Author (Still) Unknown: The Brilliant Music and Star-Crossed Career of Jason Falkner

If you amassed a decent music collection during the '90s and '00s, then there's a good chance you own at least one record on which Jason Falkner has played, written or produced.
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If you amassed a decent music collection during the '90s and '00s, then there's a good chance you own at least one record on which Jason Falkner has played, written or produced. The guy has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to Beck to Cheap Trick to Air to Brendan Benson to Daniel Johnston, and that's just scratching the surface. Play "Six Degrees Of Falkner Separation" and you can probably come up with any pop musician of the last twenty years -- I tried it and even made a connection to a friend's drummer ex-boyfriend. If Falkner was merely a session musician, he'd have a resume he could be proud of, and a waiting list of potential clients.

Problem is, he doesn't like playing sideman for other people. He's an astoundingly gifted and creative singer/songwriter/performer in his own right, one of the foremost practitioners of the guitar-based, melody and harmony-happy genre known as power pop. If you like the Beatles, or XTC, or ELO, or Big Star -- any pop music with strong melodies and intelligent lyrics, really -- then Jason Falkner belongs in your pantheon of faves.

He's also an artist whose solo career is in such a shambles that he's had to plead with fans to not buy his records (more on that later). The man hasn't toured the East Coast for more than a decade, for the simple reason that nobody's offering him money to do so.

In the late '80s, when Falkner started making music full-time, his promise and potential were unlimited. The first ten years of his career seemed to bring one can't-miss opportunity after another -- as he puts it, "'This is gonna be huge. Hold on, it's gonna get crazy!' You hear that more than once." Raised as a classically trained child prodigy pianist, he first made waves as a teenager with a brief stint in the L.A. "paisley underground" band The Three O'Clock, and by age 21 he'd joined power pop cult faves Jellyfish.

The timing was right -- Falkner was in the fold during Jellyfish's brief commercial heyday, complete with MTV play, encouraging record sales and sold out gigs -- but it was the wrong band for his budding songwriting talents. " The split was really acrimonious," he says. "At least on my part. Because [when] I joined that band, I was under the impression that they were gonna let me collaborate, and write.... I was hoping to contribute." Falkner didn't get a songwriting credit or a lead vocal on Jellyfish's hit album Bellybutton, and quit shortly thereafter. For years afterward, he remembers, "I couldn't even go to a marine exhibit, you know, because if there was a threat of hearing that word, then I would just maybe punch the nearest person."

In the early '90s, an informal jam session with fellow power popster Jon Brion and a couple of other musicians somehow led to a major label bidding war -- for a band that didn't yet exist. Falkner was reluctant. "I mean, I was just like, 'Look, I just got out of a very unhealthy band situation. I don't want to be in a band, man. I was just jamming! What the fuck!' But all of a sudden, now there's all this pressure, and the prospect of money, and making a record, real soon."

The promise of success won out over his misgivings, and the band, dubbed The Grays, soon signed to Epic Records. But despite a ton of pre-release buzz, especially in their hometown of Los Angeles, their lone album, 1994's Ro Sham Bo, sank without a trace and the group parted ways in short order.

The upside of the Grays' breakup was that it finally gave Falkner a chance to get his solo career off the ground. To avoid dealing with intra-band squabbles and to ensure complete control over his music, he decided to record all the instruments himself, as a one-man band of sorts. He doesn't do it in a gimmicky fashion, either -- unless you're a careful reader of his CD booklets, you'd never know he's not playing with a band. "I love building a song up from nothing and jumping from one instrument to another," he says. "I feel that recording a song already compromises the magical music one can create in the mind, so the fewer people watering down this process the better."

Falkner signed with Elektra Records in 1996. Fifteen years later, he looks back on this period with something approaching wonder. "I was just like, I know this is gonna be a great record. Because I'd been waiting my whole life to make it.... I was just totally on fire."

The mid and late '90s were a golden age for power pop. The Posies, Owsley, Candy Butchers, You Am I, Redd Kross, Fountains Of Wayne and countless others were all making amazing records and, in many cases, getting signed by major record labels -- who had no idea what to do with them or how to get their music out to a wider audience. The two albums Jason Falkner made for Elektra, Presents Author Unknown (1996) and Can You Still Feel? (1999), are among the best of the lot, and they're up there with the best records of the '90s in any genre. They combine classic '60s songcraft, elements of '70s glam-rock, and the new-wave sheen of the '80s, but wind up sounding completely contemporary. Crunchy rockers and gorgeous ballads, hooks and harmonies, Falkner's records seemed to have something for everyone, and critics went nearly universally ga-ga for them.

The one thing they didn't have was a song that could fit on increasingly narrow radio playlists, as alternative rock gave way to frothy dance-pop. Case in point: "Eloquence," the single from Can You Still Feel? It's a stately, power chord-laden, midtempo tune that recalls Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, along with more than a hint of "All The Young Dudes," the '70s rock classic written by David Bowie and made famous by Mott The Hoople. It was a great song then, and it's a great song today. But sounding like the Beatles and Mott The Hoople wasn't going to fly with radio stations who wanted more songs that sounded like N'Sync or Christina Aguilera. And that's why music fans of a certain age can hum the chorus of "Genie In A Bottle" but have probably never heard "Eloquence."

An assortment of record company snafus dogged Falkner throughout his tenure with the label he calls "Neglektra." The week he started recording Author Unknown, his A&R rep and his biggest supporter at the label was fired. As he recalls, "I always thought, well, somebody's gonna take care of it, it doesn't matter. I mean, he's not gonna make the music, I am." But by the time the album was ready for release, "I think 80% of the label didn't know that I was making a record for Elektra." Despite his videogenic good looks, he was never given the green light to make a video in his five years at the label.

For his first tour, he was persuaded to go on the road without a band, doing a solo acoustic opening slot for Suzanne Vega. At his showcase gig for the label in New York, he says, "I remember my head of A&R coming in and going, 'That was amazing.' And she goes, 'This is great, because you don't need to bring a band on the road!' And I was like, "Yeah, well, I mean, I want to bring a band on the road." I want it to sound like the sound that I get [on record]. Even though I'm playing all the instruments, it sounds like a full band.

"So I've often said that having such a great solo show in front of the entire Elektra staff in New York City was an absolute shot in the foot, because they wouldn't give me tour support for a band. And that right there is indicative of the lack of support, both financially and on every level. I just kind of knew that it was downhill from there."

In 2001, after five years of frustration on both sides, Elektra finally decided to part ways with Falkner. A few months later, as he tells it, "I got a call from my manager.... And he goes, 'Well, it's kind of jerky, but when you got dropped from Elektra, um, they hadn't paid the European tour you did right before getting dropped. It was put on your personal credit card.' So they left me with a $40,000 debt. And I'm in my 20s, and I have no job and no label."

Fortunately, he did have a reputation among his fellow musicians, including Beck, who asked Falkner to work on his 2002 album, Sea Change. The work helped him pay off his debt -- and led him to abandon his own career in favor of more lucrative sideman and producing jobs. Between 2000 and 2007, he only released one EP of new material. Asked why he stopped recording and performing as a frontman, he says, "I didn't think there was enough of a reason, because I didn't think anybody cared. So I was really bummed out about my own career."

Falkner played and toured with the French band Air for 2 1/2 years, and recorded with Aimee Mann, Brendan Benson, Travis and Lisa Loeb, to name just a few. He even collaborated with Babyface on the ill-fated soundtrack for the movie version of Josie & The Pussycats. One of the highlights of his career was working with Paul McCartney -- one of his lifelong idols -- on Sir Paul's 2005 album, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard.

In the studio with McCartney, he remembers, "I was trying out guitar amps -- we were just walking around with my guitar cord, plugging it into amps and trying to get the right sound. Just jokingly, I started playing 'Paperback Writer,' the beginning. And Paul's like, 'Oh, Jase, you know that? You know, I played that. Let me show you how it went.' And he leaned over my shoulder and put his arm around me on the other side. And he was like, 'I'm a lefty, so this is kind of tricky, but here's how you play that.' And he showed me how you play it, and it's totally different than how I was playing it. And I was just like, 'Wow, I don't know how that eluded me for so long. But I knew I was never playing it right.' He was like, 'Yeah, you've gotta have the G string ringing the whole time.' It was so cool."

Falkner never stopped working on his own material, but he'd stopped trying to find a commercial outlet for it. "I can't say that I knocked on every door," he says, "but the few that I did, didn't respond the way I wanted them to, so I think it was kind of disenchanting enough for me to go back to being subterranean." It took a small Japanese label, Noise McCartney Records, to get him interested in putting out his own records again.

"They bugged me," he says. "They beat me into submission. And they also offered me money! It was very little money, and I said, double that. I thought they'd say, 'Well, we can't, we're a little label in Tokyo, struggling for our survival.' But they said, 'Done.' And I was like, all of a sudden, now I have to hand them a record. So I kind of tidied up everything I was working on."

That record, I'm OK... You're OK, came out in Japan in 2007, but didn't see the light of day in the States until earlier this year -- by which time Falkner had already released another Japan-only record, All Quiet On The Noise Floor. To try and prevent his fans from scooping up the import -- which would cannibalize the American sales he'd need to do a Stateside tour -- he actually had to post a message on his fan-run website asking his fans to not buy the album until it was released domestically.

In addition to telling his fans not to buy his records, Falkner also has to explain to them why he won't be coming to play in their towns anytime soon. Apart from the occasional gig in his hometown of Los Angeles, Falkner sightings in the U.S. and Europe are rarer than hen's teeth. In New York, for example, since 2000 he's played one show as a headliner and another as an opening act. It's not that he doesn't want to play, as he's quick to explain. "I get people getting really mad at me on Facebook and things -- people are, like, angry.... I guess I would be, too, and I appreciate it. I'd rather have people mad at me than not care. I'm like, I don't have a deal. I don't have any money.... I need to be paid, or else I'm gonna go play with Ryan Adams. The only reason I go to Japan so much is that they pay me."

It's enough to drive a lesser artist to start writing commercial jingles, or at least go the Aimee Mann route and write lots of bitter songs about the music business. Somehow, Falkner's work avoids the cliches of the bitter should-have-been-star. "There's a lot of anger that can seep into my life," he admits. "The cool thing is that the anger never really seeps into my process when I'm writing a song. You will hear tinges of 'Why is it like this? Why can't we all be like this?' But I will always offer a utopian [alternative] - or at least try to."

After a decade in the musical wilderness, 2010 seems to be the year that Falkner's luck is changing for the better. Three years after it came out in Japan, I'm OK... You're OK is out in the States, with different artwork and a couple of extra tracks. It's garnered the usual truckload of positive reviews in the indie press and on the blogosphere -- words like "brilliant" and "gorgeous" have been used to describe it. Later this summer, the catching-up process will be completed when All Quiet On The Noise Floor sees domestic release.

The music on those records is, stylistically, pretty consistent with that of his '90s records, even with the long layoff. Many of the tracks have a longer running time, and the production is a little more fleshed out in places, but his gift for irresistible hooks and melodies is still 100% there. One listen and it's obvious that these are classic Jason Falkner songs -- no arty experiments or genre-hopping for him.

Falkner says he does it that way on purpose. "I feel like I kind of caught on to something really young, that's just been kind of morphing and changing a little bit, but is still intact.... I don't feel chained to that, but I do feel like I don't want to forget that. There's a lot of influences that can be heard in my style. But there's also something that's uniquely mine, and that's something where I feel like, if I consciously said, 'Hey, I'm gonna try something really different now,' I feel like I might lose that. So I'm kind of guarded, you know? And I treat it with respect, whatever this weird, intangible burning thing is."

Falkner is also planning an American tour, his first since 1999. He played with Cheap Trick on their tour earlier this year, and wound up opening a few shows for them with former Jellyfish bandmate Roger Manning, including a rare New York appearance at Irving Plaza. Even though Falkner only played a couple of his own songs and they didn't even use a drummer in their set, you wouldn't have known it from the audience's manic reaction. It seemed to even shock Falkner himself, who issued a bewildered "Holy crap!" after the first song.

More than twenty years into his career, Falkner has finally accepted his status as a cult artist. "I guess I had to disassociate myself from, to truly let go, of the idea of the mainstream," he says. "Like really, just finally go, 'That's not important.'... Yes, I was devastated that I wasn't more successful. But I always gravitated more towards things that were, like, beyond obscure. The obscure, unsung, unknown thing that's good. So when I started seeing that I was becoming one [of them], it was really surreal, but it was also kind of satisfying.

"I can be kind of self-effacing and stuff, but the reality is that it's caused me a lot more grief than I let on - my whole story with the music business. I'm not really that happy with how things have turned out. But I definitely hold out hope."

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