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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

There 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.

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He 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."

 

It's 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 band."

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."


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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."