There is a certain perversity shared by artists. They pour their hearts into their projects, which often come to nothing or are met with indifference. But for some reason, they can’t help themselves.
“Anyone who really wants to do music—there’s something a little bit wrong with them,” said Jonathan Rolling, who recently completed a folk-pop, five-song EP titled Lines that is basically the culmination of his last six years of work.
To start at the beginning, in 2011, Rolling auditioned for the television show The Glee Project, an American Idol-style contest program. First prize was an appearance in several episodes of the show Glee. Unfortunately, Rolling didn’t make it past the premiere episode. (For the curious, however, his audition tape—a cover of the Jason Mraz hit “I’m Yours”—is still on YouTube.)
The experience awakened his competitiveness and spurred his attempts at songwriting. It seems to be a pattern for Rolling—a disappointment leads him to dig in and redouble his efforts.
“I’m going to do something way better than Glee,” he said. “I’ll prove it to them!”
He was only half-joking. The mellowness of his sound belies a fierce competitive streak and a drive to produce music he can be proud of. Songs of his placed sixth and fifth in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s best local song of the year contest in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Following the Glee Project experience, he wrote enough material to do local coffeehouse shows. Later, Rolling and some friends formed the band Love Like Wes. The band went into the studio for an intense 12 days of recording. The nearly-finished results were promising, but the producer had yet to mix and complete the recordings before having a mental breakdown and being arrested for arson.
Love Like Wes disbanded, and Rolling started recording as a solo artist. Determined not to have to depend on others again, he took the small amount of equipment he had and the skills he’d learned in two recording classes, and made a record by himself. A single song ended up costing him nearly a thousand dollars, and it sounded pretty good.
Over the course of five months, he recorded five songs in his house, playing all the instruments—or programming those things he couldn’t play, like drums. He mixed it himself, and then hired someone for the final mastering.
“There’s just so much new music always happening,” said Rolling. “If people are going to spend their time listening to your shit, you gotta make sure your shit’s good.”
Rolling has a talent for melodies, and since the songs on Lines are all based around acoustic guitar accompaniment, it would have been simple to record straightforward, unadorned tracks that sounded like pleasant, Jack Johnson-y folk-pop. But he decided to not do the obvious.
His songs start quietly, and often give the impression that they aren’t going anywhere dynamically. Then, as often as not, something unexpected happens—layers of instruments are built up, a drum set and electric guitars jump in—and the song is suddenly very different.
Rolling said the songs all have dozens of tracks and that the simplest has only 18. But they maintain a clear, airy sound, a testament to his obsessive mixing.
“I was only doing five songs and mixing a whole album by myself,” he said. “I was like, ’Oh shit—I totally get why that guy had a mental breakdown.’