John Newlands: The Nickel City Rundgren

There are as many reasons to write a song as there are second-hand guitars but for John Newlands the reason is simple: he loves the process of making music.

John’s career as a songwriter and producer began simultaneously when he overdubbed his first original guitar riff using two old cassette recorders. “It seemed like a lot of fun and there was also the appeal of showing off the results to my family."

But however playful the roots of John’s music are his songs are anything but frivolous. “It has to mean something.” John says. “It’s important to respect people’s time.”

John feels very strongly about applying all his skill to making the best music he can. He cringes when talking about today's commercial music and he clearly feels that by pouring every bit of craft into his songs he is taking a stand. “I don’t want to cede anything, to abandon the field to the producers of junk,” he says.

How John works has remained the same since he began. “It always starts with the lyrics. I keep notebooks of phrases, titles, bits of verses and choruses. Then when something that’s compelling to me suggests a song I go through my notes and look for something that matches up.”

The music, which clearly echoes his idols the Beatles and the Beach Boys, has the riffy passion of rock but is still rooted in the classical training he received as a young music student. “I studied theory and learned about counterpoint but classical music bored me. I saw that there were rules that went against what sounded good and I started to wonder what other rules there were that should be broken.”

Studying jazz guitar and decades of playing covers has taught John what combinations of chords work best but he admits “it’s easy to make an imitation or to succumb to the defeatist idea that it’s all been done. But I just keep trying things until something works and doesn’t fail the ultimate test: does it sound good.”

And John’s strong stubborn streak has paid off. “By sticking to this I’m gradually building a body of work,” he says, “and how cool is that?”

When asked if he’s learned anything else about himself John is quick to point out that there are no underlying personal issues he’s trying to express. But he admits that when it comes to selling himself he’s a bit negligent. “To my detriment I avoid things that have a tendency to fail, like marketing and promotion.”

He is also wary of music business. "All the worst things you’ve heard about the industry are true,” he says referring to the excitement that was generated around his first CD, Learn Guitar Overnight. Record companies, lawyers and hangers-on were quick to jump on board and he found himself in meetings, showcasing in Toronto clubs and answering to the demands of people who “only make something so they can promote it.”

“The whole experience,” he sighs, “was just embarrassing.” Asked whether he still has hopes of breaking into the business John simply says, “I’m okay with being satisfied.”

“You have to remind yourself of the reasons why you do it. No matter what happens, making music is always its own reward. And,” he laughs, “with such a small fan base you can do what you want."

Asked about whether he's ever considered any other careers he says that he's very interested in alternative energy and passionate about social justice. "But in one form or another I won’t stop writing because there’s nothing else that feels like it and inside I’m still that ten year old kid with two tape recorders.”

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