East Lansing native Jonathan Townley, a 20-year-old Kalamazoo College student, released his debut pop folk album, It Was a Privilege to Know You When You Were Shorter, on Friday.
When he was younger, he didn’t watch T.V. Instead, he spent time reading and listening to folk music on the radio. When he was 18, he started writing his own songs.
“I started singing with the MSU Children’s choir when I was in third grade,” Townley said. “That group contributed to a lot of my music education. I was passionate about choral music. It was a big influence on the sound of my voice.”
Since then, Townley has ventured into playing instruments. “I played the upright bass starting in the fifth grade, all the way through high school,” said Townley. “Playing the bass taught me that an instrument piece doesn’t have to be complicated to sound good. I started to play guitar two years ago, after my senior year of high school.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Townley turned back to the guitar, using his passion for music to help cope with emotions and feelings of life and loss. He spoke to ELi about the album’s thematic elements, and how the record came to be.
“I created this album because my family was enjoying my songs a lot, but wanted to be able to listen to them when I was too busy to play,” he said. “I started writing them down, and recording them as the summer went on. Eventually, they convinced me that I should share them with my friends, and with a wider audience.”
The convincing took a little bit, according to Townley. “After I wrote ‘Sunset Song,’ was when they fully convinced me to create an album. When I played that song for my family the first time, we all got really emotional. My aunt said she wanted to share it with her friends. That’s what finally convinced me,” he said.
It Was a Privilege to Know You When You Were Shorter was aptly named after his aunt spoke those words to the musician, and later helped him create the record. The folk singer-songwriter’s influences include Jack Johnson, James Taylor, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and Perfume Genius.
“I think that my music is mainly rooted in liveness and storytelling,” he said. “I try to make every repetition of a song count, and hold uniqueness.”
The album was recorded on Townley’s grandparents’ blueberry farm near South Haven and dedicated to his grandpa, George Fleming, who passed away in April. “My family moved into my grandparents house near South Haven to help take care of him when he was passing. I sang him a lot of hymns during this time. One of the last things he said to me was, ‘sing your hymns.’”
Townley began writing songs after his grandpa’s death, telling stories of their relationship, and processing the family’s grief. Given the circumstances related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the family was unable to host a traditional ritual funeral. The ideas of grief, preciousness of life, and treasuring ordinary moments are woven throughout the album’s nine tracks.
“The album talks about the sacredness of life in a time where we are desensitized to death. At the same time, everyone is aware of their own mortality. This album recognizes and celebrates the fleeting properties of joy and life,” Townley said.
Physical CD copies and digital downloads are available for purchase on Townley’s website. The album will be available for streaming on Bandcamp and most other streaming services. You can also check out the online concert from last night to celebrate the release, his YouTube channel, and his Facebook page.
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