|Jonathan Rundman may be the definitive indie folk
artist. On his own, he makes his living doing one thing: playing music. With a critically
acclaimed CD, an ongoing tour, and a growing fan base, he doesn't mind...
Goin' It Alone... For Now
by Tim McMahan
are a lot of definitions of the term "indie artist."
Most involve a glamorous
image of a hearty punk rock bands living out of a van as they travel from town to town,
playing for a handful of locals who don't have a clue who they are. Their tour lasts a few
months, if the money holds out, and then the band heads home, goes back to work at the
record store or guitar shop, and talks about the next tour or CD until they get into their
30s and realize that it's time to grow up.
Then there's Jonathan Rundman.
Hardly glamorous punk rock material, the 27-year-old Chicagoan's music more resembles
the folk pop balladry of Freedy Johnston or Joe Henry. He's been on the road for more than
two years supporting his latest CD, Recital, released way back in 1997. It
continues to be the horse that pulls Rundman's wagon, a filly that he still believes in
despite its ripe ol' age. With nothing but his guitar, Rundman will bring the Recital tour
to Omaha this weekend.
said he embraces his indie-artist legacy because he doesn't have a choice. "I'm my
own label, booking manager, roadie and publicist," Rundman said from his home in
Chicago via phone. "It's all by necessity. I suppose if I got a call from Warner
Bros. tomorrow, I'd let them take it all over, but I like not having to give money to
anyone else. This is my only job; I have to make a living doing it."
Rundman's music has the same unfortunate quality of acts like Tommy Keene, Michael Penn
and Freedy Johnston. They all fall under the same singer/songwriter/pop-folk category. All
are darlings of the critics, bedded down in a blanket of rave reviews and notices. And all
are virtually unknown to radio, MTV and the listening public at large, who never heard of
these guys and probably never will.
Rundman said he can handle the anonymity as long as he has a following and can put food
on the table. "My goal with Recital wasn't to get major label
attention," he said. "My goal was to put these songs out for people to hear. I'm
finding that I have a little bit of a problem defining my audience. I know the album is
good, I get good reviews -- musicians and critics like it -- but the average person
walking down the street doesn't get it."
hard to understand what they "don't get" about Recital. Its 17 tracks
of bright, Midwestern-flavored folk pop weave a wary songwriter's vision of suburban
America. Rundman's slightly nasal, high-end voice is at first whiny, then subtly charming,
and ultimately engaging, as he sings songs about meeting President Nixon or the thrill of
listening to his friends' private cassette recordings, all the while backed by simple
acoustic instruments. Songs like "Nothing Old, Nothing New," Rundman's ode to
suburbia, and "Some Attention," a look at life outside the spotlight, sport the
same clever lyrical turns that were the hallmark of '80s new-wave folk legends Timbuk 3
both share the same sense of irony about everyday life. Taken as a whole, Recital
stirs memories of '80s simple-pleasure acoustic-driven pop bands like the
dBs, the Del Fuegos, the BoDeans or the Windbreakers, and if you get those references, you shouldn't
miss this guy.
Rundman said he loves his life as an independent musician, a traveling minstrel of
sorts trying to win over crowds one listener at a time. "Making a living playing
music has been a dream since I was a kid," he said. "The only reason I can
afford to do this is because I'm a solo artist; there's no way I could pay an entire
He said years on the road have taught him that the most lucrative gigs aren't
necessarily the most glamorous. "If I open for a big national band, I'm only going to
get a few bucks," he said, "while playing for a convention (he's playing one
while in Omaha, which is paying for his trip), I can take in $600 for a half an hour. You
find ways to pay the bills. Colleges are great, for instance, because they usually can
provide a dorm room and a meal ticket."
Yes, it all sounds like groveling, and based on Recital, there's little
question that Rundman deserves better. He's no martyr, though; he'd take the big label
deal if he ever gets his shot. "After a review in Billboard magazine (for Recital),
I got phone calls from Warner Bros, MCA, all these big labels," he said. "I was
thrilled. I sent out copies of the CD to their A&R people and they seemed to like it,
but the general reaction was that I should keep doing what I'm doing."
The next round of label talks could take place by year-end, when Rundman releases a new
CD on his Salt Lady Records label. "I wouldn't be surprised if in a year or two they
come knocking," he said. "I think about performers like Shawn Colvin, who played
for 10 years without anything happening. I'm a great bet for a label. What do they have to
lose with me? I don't need a van, bus or lightshow. I'm low maintenance."
Originally printed in The Reader April 8, 1999.
Copyright © 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
"I suppose if I got a call from
Warner Bros. tomorrow, I'd let them take it all over, but I like not having to give money
to anyone else. This is my only job; I have to make a living doing it."