When Nothing More singer/percussionist Jonny Hawkins was in grade school, his tiny class of a dozen students all tried out for the choir. When only Hawkins and one other child weren't accepted, it made a painful impression on him.
"I thought, 'Well, I guess I'm not a singer,' " he recalls while chatting via cellphone in May as Nothing More was traveling between gigs. Throughout school he focused on other instruments, including drums, and joined marching band in high school. As far as singing went, he stuck to doing it in the shower.
Fast forward to his early 20s, and Hawkins was drumming in Nothing More, along with childhood friends Daniel Oliver (bass), Mark Vollelunga (guitar), another guitarist and a rotation of singers. The Texas alternative hard rock act was leading a DIY existence, self-recording its albums and traveling in a battered RV held together with everything from homemade repairs to hope. In 2008 the group won a battle of the bands contest where collecting the prizes of cash and instruments was contingent upon doing a showcase at Los Angeles' Key Club for label reps. Which would have been a dream opportunity if the singer and second guitarist hadn't just left the group. Desperate to claim the much-needed prizes, Nothing More performed as a trio with Hawkins singing behind the kit.
"To be honest, it was the most godawful thing that's been onstage," he says of the show.
Despite the rough start, a growing feeling inside of Hawkins told him he should work on becoming the band's new singer. Heeding such instincts was something his maternal grandmother had encouraged him to do since he was a child. "I had this feeing that built and built from within, and I learned from the past that [when I listened to that instinct] it always led me to the right spot. But on the surface, it seemed like a really bad idea … When I look back now, it was definitely the right choice."
Six years later, watching him onstage on June 19 at New York's Studio at Webster Hall, you wouldn't think Hawkins' first shot as a singer made people cringe. Wiry, bare chested and bare footed, nimbly leaping atop a pair of drums sitting at the front of the tiny stage (which he repeatedly banged during the show), he sings with all the style of a natural-born vocalist clearly meant to front a band.
Hawkins' ability to destroy self-imposed limitations parallels Nothing More's first radio hit, "This Is the Time (Ballast)," which reached No. 4 on the Mainstream Rock chart dated July 12. Its video depicts Hawkins drowning in an ocean as he tries to free himself from a boulder shackled to his ankle. (The exertion wasn't all acting: The rock kept pulling him to the bottom of the pool where the scenes were shot, which he says was rather nerve-wracking.)
The footage is interspersed with shots of Hawkins, Vollelunga, Oliver and drummer Paul O'Brien performing the fierce, uplifting track while being drenched with water. The song's lyrics speak to realizing that the power of change comes from within, expressing the sentiment as "Singing the song that's inside us all/If we just open our eyes." The band's self-titled album — which debuted at No. 33 on the Billboard 200 dated July 12 with 9,000 copies after Eleven Seven Music rereleased it on June 24 — contains other thought-provoking messages like "Mr. MTV," which scowls at being obsessed with material desires. Nothing More also celebrates the struggle it took to reach this point in its career in "Here's to the Heartache" and channels Rage Against the Machine in "Christ Copyright," a condemnation against using religion to keep the masses deluded and divided.
"We were brought up in [a Christian] church, so even though our worldview has evolved past what we were born into, we were born into a kind of value system in which a lot of people around us really emphasized the value of thinking deeper and asking questions and not being satisfied with the quote unquote shallow things in life," explains Hawkins about how he and his bandmates were raised. "I think being born into that put that in us, and now as adults we have naturally evolved toward this."
That journey of constant questioning involves studying various philosophers; Nothing More's Facebook page is dotted with quotes from minds like Bruce Lee and Mahatma Gandhi. Audio material from lecturer Alan Watts, who is famed for making Eastern concepts more accessible to Western minds, is heard on Nothing More. Watts' explanations of matters like man's relationship to the universe have had a profound effect on Hawkins.
"He did it in a way that not only was mind-blowing but also just mind-altering," says Hawkins. "I haven't really thought about things the same way since I started listening to him, and it really unlocked a lot of doors in my own mind where I was kind of stuck because the way into which I was born, my Western thinking, I would run into walls in certain areas and I didn't really have a way around certain problems because my way of thinking didn't allow for that."
Thanks to Eleven Seven Music founder Allen Kovac making it a personal mission to break the band worldwide, Nothing More's message has been spreading farther since the band signed with the label in early 2014. Kovac told Billboard he was so impressed after first hearing Nothing More, which the band originally self-released in 2013, that he signed the group to "a five-album deal, no option" without ever seeing it live. If he hasn't seen his band yet, the industry veteran will probably kick himself for taking so long to do it. Onstage at Webster Hall, the act was as rambunctious as a litter of puppies, four dervishes of limbs and sweat and flailing instruments. The exuberance they got out of performing wasn't betrayed by smiles and high-fives, but by playing more and more furiously as the show sped onward, only taking a slight breath for the graceful imploration that was "I'll Be OK," which lays the band's collective heart bare in a petition to give and receive forgiveness.
After a run of August tour dates, Nothing More will start supporting labelmate Five Finger Death Punch on the road in September, then later head overseas for other promo work. An official lyric video for "Christ Copyright" was posted to YouTube on June 27, while "This Is the Time" is now penetrating the Hot Rock Songs and Rock Airplay charts. The far-reaching appeal of the latter song's lyrics were reflected in the fans who filled Webster Hall. Instead of the usual white, male twentysomething rock crowd, men and women of varying ages and ethnicities stood in attendance. Watching them shout "This Is the Time" along with the band, it's evident Nothing More is going to reach a diverse swath of people — pulling in those who also want to sing the song inside us all.