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“Go out and experience things; you’ll thank yourself later.” With Ming Zhao & Jen Tonon

Every. Person. Needs. Affordable. Healthcare. The fact that I even have to say it is a tragedy. Nobody should have to choose between going bankrupt visiting a doctor/filling a prescription or dying. It’s absurd, and something must change. Nearly every American is just one medical emergency away from poverty. It shouldn’t be that way. As […]

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Every. Person. Needs. Affordable. Healthcare. The fact that I even have to say it is a tragedy. Nobody should have to choose between going bankrupt visiting a doctor/filling a prescription or dying. It’s absurd, and something must change. Nearly every American is just one medical emergency away from poverty. It shouldn’t be that way.


As a part of my interview series with the rising stars in pop culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Tonon.

Jen has been playing music for over twenty years, starting with drums at age eleven. She picked up guitar in her teen years and has been playing in bands in the DC area ever since; starting with the comedy band, Quiz Show Scandals. Previously, she played bass for punk band Like No Tomorrow (also on the Blakhart Guitars roster), and guitar for operatic metal outfit Cassandra Syndrome. Additionally, Cassandra Syndrome opened for such national acts as Hellyeah, Kamelot, and Otep. Aside from playing in gigging bands, Jen has also released several solo records, and co-written two comedic rock musicals (Frozty the Abominable Snowman and Carrie Potter At the Half-Blood Prom) with the Landless Theatre Company. She currently plays bass for hardcore punk group Creep Crusades, drums for Los Bombs, guitar for Beatles-themed punk band UK62, and is an aspiring director of photography for film and live music. Jen is endorsed by Blakhart Guitars, and Dead Legends Apparel.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ifeel like music has always been in the forefront of my mind, even at a really young age. My dad is also a musician (guitar and drums), and folks on both sides of my family have some form of art or creative talents. Some of the earliest memories I have of music are perusing the old BMG catalogs for the newest metal and hip-hop cassettes, and being blown away by stuff like Megadeth, Anthrax, Motley Crue. I kind of always knew I wanted to get into music somehow. And by the time I was eleven, I started playing drums in the school orchestra — except I was mostly confined to the ride cymbal because I was terrible on the snare.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

I’m at a loss to find one specific thing that stands out, because it’s been such a wild ride until now. However, the very first performance of Frozty the Abominable Snowman, the flagship rock musical I co-wrote (with Landless Theatre Company AD Andrew Baughman), will forever be burned into my brain. That was the first real moment I said to myself, “holy hell, I did this.” As a 21/22-year-old kid, it was an incredible high.

Another notable time, more on a funny note, was a gig with Like No Tomorrow back in 2004, I believe. We were doing our set as normal, and I happened to be using my wireless pack, so I wandered off into the crowd while playing. Not ten seconds after I stepped off stage, the PA speaker came tumbling down on stage with the stand, right where I would have been standing had I not moved. The punk rock gods were with me that day. Oh, and that gig was also the first date with a then-boyfriend. I used to joke that watching me narrowly get crushed to death is what got me the second date.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Thinking I knew anything about recording and putting a song together. At the time, Acid Pro was the DAW of choice for me, and I fell right into the trap of buying up tons of royalty-free loop sample libraries on CD. Most of my tunes back then were largely built on those loops, and had only minor bits of my own creative influence dabbled in. While I felt super cool at the time — like I was producing something truly ground-breaking, it was the complete opposite. But despite all of that, it really did give me the foundation I needed to grow. Just having the experience of putting something together, eventually unlocked new knowledge.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Lately I’ve been doing a whole lot of writing and recording. Putting out something like 1–3 albums or EPs a year, because I can. Most of the time they don’t have any sort of major marketing, either. They just get released into the wild and whatever happens, happens. But the most interesting thing I’ve been working on lately is regarding Tollywood and Telugu films. Back in January I saw a film called Disco Raja. I had seen some Bollywood films here and there, but nothing from the Telangana region. Something stuck very very deep into my soul that day, because I’ve been absolutely hooked ever since. I’ve been poring over anything I can get my hands on over here. I started writing songs in the style of the music that’s featured in Tollywood films, which was both a huge challenge, but somehow felt completely natural. It’s the most fun I’ve had creating music in years. I’ve since done three tracks, with more on the way. The next goal is to incorporate actual Telugu lyrics and vocals into the songs, and I’ve been in contact with a handful of singers in India that showed interest.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Not directly related to my own musical career, but somewhat adjacent, is the time I met two of my favorite musicians, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz (of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club). Talking Heads have been my favorite band since I was thirteen. Back then, message boards were pretty active, and Chris and Tina were always responding to fans on the Tom Tom Club boards. One day, TTC was due to play the Taste of DC festival. My mom and I got there early, so we could get a spot up front. They got two, maybe three songs in, and all hell broke loose with the weather. Tina had spotted me earlier, as I mentioned on the forums that I’d be there that day. When the set got shut down, they invited us to hang out with the group back on the bus. Seventeen-year-old me hanging out with two of the most influential musical folk I’d had, was indescribable. Sometime after that, they let me come up on stage at the 9:30 Club to play egg shakers on “Take Me to the River.” Another huge first (and last, as I’ve never played 9:30 on my own). To this day I keep in contact with many folks from the band, and I consider them lifelong friends. Some will tell you to never meet your heroes, but there are many more stories like mine where it can be something truly special.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

That’s a tricky one. Especially as we’ve moved into the age of digital everything and streaming everything. I rarely make money with any music I put out. I also don’t tour with my solo acts, so making it up with in-person merch sales is not an option. However, we are also in a time when releasing your own music and being in charge of your own destiny is easier than ever. Major record labels are no longer required to necessarily “make it” as a musician. You can own the rights to everything you do. There are a thousand-and-one articles and e-books on how to be successful, but avoiding burnout really starts with loving what you do. And also, being harshly realistic about it. Even some of the more successful mid-tier bands still have day jobs. But if you don’t honestly enjoy making music, there is no amount of motivation in the world to avoid burnout. Just allow yourself days to relax and not work on anything. Don’t always feel like you have to create, either; let the brain have some reset time before diving back in fresh.

Can you share with our readers any self-care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body, mind or heart to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

I’m probably not the best resource for advice on self-care, as I’m a horrible insomniac, eat trash food most of the time, and don’t work out. However, when I’m not writing music, most of my reset-the-brain activities come in forms of film and video games. I love the escapism of both mediums, but it depends on my needs at the time whether I want to be passive or actively engaging in something. Games allow more frustration to be let out, and film can lull my brain into letting go of everything troubling me and focusing on whatever is happening on screen. Of course, I also do the typical stuff like hanging out with friends and family when a larger emotional need is present. I feel like a lot of creative types are prone to social burnout and drag their feet at going out, but when they do, they end up having a great time. It’s that motivation to leave that can get the best of us. Life’s too short, though. Go out and experience things; you’ll thank yourself later.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Learn music theory and stick with it. It’s my Achilles’ heel. I do everything by ear but can barely read a lick of sheet music.
  2. Stop using those damn loop CDs and write your own loops. At least you’ll be writing your own stuff.
  3. Take vocal lessons. Proper ones. My vocal technique is garbage, and vocal strain happens all-too-easily.
  4. Say goodbye to your money. Music is mostly a labor of love, and an expensive one. Between gear, software, hardware, gas costs and other random factors, it’s not for the faint-of-heart financially.
  5. You’re going to get a lot of negative comments and criticism. Possibly the hardest thing to swallow as a young musician. I’ve never been one to take negativity too seriously and have at times used the most scathing comments I’ve received as actual promotional quotes. I figure, if someone is going to spend that much energy hating me, I might as well use it and get a laugh.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Toquote my favorite film of all time, Rocky Horror Picture Show, “don’t dream it, be it.” Perhaps it’s an overly simplistic statement, but it’s the call-to-action that really speaks to me. I can often get caught up in the what ifs of the present and future, but nothing is going to happen unless I make an effort to do something about it.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Myparents. They have always been incredibly supportive of my musical endeavors, no matter how crazy or outlandish said endeavors have gotten. They were there when I needed my first instruments. They were there when I was doing black-box theatre with six-foot-tall men in mesh bodysuits sitting in their laps in the audience. I very much owe everything to them, and they still continue to support me in this new adventure of exploring other cultural music.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Every. Person. Needs. Affordable. Healthcare. The fact that I even have to say it is a tragedy. Nobody should have to choose between going bankrupt visiting a doctor/filling a prescription or dying. It’s absurd, and something must change. Nearly every American is just one medical emergency away from poverty. It shouldn’t be that way.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Since I’m very hot on the subject right now, I’d have to do the big three of the Tollywood scene that have influenced me in some way: composers Thaman and Devi Sri Prasad, and actor Ravi Teja. The first two, I’d love to pick their brains about their musical processes and what drives them to make the choices they do for song styles for each film. There’s a huge mix of Eastern and Western styles, but keeping the foundation of Indian instruments and themes. And Ravi, his acting performance is the reason I dove head-first into this genre of film. He’s always so much fun to watch on screen, be it slapstick comedy, fight scenes, or dance sequences. I’m now a lifelong fan of the Mass Maharaja.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

http://www.facebook.com/jentononhttp://www.twitter.com/jentonon

http://www.instagram.com/jentonon

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational!

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