it was weird. I'd visited my mother when she was asleep, and I was just sitting there with nothing much to do, and so I just started daydreaming. And the line, "Hopie, I love you, you know that it's true, because I always tell you, does it ever get through?" came into my head. It was a way into writing a love song, because I'd always wanted to write a song for her, but it can be hard to consciously say, "I'm going to write a love song" without it feeling like it's going to be really syrupy or cheesy in some way.
And somehow I found a way in by making the protagonist of the song - I mean, it's me - but to make that character, sort of pleading, as though, "Hey, I keep telling you that I love you, and do you even notice? Don't make me cry." The attitude of the song is semi-fictional, in a sense. I'm taking a sort of classic pop angle on a song, the lover who's feeling in some way spurned or disregarded, or "don't you know, can't you see how much I love you?" In reality, I don't actually have those problems with my wife in a personal way. I know that she knows and she knows that I know that I know that she knows. (laughs) But in the song I found a way in to writing a song for her that was taking that classic pop attitude of "don't you see how much I love you." It gave it a sense of humor or a lightness that was fun. It was fun to write.
Songfacts: And it balances out some of the other songs, too, that maybe have a thread of loneliness in them. And then you get this upbeat song at the end that really closes it in a nice way.
Jon Patrick: We put horns on that song, which was also super fun to do. We added the horns in Brooklyn. I went into the studio here and found a producer through a friend who recommended him and he hired these two horn guys. It was a really fun session to add the horns on top. That just seemed like a nice little cherry on the sundae, musically speaking.
Songfacts: I like, too, how you put your own spin on some lyrics from classic rock songs, like "Paint it Black" comes up in "My Funny Vaporizer." And then you listen to "Pour Some Sugar on Me" and it's totally different than the image that you normally would get.
Jon Patrick: Yeah. The Stones thing is a direct reference - I hope I don't get in trouble for having used it. I didn't ask Mick Jagger or Keith Richards' permission. But, obviously, it was done in homage to them. I'm a huge Rolling Stones fan. And the "Pour Some Sugar on Me," that was another personal story of heartache. The title came to me not so much from the Def Leppard song, although I knew that I was using a title that they had used. But I literally had this drunken night when I was 29. I had come back from this trip to Europe where I had directed a play over in Madrid and fell in love with this girl. I was there for like 6 weeks, so I had this torrid affair. I was single and I met this girl over there. We had a really wonderful time together.
I came home, and as it dawned on me that I would probably never see her again, I was just heartbroken. One night I was out with a couple of my buddies and we had too much to drink. We went to see some concert and ended up at this diner at 3 in the morning. At one point we'd got into this stupid punching contest that only drunken boys will do, and I punched my friend in the arm - not like in the face or anything. And he punched me in the arm so hard that I started to cry. I put my head down on the table. I was a really pathetic figure at that moment. I was just crying at this table in this diner at 3 in the morning.
My other friend started pouring the sugar container onto my head. I had a hat on, so I couldn't feel it. He was pouring sugar on my head while I'm lying there crying at 3 in the morning. So I wrote the song a few days later, and that's actually where the inspiration for "Pour Some Sugar on Me" came from, because I literally had gotten sugar poured on me.
Songfacts: That's really funny how you literally had sugar pouring on you.
Jon Patrick: But of course in the song I used it as, "Hey, gimme some love."
Songfacts: Most of these come from your own experience. But do you ever get inspiration from any characters you've played?
Jon Patrick: Yeah. Like, "Henderson Road." I had gone through a breakup, but that was really a fictional, almost like a short story. I had this idea of a guy waking up one morning knowing that he's going to leave his wife, and going through the motions of, "I'm off to the office, I'll see you later." Then he gets in his car and lights a cigar and drives off knowing that he's never going to see her again. She finds the note in her pocket saying, "Hey, I'm leaving." Then the surprise of the song is she's totally relieved, because she's been really unhappy, too. So she feels like, "You might be free, but I'm free now, too."
It certainly came out of personal experience, but it was completely couched in a fictional scenario. And inspired by a song like "She's Leaving Home" by The Beatles.
I don't know if I've ever gotten directly inspired by characters. Although I once did write a song after I did a play, because it was a phrase in a piece of dialogue from the play that I had been in. It wasn't even one of my lines, it was another character's line. But it was something about being simply unashamed, so I ended up writing a song called "Simply Unashamed" about various characters who are being wicked or corrupt in some way, but were unashamed of their behavior.
Songfacts: Now, you mentioned The Beatles. You play John Lennon on stage, and I can tell there's a Beatles vibe on the album. Are they a major influence?
Songfacts: Absolutely. Huge. They were probably the most heavily played music that I heard as a small child. I have vivid memories of probably four or five years old and almost learning to read, reading lyrics from The Beatles album Sergeant Pepper. I remember my parents had the blue Greatest Hits record that came out, which has all the lyrics on their sleeves, and I would just sit there and read them. I was an only child, so I had a lot of time by myself. Not that I was neglected, but as an only child you just have more time than you would if you had siblings around. I would sit and listen to these records and try to decipher the meanings of "I am the walrus, they are the eggmen." I didn't know what that meant. I still don't know what that means, really.
At the age of 5 or 6 you're taking things very literally, but I could already see that there was sort of this window into this world that was magical and fantastical. They were the stories that really resonated with me as a small child almost more than fairy tales. "Eleanor Rigby" and "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields," all these songs had such powerful imagery to a small child and made a huge impression on me. They're probably my biggest influence if I had to pick one.
Songfacts: Did that make you a little bit nervous stepping into that role as Lennon?
Jon Patrick: Absolutely. But it ended up being super fun to do and just really exciting. Obviously, they're huge shoes to fill and I don't pretend to be able to really fill them. But it's fun to just imagine that I'm him and make believe that I'm him when I'm on stage with the group and singing some of his songs. It's extremely gratifying. Especially when we did it at Carnegie Hall, that was in 2010, it was just a like a real career milestone, for sure.
Songfacts: Do you have a favorite song on your album?
Jon Patrick: They're all sort of my babies. I love them all. But I think "The Ballad of Jesus Jones" is in some ways my favorite. I don't necessarily think it's the best song or that other people should think it's their favorite, but just on a personal level, something about how it came together. It was written as an homage to Bob Dylan and his style of songwriting, where there's a lot of freeform imagery - wordplay and alliteration. It's kind of fanciful song. That was a song I'd written 12, 13 years ago, but I did a lot of revision on it when I was making the record and before we were recording it. It just has, for me, personal imagery that resonates with me in terms of my mom passing. There's an image of a boy on a stage singing a song for everyone, and it resonates as an only child. I was a child actor and so I see myself in different characters in the song. And I just love the performances of the other musicians on that particular track. That's probably my favorite.
Songfacts: Did you know from the outset that you wanted to release it on vinyl?
Jon Patrick: Probably not, but pretty early on the guy who I've given a producer's credit to, Courtney Little, he's the one who originally said, "Hey, come to Nashville and do 'Foday Bojang.'" He's the one, he said to me, "If you're going to make a record, you should make some vinyl." It's one of the only remaining places that still does that if you're in Nashville, and it's literally three blocks down from the studio where we were recording. So as soon as he mentioned the idea, I said, "Definitely." I haven't even made CDs. I'm not really planning to, although I guess I might at some point. But it seems like these days, most people don't really want CDs. So I made vinyl, and then it's digital, available for download.
A year ago for Christmas my wife got me a turntable, and I started listening to some of my old albums that way. And I really enjoy listening to music on vinyl. I love the sound and somehow the experience of it is more conducive to listening to at least a whole side of a record, if not the whole thing, as opposed to when it's on your iPod you're somehow more likely to skip around or put things on shuffle. So I enjoy the album format in that way.
Songfacts: It's definitely a different experience. So now that you're into doing music, would you consider yourself more of a musician than an actor, or will you always be more of an actor at heart?
Jon Patrick: Yeah. I mean, once I decided to make the music, I'd been in a somewhat fallow period in my career as an actor. I was feeling a little frustrated and things weren't taking off at that particular time very much. It ended up being that I didn't work the whole year that I made the record. I didn't turn down too much, and I did audition some. But it's almost as if the Universe somehow provided me with that that year. And it was really good for me to not work and to focus on the record and not have anything pull me away from focusing on the record. So it was actually lovely to have the year and to just make the album.
But since I've gotten back into the acting world, things have been good. I've been working and I'm doing a play right now that just transferred from Broadway. It's a wonderful show and I'm really enjoying acting again. So I'll just think of them as side by side priorities. But at the moment I'm getting paid to act and no one's paying me to go out on tour with my band. But if someone ever wanted to, I'd be thrilled to pursue that, as well. So I'm just trying to stay open to whatever comes and truly grateful that I get to have the life of an actor. I feel extremely lucky that I'm not working in an office or a restaurant or something.
Songfacts: You've done theatre, plays and musicals, TV and movies. Is there one medium that you're drawn to more than another?
Jon Patrick: I do love the theatre, for sure. There's just something that you can't capture anywhere else than live performance. And I get that, too, with performing with my band. I just love the interaction of an audience with whatever the work is, whether it's a play or singing songs. You get so much back, whether they're laughing at something funny on the stage or dancing to a song that you wrote, it's extremely gratifying.
With film and television, you don't get that. It's more of a process, and then only later on do you get to see the finished product and TV tends to pay a lot better than theatre. So I'm always grateful when I get film or television work, but theatre and stage stuff is definitely my first love.
Songfacts: Your daughters are both still pretty young, but older than you were when you started out in the business, right?
Jon Patrick: They're about the age I was. Yeah, my youngest is 8, which is when I did my first play. And my older one is about 10 1/2. So, yeah.
Songfacts: Have they ever expressed any interest in getting into performing at all?
Jon Patrick: Yeah. They haven't said, "I'm going to be an actor when I grow up," or "I'm going to be a pop star." But they're certainly very creative around the house and love to put shows on for us and make up songs on the piano. They're both very talented in that way. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if one or both of them decided to pursue one of those avenues. But I guess we'll see how it plays out.
Songfacts: Do you have any plans to be on TV any time soon? I know you're in Peter and the Starcatcher right now.
Jon Patrick: Right, exactly. I'll be doing this for the next few months. I shot a role in a movie at the end of last year, November/December of 2012. And that movie I would imagine will be out probably by next Christmas or something. It's called Winter's Tale, and it stars Will Smith and Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe. I have a small but nice little scene, sort of a pivotal scene in the movie. So that was really exciting. I got to work with William Hurt and this young actress from Downton Abbey, Jessica Findlay Brown. We had this lovely scene together.
Songfacts: Some of the TV shows you were in have a major following, like Sex and the City and Law & Order. Do people ever recognize you from those?
Jon Patrick: They do. In fact, this morning I was at a coffee shop and there was a guy kind of staring at me. He finally came over and said, "Are you an actor?" And I said, "Yeah." "Did you do a couple of 'Law & Orders'?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Okay. I'm bad at names, but I remember faces." So I do occasionally get recognized. But 9 times out of 10 I can walk down the street and no one blinks an eye, which is nice.
Songfacts: And are you going back to the studio again to record soon? I thought I saw on Facebook that you mentioned that.
Jon Patrick: Yeah. I'm planning to take my band into the studio in mid May for a couple of days to hopefully do a couple of new songs. So I'm very excited about that. The record was recorded with these guys in Nashville and not with my band, so this will be the first time that I've taken my band into the studio and I'm really psyched to see how it sounds and to do some new stuff.
April 12, 2013
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