My first encounter with Justin Fernandez was about 15 years ago at Vino's. He was in a band called Bumfish, a group of mostly Parkview kids, and it was one of the first local shows I'd seen as a somewhat sheltered youth-group-attending, well-behaved kid who'd recently gotten a driver's license and heard about the band from a friend. I remember thinking they were "punk rock" and "fun" — so, pretty much all a 16-year-old could ask for.
Later, while in college at Fayetteville, Fernandez founded Tel Aviv, which had a more angsty, post-punk sound and played frequently around the Fayetteville-Conway-Little Rock circuit in the early-mid 2000s. He then moved to Chicago to be a professional cartographer, and started making music in a loft apartment by himself, releasing a string of singles and EPs that showed a gradual progression from offbeat lo-fi pop to more finely crafted and fully formed pop songs.
A full-length album, "Many Levels of Laughter," was released in June via Joyful Noise Recordings. The music is personal and dreamy, sprawling out over the varied landscapes of psychedelia and indie-pop. Listening to the record is like looking out of an unfamiliar window, though the lyrics tend to focus inward, grounded in personal experience and introverted struggles with communication and relationships.
It's gained a fair amount of critical attention and acclaim, leading the seminal UK music magazine NME to ask, "Is J Fernandez America's Next Great Singer-Songwriter?" I spoke with Fernandez in October while he was still in Chicago before leaving for his current European tour.
Sorry, I have to ask: How did it feel to read "IS J. FERNANDEZ AMERICA'S NEXT GREAT SINGER SONGWRITER?" in a major music publication?
It's absurd. I remember going to a bar that night, and everyone was giving me shit for that. There are some people out there who I consider to be undeniably good, and I don't feel like I'm one of them. I feel like I'm making songs in the same way that someone who makes furniture would craft something. They're not trying to break new ground; they're just trying to do a great job at what they do. [The NME article] is awesome in a way, but I don't know that it's true. For my family, though, who always ask about my music, having an article like that will definitely help give some legitimacy to what I'm doing. I can say, "Hey, Dad, check this out."
One of the first local shows I ever went to was your old band Bumfish at Vino's. I remember being excited that people in Little Rock were playing live music. Can you talk a little about your early bands?
I've been playing music since I was about 7. When I first started playing in bands, I had no clue what I was doing. I think every instance of me writing music is just me going through some sort of phase. When I was 12 to 17 that was when I realized that there was music happening in Little Rock, and that changed everything for me. Before that, all I listened to was really bad alternative rock. The people who played music in Little Rock at the time — bands like Ho-Hum, Magic Cropdusters, Soophie Nun Squad — they opened up a whole new world for me, and us getting to play music when we were that young with Bumfish was us wanting to be like those bands. I think we probably annoyed everyone when we played. I would have been so annoyed with us back then. Our songs were stupid, simple pop songs, but I was just learning how to write, just sort of copying what I heard.
I think I've always been trying to do the same thing, but I've gone through different phases, where I'll listen to something new that shows me a new way to think about pop music. I remember seeing the [Little Rock] band Chinese Girls and wanting to work on new ideas. When I moved to Fayetteville, and started working on Tel Aviv, we were trying to use our instruments in different ways, still trying to write pop music but pop that was a little darker.
I think my records now are sort of a continuation of that. When I first started in Chicago, I didn't have anyone to play music with. I wanted to see if I could do everything by myself. With the early stuff the instrumentation is crude and the recordings are sloppier. But I've always just been trying to make interesting pop music.
Why did you end up moving to Chicago? Do you think you could have been as successful playing here?
I could have made this music when I was living in Little Rock. It would have been easier even — not to have to pay rent, to be able live with my parents. Maybe I'd have about three records by now if I had done that. I moved to Chicago mainly because of a job. I never thought there was anything lacking in Little Rock and Arkansas. Whenever I come back home, I feel like there is always something interesting going on. And I'll talk to people from other cities, and they'll mention bands or shows from Little Rock — everyone seems to have connections there from all over the country.
I've read that you're a big fan of [Guided By Voices frontman] Robert Pollard. Me, too. What do you take away from his music and how does it influence you?
When I started recording this project, I was trying not to dwell too much on the details, and to just let the songs come out. [Pollard] is a guy who can just do that. Whenever I think of people who just write as much as possible, he is a perfect example of someone who comes up with ideas, records them at that moment, and then they turn out so good. They're well-crafted pop songs but also really organic — it never feels overworked at all, and it seems so easy for him.
I was striving for that at first, but I'm not sure if I ended up with that. Some of the first things I recorded for the album were more in that realm. Sometimes I'll be at my workspace and it will all come together in an hour, but most of the time I don't feel like I work like that. It's more like I have to force myself, and that's become more of the way I do things. I don't really believe in getting inspired, that romantic idea of someone getting inspired and writing this thing from nothing. I believe I have to put in the work for it, that I'm going to sit here for an hour and keep working on it until I feel like I have something. I wish I could write like him, but for me it's usually more of the opposite.
Do you ever have a problem deciding when something's finished?
Yeah, I have a lot of trouble with that. I just have to set a deadline.
Listening to the album, I can hear some lyrical themes that emerge — like misunderstandings and communication failures, especially in "Read My Mind."
Yeah, at the time I had been dealing with these issues in most of my relationships — including friends and work. That song is about getting to a point where you're in a relationship and it's pretty serious, but things might not be going so well in both of your lives, and there can be this barrier sometimes. When you're living with someone, you see them every day and there's tension that you don't ever want to talk about. There are things that you're trying to communicate, and they're trying to communicate, and you expect the other person to pick up on this stuff, but no one is really communicating.
It's a theme that comes up a lot in my life. I don't feel like I'm the most expressive person. People say I'm hard to read, but I don't think of myself that way. I don't feel like I'm trying to hold back any emotion. It's something that I've realized in the past couple years: that I have to tell people what I want, how I feel, etc. I feel like most of the relationships I have are built around working together, and communicating that way is where I [feel comfortable]: What are we going to work on? What are we making together? Trying to communicate outside that realm is something I've had to work on.
I heard you were making maps as a day job?
I'm working at an ad agency now, but for a while I was making maps for Rand McNally. I studied geography when I was in college; cartography was kind of appealing because there was this objective data, a science-related side of things, but there was also this whole creative side of it that was subjective, having to deal with visual hierarchies and graphic design.
Do you like working at an ad agency?
Yeah, it's interesting to manipulate these huge amounts of data for marketing purposes. There's so much data that all these companies collect from us now, people are always looking for how to make sense of it, so I've been helping to plot that data, looking at which people make a certain amount of money, who finishes college, between what ages, etc. But, I'm going to be leaving this job soon, heading on tour for about three months. They've been pretty flexible with me working remotely, coming in when I can, but three months is too long of a break.
How do you feel about quitting your job to go on tour?
I'm worried about what's going to happen afterwards, but it's not the first time I've had to make this kind of decision. Working with other musicians, I feel surrounded by people who have to do temp work, who don't usually hold a job for a long time. You get used to routines that you have, but sometimes you have to break them. I've always had on and off periods, where I was working for a while and unemployed for a while.
Where all will you be playing?
We'll be on tour throughout the East Coast, then to Europe for a month, then in December some West Coast dates, but we're trying to come through Arkansas at the very end. It's my first time touring Europe — we're going to play several shows in the U.K., at the Primavera [Sound Music Festival] in Spain, and different festivals throughout. I'm going to try to record in a studio in London for a couple days, while I'm visiting friends there.
Anything else in the works? A new album?
I would like to have something ready for next year, but I'm not sure if it will be possible. I have songs that I'm ready to work on. I get tired of the songs that I have pretty quickly. I need to start writing new ones soon, because you can really suck the life out of your songs going on tour.