Women in Music 2018

Johnny Jewel of Chromatics Talks Surprise Solo Album and 'Dear Tommy' Delays: 'In My Dream Reality, I'd Release an Album a Day'

Rene and Radka
Johnny Jewel

“Cinematic.” Read any write-up of Johnny Jewel’s music -- whether it's his solo work, material from his role as the main brain behind Chromatics, or as a member of several side projects on his Italians Do It Better label -- and odds are that you’ll see the word “cinematic” somewhere.

There’s a reason that’s such a popular description, though: Jewel specializes in sleek-sounding, neon-streaked songs that are spiked with tension while feeling deeply romantic.

Jewel has made the cinema comparison even easier in recent years, seeing that his work has actually played on screens big and small. The 43-year-old has released a handful of soundtracks under his own name, two of his bands landed songs in the 2011 arthouse-noir flick Drive (a consolation prize, considering Jewel worked on a score that wasn’t used) and, roughly a year ago, Chromatics appeared in the premiere episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, David Lynch’s long-awaited, mind- and medium-melting reprise of his early-‘90s TV series.

“I just love the synergy of sound and vision,” Jewel tells Billboard over the phone. “It’s incredible. It’s like one plus one equals a million.”

To mark the anniversary of that Twin Peaks cameo, Jewel has surprise-released Themes for Television, a 21-track collection of mostly instrumental music that coincided with recordings he made for Lynch’s sprawling limited series. “It’s difficult to know where it fits in [my solo catalog], and that’s one of the freedoms of being independent,” Jewel says. “Because it’s such an abstract record, the people that are going to be into it are going to be already thinking outside the box, and they’re going to be excited that there’s more wallpaper for their dreams.”

Billboard spoke with Jewel about crafting Themes for Television, the status of Chromatics’ long-delayed Dear Tommy album (which is reportedly coming out this fall, if the announcement that came with recent single “Black Walls” is to be believed) and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How and when did these songs first start to take shape? Was it right after David Lynch’s music supervisor suggested Chromatics for Twin Peaks: The Return?

No, long before. I’m not sure the exact time, but a year to a year and a half before then? I kind of work in a nonlinear way, so I start projects all the time that I have no idea where it’s going to end up. I had begun exploring pastoral waves of synth and more abstract, spacious stuff that eventually ended up evolving into what became [Jewel’s 2017 solo album] Windswept.

And this collection started to take more of a refined shape after you got involved with Twin Peaks? Or was it mostly what it was?

It was mostly what it was. The way that I work is if I’m playing music, I’m recording music. I don’t know how to document music other than recording it: I can’t write it down. And a lot of the music -- especially this type of stuff, that’s outside of the pop spectrum -- is largely improvisational. So, it only happens once and I just record it, and then I move on.

And usually I’ll do seven to 10 pieces at once, improvising on the same instrument and recording ideas with no plan of where it’s gonna land. And then I’ll rewind, go back, find another instrument or the same voice that I’ll want to do a harmony of or something like that, and then I’ll just keep going in that linear direction and then not mix it, not think about it and then do something different the next day. And then maybe a month or two later, or three months or six months, I’ll come back to that, not remembering the original intent, and then I’ll try to decode or decipher, interpret what I had done and find commonalities in theme and then build towards things coming into sharper focus.

It’s just endless amounts of capturing footage -- sorry, that’s how I think of it; capturing music and then going back and looking at it, or, again, listening to it, and putting the puzzle pieces together.

So how long has Themes for Television been in your back pocket, in this form?

I finished the sequence in December, January, in Tokyo. I had just finished a film in early December, and was ready for my form of vacation, which is basically a change of scenery with my wife and my daughter. We like to go somewhere where we can’t speak the language and we’re not in a tourist area, we’re just completely immersed in this other culture. When we do that, I don’t take computers or anything like that -- but this time I did take a small, little MacBook, and the only thing on it was 300 tracks that I had selected from the masters from this project that would eventually become Themes for Television.

For a month every day, I woke up and I kind of made piles of, like, “OK, this track sounds good into this track” and “I love this track, but it just doesn’t help me tell this story here..." Just getting out the butchering knife and doing that, with no real end in sight.

What made you decide to put this record together? Did you just not want to have this stuff collecting dust somewhere?

I had stumbled onto some of the recordings while working on another film and I was looking for stuff -- because I don’t catalog my tapes properly -- and I found some of the recordings unmixed, and I got excited to dive back in and master and mix some of the stuff.

And then -- this was in December -- I was thinking about the year that had happened, and it’s rare that I have time where I can really listen to large amounts of music. And being in Tokyo, my main point of taking things with me was to just sort of organize it for myselff. Then the more that I boiled it down, I wanted to share it more and more. It’s not something I normally do, but it felt like it’s an interesting glimpse into kind of an unusual recording process -- and I think that some people, that will resonate with them. And it’s just music that’s completed, it’s sitting there, and I notoriously have a firm grip on what I release, and I’m trying to be a little looser with sharing things.

You seem like you’re somebody who’s working constantly, and you have all this material -- how do you decide what pieces belong together? It sounds like it’s all based on intuition and feel, is that right?

It’s not easy. Sequencing is something that I think is essential in making a record. I still think in terms of opening track, closing track on each side of the LP — the double LP, triple LP, whatever the case is. I think that as we get more and more into a playlist culture, sequencing is only being thought of in terms of frontloading, or exposure. But, for me, the art of the sequence is an art form of editing in and of itself, and it’s something that is really hard to put into words — again, a lot of the things we’re talking about are — but it’s an instinct-driven thing, it has nothing to do with commerce. The most accessible song, I can put it last on a record, I can put it in the middle, sometimes I’ll open with it. It just depends on how it fits into my vision of the record, and that is all instinct-driven.

Sorry, but I have to ask this: What’s the status of Dear Tommy?

We’re releasing it this fall -- that’s the idea, unless I change my mind again. But this is to begin that process. There’s eight videos that we made, and [“Black Walls”] is the first one. Some of them will be [released] before the record, some of them will be after the record. I don’t want to release too much before the record is out, because it’s a lot of unheard material. But [“Black Walls”] is a song that’s no one ever heard, and it wasn’t on the original track listing because the track listing has changed.

Oh, it has?

Yeah, I decided a few months ago to do that, which is ridiculous but true.

Friends of mine have definitely complained that they don’t have a version of, say, “I Can Never Be Myself When You’re Around” to listen to, since so much of the earlier Dear Tommy material got pulled offline.

That’s why I always suggest that people buy the vinyl, because once you buy the vinyl, I can’t delete it. That version that they want will come back. It won’t be on the album, but everything will be available again. I know it’s sadistic and all those things, but I just needed to kind of clear the slate for myself, and I accept all hate mail and responsibility for that.

It must be odd for you, because on the one hand you have been very busy -- you’ve been releasing music at a steady clip for the past couple of years -- but I imagine there are still some fans who feel like they haven’t heard from you in six years.

In the last 10 years, I’ve released 500 tracks. That’s almost a track a week for a decade. So I have released music. But the thing is, everybody has their favorite project, and I can’t release everything at the same time. Every time I make a Chromatics album it takes me about five years. But, along the way, there’s a breadcrumb trail of all these other cool moments that we can share. I think they have value, and the fans think they have value. I appreciate that people are thirsty for it, but I can’t be in five places at once. One of the reasons that we slowed down touring is, I’m in every band, so if Desire was in Moscow, I couldn’t be mixing Chromatics in Montreal. If Glass Candy was in Brazil, I couldn’t be playing in Beijing with Chromatics.

I’ve always done a lot of different projects, I do visual art as well, it’s part of my process. And we live in the hyper, on-demand culture right now, so there’s no way I’m ever going to answer that demand. But I work hard and I try, and in my dream reality, I would be releasing an album a day. And there’s almost enough material to do that -- there’s so much -- but I have to allow the work to have a proper time to gestate and to be in that protective embryo before it comes out into the world. I have to let it crack out of its own shell so that it can survive.

You mentioned that at point you felt you had to clear the decks and delete most of the Dear Tommy material you guys had put out earlier, you destroyed all of the physical copies that had been made. Could you unpack what went into that decision?

I was in Hawaii and it was Christmas Day, and I almost drowned [a few years ago]. I was out in the ocean, and it was like the first full moon on Christmas in 38 years. I was swimming in this bay for three weeks straight and a couple other people drowned that same day, one was a local — it was just an unexpected shift in water. We don’t need to go into it so much. But it was terrifying in its way. It was way off the shore, no one around, water picking up a little bit, and just muscle failure. And I just started thinking about things, and tried to sit out there until I could move, and I wasn’t thinking about producing records at that moment. But it had an effect on me, which -- any kind of traumatic experience that somebody goes through kind of burns a pathway in your brain, and connects synapses that previously weren’t really connected.

So, for the first time I kind of started having these anxiety black holes, as a result of this experience. And then, during that, I was supposed to be getting ready for Valentine’s Day release [of Dear Tommy], so I was revisiting the work. I love the songs, and I feel like the songs are really strong and written really well for what we wanted to do and what we wanted to say with the record, and I really love the record, but I realized I was getting caught up in really trying to release it by a certain point because I said that I wanted to. And then I just decided that I’m going to change my mind on that, and I’m going to make the record better and explore the songs a little bit more.

Then I started thinking, this experience had a more profound effect on me, and I started thinking about my relationship to the material and my process. And then, during all this, was Twin Peaks.

It’s really personal. I don’t feel violated [being asked about it] -- I know that I’ll definitely be asked these questions, I’m comfortable with that. It’s just something that I don’t want to sensationalize or be dramatic about. It’s intense, but it’s a positive thing, it’s had a really positive effect on me. But it took me a while to work through some of the negative effects that it had on me.

It’s similar to -- it’s been documented, because I mentioned an experience when I was speaking to someone at Pitchfork -- when I was 17, I got kidnapped, and that ultimately was a really, really good experience for me. It sped up my clock, and I was able to sidestep what most people squander in their twenties, because I had this sense of urgency about time and the brevity of life and all that stuff, because my life was in someone else’s hands, literally. But it took me a while to actually get to the positive place with that, because it was so traumatic that it had kind of an immobilizing effect, as any traumatic experience does.

I think the takeaway from it [all] is I love the music, and I decided that I wanted to enjoy the long and winding road of finding the voice of how I wanted to share this stuff -- instead of feeling the pressure of fans wanting to hear it, and “It would be really convenient for me to release it right now.” So, making that decision — everyone’s in agreement, they trust my instincts, but it’s still a decision I have to make by myself. That’s my role in the band. It’s not something that I take lightly, it’s not something that I’m flippant about or dismissive of. It was never the intention, but it is what it is, and the goal is to make a great record and that’s what we’ve done. And now I have to do the process of translating that into a release-able form. The record is incredible.