An interview with Jason Whelan
By J. Lynn Stapleton
Some twenty-five plus years ago, I attended Gonzaga Regional High School in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where a group of students (Jason Whelan, Arthur O’Brien, John Rowe, Chris Andrews, and Pat Moran) formed a band that occasionally played at school events, mostly playing traditional Newfoundland and Irish folk music. That love for playing music continues to this day.
With the upcoming release of his second solo album, Connection set to debut 2nd January 2016, with a release show in St. John’s towards the end of January, I had the opportunity to do an interview with Jason Whelan.
Jason began playing professionally with Newfoundland blues group, the Roger Howse Band at the age of 17 and has since worked as a founding member of The Punters and Connemara. He’s also worked as a session player and/or producer on projects from artists including The Ennis Sisters, Shannygannock, Pamela Morgan, Matthew Byrne, Arthur O’Brien, Fergus O’Byrne, Jim Joyce, amongst others. His first solo album, “Blur” was released in 2003.
Jason also owns and runs The Sound Solution studio, a digital music production facility in our hometown of St. John’s, NL featuring full-length commercial recording production as well as cd mastering, demo, sound for film and jingle production.
JLS: Traditional Newfoundland music has long been part of our past and will be part of our future. What is it, do you think, that draws people to this genre?
JW: I think it is the depth of story, the varied complexities of the melodies and the abilities for people to recall them and perform them in a very relaxed setting ie just singing at a table etc that ensures they live on and evolve too.
JLS: Newfoundland has such a strong history and connection to folklore and music, especially with regards to Newfoundlanders and the sea and its resources. In Blur (released 2003), you had songs which drew from those ties (‘The Emmigrant from Newfoundland’, ‘Petty Harbour Bait Skiff’ and ‘Stays the Same’), along with some touches along the political (‘’49’). What can you tell us about how this folklore and Newfoundland’s rich history influence continues with your new album?
JW: I think it is hard for me at this point to untangle that element from my playing or singing. Whether the song is actually a traditional song, or an original – the melodies and even my playing will contain it. The guitar solo on one of the songs is very much rooted in Scottish fiddle playing (even though I don’t play fiddle, I do play many Scots pieces on acoustic guitar or mandolin, so it is with an electric guitar solo. Same holds true for Irish or NL pieces a little closer to here). The songs all have those elements – just to different degrees.
JLS: In Blur, your music combines some traditional Newfoundland and Irish tunes (‘Knows Ye Can’t Go Set’), along with some blues (‘Sally Brown’), techno/electronica & traditional blend (‘Exercise ’n Frustration’ – ed note: a favourite of mine), ballads (‘Beeswing’). What can we expect with your second solo album?
JW: Same here BUT… I think I may have pushed it a bit more; there is some more worldbeat (whatever that is) influence here. I think folk music is just a catch all term for whatever local styles are. If you love music and travel, you will take something from every place – perhaps subconsciously, but still it gets inside you. I hope this project is a reflection of me and my influences, but rooted.
JLS: As a musician, what inspires you? Also, who’s music inspires you?
JW: I love different things for different reasons; I love the wizardry of great players – folk, blues, rock, classical etc. BUT I also love simple emotion whether it’s a 2-chord punk band ripping one or a Sean Nos singer from Ireland (old style solo singing in Irish). Emotional delivery for me is important, if you can only play/sing one piece, do it with feeling!
I am inspired moreso these days by people who tend to be balanced in their showcase vs message: Mark Knopfler, Richard Thompson, Ron Sexsmith, Colin Hay, Warren Zevon to name a few that say what they need to and don’t need to overstate or overplay to prove themselves (even though they could).
JLS: Newfoundland has just recently lost one of its beloved singer/songwriters in Ron Hynes, who recently passed away. His songs have been have been covered by many artists the world over. Two of my favourites of his are ‘The St. John’s Waltz’, and ‘Atlantic Blue’ (about the Ocean Ranger disaster). Which songs in particular of his stays with you and why?
JW: Ron Hynes was, and IS an incredible influence here and will be for some time. Like fine Scotch, some of his that I like best – I never liked at first, to be honest – until they sank in. But there are favs that I liked from the first listen – ‘Away’, ‘Man of a 1000 songs’ (which is eerily autobiographical for Ron), and ‘Final Breath’ (from Secret Nation). I also loved when Ron did Johnny Burke songs; Burke was kind of the Ron of the earlier century, and I feel Ron had a connection to him via his songs.
JLS: You’ve worked with many local musicians, including Shannygannock, Pamela Morgan, The Punters, The Ennis Sisters. What other artists that you would love to work with, that you haven’t yet?
JW: I would love to work (and I hope I will) with the above again, and anyone else here locally that thinks I could bring something out in their songs as producer, tech or player. I would really like to do another compilation project like We Will Remain which I produced in 1998/99 to mark the 50 years of Confederation. Those projects are not cheap to produce as there are numerous acts and much time involved, but I think they allow everyone involved to shine through AND produce a project that may last as a cultural reference – sometimes well into the future. I think I should get that going as soon as I catch my breath from this one. haha…
JLS: Aside from your second solo album, what else have you been working on recently?
JW: A number of studio projects have come through here in the last few months, including a Christmas EP from Matthew Byrne and a stellar release from his brother Allan’s group Bluedrop – we have some projects booked tentative now for early Jan- I’ll keep you posted on progress and releases!
Blur is currently available in the iTunes Store and in Google Play Music, and on CD.
Jason Whelan’s studio contact information for rates, bookings, or more info…
I like this interview it gives you a very good idea of what goes into recording an album. I like that he talks about singing old Irish tunes, those are some of my favorites. I always look forward to finding a new singer like that.