“This album is actually the self”

Jonny Pierce’s incredible new record is one of hurt, joy, love, abuse, trauma, gentleness, isolation, transcendance
By J.L. Sirisuk | Music | 11 October 2023

“It felt like a rebirth for me. I was at my core,” The Drums‘ Jonny Pierce tells us of making his sixth, eponymous studio record, Jonny. Made during an isolated period spent in a cabin in upstate New York, the album sees Pierce present himself raw, emotional, vulnerable, open.

Within this, the musician addresses the childhood trauma experienced growing up in a strict cult-like religious community and the emotional shadow this cast on his life. The album artwork features a self-portrait of Pierce completely naked, bent over in a prayer pose in his childhood home – he snuck in through his old bedroom window while his parents were at Sunday morning service. “It’s different parts of the house where there was abuse happening or a traumatic moment happened,” he shares, having taken similar images in different rooms associated with negative memories. “When I look back, I feel there is something about reclaiming power in the spaces where I was so powerless.” Through conquering the darkness, Pierce finds hope, joy, and a powerful sense of self-love through a reclamation of his inner power.

Throughout the record, The Drums’ sonic identity ripples with drum machines, synthesizers and glistening guitars – raucous, meditative, and serene all at once. Jonny is a testament to loving all sides of the self – to looking back at the broken parts that cried for love, parts that ached to the core, parts that built a fortress of armour. It is on this record that the walls have been removed, and with gentleness, serenity, and love, Pierce unveils and honours the experiences that have made him who he is. This record is an ode to the human heart.

J.L. Sirisuk: This album was very moving to me. It’s a real testament to loving all the self, in all its beauty and pain. What was its initial point of conception?
Jonny Pierce: I didn’t have that moment where I knew what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to do it. This album started on its own, and I was just there to experience it. It was the height of the pandemic in 2020, very early on. Covid had just hit New York City. I happen to have a small little cabin in upstate New York that I had bought ten years prior, and I rarely ever got up there. But I thought, “Oh, I have that little spot. I’ll go up there and hide away for a couple of weeks until this all blows over.” I found myself staying for over a year. It was the first time in my life that I experienced stillness, calm, and quiet. It was scary for the first couple of months. I realised that it was so scary because I had never been in that space. All I knew from childhood was learning to survive. For me, surviving meant keeping things moving, keeping one foot ahead of the other. I was on this treadmill of survival as a child, a teenager and as a young adult. When I got through those first couple of months, I came out of this tunnel and found myself noticing the small, sweet things around me. Like the trees. I’d go for walks in the woods and go for swims every morning, and I got an eight-week-old puppy. She taught me a lot about love and trust. When I first started therapy, my therapist asked me at the very end of the session, “What do you think about being gentle with yourself?” Gentle? Over the course of a few years, I learned what that meant. It gave me a lot of space and time to be able to go into that gentle, tender space. It felt like a rebirth for me. I was at my core and not having the distraction of being on tour, and not having the distraction of doing interviews, whatever this life entails. It was me in the woods, and my puppy. I decided that I wanted to start making music, but I didn’t have an album in mind.

“There were a bunch of churches in the town, but all the churches called our church the “weird church.””

JLS: Did you just start writing lyrics?
JP: I started writing music lyrics, but the difference was, in the past – from my very first album all the way to my most recent – I had a real Puritan work ethic. I worked very hard, not many breaks at all. I didn’t let the albums breathe when I was making them. I had this idea in my head that I was a good songwriter as long as I could sit down and write a bunch of songs effortlessly and quickly. I’m proud of a lot of the work that I’ve put out, but I feel like I paid a price for being so hard on myself, there was a lot of pressure that didn’t necessarily need to be there. With this album, the one rule I had was: don’t write unless your whole body is saying to do it. There wasn’t a single time when I sat down or I didn’t feel that pull to do it, and that’s a huge difference. I would work on music that I viewed as if someone had given me this big block of marble from the mountains, and I had a tiny little chisel. Depending on how I was feeling, I’d approach this marble block and chisel just a little bit. Letting it be sweet, more tender, more gentle. Over the course of a few years of starting, I had written a whole bunch of songs. My management asked if I had anything they could hear, and I said, “I have this folder of songs. I certainly don’t have an album and these are just random songs.” I sent them over to them and they called me right away and said, “These are the best songs you’ve ever written.” I had never once thought of these songs together. They all had different voices, and some of them even seemed to conflict with each other. One is about desperately needing love. Another is about feeling strong enough in yourself. I suddenly saw it. I was like, “Wow, this is a reflection of all the parts of me.”

JLS: All the parts of the self.
JP: That are at odds with each other sometimes. One is really hopeful, one is kind of defeatist, one is joyful. The other part is always longing for something more. It’s all there, and it’s all really beautiful. I thought, “This album is actually the self.” This is why I called it Jonny.

JLS: Is there anything you would like to share about your experiences growing up in upstate NY that influenced any of the tracks?
JP: I was born into a family that was deeply religious, sort of a fundamentalist family, but leaning a little bit more cultish. There were a bunch of churches in the town, but all the churches called our church the “weird church.” My father and mother were head pastors of the church, so we were expected to be there all the time. The house I grew up in was on church property. My whole life, we were homeschooled and kept away from anything but the church. It’s a very insular space and within that, there was a lot of abuse. I felt very unloved as a child, and on top of that, I am gay. When I discovered that about myself, it took an impossible situation and just made it worse. My only option was to leave. So I ran away to New York City with some songs in my pocket. I had burned a little CD of about eighteen songs that I’d written in my bedroom, and got very lucky. Within six months, I had signed a record deal in New York City, not with The Drums, but with another band. It got me out of that scary space. I can look back and see how chaotic my life was and how scared I was. In the past, I was writing from a place of chaos, and now I’m writing from a place of understanding. There’s peace and calm. I can sing about having desire, wanting to belong, feeling pushed away – but it’s not swallowing me whole. I’m able to comfort myself. I’m almost in dialogue with the different parts of myself.

“…of all the places to become so vulnerable and naked, I go to the space of my abuser and put myself in a very vulnerable position.”

JLS: I want to ask about the album cover. You’re literally bare and vulnerable. How did that picture come about?
JP: It’s actually pretty miraculous. About ten years ago, I was given a camera and I’d never taken photos before with a real camera. Something told me to drive upstate to my childhood home, so I timed it when my parents were out of the house, and the house was empty. It was during Sunday morning service, so it was a little risky because they were right next door and I snuck in through my childhood bedroom window. When I got inside, I set up this little tripod and without having any real plan, I took my clothes off. The whole time I was doing it, I was sort of like, “Why are you doing this?” But there was something that I felt. I remember feeling like I needed to honour what my body wanted, so I took my clothes off and I took these photos of myself. There’s a whole series to them. It’s all different parts of the house where there was abuse happening or a traumatic moment happened. When I look back, I feel there is something about reclaiming power in the spaces where I was so powerless. Doing something bold and strong. If you look at those photos, there’s something delicate about them as well. There could be an element of Stockholm syndrome, like I’m a human being and of all the places to become so vulnerable and naked, I go to the space of my abuser and put myself in a very vulnerable position. There’s more to it, so it’s still a question mark. Not knowing – not having all the answers and being OK with that is a reflection of this album.

“I was on this treadmill of survival as a child, a teenager and as a young adult.”

JLS: Is there any song in particular that felt the most cathartic?
JP: It’s a really beautiful question. I get emotional just thinking about this song. There are two songs that are sort of sister songs. The first is called Harms and it’s the first time in all of the music that I let myself express my anger. Anger is something that’s been hard for me to express throughout my life for so long. I always said, “Oh, I don’t get angry. I’m not an angry person.” I was so good at pushing it down. It’s like the younger me being really angry and the present-day me being aware of how mistreated I was, how alone I was as a child. It sort of flips into this totally new space where I’m singing almost as a mother to my younger self. It’s a song called Little Jonny, and I’m saying things like, “I’m so proud of you. You’re doing so good. You’re so creative and you’re so courageous, and I’m never going to leave you.” It’s all the things I was so desperate to hear my whole life from my family, and the power of giving that to myself in a very real way.

JLS: Reaching in so deep, were there any difficult moments you encountered while recording?
JP: There’s a song called Pool God – that one was hard. It came out easy, but then it was hard to commit to what it wanted to be and then send it off to the record label and say, “It’s done.” It felt quite vulnerable. I talk about myself as a woman, and it’s really about liberation from hardship and from struggle – enlightenment in a way. Some of the language on it, these words came out of my body, and my mind is still grappling with some of it. It feels true to my spirit, and then my brain is what’s getting in the way, letting it be what it is. That song, I went back and forth for like two years, but there was something calling to me that it was important to have it on the album. There’s all these labels now. There’s he and she and they and them and all these different gender identities. I struggle with calling myself a man. I struggle with calling myself a woman, but I also struggle with all the terms in between. It may be my aversion to authority on some level, I don’t want anyone, even if they have good intentions, giving me a set of labels to put on myself. I actually just feel like I am everything and nothing and all at the same time, and it’s changing every day. I still struggle with how I’m describing myself on this song, but I’m deciding to also let it be. I don’t need closure, this is something I’ve learned during all of my work on myself. Sometimes you don’t get closure on something. That’s always been hard for me, in such a rigid space as a child, to learn that you can let something be, it can just exist and be and that’s it. So Pool God was a tricky one for me.

“With this album, the one rule I had was: don’t write unless your whole body is saying to do it.”

JLS: On the final track you sing,“I used to want to die and now I don’t want to die” – it’s so powerful. After this journey of reclaiming your power, how does it feel to listen to the finished album?
JP: It’s a different experience now. In the past, I’ve put out work and almost instantly turned my back on it. There’s something about getting it out in the world and then not bearing to listen to it, or even talk about it if someone put on my music at a party or I heard it in a store. My whole body would get tight and it makes me very sad that that’s been my experience. But there’s a beautiful, happy ending here. I finished this album and I make this album with love, understanding, some wisdom, a lot of gentleness, a lot of naps and walking through the woods and kissing my puppy, and falling in and out of love a couple of times. I can feel the love on the album. There’s so much love in it. There was so much love in the creation of it from the very first note to the very last one, so when I listen to it, I hear love and I feel that love.

Jonny is out October 13th via ANTI- Records

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