Immediately after Jonah Tolchin finished recording his new album, ‘Thousand Mile Night,’ he got behind the wheel and lived it, driving from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, all the way back to his native New Jersey with guitarist Lucas Hamren and drummer Michael Bosco in one straight shot. By the time the car finally coasted into Hamren’s driveway in the early dawn light, the odometer had accumulated 998 miles. The journey wasn’t quite over yet, though. Tolchin said his goodbyes, gathered his things from the back seat, and began the walk to his childhood home on nearby Clover Lane. It was precisely two more miles.
The universe is full of signs if you’re open to them, and there could be no clearer omen for Jonah Tolchin than the mileage of that epic trip: he’d had made the perfect album for the perfect moment in his life. Recorded at the legendary FAME Studios (Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin), ‘Thousand Mile Night’ charts the young songwriter’s remarkable growth, both personally and artistically, as he digs deep into the roots of American music with a distinctly modern perspective, tackling everything from love and marriage to life on the road to loneliness and depression with a deft lyrical touch.
The album follows Tolchin’s acclaimed Yep Roc debut, ‘Clover Lane,’ which was recorded in Nashville with a slew of special guests including Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin and Deer Tick’s John McCauley. NPR called Tolchin “a promising new artist who artfully occupies the gulf between old-school tradition and contemporary appropriation,” while Uncut said he “demonstrates the finesse and maturity of someone like Jason Isbell,” and MOJO praised him for “adding raw, punk brio to a folk-blues template.” Tolchin racked up more than three million plays on Spotify with tracks from the record and toured the U.S. and Europe extensively in support of it, sharing bills with artists like Chuck Prophet, Dave and Phil Alvin, Gregg Allman, Joseph Arthur, and more along the way. When he wasn’t on the road, Tolchin was busy showing off his talents behind the board as a producer, heading to Nashville’s Bomb Shelter to helm an album for Bill Scorzari and bringing bluesy soul singer Julie Rhodes to record at FAME, where he made such a powerful connection with engineer John Gifford III that he knew he had to return there for ‘Thousand Mile Night.’
When it came time to record, Tolchin doubled down on the same raw approach that made ‘Clover Lane’ such an infectious collection, performing live as a band in the studio and recording and mixing the entire album start-to-finish in a staggering four days.
“I work very well under pressure,” Tolchin explains. “If I had three weeks to make a record, I don’t know what would happen. There’s something about having this pressure to create on a deadline that helps me as an artist. We didn’t have the luxury to over-think anything.”
Tolchin once again teamed up with producer/multi-instrumentalist Marvin Etzioni, who helped shepherd ‘Clover Lane,’ and rounded out the band with Hamren on guitar, Bosco on drums, and Jamie McFarlane (son of legendary Muscle Shoals musician Will McFarlane) on bass. Rather than prep everyone for the whirlwind sessions, though, Tolchin kept them in the dark until it was time to press record.
“I purposely didn’t show anyone besides Marvin the songs,” he explains. “I don’t like anyone to chart anything out in the studio. I like them to make it up as they go along. I want everyone to play what they feel is the right thing to play.”
The result is free-wheeling and instinctual, the rare sound of a group of artists discovering the magic and mystery in the songs at the same time as they reveal themselves to the listener. It all begins with album opener “Beauty In The Ugliest Days,” a beautiful showcase of Tolchin’s young-man-with-an-old-soul brand of heartfelt philosophy featuring a performance by Bob Marley drummer “Santa” Davis. It’s a song of resilience, a gentle dose of Zen reassurance in the face of doubt that every dark cloud does indeed come with a silver lining.
“I was on an airplane sitting on the runway in Los Angeles, and I got a call from Marvin,” remember Tolchin. “He had just spoken to a friend of his from school that he’d lost touch with along time ago, and it turned out this friend had been living on the streets. He said,’ Marvin, I have this title for a song called ‘It’s Up To You To See The Beauty In The Ugliest Of Days.’ He started talking to Marvin about this concept, and then Marvin called me right away, and I’d finished writing the song before we even took off.”
There are some ugly days on this record, to be sure, from “Song About Home”—written during an unhappy stint living in Olympia, WA—to “Where The Hell Are All My Friends”—an apocalyptic, Tom Waits-esque musing on time spent alone—but Tolchin takes the lesson to heart and always pushes deeper to find moments of transcendence and redemption. He embraces change and uncertainty throughout the record, singing “All the wise men say / That they know nothing at all” on “Workin’ Man Blues #22” and surrendering himself to the all-encompassing power of true love on “Completely,” which features Joachim Cooder on drums. Elsewhere, “Unless You Got Faith” is an ode to trusting in your gut, “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” resurrects the Skip James classic, and “I Wonder” is a rollicking note-to-self to accept things as they are.
“I can get in these existential mindsets where I’ll get very philosophical,” says Tolchin. “I’ll want to know the answer, and I won’t want to rest until I find it. This song was a reminder that sometimes you can just wonder about something and that’s all. There doesn’t have to be an answer. The process of wondering is one of the most beautiful things about being human.”
With an album this outstanding, we don’t have to wonder much about what’s in store for Jonah Tolchin. It’s safe to say there will be many more thousand-mile nights in his future as he takes these songs across the country and around the world, bringing beauty and truth and silver linings wherever he goes, “driving all night,” as he sings, “on a little bit of faith.”
Thousand Mile Night is available on Yep Roc Records August 5th, 2016.