For Ethan Jewell, Learning To Live With ‘loneliness in the presence of company’ Is A Conversation

Ethan Jewell has recently released his third album, loneliness in the presence of company, and you’ll find that it intentionally presents a more stripped-down and raw approach to his confessional directness about difficult emotional and mental experiences. Soon after the release, he also performed his very first live show, and early in the new year will be embarking on his first tour, bringing his combination of spoken word and musical composition to his fans in person.

Ethan Jewell started out bringing his experimental works to audiences on TikTok and saw viral support for his earliest posts, leading to his first album release, Live From Planet Ok, in December of 2019, and since then he has also released Living The Dream in August 2020. He followed that by releasing singles from the new album like “it’s getting bad again”, “i feel better when no one remembers I exist”, and “something to live for” which suggested the wider theme coming up on the collection, the many forms that loneliness can take and whether there is any way to process it into a more positive form in our lives.

I spoke with Ethan Jewell on the day of his very first concert performance about the move to touring in early 2022, how he conceived of and constructed the new album, and what motivates him to speak so openly about mental health issues in an era when there is still so much stigma and resistance to those conversations.

Hannah Means-Shannon: We’re talking on such a big day for you, an album celebration and your first in person live show. How new will this be for you?

Ethan Jewell: The closest thing I’ve done to this in the past is piano recitals in middle school and TikTok livestreams. This is a big deal.

HMS: What did you need to set up a live show for this album? Is it just you and a couple of instruments, or did you need other people with you?

EJ: It’s all just me. It did end up being a little bit complicated because I had to figure out how to do a live show and so a lot of pieces went into that, but it’s pretty much me, my piano, a microphone, my laptop, and other little things. I just run the whole show from there.

HMS: Is keeping it simple something that makes it easier to travel for your upcoming tour?

EJ: You’d think, but yesterday, the airline left behind my piano, and I had to spend about ten hours yesterday trying to get ahold of it again.

HMS: Maybe you’ve broken the ice, and now nothing will go wrong! Are you planning on playing the whole album at shows?

EJ: I’m doing my favorite songs off the new album, but I’m still integrating a lot of older popular songs to keep a nice little mix. There are a good amount of fans coming and I want to cater to the songs they know and love while still celebrating the new album.

HMS: That makes sense for a lot of reasons, this being your first tour. You’ve also put out several albums fairly quickly and they deserve time to shine. Have you had requests?

EJ: I’ve gotten a few for my actual tour next month, but one person asked for “Something To Live For” because it means a lot to them, and luckily, I could assure them that I would be playing it.

HMS: When it comes to the album itself, I was mildly surprised to see that it had a very structured order to it, with an intro and outro. Not everyone approaches albums that way, as a unit, so what went into that decision?

EJ: Really the album represents a very distinct period in my life where I experienced pretty much every form of loneliness over the course of a year, whether it was through relationships, friendships, or social isolation because of Covid. There was mental isolation because of mental health issues. All of those are different forms of loneliness and I thought that was such an interesting concept. It was a very cohesive time in my life when I started writing to process all of this, and as I started writing, it just started coming together as a concept. We had songs talking about lost relationships that led great into songs about mental illness and the isolation that comes with that. So it really formed itself as a project.

Once I realized the songs were so cohesive, that’s when I thought of having an intro, interlude, and outro, just to really pull things together. Those could be more narrative tracks. I didn’t really write those ahead of time, those were really more improv in the studio. I had the idea of the intro typed up, the general idea that I wanted to express with it, and then I just went into the booth and let it flow. I think it came out exactly how it needed to be.

HMS: It’s really effective, probably because at that point you could see how the whole album had taken shape. When you decided on the order of the tracks, was that chronological or about ideas?

EJ: There was definitely a story of sorts that I wanted to express. I wanted it to almost feel like a fall. I wanted it to feel like a progression. It starts off with “sick of talking”, which is about questioning your own self and social identity. Then it moves on to tracks like, “who cares?”, where I realize that nobody really cares. Then it gets darker and darker, and I see the turning point as “how dare you?” I see that track as kind of at the bottom, where you have accepted this place you’re in and you are pushing others away. You’re saying, “How dare you tell me that I am going to be okay? I’m not. This is my lowest.”

From there, we get to the end of the album with tracks like “i’ve had enough”, where you’re saying, “I have to cope with this however I can.” Then we see “something to live for” and the “outro” which leaves you with a sense of peace and hope, and a sense of learning to be okay with that loneliness. I think that’s something that’s so important, because loneliness is a universal human feeling that everyone is going to experience. I think it’s a matter of learning to live with it instead of fighting against it.

HMS: Thanks for walking us through that dramatic arc. Some of the comparisons that come to mind are to plays or theater, where spoken word is also so important. I wondered if a stage performance of your albums would be somewhere in between a concert and a dramatic reading.

EJ: Exactly, that’s what I’m going for. Throughout high school, I did some drama here and there and I loved every second of it. I’m hoping to bring that performance aspect back during these shows. I don’t want to just sit on stage and recite my poems. I feel like it can be so much more than that as a cohesive emotional and physical performance, so that’s really what I’m going for.

HMS: At what point did you go from writing things to wanting them to be spoken word and performed, and at what point did the music come in for you? Are those always things that have gone together?

EJ: It’s funny because I used to hate poetry back in my junior year of high school. I got to a poetry section in one of my literature classes and I was rolling my eyes it was so boring. I really began writing after a few kind of tragic events in my life, and after I heard the song “Creve Coeur 1” by Hobo Johnson. It is a story about a girl who has hit rock bottom, it’s very emotional, and it’s all spoken word with piano and vocals. Hearing this really opened my eyes because I’d never heard music before where there wasn’t singing, but instead he was emoting and expressing. I thought it was beautiful.

That same day is when I wrote, “Snow Globe” which is pretty much the first cohesive song I wrote. At that time, it was just a poem, though. The way that it became a song was that I wrote another song, “Sunset”, and that, to me, was an actual song. I sat down at the piano and I played it and I sang it. Then, I thought I might replicate that format with “Snow Globe”, and I did that. I still never thought to record it and put it out, but one day I was playing all the songs on my piano and my dad was walking by the room. He’s been making music as a hobby since he was very young.

He said, “Let’s record that.” So we did, and he’s been my Producer, pretty much, from day one. We’ve been making music together ever since. So the whole thing was a process of realizing, “Oh, this can be music.” Then it was a process of realizing, “Oh, someone else also recognizes this as music. Maybe I can make this into something.”

HMS: I feel like in the past year and a half, there’s been an increasing awareness of spoken word elements in music, and even mainstream musicians seem to be getting a little braver about trying it if they haven’t before. Experimentation is definitely on the rise, maybe because of downtime due to Covid.

EJ: That’s definitely a factor, I agree. I don’t think this new album is more experimental than my previous ones, though. I think I went most experimental on my second album, Living the Dream, where I was using autotune, a beat, and full orchestras with twelve instruments. That was super experimental. I had no idea if anyone would want to listen to a single track on that album! But I recognized the fact that what people enjoy, and what I enjoy the most is when it is as raw as possible. I think the only way that you can achieve that is by stripping away all of the musical distractions.

When you have a full orchestra, you are more likely to focus on the orchestra rather than the words and emotions. That will take away from the feeling, and that’s really the main thing that I want from my music. The goal of this album was really to go back to the basics and to find my sound in the basics. The first album was basic, but I felt like that wasn’t really my sound. For this album, I spent a lot of time working on how I delivered, working on what piano notes I chose, working on adding in ambient, floating background noises to make everything feel more connected and emotional. I think that was really achieved.

HMS: Just from my own perspective, the album feels like it’s coming from more of an enclosed space, like a closeup in film or TV. It’s a little bit more zoomed in. When do you feel like the spoken word part of songs are finished? Do you go through drafts, or do you try to be more spontaneous with it?

EJ: I have never edited a song post-writing it. What I first write is what goes out. I might change a sentence to make it flow better or rhyme better, but there’s never a draft system. I write whenever I begin to feel something intensely. I will take out my notes app, I will zone out, I will go into this hyper-focused state, and I’ll just let my brain write whatever it wants to write. It’s just entirely feelings-based. About 15 minutes later, I’ll snap out of it, look at my phone, and I’ll have a whole song in front of me. It may sound totally crazy, but that’s how it is!

HMS: There’s a lot of precedent for that in music, particularly in different eras, with some bands embracing more of a stream-of-consciousness approach. Obviously, everything you’ve done with your songs so far talks about things that people don’t always talk about openly. Do you think there’s pressure in society, generally, to keep things to yourself, and not talk about things that might be considered a “downer”?

EJ: Yes, there is absolutely still a pressure in society to keep things to yourself. Mental health problems are viewed as taboo, and that’s a problem I’ve had to overcome within my own music. I’ve had people be highly judgmental towards my expression of mental illness, it’s a big barrier to overcome.

HMS: Is it natural to you to just jump over that hurdle, or is it something that you, too, have to push against to get past?

EJ: There is absolutely a resistance to that. What we see forming a culture of fake mental health awareness. We see people posting little, cute icons on social media, saying “mental health awareness, guys!” We see people posting informative slides saying, “If you’re depressed, get out of bed, drink some water, go for a walk, you’ll be okay.” All of that is bullshit. It is this romanticized idea of mental health. Real mental health issues are not showering for a week because you can’t get out of bed, snapping at your friends and pushing them away because you’re having an episode, having a manic episode and not being able to stop doing something impulse like shopping or getting tattoos.

Real mental health is scary, and it’s something people don’t want to face. We love this idea. We love to think we are doing something, but in reality, we are doing nothing. It makes people who are actually struggling with real mental health issues think, “Oh man, this infographic is not helping me. Something must be really wrong with me.” I love the fact that we are trying and moving in that direction, but it’s just not enough yet. Real mental health problems still aren’t talked about.

If you are really depressed, or struggling with a bipolar episode, going for a walk isn’t going to help. Drinking a glass of water isn’t going to do a thing. You’re not going to have the motivation. We need to stop the façade and we need to stop pretending that we’re helping. We need to work towards resources for people, and we need to work toward genuine conversations, like this one, about the true depth of some of the mental problems some people are facing.

Because we are seeing one of the most mentally struggling generations, and if we don’t collectively do something, we are going to be faced with a lot of issues. I don’t really know what that help looks like, but I know that we need to talk about it and focus on the realness of it. For me, breaking that boundary meant just understanding that.

I’ve written songs and thought, “Oh, is this too real? Is this going to do more harm than good?” I’ve thought that about several songs. “it’s getting bad again” was one of them. But I can now see through peoples’ messages to me that they need to hear this. People need to hear, “Hey, I’m also feeling this.” And they need to hear that they are not alone. The deadly part of mental illness is when people believe that they are alone. That’s what we have to break through by having conversations.

Find Ethan Jewell at the following tour dates:

01/03 Minneapolis, MN at Amsterdam Bar and Hall

01/04 Milwaukee, WI at X-Ray Arcade

01/05 Chicago, IL at Subterannean 

01/07 Nashville, TN at Glen Campbell Museum Rhinestone Stage

01/09 Dallas, TX at Amplified Live

01/11 Houston, TX at Super Happy Funland

01/13 Richmond, VA at The Camel

01/14 Syracuse, NY at Funk ‘n Waffles

01/15 Toronto, Canada at The Supermarket

01/16 New York. NY at Mercury Lounge

01/17 Boston, MA at O’Briens Pub

01/18 Philadelphia, PA at PhilaMOCA

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