The Leader of the Pack

Catching up with Jono Manson, president of the recently formed Santa Fe Music Alliance

The Santa Fe area has long been a magnet for painters, sculptors, photographers, writers, directors, actors, and other creative types. Now the ranks of musicians based here have formed the Santa Fe Music Alliance, with the mission of connecting what has historically been a loose-knit music scene.

Its president is Jono Manson, a musician-songwriter-producer whose generous, charismatic personality suits him for the role. The son of a Martha Graham dancer who grew up on New York’s Upper West Side, he’s played the scene-maker before, as an integral part of the Manhattan bar-band circuit that nurtured breakout artists Joan Osborne, the Spin Doctors, and Blues Traveler; Manson still collaborates with the last band’s harmonica virtuoso, John Popper. As a singer-songwriter, he’s recorded nine solo albums of rootsy tunes that have a certain John Hiatt, good-guy ring; a new one is due to come out in early June. And at his Kitchen Sink studio in Chupadero, north of Tesuque, he records a steady clientele of local and visiting musicians who find inspiration in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and in Manson an affable, experienced producer.

Eric Davis recently spoke with Manson for New Mexico Magazine.

On the home page of your website you describe yourself as “Musician, Songwriter, Producer, Actor, Performer, Recording Artist, Audio Engineer, Teacher, Troubadour.” If you had to pick just one, which would it be? Musician. There was never a time that I wanted to do anything else. The other activities are subcategories of “musician.”

Tell me about your early musical development. I first started playing guitar when I was six, and formed my first band when I was seven, with two of my classmates in elementary school. We wrote our own songs, and played all original music. I started really playing in my mid-teens. Growing up in New York in the ’70s, there was no issue of being underage and playing in bars. Nobody cared back then how old you were.

Talk a little about the New York music scene. In the mid- to late ’70s there was a very vibrant music scene, a lot of small music bars starting to pop up, a real renaissance for all kinds of music. In the ’80s there was one bar that was central to the scene called the Nightingale Bar, and I was in a band called Joey Miserable & the Worms. We played jump blues, R&B, surf, funk, and rockabilly. Enthusiastic audiences accepted all of that. Among the younger artists coming up behind us were Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, and Joan Osborne. It was a great family of bands, and it was not uncommon for bands to share members or equipment—and do the same repertoire. “Miss Fabulous,” written by Joe Flood, was being done by six or eight different bands. I was very fortunate to be a part of that, because now, in New York and other places, it’s quite different. There is much less of a spirit of camaraderie, fewer places to play, less money, and bands naturally have become more competitive. I’m fortunate that I’ve learned the value of collaboration—it’s helped me stay afloat as a professional musician for the better part of 40 years.

Describe your transition from musician to producer. I started producing bands in the ’80s. My first studio took up half of an apartment I was living in in Brooklyn—much to the chagrin of my downstairs neighbors. My first experiences were producing other bands that were part of the family of bands that I was working with. As my career progressed, I started working on a larger scale, and had records that came out on major labels.

There’s a really big kick you get out of being part of somebody else’s creation. It gives you inspiration. Luckily, the kind of people who want to work with me as a producer tend to be the kind of people I want to work with.

What brought you to Santa Fe? I moved to Santa Fe in 1992. My girlfriend at the time wanted to come here to study, and I was ready for a change. I was able to work here and thrive—I was touring nationally and internationally. Santa Fe was my base of operations, but I was still connected to the world at large. It wasn’t long before I was up to my old tricks here—collaborating with different musicians, producing, building a recording studio.

You lived and toured in Italy for quite some time. How did that come about, and what brought you back to the states? I had an album out on A&M Records, and a copy found its way to Italy. Years later, I got a letter from a DJ at a radio station saying that they were playing the record, and I eventually heard from a label in Italy that wanted to release my music there . . . and to make a very long story short, in the 15 years since that transpired, I have had seven albums released in Italy and I’ve now produced records for a wide range of Italian artists. In 2003 I decided to move to Italy, and I lived there for three years, made my base there, and toured elsewhere in Europe.

How did you end up back in Santa Fe?

Caline. Love. I was still coming back here periodically to work on projects, we met and started seeing each other, and at a certain point we decided it was easier for me to come back to Santa Fe than for her to come to Italy.

You’re working on a new Jono Manson album—your first since 2007. Why now?

Well, it’s about time, and I have a whole batch of new songs sitting around waiting to be recorded. Between 2007 and now, I worked on a great many projects where I had a lot of creative input, not only as a producer but also as a writer, but I’ve not had time to do another record of my own. The carpenter’s house is always in need of repairs.

Tell me about your recent trip to Pakistan. This band in Pakistan called The Sketches contacted me and asked me to collaborate with them. The lead singer, Saif Samejo, was a fan of my music because of songs that I had on the soundtrack of The Postman. I became coproducer of their current project. They invited me to come to Pakistan to continue our collaboration in person and to film a music video.

[Once I was in Pakistan and we started working,] we decided that I should leave earlier than planned. It’s a risky proposition to go to Pakistan in the first place—and it just so happened that my being there coincided with a number of anti-American uprisings. At a certain point we understood that the risks were mounting, and my hosts came to the conclusion that their safety, too, was in jeopardy. What they are doing musically and politically is very risky—because they are speaking out against extremism. They put out a message of universal religion and acceptance, which is not very popular with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. People have been killed for less.

What brought about your involvement with the recently formed Santa Fe Music Alliance? The Alliance was originally the brainchild of John Widdell, who performs as Johnny Broomdust. I attended their initial organization meeting and was asked to serve as president. Our mission is to create a community through the fostering of a vibrant music scene in Santa Fe, similar to what New York was like back in the day. We’re partnering with the community and city government to launch a wide range of initiatives, including mentorships and scholarships. We also want to promote concert events, particularly for all-age audiences, and to foster collaboration versus competition. We believe that a strong music economy equals a strong economy for the city.

How would you describe the Santa Fe music scene to one of your pals back East? The music scene is small but very vital. The Alliance is trying to increase the number of venues so there are more places to play—but there’s a whole lot more going on here than initially meets the ear. There are so many people doing interesting things in Santa Fe [that you may never see in bars] but in somewhat insulated pockets. The trick to making this scene grow is to connect the dots.

How would sum up your time here in Santa Fe? As an artist, I feel very fortunate that I have been able to thrive here, and that, apart from being able to survive financially, this has been a really great place for my creativity. Inspirations that I found here would have been different had I stayed in New York or elsewhere. The quality of life here is really quite excellent. We’re happy that we’re bringing up our daughter here, and we can’t imagine living anyplace else.

SEE/HEAR Check out jonomanson.com for more information and music.