By Dana Getz
Jamie Lono sits casually at a worn, wooden picnic table in Chicago’s Union Park, gratefully twisting the cap from a coconut water as he relieves his throat from the hot summer day. His floppy red hair is covered by a backwards baseball cap, and the beginnings of a sunburn span across his fair-skinned cheeks. Dressed in a simple, striped T-shirt, Lono looks like any other young passerby, his unassuming nature deceiving to those unfamiliar with his face. But Lono is more than meets the eye.
The 23-year-old singer/songwriter first gained prominence on NBC’s “The Voice,” charming audiences with his eccentric style and humble beginnings as a Potbelly sandwich maker. Though his time on the show was short-lived, Lono has since come a long way, ditching the sandwich gig in favor of a full-time music career. His sound is poppy with a hint of soul, melding heavy instrumentals and towering hooks with beautifully gritty vocals. He’s played a bevy of college campuses and local Chicago venues, including this past weekend’s North Coast Music Festival. We sat down with Lono to discuss his sophomore EP, facing life’s challenges and how he’s stayed positive throughout it all.
When and why did you first get involved in music?
I started when I was 14. I played guitar in a metal band. Me and all my buddies were in it and we played in that for like five or six years, and that was pretty much all we did. Then when I was like 19 the band broke up, and my house had a fire. I was still playing guitar and doing my thing, and I started singing and songwriting after my house had a fire ‘cause there was nothing else to do. I’d just go out to the car and write.
You’ve struggled through some difficult times, including early health complications and financial troubles. Could you talk more about those experiences and how they’ve influenced both you and your music?
Yeah, I mean my family was bankrupt when I was like two. Obviously I didn’t notice it, but growing up we didn’t have much money, so me being sick when I was two kind of affected my entire life. There were always money struggles, but I think it brought my family closer. It made me an emotional person, which is probably why I’m here. When I was around 19 is when my house had a fire. But I think everything happens for a reason—I mean I started singing when my house had a fire. I think if anything, these really terrible things happened in order for good things to happen.
I know you focused a lot on positivity in your first album, “The Feel Good Nation.” What inspires you to remain optimistic despite such difficulties?
If you’re not optimistic and happy, you’re barely fucking living. I don’t know, my first album was totally different. It was like, ‘Oh let’s feel good, let’s go to a festival and all this.’ It was cool, but I don’t know if it represented me entirely. The album that I just put out is a lot different; it’s a lot darker. It has darker themes, but it’s more about having that stuff happen and then kind of forgetting about it and realizing what’s good in life, and why you should cherish certain things.
So you said you played metal in the past, but now you have kind of a pop/soul sound. What drew you to that sound as opposed to something harder?
I still love that music, so in this new album I kind of tried to take it more in that direction because I think that’s still where my heart lies. I’ve had a lot of frustration, and it’s great to take it out through music. For me, that’s why I loved playing metal music. I loved playing the acoustic, singer/songwriter kind of stuff, but I think at the same time I was trying to fit into a certain genre and not really representing myself in terms of who I am and how I feel about the world. But I still would like to keep those general themes. I like writing about all that stuff because it’s how I get over things.
You gained prominence on NBC’s The Voice. What made you decide to try out for the show?
When I started singing I was 19, and I saw “American Idol” and there was this dude singing the blues, and I was like, ‘All right, I can do that.’ I started working on it more and more, and I didn’t know any other outlets really. I was like, ‘Okay, this is what you do. You sing and then you go try out for ‘American Idol.’’ I thought that was the industry. I got turned down from “American Idol” like twice, I got turned down from “The X Factor,” and then two weeks later I got a call from “The Voice,” and they were like, ‘We wanna give you a private audition,’ and they flew me out to L.A. From then on it was smooth sailing. The reason I was happy to get on The Voice is because they were the coolest people in that entire industry—the casting company is the nicest, the producers are the nicest. I guess I just didn’t really know what to do, and I had The Voice to do it and I went for it.
If you’re going to have someone on your side it might as well be Cee Lo Green, but you’ve done pretty well for yourself despite being kicked off early. How has your life changed since the show?
I’m able to make a living as a musician now. I’m not able to get to the point where I’m like, ‘All right yeah, I’m gonna go buy a house,’ but I do well for myself and I don’t have to make sandwiches or work at a 9 to 5 job. I have a cooler job than most people. I’m able to play at colleges and just tell people my story. The thing that sucks about the music industry these days is that you can’t just be a musician anymore, you have to have somewhat of a business sense and know when to grab shit and know when to go for it. So for me, I think I just took advantage of everything I was given.
You just released your sophomore EP, Reject. What were you listening to while making the album? What experiences inspired it?
I actually started listening to metal and stuff. I started listening to heavier stuff. I think I was just going through a darker time, and I was starting to really figure out what it is to song write, which is just honesty. If it hits something with my heart, then maybe it will hit somebody else. It’s a darker themed album, but I think it represents me more as a person, and it’s also at the same time about overcoming things and maintaining an optimistic point of view on the world.
Do you have any plans for a full length album?
Yeah, we’re gonna keep recording with the same producer. We’re going to get some funding and record maybe eight more songs and finish it up. We have a full band and all that, so it should be fun.
You’ve released all of your music independently so far. Do you plan to sign to a label at some point or is remaining independent important to you?
My manager explained it to me like this: signing to a record label is like buying a BMW and going really fast, and being independent is like having a Volkswagen that’s pretty steady but goes a lot slower. Whatever opportunity comes to me I’m going to take it. My goal is just to play for people every night; I don’t care about anything else really. I just want to share my music, and whatever happens, happens—I’m open to anything.
Since you’re a Chicago native. What’s your favorite venue to play music in the city?
Favorite place to play is probably the Beat Kitchen.
What’s the greatest concert you’ve seen here?
James Taylor, by far. I went to Sting too, and he was pretty amazing as well.
Other than your album, what’s next for you? What are you goals for the next few years?
Honestly to sign on to something, whether it be a booking agent or anything. Just take stuff to the next level and start gaining a bigger fan base, and play every single night for thousands of people. We’ll see where it goes.
LONO’S SOPHOMORE EP, REJECT, IS OUT NOW.