Are Your Mistakes Holding You Prisoner? How To Break Free With Jonah Matranga
I caught up with the charismatic singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jonah Matranga, frontman of legendary band Far.
The first time I met Jonah, was at one of his onlinedrawing gigs, he literally picked me up and swung me around, ending it off with a bear hug. That’s what I call connecting with your audience.
Jonah’s been named as a key influence by a number of bands, including My Chemical Romance, Biffy Clyro and Blink-182. In this interview you’ll hear how he navigated some of the scariest moments of his life. And he describes a unique way to break free from the negative grip of mistakes….
Angel: Jonah, I’ve seen you perform in some really intimate settings, where the audience are almost sat on your lap, and I’ve seen you perform at the other end of the scale in huge venues. What strikes me is you always look relaxed, confident and happy, but is that how you’re feeling underneath, or do you ever get nervous before a gig?
Jonah: I was singing at a benefit for Chi [Bassist for the Deftones, who was in a bad car accident and tragically died sometime later]. It was a big crowd, and we hadn’t rehearsed at all. In fact, one of the songs we were singing, we’d never done together. No practice, no sound check, no nothing. So there was a whole lot of opportunity for major screw-ups. On top of that, my voice was feeling weird, definitely not at 100%. The only thing I’ve ever done in those situations is simply take a breath and go.
Jonah Matranga by Brian Krijgsman
Angel: Can you remember an occasion when things went wrong for you? How did you deal with the situation and what did you learn from it?
Jonah: I really think that seeing things as going ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, or not seeing things as wrong or right at all, is the most important choice. When I think of the scariest moments of my life, they range from finding out I was going to be a dad, to mistaking a friend of mine for her sister and then lying to try and cover it up when I was embarrassed, to bands splitting up, to my voice breaking, to arguments I wish I’d never had. All of those moments had within them moments of denial, moments of fear and anger, and ultimately, surrender and moving through.
I still fail and make mistakes and get let down all the time, of course. I guess I’ve just really come to see that stuff as inevitable, and therefore not ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but rather more like the wind or the sun or something. Those things exist, but how I react to them is the only thing I get to control. It helps me stay in the moment and not get whisked away by fears or worries. One of my favorite axioms ever is also one of my favorite pop choruses ever: ‘Surrender, surrender, but don’t give yourself away’. Genius.
Angel: Can you remember a time when you learned an important lesson about developing your musical talent?
Jonah: I remember very clearly knowing that I had to figure out for myself whether I sucked or not. I knew I couldn’t trust my friends or family or whatever to tell me. I thought a lot about that in high school. When I came out of that pensive period, I knew that I wasn’t Prince or Dylan or anything, but I also knew that I had something worth offering, some sort of spark. That let me make stuff without getting too stung when people didn’t like it, or too dizzy when they did.
Illustration by Joel Millerchip
Angel: Has there ever been a time when you had doubts about your skill and did that ever stop you from seizing an opportunity?
Jonah: I’m sure I wrestle with doubtful whispers all the time, I think that’s what stops all of us from doing so much. That said, I really did figure out at a young age that I thought I had something to give, and that has remained solid for me over the years.
Angel: Did you ever seek out any technical advice to help improve your skills?
Jonah: I had normal guitar lessons early on, I’m not sure how much those helped, but I remember them being pretty fun. I had traditional vocal training at university, that definitely helped me learn to breathe, learn about my head voice and chest voice, basic things that have helped in different ways. Beyond that, it was really just hearing noises I liked, whether on a U2 record or in my head, and trying really hard to make them.
Jonah Matranga by Jacqui Sadler
Enjoy connecting with your audience
Angel: You have a very loyal and committed fan base, how did you go about attracting fans in the early days?
Jonah: It’s always been about the little things. Make the postcard, write the letter, meet the gaze. Just show up. And of course, give everything when I play. I really just always try to remember what I loved about seeing other performances, meeting other performers. I try to give that, pass that along.
Angel: Have you observed things that other bands or musicians get wrong when it comes to attracting an audience?
Jonah: I don’t know about ‘wrong’, truly. All I know is that I’ve seen a lot of people, whether they’ve had more success than me or less, I’ve seen them lose that light in their eyes, that thing that started them on their way. That 14-year old air-guitar madness that drives us. I think when a band or a person loses that, whether they ‘attract fans’ or not, they’ve lost what makes any of it matter. That aside, I just think that bands worry too much about having millions of fans rather than really appreciating 10. They get managers and agents and focus on getting in front of the most faces possible, as opposed to just having fun and doing it themselves. Honestly, that manager strategy might attract more fans sometimes, but I just don’t think it’s much fun.
Illustration by Joel Millerchip
Angel: Did you ever experience a turning point in your career when it came to understanding money and how it works?
Jonah: Yeah. When I found out that I was gonna be a dad. I remember going to the guys in my band Far and saying that either we’d have to start making more money somehow, or it’d have to just be a weekend thing or whatever. I had no desire to be a starving artist with a kid. Then we got signed, and while it wasn’t a ton of money, it was enough to get through and keep going.
Angel: A lot of bands, and creatives, tell us that they’ve had to pack it all in because of poor money management. What have you found to be the most important things to spend money on?
Jonah: The most important thing to spend money on is the making of the music, and the facilitation of making that available to people. So, simple quality recording, simple professional packaging, a good website. More important than anything is to keep everything else cheap, to keep the pressure on making money as low as possible, so you can just focus on making things that feel pure to you.
Jonah Matranga by Joel Millerchip
Angel: Today it’s common to hear about bands giving away their music for free, and you introduced a sliding scale when it came to people purchasing your music. What areas of a bands creative work do you think they should be focusing on and adding extra value in order to make money?
Jonah: I think it’s about asserting the value of art. And I think it’s about making art that’s worth it. I don’t at all like the idea of getting music for free when you buy a frappuccino or whatever. Now, if I make a song I love, and I decide I want to give everyone a free cup of coffee when they buy the song, that’s more reasonable in a way, as long as the focus stays on the art. Really, I like just making something I love, setting a fair price range for it, and seeing who wants it. The sliding scale was about making that transaction more interactive and human, and also ensuring that someone who wants the music doesn’t get deprived of it for lack of money. It’s been really fun.
Angel: You’ve self published a lot of your music or used independent record labels. What are your recommendations to emerging artists?
Jonah: Do as much of it yourself as possible. Record yourself, make the package yourself, put the CD in the envelope yourself, build the website yourself, lick the stamp yourself, go to the post office yourself, sell it at the merch table at the show yourself. Not only does all of that save money initially, it connects you directly to the sale of your art, which I’ve found to be so important and scary and satisfying.
The power of the Internet
Angel: How important do you think the Internet is in the creative industries?
Jonah: Pretty much immeasurably important. It has so much potential for so many things that matter so much to art. That said, it’s of no importance whatsoever, because making stuff is still making stuff, and selling it is still selling it, and saying hi is still saying hi.
Jonah Matranga Artwork
Angel: Did you devise a strategy or have a rough plan of how the Internet could work for you?
Jonah: No strategy, just curiosity and ideas. That heart/question mark thing I made up, that I draw all the time, one of the things that’s about is being in love (heart) with ideas (question mark). I’ve used the internet to stay in touch with people around the world, to make my ideas available to people in ways that feel personal and interesting to me.
Angel: What do you think is the most important thing a band can do to have a strong online presence?
Jonah: Be curious about whatever comes along, but always maintain your own website. Use all of the MyBook FaceSpace TwitTube stuff to invite people back into your world, where some big company isn’t making money off of the art you’re making, or at least if they are, you’re getting some of it in a legitimate way. Making your own website is owning your house; counting on Facebook or anywhere else is renting from a slumlord that will evict you at the drop of a hat, in a building that could become vacant and uninhabitable just because another building becomes trendy. Remember MySpace selling for $700,000,000 years ago? Remember Friendster? That will happen again and again. Build your own world, and invite people in. It’s fun.
For news about Jonah’s creative projects - https://jonahmatranga.com/
Over to you
Jonah said “It’s always been about the little things. Make the postcard, write the letter, meet the gaze. Just show up”. So how can you make your interactions with your audience more personal? Jonah said “…bands worry too much about having millions of fans rather than really appreciating 10”. So start appreciating the fans you have right now and make them feel special, that’s a great way to attract more.
A special thanks goes out to