When I went to interview Jonathan Facka, both Tyler Scheerschmidt and Dillon Douglasson tagged along. They insisted; the two Hourglass Sessions co-founders were both adamant that they wanted to see him. They told me they appreciated the whole-hearted nature of his character. Loading them into my Subaru Forester like an overzealous soccer parent, I pointed our vehicle toward southside so that we could meet the man I’d heard so much about.
After driving through winding streets and pleasant neighborhoods, I arrived at the gated front yard of Facka’s house with the Hourglass boys, who were quoting The Master of Disguise, and not for the first time that day. We did not ring the doorbell, nor did we knock. When Scheerschmidt got to the storm door, he glanced inside, saw Facka, and walked right in.
A warm and unpretentious air filled Facka’s home, tucked away down a quiet wooded street; a chess set sat unplayed on a small kitchen table. I expressed my love of the game, and Facka replied that he was pretty good. “I’m okay,” I said, to which he responded that I could probably beat him. But then, that’s just what a good chess player says to someone they’re trying to hustle. The offer was made for a game, but I had to politely decline. I am not a great multitasker, and this interview was going to require my full attention.
As Douglasson began playing an odd square guitar sitting in the corner — Facka explained that he bought it from a lady in a random parking lot — our host and interview subject laid out some of the more straightforward aspects of his background.
Born at MCV, Facka embodies Richmond, Virginia. He didn’t begin playing the guitar until he was a teenager, starting to learn it in his high school’s guitar class. However, he’d already taken clarinet in middle school band, and liked it enough to eventually play it for a short time as an adult with the Richmond Concert Band. When a cousin of his moved to Arizona, Facka tagged along and found himself deep in the desert, working at a chain restaurant and singing at karaoke bars. A small tiff with his cousin led to a realization that he was unhappy in Arizona. He flew his girlfriend out to meet him, and the two of them made the trek back to Richmond overland, stopping at a snow-covered Grand Canyon along the way.
Back in Richmond, Facka began taking his songwriting seriously, and work soon started on his first album, Streetlight in the Woods. Listing among his influences Paul Simon, The Tallest Man on Earth, and Passenger, most of his music is characterized by his finger-picked guitar playing, which utilizes alternate tunings and picking patterns similar to banjo rolls. Streetlight in the Woods opens with an overwhelming swarm of notes on the song “Runner,” which slaps the listener in the face with technique and discipline. The next track, “Concrete,” features an arpeggio piano melody and has Facka switch to a soft strum, giving the whole song a more delicate feeling. Most of the rest of the album follows the lead of the first song, with fast-paced, intense picking patterns that pair impeccably with Facka’s insistent yet clear and clean vocals.
Facka’s second album, The Tarmac, begins with an echo of the first. He uses his signature finger-picking patterns on the track “Pain,” but this time he is accompanied by a lone violin offering a legato counterpoint to his guitar playing. The second track, “Back With a Vengeance/Academy Award,” gives the illusion that this album might just be more of what he gave us on the first, with another picking pattern taking center stage, underneath another clean and fast vocal line. However, halfway through the song, a full band explodes out of nowhere and swells into a fully actualized sound, demonstrating that Facka is not only dynamic, but knows how to surprise. The majority of the album again follows the lead of the first track, with a lot of Americana-influenced strings, the occasional drum set, sometimes an ambient electric guitar or arpeggiating piano. But what ties it all together is Facka’s instantly recognizable guitar playing.
Jonathan Facka collaborated with Hourglass Sessions to create a one-shot live video for the title track from his second album, The Tarmac. You can watch it on RVA MAG TV starting at 1PM on August 23rd. For now, read on to find out what we talked about once we decided not to play a game of chess.
You started learning guitar in high school, but didn’t get serious about writing songs until your late 20’s. What were you playing for the better part of a decade, before your songwriting took center stage?
On the guitar? I learned “Stairway to Heaven” [Laughs]. I did. I played comedy. I did a comedy thing on the guitar. I just wrote weiner jokes on the guitar. They were very immature, but they were perfect for that age. I liked Wheeler Walker Jr., he’s country comedy. But anyways, I don’t do that anymore. I got tired of people laughing at me, because I’ve been through some serious stuff, man. I guess I just couldn’t take it anymore. You can’t be edgy anymore, someone’s going to get offended. I just… I hate offending people, so I’m just going to stay in a safer lane. You got to just have no fear, as far as your reputation getting squandered by saying the wrong thing.
Somebody told me that I should go to some open mic at Cary Street Cafe, and I went there to start playing covers. And then one day this kid came in, Tony Farris, and he was like 16 or 17 years old playing these amazing songs, and I was like, “This 16 year old kid’s writing songs like that? Shit, I can do that.” If I see somebody doing something, I immediately go, “I can do that.” Unless it’s sports-related [Laughs]. So I went home and wrote a few songs.
So when during that time did your fingerstyle playing develop?
I saw a Tiny Desk Concert with the Tallest Man on Earth, and I was furious. I watched a tutorial video on how to play his song “I Won’t Be Found,” which is an insane picking song that usually requires a speed pick. I had to go through the video like six times to get the pattern down, and next thing you know, I was cranking that thing. I started applying it on everything. Then I took that basic thing and I just expanded on it, so now I’m making patterns of my own, or at least patterns I don’t think anyone’s done.
So what’s your songwriting process like, then? How do you go about making a piece of music?
Something happens to me, I’m stressed out about, and it so I write it down; it’s like downloading my pain onto a hard drive to get it out of my mind. Then, once it’s written down, I can move on from it, and that usually becomes a song. I don’t write songs with the intention of, “I wonder what people are going to like.” I write songs because I have to write songs, or I’ll go nuts. It’s something I gotta do. And I don’t lie in my songs either. This one girl that I saw at an open mic said “my parents are dead” in one of her songs, and I walked up to her afterwards and said, “I’m so sorry about your parents being dead.” And she said, “My parents aren’t dead.” I’m sorry, we can’t be friends, but I like to be honest. So as far as the song coming together… it usually starts with a poem I wrote in my memos on my phone and then… Man, that C, G, A minor, and F combo [laughs]. You can just slide the capo up and down.
You’ve mentioned open mics a couple times now; do you still go to those?
Yeah, I went to one last night. Sometimes just to watch, sometimes if they asked me to play, then sure. I went to The Camel one, and that was kind of a cool deal. Everybody was kind of shocked to see me, but it’s not like I’m that guy from the Head and the Heart or anything. Jonathan Russell. He came the week before.
So you really believe in open mics.
I think they’re really cool. It’s a really cool way to grow a community and discover new people. There’s no shame in it if you’ve got the time — because they don’t pay, obviously. It’s a cool way to network, get your music out, and meet some new people. You don’t always meet super-polished really high-end pros. You get a lot of hobbyists, and some people who are diamonds in the rough.
My first album sucked. It’s frickin terrible. You should listen to it, it’s on bandcamp. Just understand the terribleness of it [laughs]. But… I improved. Anybody can improve. It’s a paranoia that I have about my first album. I don’t know how many people will actually listen to my last album [The Tarmac], but I’m really proud of it. I don’t know how many listeners were squandered by the first one being so trash.
And you’re not a big fan of the whole singles game, so tell me about how you go about making an album, and when it starts to coalesce.
Well, I like the idea of a concept. I like the idea of starting out with a bang, particularly. When I’m writing a batch of songs, they fall in line, and one after another, they end up working. If there’s one I don’t think fits, then I cut that song. I cut two songs from The Tarmac. One of those trash songs was released under River City Songwriters, so there’s actually an outtake song from The Tarmac on the River City Songwriters album on bandcamp right now. It’s a little secret Easter egg.
It really just comes together. I’ve got a couple concepts in mind for the future. I don’t want to count my chickens before they hatch, but I am thinking my next release is going to be one album, and then the next month, I just drop another whole album. One of my favorite bands, The Paper Kites, did this, and it blew my mind in half.
Well since you’re so focused on making albums specifically, have you thought about doing vinyl?
I have thought about doing vinyl, and man, that shit is expensive. $2,600, I was quoted, to make 100 of them. That would be, to break even, they’d have to pay $26 apiece. So what’s it worth? There’s got to be some kind of company that can make it for, like, $1,000. That way I made each one for $10 apiece, I can sell them for $20, and I can make a decent profit margin. It would be amazing to immortalize The Tarmac specifically in vinyl.
So you would like to get there and eventually do something on vinyl?
It’s a dream. I was thinking about maybe doing a Kickstarter, and then I didn’t. I just don’t think anyone would donate anything to it and it would be embarrassing.
I don’t know. I was talking with Ali from Deau Eyes a little while ago, and she got her first album funded through Kickstarter, which was not something I had seen: crowdfunding music like that.
I’m a big ugly white guy, dude. People don’t want to donate to me. I think I donated to Deau Eyes’ Kickstarter. I donate to these Kickstarters, I just don’t think anyone will donate to mine. I don’t want to put it up because it’s embarrassing. People go, “Oh, Facka’s doing a Kickstarter. Let’s click on this. Oh he’s only raised $25. Yikes.” And now they know that I can only raise $25, so why would I put out an opportunity to look bad? There’s got to be another way.
Well it makes you wonder what someone has to do these days as an artist to be a professional and do it full-time. It’s not enough to be good at the thing that you do, because if everyone who was good at what they did made money off of it, we would have a world full of full-time artists. It feels like we have to diversify and do a bunch of different things in order to monetize each of them a little bit, and even then you might need supplemental income. Like for instance, you’ve got this podcast that you’re doing as well. How is that going?
The podcast is fully funded by me. There’s no sponsors at all. I like doing it because I like talking to the people in RVA music. I like to promote them, and I see it as a way of paying it forward: I promote them, and maybe they’ll say some nice things about me. Supplemental income is gigs. You’re not going to make money off of royalties; you’re going to make money off of gigs. So first you need to be good enough for them to hire you. I’ve had to incorporate some happier songs into my repertoire, and it’s really funny, because when I’m gigging I usually play this good mix of happy, and sad songs, but eventually I run out of happy so then it’s just sad sad sad… let’s do “Free Falling” again [laughs].
You need to keep your employer happy, so you can keep having recurring appearances. Once you start gigging with one brewery, then you get them to bring you back once every month, or once every two months. You have this recurring thing. I have a few of these residencies, and that pays my bills. The royalties are collected by my distributor, Broadcast Recordings. We have a distribution deal where they manage all that money and pay it out bi-annually, which is usually like $200.
Unfortunately that’s how it is with streaming services, and it comes down to a point where you just have to do something else; keep a day job, or take a gig that you might not necessarily enjoy. Do you keep a day job?
I have a job. I have a trade that I do on the side to pay for my new car, but hopefully I can leave that and just do music. Because for the last three years, I was fully sustaining myself with music, and now that my COVID money is gone, I had to get a job unfortunately.
I wish that I could make my living full-time as a musician and a writer, but at the moment, it’s just not possible. You’ve got to, unfortunately, pay your dues. The world – no matter how much you care about it, and how much you try – it wants you to pay your dues. Sure there’s some people who get lucky when someone reaches down from above and says, “I choose you,” but it’s just not what happens with most people.
You get a lot of those people that haven’t paid any dues at all coming at me because I have paid them. It’s frustrating. It’s like, “Man, I support you, but I’ve worked really hard to get here, and you didn’t.” It doesn’t make sense. Not everybody gets a trophy. I do, because I won the fucker, and you don’t because you didn’t win it. Why do I have to explain that in this day and age? I’ve lost more than I’ve won, if I’m being honest, but you have to tout the small victories and block out all the losses to keep going.
Speaking of trophies: what are you doing next? What’s next for Jonathan Facka?
I really want to make a new album. Mitch Clem over here — I’ve got to plug him. He’s making Go West from scratch. It’s a new recording studio, state of the art. He’s got mic cables that are just in boxes in the wall, so if you want to plug in a mic, then you just plug it into a wall outlet and it runs straight to the board in the control room. He did the air conditioning in a way where it’s super-quiet. It should be done in October.
What do I want? I want to make an album that… I just want to make it a really good solid album that makes up for some of the less good stuff I made. I still feel like I’m making up for that. I am really satisfied with The Tarmac, though. I listened back to it the other day and I was like, “Wow.” I did a full breakdown. It’s really cool; it’s on Instagram and Tyler filmed it. I guess I just want to keep going, because I came this far. I have some things still left to say. One of the least played songs on The Tarmac was the song about my dad dying, and that was one tragic thing that inspired my writing. I was glad that I could put that to rest and put it on the album. But I’ve had other tragic things happen that I haven’t talked about yet. As far as the opening up really fast, and with the finger-pick style; that’s how I’ve been since my first record. For the second record, it opened the same way, and I think the third is gonna be similar.
I don’t know what the future holds, but I hope it involves something like a national tour. One that I can afford to do, so I can meet people who have discovered my music all around. There are people that have discovered my music through playlists, and things like that. I went on a little tour in Austin and Dallas a couple months ago, and they were packed full, but I have a lot of fans out there. As far as packing a place full just based on my name… I’m not there yet, but there are a couple of little factions here and there that I’d love to go visit. One fan who lives up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, all she wants me to do is come play at her house, and she wants to invite a bunch of friends. Now that is a cool way to tour. Instead of commissioning deals with these big venues and getting a booking agent to do all your negotiations, and blah blah blah… just reach out to your fans directly who have been supporting you, and say, “Hey, do you have a house? Why don’t we set up in your yard? You got friends? All right, cool, let’s get it.” Just go around and do a backyard or a living room tour. It’s more personalized, and nicer. I like meeting people, especially from different areas.
So tell me about making your Hourglass Session. Shooting in Main Street Station was such a cool idea, and very beautiful.
That was iconic, wasn’t it? It was the one where they branched out and did it in a place that wasn’t at someone’s house.
It was the first one that was outside of our circle.
That’s really cool, and I have Matt Sease to thank for that, because I came to a live session that Matt Sease demanded that I do. And I was like, “Who are these people and what do they want from me?” I had this weird attitude about it. “I don’t know who these kids are.” And now two years later they’re the greatest people ever. They’re like, “Let’s do an Hourglass Session,” and it was in the middle of the pandemic, but I was like, “I bet we could get somewhere huge.” I reached out to the Main Street Station.
I told Tyler on a Skype call, “I think I can get the Main Street Station.” Because they’re a wedding venue, and normally they cost $4,600 to rent the place for three hours. Especially at night, because they were like, “You can do it in the day for free, when there’s people moving around.” I want to shut the whole fricker down. I made a big deal out of it. I brought Joey Wharton to take pictures, and I was like, “Let’s do it big, because this is so cool.” It’s the title song, it just felt right at the time, and I don’t regret it. It sounds great, and that’s because of Dylan. A lot of these artists that are doing Hourglass Sessions now, and they’re like, “What big venue are we gonna do?” They’re trying to come up with a great idea. They don’t think they realize who the daddy of that was. This is such a cool thing that you want your name on it and some way, because you know it’s going places.
You can watch Jonathan Facka’s Hourglass Session on RVA MAG TV starting at 1 PM on August 23rd, and you can find his album The Tarmac anywhere you get your music.
Photos by Kimberly Frost