Jonathan Ogden talks tour, cringing to his music and quarantine.
I'm always thrilled to meet musicians of any calibre and music fanatics and well, talk about music. From discussing childhood's favourite tunes to the most underground artists, there is something special about sharing one's music. To some respect, it's like having a glimpse into someone's mind and soul. I think this is what I got the chance to see as I sat down with Jonathan Ogden, lead singer of the worship band Rivers & Robots. His sound arises from the midst of the vibrant and dynamic city of Manchester, a place renown for bands like The Smiths, Joy Division and Oasis.
His music is a mixture of electronic and Lo-Fi sounds that bridge the gap between melancholic and nostalgic, chill and passionate. This is easily noticed in the content of the lyrics, where heartfelt declarations are expressed through meaningful lyrics.
Having said that, I hope you will too get a glimpse into the mind behind this unique artist in this interview.
Jonathan Ogden, Musician, Graphic designer, YouTuber and I think you are a Ticktocker now [laughs] how is that going?
Alright… I mean, I kinda did it as an experiment, cause I wanted to see what that’s all about. I kinda used it to capture my lockdown craziness [laughs] I’m bored at home; I just wanted to make some dumb videos and see where that goes [laughs].
Speaking of quarantine, how have you found it? How has it changed your creativity; can you talk about that a little bit?
Yeah, I think it definitely came quite sudden, cause we were on tour in Brazil with my band Rivers & Robots. We had almost finished the tour but the last day got cancelled as they just started to lock down Brazil at that time. We then had to fly home early and we landed just as the UK was going in lockdown - right at the start of the craziness - and we’ve basically been at home since then. A lot of our time was spent looking at the live performances and planning them so it’s a bit weird to put that on hold for a while. But yeah, we’ve kinda been focused on writing, I’ve been at home for most of the time, in my room, trying to capture ideas, writing new songs. I think being at home has forced me to reach out to more people online, I’ve ended up doing more songwriting with people outside the UK.
You mentioned your band, Rivers & Robots. What would you say is the difference between your band and your solo music?
I think my solo music is slightly more experimental, it’s like an offshoot for when I started writing songs with my own name; I just didn’t have songs that fit within the band’s project, they felt more personal and like acoustic and then it became my outlet to try different genre and different styles, rather than being attached to the band. I also think that when I first started Rivers & Robots it was a solo thing. The first two albums were me in my bedroom, with my laptop, just a very simple recording process. I love how it’s developed, and it’s become a full piece band and we go to studios and develop songs over a longer period of time with a bigger recording process, which is great. I think there was just a little part of me that kinda missed just sitting in my bedroom with my laptop, just making Lo-Fi tracks and throwing them online the next day. And so, my solo stuff is really an outlet for that, just when I have an idea and I’m like ‘’I just want to capture this and throw it out there and not want it to be part of a good two-year album cycle’’. I enjoy both, I think they both have different expression and they’re very similar at the same time. I’ve had people get confused and say ‘’you sound exactly like the guy from Rivers & Robots’’ and I’m like ‘’yeah, that’s me’’[laughs]
So, you went to Brazil with the band and I believe you went to Asia a couple of years ago as well, how did you find the experience of touring?
It was amazing. I love being at home and writing songs, but when you actually get to sing them with people and travel to a different place in the world? It still blows my mind that people know the words to the songs. Like I go to this place I have never been in my life, and there are all these people singing all the words to the song and I’m like how do you know this? (laughs).I was never one of these very ambitious artists, like, my goal when I started was to put some songs on Facebook or SoundCloud and let my friends hear them, from then it just spread by word of mouth I think. I remember getting the first email from somebody outside the UK saying they like the music and I was like how did you find this?’’ (laughs)
So yeah, when we started to get invites to start playing at places, that was very out of my view of what I thought it was going to do. But we just learned as we went, we said yes to things, it’s been an absolute privilege to travel and play songs with people and yeah, it’s great.
Yeah, I can only imagine going to places and people sinning along to a song you probably wrote in your bedroom.
Yeah, literally, It’s crazy.
So, what would you say it's your favourite memory from tour?
That’s a good question. We love going to Brazil because Brazil has been our number two country for listeners for years, for like six or seven years. We always get messages from people saying ‘’come to Brazil’’ and we were always like we don’t know how to get there or how to organize a tour over there without knowing people. Just last year, we finally connected with a guy who’s part of the industry there and helped us to book shows and pull things together and yeah, it was like one of those things we had on our to-do list and we finally went and it blew us away. There were so many people who turned out and they knew all the words, even the old songs to the very first albums that we hadn’t played for ages. I was like how do you know these? (laughs). But yeah it was amazing, they are such passionate people in a few shows it felt like we didn’t have to sing very much cause they were just going for it [laughs] we were like ‘’we’ll just leave it to you guys, you’ve got it’’
You literally had your own choir
Yeah, totally. So that was amazing, but it’s a bit sad that it got caught short with all the COVID stuff, but we definitely want to go back soon and finish it off.
You’ve been talking about being in your place and making music by yourself, do you see challenges in being an independent artist or would you prefer being signed to a record label?
I think in one sense it’s very exciting, I feel like the industry now is very accommodating to independent artists. You’re able to record something in your room and release it on the same platform as a Beyoncé album would come out on, like it’s amazing. There is so much you can do now, like I am a self-taught producer, I learned through YouTube videos [laughs]. I like that there isn’t a barrier of you having to have a label and like two thousand pounds to make an album or whatever it would cost but I do think there are still advantages with labels. They can take a lot of the work-side of making music. As a project grows, it becomes more admin work, that's all the marketing that needs to be done and all that kind of stuff that you don’t think about as an artist, so with our band, we are part of a label called Running Club Records and my own stuff is independent so I kinda see both worlds. So I think it’s definitely good to have a bit of a team around you to be able to carry some of the work and for you to still be creative and do the bit that you actually enjoy doing, so yeah, I can see the advantages of both.
Yeah definitely, I guess being a graphic designer really helps with that as well, right?
Yeah, I think we really ended up just really blessed with who we had in our band, like most of us came from very creative roles. I was a graphic designer, our guitarist did video work, Nathan our bass player has been an office manager, so he’s really good with logistics, and touring and that kind of stuff. We later realized that we have a pretty good internal team here (laughs)
This is kind of a tangent but who would you say are your top 5 all-time favourite artists?
That’s a good question. Bon Iver is a great inspiration for me. Everything he’s produced, written and worked on is such a wide range of stuff, it inspires me a lot. Then Frank Ocean, growing up. Matt Redman as well, I think growing up in church I would listen to all these songs and hymns and at one point I started to read the Bible and I realised how many of the words in Matt Redman's songs were actually from the Bible. He’d taken the scripture and turned them into songs, particularly from the Psalms. I always really appreciated that and it’s just something that inspires me when I write stuff. I like to write from the Psalms and take things from the Bible and try turning them into music. That was a big inspiration for me. There’s also a Japanese producer called Nujabez, he was kind of doing Lo-Fi hip-hop before that was a thing, like late 90s and early 2000s. He sampled very melancholic music and put this really strong hi- hop beats to it. So, I’ve always loved his style, when I produce the more electronic stuff I do, it’s normally drawing from that inspiration. I want it to have that hip-hop feel but very melodic samples as well, brining orchestral elements and that kind of stuff. And then, who else, maybe Sufjan Stevens, again he’s someone very eclectic. He’s done everything from acoustic folk songs to long crazy electronic stuff. I love that every time he puts out an album, I have no idea of how it’s going to sound like (laughs) It could be completely different.
That’s an interesting selection. I like that. I’ve noticed the same thing you noticed in Matt Redman music in yours. Like, I might listen to one of your songs and then read the Bible or watch a sermon and realise that I was practically singing along to scripture. Like you can read Psalm 23 and be all ''Amen and Hallelujah'' and then you listen to the song and it hits you different. How do you go about creating a sound that fits with words from the Bible so perfectly?
I’ve always loved the Psalms; I think they just have this emotion to them. A lot of them are written by King David and so they’re so raw and real, he just puts everything out there, questioning, worshipping and praising and just crying in despair: ‘’what’s going on, where are you?’’ I just love how real it is and it’s kinda cool that it’s poetry and it's written to be sung and yet we don’t know what the melodies were so I like to literally just sing them [laughs] so I’ll sit in my room, write the instrumental and literally just sing the Psalms and see what melodies come out. A lot of my songs started out that way, like singing through Psalms, and like there is a little hook or chorus that comes out, so I’ll grab my phone and record it and then just build the song out of that. But yeah that’s often my starting point with the lyrics. I love it for that reason, as you were saying. I think when you write your own lyrics, they have a certain meaning at that point in time, and they will always mean that. Then when I write stuff from the Psalms it might have a meaning for that moment and then I’ll hear a sermon that talks about the Psalms and it will make me see it in a completely different way. Then I can go back to the song and now I can hear my song in a completely different way. I love that it can do that, that it can return to you with a different meaning [laughs].
Yeah totally. This reminds me of your song, Slow down. I’m telling you, when I listen to that song, Oh my days, I was so drawn to the sound, cause the instrumental seemed to slow down in such a weird-cool way, I can’t explain it and I was so fascinated with that [laughs]. And then I actually heard the lyrics and I was just ‘’Wow’’, I was mind blown. It was an incredible experience. I was wondering how do you go about applying the message of that song, cause fair enough the song is saying ‘’slow down’’ and trust God basically, but how do you actually put that into practice in your life?
Yeah, I wrote that song in a time where I really needed to do that. I don’t know if it’s my personality or the culture we are in, but I felt like I was leaving in this crazy fast pace and even through social media and what you see online. I felt like there was this constant pressure to be like in this next stage, I need to do this, and I need to do that. Just in the way I was living, everything I was doing felt like I was running after something all the time, like in this constant anxiety of doing this and doing that. And yeah, sometimes I do simple things like, quit social media for a while. Cause sometimes there is so much to take in at such a fast pace. I’ve done a few weeks of just completely unplugging, trying to read a book or the simplest things. At the beginning I really hated it, I’d be walking around my house asking what am I meant to be doing and eventually it’s like my mind and my spirit start to catch up, and I’m more in a natural rhythm now. I’ve even tried to practice the idea of Sabbath, even more, as God talks about the seventh day of rest. I literally try to choose one day of the week where I am not working to not go through social media, and all that stuff. And just having a day to be quiet, enjoy what’s around be, just rest and be stilled. Yeah, it starts out very frustrated about the things I’m not doing but by the afternoon I’m like ‘’ah I feel good now’’ [laughs]
This might seem like a weird question, but have you ever felt cringy listening to your own music or the sound of your voice? And how did you overcome that?
Yeah, I used to feel so cringy [laughs]. I wasn’t used to singing, like not in front of a stage or anything. So, when I first started out, it was kind of my worst nightmare to end up doing music. But I did it out of passion as I really enjoyed the creative process of writing the idea and producing it. I remember the very first song I recorded that had vocals on, I knew it was the first-time family and friend heard me sing cause I didn’t sing in front of people. And I was going to post it on Facebook or SoundCloud, but I hovered over the upload button for a whole day cause I was like ‘’am I really gonna post this? People are going to hear me sing’’ I wanted to delete it as soon as I posted it. But I forced myself to keep there. I think I gradually, over time got used to it. There are still things that when I listen back, I would like to go back and change and probably redo all the vocals [laughs]. But it’s like a diary or a postcard of where you’re at in the moment. So, I might be able to do an album better now, but that’s how I sounded back in 2011 so whatever, that’s where I was at. It’s like a memory, so I don’t mind keeping the old cringy stuff around [laughs].
Yeah, I guess this is the thing about creating, whenever you make music, it looks like there’s always space for improvement. It’s like a snapshot of time, and six months down the line you might’ve improved but does that mean you should you change it? Because this is really capturing something you’ve gone through and overcome maybe.
I like the realness of putting things out, someone once told me: ‘’you never finish an album, you just stop’’ [laughs] You can always try to tweak it and perfect it, but there comes a time where you just need to stop and be like this is how it is, I’m going to put it out. This enables you to move to the next thing.
Finally, I've seen that you’re a friend of Montel Fish, which is quite cool. It would be great to hear how you guys got to know each other, appreciate each other’s music and even collaborate.
I think I heard one of his songs on YouTube, it was one of the very first he put out and I just commented on his YouTube and he replied saying ‘’is this Jonathan from Rivers & Robots?’’ and I was like ‘’yeah’’ and he was like ‘’oh I love your music’’. So, he sent me his email address and we connected through that. I think literally that week we FaceTimed each other a lot, starting to learn more about each other and our journeys. We were both working on a project at the time, I think he was working on Bedroom Gospels and I was working on my Spring EP. So, we literally just fired the song back and forth and he sent me his part of Wonderful God and I wrote some guitar lines and I send it back. Then I sent him a song In the Ocean and he wrote this whole section for it. So, it was like, within a week we called each other a lot and by the end of the week, we had two songs that we’ve made. We’ve done that a few times now, just sending each other ideas and yeah, he’s a great musician, artist like the whole package [laughs].
To hear more of Jonathan Ogden, check out his 2019 twenty-four hour beat tape:
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