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Austin360 Artist of the Month: Jonathan Terrell looks ’Westward’ with new album

Peter Blackstock
Jonathan Terrell's new album, "Westward," is due out Aug. 24.

Jonathan Terrell had been writing songs for a long time before he had a revelation a year or two ago, courtesy of Kris Kristofferson.

Terrell was trying to figure out the best way to record “The Last Time” for his album “Westward,” which comes out Aug. 21. His friends Mike & the Moonpies had covered it on their 2018 album “Steak Night at the Prairie Rose,” giving the song an easygoing honky-tonk-bar feel.

“It's such a weird, versatile tune,” Terrell says. “The way I wrote it was like a fingerpick song, and then they did it a completely different way. And I had four other versions of this song, trying to make it talk.”

Then Terrell attended a Kristofferson concert. “He was completely at ease being a vessel for the song,” Terrell recalls. “He was the servant of the song and he was doing everything it wanted him to do. And I was like, ’I'm trying to jam this song into what I think it should be, and I'm not listening to what the song wants from me.’

“So I came home, sat down on the bed, and was like, ‘What do you want from me? What do you want to do?’ I sat down and played the song … and it just opened up.”

Terrell, who’s spent much of the past decade bouncing back and forth between country-oriented solo material and the harder-edged rock & roll of his band Not in the Face, called that moment “a pretty awesome breakthrough.” The song, he says, was telling him that “you’re a songwriter, first of all, and everything else comes after that.”

“Westward,” his third solo album since moving here from Longview in 2006, testifies to that realization. Working with producer Stuart Sikes at local studios Big Orange and Arlyn, Terrell has created one of the first great Austin albums of the new decade. Its 10 tracks merge elements of country tunefulness, rock & roll energy, indie invention and folk lyricism into something that sounds effortlessly natural, and entirely his own.

THE ALBUM’S TITLE could almost double as a new subgenre tag for the music Terrell is making. He recalls a gig in France a few years back when a fan offered a thoughtful take regarding Terrell’s appeal to overseas audiences. “He said, ‘In the thousands of years of European art and culture, the one thing we cannot replicate is the idea of the American West. It’s just this majestic freedom, but also a weird desolation and stark reality of traveling and losing and winning.’ So the idea behind ‘Westward’ was to make a timeless American album.”

While Terrell acknowledges that he “grew up on George Strait and Garth Brooks, but also Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails,” he namechecks the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bob Seger and Dwight Yoakam as closer touchstones to his new album’s aims.

“They have this timeless American sound that kind of deals in freedom, without being political. And I was like, ‘OK, this is this is the sound I'm searching for,” he says, ultimately describing “Westward” as “a windows-down highway driver. Those are my favorite kind of records — the ones where you can sit back and listen to the whole album front to back, windows down and just blasting it through the sunset.”

Terrell is the first to admit he had a lot of help in realizing his “Westward” vision. “This album is like the house that Austin built,” he says, running down an intriguing list of contributors from a wide swath of the city’s music community. A core band of guitar/pedal steel player Simon Page, bassist Scott Davis, drummer Douglas Day, guitarist Steve Carlson and keyboardist Trevor Nealon gets important boosts from Santana’s Gregg Rolie on B3, singer Mark Wystrach of hitmaking country band Midland, and Shakey Graves mastermind Alejandro Rose-Garcia.

“Everybody was like, ‘Hey, man, we believe in what you're doing. How can we have your back?’” Terrell says. “And they all showed up. It was like an Amish community coming in to build a barn.”

Elsewhere, the Tosca String Quartet provides sweeping string swells on "Raining in Dallas“ and ”Cowboy Band“; country-folk songstress Christy Hays recites a poem in the bridge of “Starchild”; Black Pumas backup singers Lauren Cervantes and Angela Miller help to enliven “The Last Time”; and indie-folk sensation David Ramirez contributes backing vocals on “Lemon Cigarettes & Pink Champagne,” which he co-wrote with Terrell.

HOW “LEMON CIGARETTES” came to be written is a story unto itself. Terrell was living in an Airstream trailer in South Austin that had a problematic air-conditioning drainage system. “I never got good sleep because they had this little pan under the the AC unit, and I had to set a timer to go throw the AC water out in the yard every three hours,” he says, by way of possibly explaining a dream he had one night.

“I was sleeping on this leather couch, and in the dream, it looked like my computer was catching fire. And then this black-haired bob-haircut girl, like an old-school club cigarette girl, comes out of this little puff of smoke in the computer screen. She pulls a gold pack of cigarettes out of her top and lights one. And on the pack of cigarettes, it had a black circle and a lemon. I woke up and I was like, what happened?”

He wrote down “Lemon Cigarettes,” later adding “Pink Champagne” because he and Ramirez had been drinking rosé while hanging out and writing songs. Ramirez saw the phrase on a list of potential song ideas and asked Terrell about it.

“I'm like, ‘I don't know, I just wrote this title last night. I had this fever dream where this woman came out of my computer and lit a lemon cigarette in my trailer.’ And he was like, ‘What the (expletive) are you talking about? Were you high?’ And I was like, ’No, it was just 100 degrees in there.’”

“Lemon Cigarettes” is one of the most evocative songs on “Westward.” Gentle piano and organ riffs lead into a conversation between the narrator and his imaginary paramour: “She said she loved to watch the sunrise come dancing through the rain/ She smoked lemon cigarettes with pink champagne.”

Elsewhere, he rocks out with resolute drive and passion on the opening track and first single “Never Makes a Sound”; leavens the moody “Raining in Dallas” with atmospheric touches of synth and strings; and builds up the meditative verses of “Give It Time” into a mesmerizingly beautiful chorus: “One day you’ll find, even the the stars have to let go of their light. … One day you’ll find, even your heart can heal itself with time.”

EVERY TRACK ON “WESTWARD” belongs there, a quality that may trace to Terrell paring the final tracklist down from 26 songs he’d written for the album. He credits producer Sikes for helping him “ground my ideas and bring them to life. He was always willing to explore every nook and cranny of each song. He’s a very cool-headed, collected guy, and I really needed to have someone like that steering the ship.”

Such guidance was crucial after Terrell’s brother Emmanuel, a Marine veteran and former police officer, killed himself at age 32 in November 2017, just as Terrell was about to start making “Westward.”

“My brother was my biggest fan ever — front row, critiquing all my songs,” Terrell says. “He needed me to text him all the lyrics for everything so he could memorize them before he came to the show.”

Terrell ultimately pushed back the studio dates a few months as he worked through his grief, a pause that also helped him work out the album’s songs more at live gigs with his band. Once recording commenced, Terrell spent a lot of time on quality control. At one point, multiple collaborators had “checked and double-checked and triple-checked every song to see if there were any funky things poking out,” he says. “Because I wanted this record to be the best thing I've done.”

And then, of course, the pandemic happened. Terrell’s best-laid plans for the album’s promotion went out the window, but he ultimately decided it was still time to get “Westward” out into the world.

“I was holding on to it until I could get all the physical copies, and then we could book a tour to support it and get some weight behind it where I could save enough money to pay for a good publicist and things like that. And that's just not going to happen now,” he says. “But I was like, ‘Well, I'm not going to sit on this record anymore.’”

In the meantime, he stayed busy with whatever might help. He and his girlfriend made a batch of Jonathan Terrell-branded tie-dye T-shirts they marketed on Instagram, quickly selling out the run. He played the opening weekend of new South Austin venue Sagebrush on its outdoor stage until tightened pandemic restrictions forced the club to close. And he’s picked up a few paid gigs for businesses hiring musicians to do private Zoom-streamed concerts. (He’ll do his own public streaming record-release event at 8 p.m. Aug. 17 on his Facebook page.)

THE BEST GIG he’s had this summer, though, provided a magical moment that reflected the spirit of “Westward.” A few days before Willie Nelson’s first-ever virtual Fourth of July Picnic, Terrell found himself in the saloon at Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood, laying down temporary vocal tracks for 18 songs with an ace backing band. Those recordings then were sent to luminaries such as Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow and Ziggy Marley, who recorded their parts for the streamed event based on Terrell’s reference vocals.

“There were some pretty cool moments,” Terrell says. “I remember the third time we were doing Sheryl Crow's (version of Nelson’s classic) ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,’ I was in a little vocal booth offstage, and Charlie Sexton's doing this amazing solo on a nylon-string guitar. I look out over the saloon doors and past the barn, and there's this perfect orange sunset.

“Then I realized that the band is about hit that bridge — ‘So fly on, fly on, past the speed of sound.’ I was pulling myself out of that sunset, turning right around and singing that bridge with the band.

“It was a total magic moment. Everybody looked up, and we’re just like, ’Whoa, we’re on Willie’s ranch playing his song.’”


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Austin360 Artist of the Month: Jonathan Terrell

Releases: “Westward,” due out Aug. 21; “Color Me Lucky” EP (2016); “Past the Lights of Town,” (2015); “Trials and Stimulations” (2008).

Livestream release event: 8 p.m. Aug. 17,

Jonathan Terrell poses for photos July 29 at the temporarily-closed Sagebrush.Terrell played a gig outdoors at the new South Austin club before it was shuttered because of the pandemic.