“I read a lot of literature about the underground indie rock scene as a teenager and saw about tape compilations, and so I was like, ‘I wanna do that!’” Jon Ehrens recalls. “I tried to put out a tape comp, but I didn’t know enough people to fill out a comp, so that’s when I started making fake bands, so that it’d seem like it was a bigger deal.”
The first compilation that the Bethesda native, now 26, assembled in high school was just the beginning of a decade of fake bands, genre pastiches, bizarre high-concept songwriting exercises, and attempts to capture the DIY spirit of movements that had come and gone before his time. Dozens of bands, most of them self-recorded with Ehrens playing all the instruments, spanned power pop (the Anywhere), surf guitar instrumentals (the Hypnic Jerks), folk music (Factoid of the Dustbowl), avant-garde collages (the Sword Swallow), and countless variations on lo-fi indie and garage rock.
And yet the most high-profile Ehrens project to date, the self-titled debut album by White Life out earlier this month on Baltimore label Ehse Records, is a bit of a departure even from his varied earlier work. With slick synths, funky basslines, drum machine beats, and soulful vocals by his sister Emily Ehrens, White Life’s songs flirt with campy retro in their appropriations of 1980s pop and R&B, but hold together beautifully with Ehrens’ increasingly confident songcraft, and some of his most somber, dramatic lyrics to date. “I actually wrote all the words for the record in one day at this restaurant,” he says in April at a midtown eatery during a brief visit home from Los Angeles, where he’s been staying the last few months. “I was really fuckin’ depressed, and I came here and had coffee.”
A few weeks later, however, the songs felt cathartic and celebratory at the album’s release party at Soft House (White Life’s third show ever, even counting a brief and hastily assembled set at last year’s Whartscape). He danced through the crowd between verses, and both Ehrens siblings confidently belted big pop hooks over programmed beats, accompanied by a small backing band including Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner, who provided harmonies and production on the White Life album. That night also saw the live debut of Flock of Dimes, Wasner’s new solo project, for which Jon Ehrens joined her on bass for a couple of songs. Wasner and Ehrens have two more projects on the horizon: an improv session with Lexie Macchi (disclosure: City Paper Music Editor Michael Byrne’s housemate) and Nate Nelson that may be released on cassette under the name Poof Sounds, and a songwriting collaboration as Dungeonesse that’s being planned as a series of 7-inch singles.
Until recently, ideas like those would’ve been simply pipe dreams for Ehrens, whose music didn’t often reach far beyond his immediate circle of friends and collaborators. His first attempt at a compilation birthed an online label, Mobile Lounge Records, through which he self-released three albums by his longest running solo project, Repelican, while several “bands” existed as nothing more than a handful of songs on a MySpace page.
The Mobile Lounge release that proved to be an unlikely breakthrough was a 2005 album by an imaginary ’80s indie outfit called the Art Department, featuring rapid finger-picked guitar lines and a bizarre high-pitched vocal style. But a few of Ehrens’ friends liked the songs enough to help fill out a live trio, which toured several times and recorded a second Art Department album, last year’s Paperwork/Birdwork, for Gen Pop Records, the first of his projects released by an outside label. “For the first time ever, I can actually make my ideas come into fruition and people are willing to put things out at this point, which is kind of crazy,” Ehrens says.
The son of a professional jingle writer, Ehrens has what may be in part a genetically inherited gift for cramming naggingly catchy tunes into just a minute or two, no matter how lo-fi or idiosyncratic. “This idea of starting a hit factory Dr. Luke-style, that’s my overall career ambition,” he says. That dream may sound far-fetched, but it feels much less so after White Life. The album was recorded at Beat Babies studio with veteran Baltimore indie rock/rap/pop misfits Chris and Mickey Freeland, and was by Ehrens’ standards an elaborate production, with long hours of finessing the tracks and getting perfect vocal takes.
“I definitely have never really sang before,” he says. “That was the hardest part, probably. The people in the studio were kind of like my support group. I’d be like, ‘This sucks, I can’t sing,’ and they’d be like, ‘No no no, you’re good, you can sing.”
But those hard-won performances on White Life songs like “Time Is Wasting” and “I Don’t Wanna Have to Make You Love Me” probably wouldn’t have been possible without all those years of adopting strange voices and playing characters in Ehrens’ home recordings, as much as he admits some embarrassment about the rawness of that early work. “It took me forever to realize the difference between screaming and singing,” he says. “I liked the Pixies and stuff so much as a teenager, it was just sort of like, ‘What do you do when you have a guitar? You go ahhhhh.’”
The recording debut of Emily Ehrens is, in some ways, the real revelation of the White Life album. For years, she had suggested that her younger brother give her something to sing, but it wasn’t until he started writing synthy confections like “I Want Love” and “Real Things” that he was ready to take her up on the offer. “Part of the reason I involved my sister was because when I was a kid, I didn’t know that much about music and she’d play Tiffany records, Debbie Gibson, and the Go-Go’s,” he says. “I wanted to bring that full circle, I guess.” After years of making odd little recordings and not being sure what his parents thought of them, he’s now made something that seems to reach across generational lines. “It’s a whole family affair,” he says. “All my parents’ friends are into it, it’s really funny.”
He’s been spending most of his time in Los Angeles in recent months, where he has been in a professional big-budget studio for the first time, entertaining some of those hitmaker aspirations. He has hours of unreleased songs, and at this point it seems equally possible that they come out on cassette via small local labels, end up in the hands of a famous pop singer, or remain on his hard drive. “Cleaning ’em up and retracking ’em and rewriting the lyrics, I’ve definitely thought a lot about that,” he says. “There’s a few that I have some funny ideas for, changing them to be more like Lady Gaga songs or Katy Perry songs.” But beneath the playful nature of much of his music and the obsessive drive to make so much of it, what’s guiding Ehrens might best be described as fearlessness, a willingness to let some of his experiments crash and burn: “I’m totally prepared for failure.”
Check City Paper’s music blog, Noise, at citypaper.com/noise this week for an extensive survey of the many bands of Jon Ehrens, featuring a streaming mixtape.