Paint It For Me: Jonathan Terrell on New EP & Feeding the Songwriting Beast

For most writers, the muse picks its moment, not the other way around, and if you don’t pull your hands out of the dishwater or shake off your twelve-hour workday fatigue to commit to her toot sweet, she’s liable to leave you wanting. Jonathan Terrell heard inspiration– or rather saw her– at a Paul Simon concert in the form of a beer ferrying nymph and rather than enjoy the concert that he no doubt paid dearly to attend, the East Texas native found a quiet (as possible) spot to compose the ode that would become “I Know”.

That tale is just one layer of Terrell’s new EP A Couple 2, 3…, a brightly arranged assortment of studio momentum that revels in high ’80s working man’s pop à la Springsteen and Mellencamp (“Paint By Lightning”), witty Lonestar honky tonk (“Texas”), Tulsa groove bent around grungy cross melodies (“Place Out Back”), and tempting, folky sweetness (“Better For You”). The follow-up to 2020’s shoulda-been breakout Westward— released in August of that year amid the pandemic– is comfortable in its joy, unafraid to be glorious or introspective but never bogs in affected sentimentality. It’s a record of now that’s in no hurry to waste its moment.

Terrell retains the frontman sensibilities earned and learned on the road fronting Austin-based rock band Not In The Face (Hulkster-ish shirt-ripping remains a danger), but A Couple 2, 3… trades the outfit’s calculated floridity for deeply accessible, well-turned tunes that offer a perfect introduction or a welcome invitation to explore. During a break between dates supporting Midland, Jonathan spoke to me about his family’s thrilling cult roots, his origins as a performer, and what he intends for the future.

Oh, and the vision he encountered? The universe conspired to formally bring them together at a Shakey Graves show, and they’re engaged to be married next spring. 

AI- Your bio says “raised by ex-religious cult musicians”… I have to ask, I have to get the background on that.

JT- My parents and older siblings were in a group that started out in California as people witnessing and prayin’ with folks and feedin’ homeless people. It was one o’ things where it grows and grows and grows– you don’t own anything, it’s all like “the group” takes care of you, you know? They got into this group pretty young, and they were the house band in the group. It’s called the Children of God, it was a religious cult, and basically, the way they talked to me about it, you don’t join it thinking like you’re getting into a cult– it just happens around you as it progresses, and then one day, you’re like, “Holy shit, we’re in this thing!” 

They had to plot their escape from this group, which took over a year to get together. When they got out o’ this group, they flew home from Europe– my grandparents flew ’em back home where they lived up in East Texas in Longview and bought ’em a little single-wide out in the woods. I grew up there while they were hidin’ out from the group for about a year until the leader passed away and the group crumbled. But yeah, they were hidin’ out in that trailer, and I was born in that trailer with a midwife.

Growin’ up, my parents were always musicians and they played in church. We used to go play nursin’ home gigs with all the kids and sing for tips and soon they were doin’ the rodeos and whatnot.

So that’s how you came to music initially. How do you feel like that previous life of your family helped influence the way you looked at music going forward? Or did it?

I think it definitely did because we’ve never looked at music like it was anything but second nature. When you grow up with that, it’s somethin’ that feels so natural that maybe some other people might not feel the same way– they had to go and fight and work really hard to figure out music and learn how to be around it. With us, it was like if you weren’t singin’ by the time you were four, my parents were takin’ you to the doctor like, “What the fuck is wrong with this kid?” (Laughs)

But as a vocation, what was it for you that said, “This is how I wanna make my living?”

I had gone out to San Diego and I was busking on the streets out there for a few months. Comin’ from a small town in East Texas, I was like, “I gotta get outta here anyway I can!” A friend o’ mine’s younger brother was in town from San Diego, he was like, “Well, I got a couch. You seem like you’re alright– if you wanna ride out with me and split gas then you can stay on my couch for a little while ’til you get on your feet.” Basically, I went out there busked on the street for three months, and then ran out o’ money and had to come home.

On my drive back, I had to pull over and cry in the desert and just knew I was never gonna do anything else. I literally came back to my hometown and was like, “How do we start this?” 

I spent the next four years in a band there, and we kinda hit the ceiling in that town of where we could go. I remember standin’ around, drinkin’ a bunch o’ beers with my buddies, and flippin’ a coin ’cause I had a sister in Nashville and a brother in Austin, and I was like, “Either way, I got a couch!” We flipped a coin and it landed on Austin, so I been here for sixteen years!

Sixteen years in Austin, and in that time, you’ve had your solo work– singer-songwriter– and then you did the rock band Not In The Face. If you’re just getting into Jonathan Terrell– and I confess that I am– it’s not too terribly difficult to hear the similarities between those projects, but at the same time, they’re so much different. What precipitated you wanting to be able to do both?

That’s a really funny story… I moved down here to Austin ’cause I was like, “I’m gonna be the next Kristofferson or Townes Van Zandt!” I had these delusions of grandeur of being this next songwriter guy down here, and I got down here kinda right at the boiling point of a lot o’ Red Dirt country. That was never my scene ’cause I dropped out o’ college to play music and go on tour, so I never had that fraternity mold inside o’ what I was doin’. I was like, “I’m gonna write this kind o’ songs, I’m gonna be this kind o’ songwriter,” and they’re like, “Man, unless you’re talkin’ about gettin’ to second base at the river or drinkin’ out of a red solo cup, we got no space for you on this stage.”

I was really frustrated with that, and I remember bein’ at a bar one night with my friend and we were listenin’ to this band called The Sonics, like one of the very first punk rock bands ever…

Oh, yeah, out o’ the Pacific Northwest! I love The Sonics!

We were listenin’ to The Sonics, and I was like, “Man, we could do somethin’ like this and just blow some steam off and just for fun!” We had always talked about how, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if there was a band called Not In The Face?” So the whole band started as a joke, and then some friends of ours were like, “Hey, some band backed out, we need a band for Friday. Can you just do it?”

We played this trainwreck of a horrible show– it was like the worst thing that could ever… I think we did five songs and I broke a string off both my guitars and my pedal board went out and I was like, “Okay, we’re done.” We booked one more show and that one totally killed it, so within maybe six months, I remember playin’ for seven people one night, and then we put out a single– and then the next show we played was 500! We were like, “Oh! Well, shit! We didn’t really actually mean to do this, but this is kinda cool! Let’s see what happens with it!”

We stayed on the road really heavy for six years and it came back to the point of I was ready start puttin’ some more solo work out. My Past The Lights Of Town album had gotten picked up by a little record label in France– it’s like a psychedelic rock label– so they started bringin’ me over to Europe and I was sellin’ out shows and makin’ a living again as a songwriter. With Not In The Face, we had toured really, really hard but we could never make a livin’ at it. We were all comin’ home and workin’ bar jobs or whatever, but we could never make a living as a band. That was the catalyst for me of like, “Okay, I came down here to do this, and this is my opportunity to be a working songwriter.” 

You had Westward out in August of 2020, which as you experienced for yourself, had to be just one of the worst points in time ever to release an album. I’m assuming that it got to a point where you were just gonna sit on it or it had to go out– that’s a story I’ve got from a lot o’ artists in those early pandemic months. As an independent artist and having to navigate all of that, what was that experience like for you? “I’ve got a new album, I can’t tour it,” but I would also hazard to say that this was the biggest thing you had done so far in your career.

It definitely was the biggest record as far as the attention that had gone into it. It was kinda scary, but I did see something happening in that time that I thought was very precious. It was the first time I was watchin’ people sit down and listen to entire albums again. As a generation that’s really accustomed to playlists or Spotify radio stations, there hasn’t always been a lot o’ room for listeners to sit down and digest a complete record. I didn’t wanna sit it on the shelf too long, so I started leakin’ out a couple singles here and there,  and whenever they got picked up on some editorial playlists and things like that– which I had never gotten before– then I was like, “I gotta move on this ’cause if I sit on it anymore then I’m gonna miss that window where people actually sit down and listen to the record.”

You’re about to put out A Couple 2,3, an EP. Going into Westward, I think you had somewhere close to forty songs that you had to pare down. What’s the story behind putting out an EP? Is this stuff that’s all been written recently? Is there anything that’s left over? Did you just say, “Hey, I’ve got this collection of songs and I want it to be this unit?”

When I took the list of songs to my producer, I think I was at like seventy-five songs for Westward! But this also was, to me, almost like a project in the way that I’m watching music being heard and music being dispersed these days. I knew I had put this really introspective, solid piece o’ work out with Westward and I just wanted to test these playlists. We’re in a singles culture right now for music, and so I was like, “What if I just put out six songs that I felt would be all worthy singles? What if I just put out some shit that’s fun, that feels great, see how it does, and build a platform so that whenever I do my next record, I feel like people will be open to what’s gonna happen with it?”

Do you think that each track on A Couple 2,3… individually could be the beginning of it’s own project?

Potentially. There’s ways that these songs make me move and ways that I want the songs to move the audience, especially when we’re playin’ live. I’m watching how these songs affect the audience, and I’m like, “What’s the most natural progression for the way that I want a show to unfold? And what’s the story that I want to be behind that?” It’s that old thing like, “You can’t dance to a guitar solo.” (Laughs) It’s hard to dance to a long-winded lyrical verse too!

I feel like I’ve put out some pretty long, wordy songs and I wanna trim the fat. I’m in a place right now where I feel really good emotionally with my family and my fiancee, I wanted to reflect that like, “You know what? I don’t have to go to the bottom of the ocean to pull up some deep lyrical sea creature. Let’s just feel good for now. We’re all comin’ out of a pandemic, let’s fuckin’ get sweaty, let’s dance, drink a bunch o’ beers, go to a honky tonk!”

Well, speakin’ of your fiancee… The story of you writing “I Know”– what was it, a Paul Simon concert you were at?

Paul Simon, yeah!

Spotting the attractive silhouette of a woman haulin’ beer to her seat! When you have those moments of inspiration, do you always stop what you’re doing and go to write the song, or at least, whatever you’ve got in your mind at the time?

Not always. Sometimes I would say, I’ve been there where I’m like, “I should write this down, I should see what happens in this moment,” but then some o’ those moments, I let ’em pass by and been like, “You know what? I’m just gonna experience this as a moment that is fleeting and is beautiful and appreciate it for the moment it brought.”

So how did you end up actually connecting with Christina after that initial moment?

She came to a show. We played a show with Shakey Graves at Stubb’s, and I met her at the show and it was very electric. We were both traveling for the next year, and we eventually reconnected and we went on a few dates. We were startin’ to date [seriously], and when you’re dating a songwriter, she was like, “Okay, play me your shit. Let me hear this. I wanna hear you do this.”

I start tellin’ her this story, “This chick, oddly enough, she was very similar to you…” I didn’t wanna say anything to get her jealous, and she was like, “Well, where were your seats?” We pull out our ticket stubs and she’s like, “Here’s the deal– I was with my boss and he was entertaining clients and they were like, ‘Hey, if you wanna go see Paul Simon with us tonight, will you just grab us some beers every now and again, and we’ll take you. We’ve got amazing seats and this is his last tour.'” And she was like, “Dude, yes, of course, I wanna go see Paul Simon! I’ll get you knuckleheads a bunch o’ beers!”

We were in the same exact section, and she was fourteen rows below me– I was in the middle, she was in the front in section 103 or somethin’ like that! She was like, “Look, that was my gig, runnin’ beers for these dudes so I could see Paul Simon.” So we’re ninety-five percent certain that it was her!

I’m gonna go a hundred percent! A hundred percent certain because you just can’t make this kinda thing up!

You can’t! I can still visualize her frame and her hair length– and it’s totally her! I don’t feel like I’ve manipulated it in my mind to make it so, I feel like it was definitely everything that I could imagine that stopped me dead in my tracks, and I thought about that woman so much!

Let’s talk about workin’ with Beau Bedford [Texas Gentlemen]– is this the first time that you’ve worked with Beau in a studio setting?

Yeah, but we’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve played shows in different bands that we’ve been in and we have a lot o’ mutual friends, so it was kinda like a matter o’ time before we linked up. It all started with that song “Better For You”. We co-wrote that song like, “Hey, man, let’s just get in a room and see what happens!” We wrote that song in an hour! It was during the pandemic and he was like, “Hey, man, I’m doin’ this thing where I’ve got a band comin’ in that’s doin’ a song for Orville Peck, and his label has booked out the whole day and the band is paid up for the whole day– but we only have to do one song, and Orville’s doin’ the vocals in Nashville, so he won’t even be there. If you wanna come up to Dallas, we can use this studio band to record that song that we wrote.”

You did that with “Better For You”?

Mmhmm– and once we did that, I was like, “Well, hey, I gotta few more other songs…” So I went up there and cut “Vagabond”, “Highway”, and “(Come On Home To) Texas”. I was gettin’ ready to release “Texas” last year, and that’s when I got the call from Range about releasin’ some music on Virgin. So we pumped the breaks on all that to get a stronger release.

So you’ve got more stuff from those sessions?

Oh, yeah– gotta bunch o’ stuff! There’s a few songs that aren’t even on this EP that’ll hopefully come out a little later, but I’m not sure when.

The song “Better For You”, I thought it had a very ’60s Glen Campbell influence or maybe the more serious side of Roger Miller– that kind of lilting delivery. I think I read where you credited Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy for inspiring some of the writing. How much of a role do books and film have on your creative process?

Honestly, a lot because I feel like I’m a very visual writer. I had some good songwriting advice when I was younger [from] my uncle. I was showin’ him a couple songs and he said, “Don’t tell me about it– paint it for me.” As a twenty-year-old kid, that just clicked with me and has always stayed with me. I feel like with Larry and Cormac McCarthy, especially those two writers when they tell you about a room they’re in, you feel every bit of it. You’re aware that there’s broken glass in the corner or somebody’s smoking at the bar or what degree of lighting is in the room or what it smells like. I just love how close they keep the reader by their side to show ’em every visual aspect that’s happening in the room. John Prine had a great quote, he was like, “At least by the second line, you should have a cigarette in the room.” Just so you know the person’s a smoker– now you’re emotionally invested! You’re like, “Well, are they okay? Are they gonna die? How bad do they smoke?”

By your own admission, your career has been on what you would call an independent streak. You’ve gotten this deal with Range and Virgin now, and having had all these years, I want to know what, for you, is the next step. What do you want to be the next accomplishment? I know earlier when we talkin’ about Not In The Face, it was the idea of bein’ able to make a living simply by playing music– is that the ultimate goal?

I think the ultimate goal is continuous stadium tours (laughs)! I think the ultimate goal is putting enough into your art where your art puts something back into you and takes care of you. I’ve felt very comfortable being in this position even when I was sleepin’ on floors or sleepin’ in my truck doin’ long solo tours for multiple weeks at a time. I don’t know, I felt like I’d already made it then. So now, the fact that I’m able to make a living doing art? I hold that in a very precious way. That’s the goal for me now is to keep this moving and see how far along it goes ’cause I feel like I have so much more to say and so many more songs to write– and that have already been written. Hopefully, it keeps’ feedin’ the beast!

A Couple 2, 3… is available on Friday, September 9th from Range Music! Like & Follow Jonathan Terrell for news and LIVE performance updates!

Thee Aaron Irons is a music commentator & radio personality for 100.9 The Creek where he hosts Americana Madness weekdays from 10am-3pm and Honky Tonk Hell, a Rockabilly/Rhythm & Blues retrospective that airs every Sunday afternoon at 1pm. He lives in Macon, Georgia with his wife and daughter.