Interview with Jonah Mutono

By Oliviero Zanalda

Jonah Mutono is a multi-talented recording artist who released one of the best, and one of the  most underrated, albums of 2020: GERG. This album is a story of accepting identity – it tells Jonah’s story. Born into a religious Ugandan family, Jonah struggled to accept his identity and come out as a queer man. This album describes just that. GERG, as he explained to me, was the secret name he saved his now ex-boyfriend as on his phone. This was done in an effort to cover up the fact that he was dating a man. If he ever got a heart emoji text from someone named GERG, his religious friends and family wouldn’t suspect him of dating a man, it could be anyone. This story is just the tip of the GERG iceberg. As you listen to this album, you’ll begin to learn more about Jonah as a person, whether it’s over intricate, catchy production on songs like “If You Mean It” and “Circulation” or on songs like “Spare” and “Smith Johnson Williams Brown”, where his voice dominates the simpler, but no less captivating production. I sat down with Jonah for an interview about his previous work, but also his future projects and next steps. He’s currently on tour with Kacy Hill and is working on a new project set to release sometime next year.

It’s been over a year since you released GERG. What are your thoughts on the album now? Do you think it’s aged well?

Yeah. I haven’t actually listened to a lot of it since I put it out since it’s a pretty accurate time capsule of my life for the four years it took to make. That’s not to say I was working on it every day, I was traveling a lot. I was in between continents and so in between I would sort of work on these songs. Lyrically speaking, I think it has. I think that people still feel the same way. People still feel isolated or out of place and so that’s why people are still discovering and realizing the album over time. I think to myself “we’ll see if people keep listening to it”. I don’t know if it’s my place to say if it’s aged well sonically. It sounds like the time it was put out and that’s for the best.

Who were your biggest inspirations and influences when you were working on the album (both musically and personally)?

I would always say Sufjan Stevens. I don’t think anyone can hear any Sufjan Stevens in my music but I really fucking love him. Everything he does he seems to have a great process. He puts out so much music. I think a lot of artists hold music back but he’s 12 albums in and I’m very very jealous. I love the brushes that he paints with.

On a personal level, I’d say my brother. My brother worked on 3-4 of the songs on the album and he’s an amazing producer. Anything he produces blows my mind. I’ve stolen and been inspired a lot from him as well.

Being emotionally vulnerable on songs like “Spare” and “Smith Johnson Williams Brown” must not be easy due to the fact that strangers are going to be listening to them. What did you do to get into a space where you can be emotionally vulnerable on a song? What advice would you give other artists that want to do this but are hesitant?

That’s interesting you say that. I try not to write with people in mind like that – that people are gonna be listening to it – I try to write for myself. I’ll probably be writing songs till the day I die, and maybe they won’t be released, but I do so to process information and process emotions. As long as you’re telling the truth, whether that sounds emotionally vulnerable to people or not, I think that’s all you can do. My advice would be to tell the truth and don’t skimp on the messy parts.

The transitions between each song on GERG feel natural despite stark differences musically. How did you choose the order of the songs? What did you do to make sure the transition between each song made sense despite the moods of the songs being different (e.g. Circulation -> Spare). Well, I actually did that mathematically. There’s a thing you can look up that’s really fascinating about how some of the biggest albums’ tempos do the same thing. They start at a certain point, they come down and then they peak again but at a place lower than the first peak. You’ll find it in albums like Random Access Memories, Innervisions, Channel Orange. Because I could hear the style discrepancies between songs, I just broke it down by tempo and mood. It’s almost like a film – you have acts 1, 2, and 3 – and it climaxes at a certain point and you always know when it’s gonna happen. When you start listening to a lot of the great albums, they all do exactly the same thing. It was a mathematical equation really and it worked out for the best. There was a point where I wasn’t sure if “Spare” was gonna go after “Circulation

Has this album found success in the LGBTQ community? Has it inspired certain members living in hostile environments to embrace their identity?

I don’t really know. I’m not sure what the metric of success is. I’ve received some really beautiful letters from people in places all over the world who are queer and who have really been suffering. They thanked me for telling the truth about my situation. I had a fan even tattoo some of my lyrics on his shoulder which was crazy. The fact that it touched anyone is a success in my eyes. I saw it as successful because it came out in the first place. The fact that anyone listening to it at all has been fantastic and the fact that, for a few people, it’s gone that extra step and helped them through a time in their life in any way is really important and cool. I’m so glad that I was able to be a part of that. It’s important that I get to tell my story as it is and exactly as I want to tell it instead of having to be an activist at all times or to feel like someone who has to be up on a pedestal. There are so many important voices along with mine. I think that as long as we stay together and we stay visible, we’re doing our jobs.

What are your plans for your next project? How is it going to differ from your previous album?

It sounds a lot different. I moved to LA recently. I feel like it’s a very Los Angeles record. There are a lot of guitars and a lot more natural sounds. We’re actually recording string sections. Sonically probably a lot more cohesive. I really like the songs so far. I feel like I’m seeking natural instruments to offset the artificiality of my new environment. I still feel very new here because most of my time here has been during the pandemic. We’re maybe 75% of the way through it. I want something to come out next year – whether that be a whole album, an EP, or a short film with some songs in it. Something to sort of show what my life looks like now. It will happen, next year maybe, spring/summer there will be something new

In the process of making an album, how many times do you need to re-record a song?

At worst I’ll record something three times and at best I’ll record something in 30 minutes. I “Smith Johnson Williams Brown” recorded in 30 minutes and never did anything to it. I re-recorded shoulders for a year because there’s 10 harmonies in every chorus and the bridge part has 20 different vocals at once and I kept having to re-record those vocals. It took a long time. When you listen to the finished thing it doesn’t sound like the case but I feel like maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe everything should sound easy but be difficult to make.

Who are your favorite artists currently? Who do you hope to collaborate with in the future?

Definitely Sufjan Stevens. I keep meeting people who know him and I’m like “hook me up”. I would totally work with him if we was down. I’ve been listening to Little Dragon a lot. I’ve been going over their album The Puma Rubber Band. It has this song “Clap Clap” on it which is incredible and the album as a whole is fantastic. Little Dragon is really cool and I’d love to work with them. I’ve been listening to this artist Yullola. She only has a couple of songs out and they’re very “vibey”, for lack of a better word. I’d love to work with her. I’d love to do something with Wet, I really like the music they put out. The music they put out recently is so good. I’m liking Lil Nas X for what it’s worth. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work with him – we live in completely different universes. I did a lot of my first EP with Take a Day Trip who’s now doing all of Lil Nas X’s music. Now they’re out in the big time and I’m very proud. I love what they’re doing with Lil Nas X.

How did you get to know Kacy Hill? Are you planning on working with her in the future? What do you hope to gain from this tour?

I actually met her for the first time 6 years ago. We have very similar collaborators. We’re in the same little community of musicians. Many times I’ve seen her with our mutual friend Max, maybe Max is the one who introduced me in the first place. She’s fantastic. I love her and I love her new album. During the pandemic, we sent some things back and forth but nothing came to fruition or materialized. At some point it will though, mark my words. It’s been such a hellish two years and just being able to perform is great. The last show I did was at the end of February [2020] and I want to do a lot more shows next year headlined by myself. I need to get my sea legs backs in terms of performing because I wouldn’t call myself a big performer. I think I’m really exposed and vulnerable singing in front of a crowd. There are those people at the party with the guitar but that’s not me. My dad used to have to force me to play piano for people and I had a lot of stage fright. It’ll be nice to have a friend around and Kacy’s fans are so chill that I think It’ll be a good experience. Getting out there and performing in front of people is what this tour will be good for.

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