His life has been partially spent tumbling from Montana to Virgina, Pennsylvania, New York and Tennessee, but Jonny Fritz seems to have finally found a place to settle down.
“You know, the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia are here. The largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam are here. It’s so many different kinds of people,” Fritz, told CL.
The 34-year-old songwriter is talking about L.A., where he called from the balcony of a Sunset Boulevard office that’s close enough to the road to allow the sounds of cars and motorcycles to announce themselves loudly into the receiver. Fritz — who makes his Tampa Bay debut this Sunday as the opening act for a bill that includes J. Roddy Walston and The Business plus Murder By Death — is fascinated by the municipality where he gets to be a spectator of the more than 10 million people who call Los Angeles County home.
“It’s such a complicated place. I am just constantly enamored,” he said. “It’s so incredibly pleasant to just look around and see everybody doing their thing.”
Looking around, watching people do their thing and then writing witty, biting and deeply empathetic songs about it seems to be the crux of Fritz’s musical existence, too. He first shared his gift with Americana fans on a 2008 debut, I’m Not Ready to Be a Daddy. A 7-inch with Rhode Island rock band Deer Tick followed, and in 2011 Fritz released a sophomore effort, Down on the Bikini Line. He soon teamed up with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, who produced Fritz’s ATO Records debut, Dad Country. By then, the songwriter’s preternatural understanding of all things twangy had already perked ears within the bluegrass and country music community — but it was Fritz’s Jim James-produced fourth full-length, Sweet Creep, that got the critics up to speed.
Rolling Stone said Creep was the No. 14 country record of 2016. Creative Loafing Tampa also listed it next to albums by Bowie, Mitski, Frank Ocean and more as part of our own year-end list. In 2018, Fritz connected with Cory Chisel and Robert Ellis and released a below-the-radar masterpiece under the Traveller moniker. Songs from the group’s Western Movies, much like a lot of Fritz’s best work, are marked by the trio’s ability to tell stories that are often humorous and deeply compassionate all at once.
“The human experience that we’re dealing with, half is trials and tribulations, but also half joy and laughter. A lot of artists can spend a little too long on one side of that line,” Goldsmith, who also happens to in Clearwater with Dawes on the same night Fritz plays Orpheum, once said about his friend.
“Jonny has always done such a good job of blending those two; knowing when to drive the knife into your heart and when to make you sit back and laugh.”
Collectively, Fritz’s tunes have led some to dub him as an heir to country songwriter Roger Miller, but his songs are also reminiscent of those by one of Miller’s friends, George Jones, plus works from other greats like Kris Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt and Mickey Newbury. Fritz, for his part, seems thoroughly aware of his ability to absorb another person’s emotions, including sadness.
“I’ll see some scene at the Walmart checkout or something, and my whole day will be ruined,” he said. Through therapy, Fritz has learned that one of the only ways he can really deal with his empathic tendencies is via some kind of catharsis. Until he broke his hip, that release involved running marathons. At other times, that purge had been initiated by racing motorcycles and other dangerous activities.
“Songwriting is another really good way to get rid of it and have it not stick with you so much,” Fritz said. He’s never been afraid to get too wrapped up inside of a character exploration, either. “To go deeper is to find compassion and to really see through somebody’s suffering. And to poke fun at it because we’re all going through it. That’s my method. That really does work.”
For some reason, and in spite of having brought Traveller to stunned and besotted crowds at Newport Folk Festival, Fritz’s live sets almost always involve him opening for somebody else.
“I just haven’t done too many headlining things for whatever reason. I don’t know why… [it’s] just kind of how it’s gone,” Fritz said. He knows that crowds are not often there to see him, but he’s also learned to not take an audience’s indifference personally.
“It’s not that I’m a piece of shit, and it’s not that they are a piece of shit. It’s just that they’re not there for the reasons that I am there. It’s just unfortunate, that’s all.”
Fortunately, Fritz still finds purpose and joy on his tours, and he’s also found meaningful ways to bide the time between the arrival of new song ideas. His leatherworking endeavor just rounded the 10-year mark (Dwight Yoakam, Jessica Lea Mayfield and Jim James are just a few proud owners of “a Fritz”), and Fritz now does real estate in L.A., which has activated his altruistic side.
“Somebody really relies on you to not fuck something up,” he said. “Like, ‘This isn’t about me at all.’ This is about this person and this is the most important transaction of their life — I like that I can take myself out of it and just be a helper for once.”
And that’s fitting. The breadth of Fritz’s discography is a conduit for more empathy; his shtick, a veiled pathway to deeper understanding of what life might be like for someone else. Sure, a lot of Fritz’s day-to-day may now involve selling homes, but his gift has always been about finding a simple way to bring people under the same roof. And that is a sweet, sweet song indeed.
Murder By Death w/J. Roddy Walston and the Business/Jonny Fritz. Sun. Feb. 17, 7 p.m. $22. theorpheum.com.
Did you find any songs at the bottom of your brain during your run today?
You know, I haven't run in a long time. I broke my hip a while ago and had to have a hip replacement, so I'm an old man now, and I can't run anymore, which is very unfortunate. I miss it so much.
That was during the marathon, right?
Yeah, I just cracked it, and then it never, ever healed.
I think that kind of sent you into some sadness and writer's block, right? I got to talk to Lucinda Williams two weeks ago, but you talked to her, too, which helped you get out of that funk — can you talk about what she told you when after depression set in after you broke your femur in that marathon?
I don't even know if she'd remember it. I was like, "Hey Lulu, you ever have trouble with writer's block?'" I mean, it's normal. I felt like I had nothing to say, but her response kind of said everything. She just said, "Well, I write when I write." And that was it. She says, "No. I write when I write, and when I don't write, I'm not writing." The thought had never crossed her mind. Like how to deal with the lulls. For her it was, like, "No... that's not even a thing." And that helped me so much because it was just like, "Oh yeah, I get it. The difference between you and I is that I am beating myself up day in and out, and you don't even think about it." That's exactly the difference.
That's interesting because I always thought that she did always beat herself up, or at least always felt like her songs were never perfect.
Well, I think everybody struggles with that. Like a song that wasn't good enough. You have a vision of what it should be, and the idea that inspired it in the first place — it's just this pure thing, kind of like a dream. But once you try to bring it to fruition, it's like, "Meh, not quite like I imagined it, but 'Oh well,' I'll make another one." I'm sure she's hard on herself in a lot of different ways than I am. I think her demons are different from mine, but that particular thing was really, really eye opening for me. It really just said so much. I felt like there was this universal thing that everybody was dealing with, but learning that she didn't even think about that — of course, she's got her own shit — but she didn't even think about that. So I was like, "OK, we all have our own little demons." For whatever reason it just made me think that, "This is one of those things that I need to just ignore and just tell it to 'shut up.'" Just keep going and moving forward. That helped tremendously.
And staying on that theme, before the motorcycle drove by you talked about Roger Miller. Your music has always been progressive as far as themes, lyrical matter and it’s an evolution from the country music of people like Roger Miller, George Jones, Kristofferson, Bonnie Raitt or Mickey Newbury and so on.
Are you writing new music? Does it feel like another step in a new direction or a continued exploration of feelings that we hear on Sweet Creep?
You know, I'm so, so, so proud of Sweet Creep. I love that record so much. What Jim [James, of My Morning Jacket] and Taylor [Goldsmith, of Dawes] and I did on that thing. I haven't had the thought of, "We should recreate that," or "That works, so we should do that again." I kind of just thought, "That was great. Cool. What's the next thing," you know? But at the same time I haven't been focusing too much on it. I've been taking that Lucinda Williams advice where I don't want to force anything. Every time I've forced a song, I've hated it. It had to be re-written. So I'm just letting it do it's thing. I've had a ton of ideas, and I really want to write a record of real estate songs. I think it would be equal parts shitty and great. I think it would be kind of brilliant.
Also, thinking about the timeline of an artist's life. That interests me. I think that if I found out that Roger Miller had a period where he was just making stained glass or something, then I would be over the moon trying to find some of his stained glass. Like, "Oh my God, I wanna know what else he does." You hear so often about musicians who, all they do is make music and then they get burned out and tired. They get fat and older and they make the same things over and over again. I'm really inspired at the idea of finding something else. I've been really in interested in pursuing other things and just trusting that — since I really like the songs that I write — I'm just living my life and that the next time I'm ready to make a batch of songs they'll be just kind of built up and ready to come out, you know? Which is the opposite of what I've done in the past.
In the past I've just rejected going out and having too many life experiences. It's been wanting to stay in and create songs. I don't like that method as much, I'm kind of sick of it.
Gotcha, so you're not going to bars and Radisson lobbies alone to try and get people’s heads for a character explorations?
Not in the same way. I'm such a people watcher. I love watching people and writing their stories, but these days it's just been a different set of people. I think I exhausted the down and out, disheveled, redneck people or something.
Also, I'm living in L.A., and it's just such a different scene out here entirely. I've been just focusing on another genre of — not music, necessarily — but another slice of life.
Have you ever gotten too deep into a character exploration? Have you ever been scared that you've gotten so deep into another person's mind that it becomes dangerous or sad?
No. I think, naturally, I absorb other peoples' sadness already. I'll see some scene at the Walmart checkout or something, and my whole day will be ruined. It's kind of cathartic to be able to write those stories. The only way that I can get around that is humor. I've figured this out in therapy. The only way that I can deal with absorbing all of these emotions and things is through some sort of catharsis. And that's either running marathons or racing motorcycles, living dangerously or recklessly. I think songwriting is another really good way to get rid of it and have it not stick with you so much. So, no I think it's kind of the opposite. I think to go deeper is to find compassion and to really see through somebody's suffering. And to poke fun at it because we're all going through it. That's my method. That really does work.
Yeah the sincerity has always shined through in your music. I was thinking about you playing some of those more painful songs in front of an audience. You don't always know how they're going to react. The songs are serious and sad, but they have humor in them like you said. I was going to ask if that dichotomy ever wore on you, but it sounds like you know that putting it out there is what's good for you.
Yeah. It's OK for me. I think, for me, what helps, is to also not take it personally when people don't care. Most often I am opening for another band, which is just kind of how it's gone. I just haven't done too many headlining things for whatever reason. I don't know why. Usually I'm opening for somebody else's crowd, and most often they're not there for me. They don't care. Anymore, I don't take it personally. It's not that I'm a piece of shit, and it's not that they are a piece of shit. It's just that they're not there for the reasons that I am there. It's just unfortunate, that's all.
You talked about Taylor earlier, but Taylor and Griffin are playing on the same day as you here in Tampa Bay. They're headlining. Is there any chance of you going over there to see them or vice versa? Any chance of linking up?
Oh, I'd love to see them. I love those guys so much, they're some of my best friends. Oh God, I live like two miles from Taylor and Mandy, and I never see them.
I'm offering to drive you because that's my dilemma for that day. Jonny Fritz is playing, but so is Dawes. I've seen Dawes, but I don't think you've played Florida since the Lucero shows in 2014.
I don't think so either. I think Lucero was the last time I was there, which I think was 2012? Like January 2012.
It’s a little cold for swimming holes, but have you worked any old friends, women you’re in love with or National Parks into this run? Or are you at the will of the Murder By Death itinerary?
I'm kind of just going with the flow. I'm riding with J. Roddy. I'm not gonna have my own way around, but we have a couple of days off in Tampa, so I'm excited. Is that where you're at?
Yeah, we're in Tampa. I don't know what you're into. I would assume you're into outdoors stuff.
Yeah, especially Florida. There's so much crazy nature and wild-ass stuff down there. I'd love to get into something. I'd love to get into a boat. Is there a swamp in Tampa?
You want to get on an airboat?
How about a canoe?
A canoe airboat?
Nah, a canoe.
You're talking about swamps. What's that damn show where they're stabbing frogs?
Yeah. So there are rivers and trails. I've only been on canoes. I don't know if you're into that.
Yeah. that would be cool, too. Hopefully it'll be nice, beautiful, and fun. It'll be great. Tour is tour. It'll be great. I'm excited about it.
Earlier you talked about L.A.. You obviously value your anonymity, and L.A. gives you that. You’ve also talked about the stigmas — musical and otherwise — that exist in the South. Has L.A. presented any existential issues yet? Any wrestling you like locally?
Wrestling, man. Los Angeles is an interesting place. It's such a complicated place. So fascinating, and vast, and culturally diverse. It's funny and fascinating being here. You know the largest population of Armenians outside of Armenia are here. The largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam are here. It's so many different kinds of people. I don't really know where I am going with this, but I am just constantly enamored with this city. It's so nice to be a spectator here. It's so incredibly pleasant to just look around and see everybody doing their thing.
I feel like living in the south wasn't that good for me. I don't like the culture. I grew up there, and I don't like it. I don't like that it made me more cynical. It made me make fun of stuff more than I needed to. That was my way of dealing with it. Since moving here I realize that I don't think I need to be that way. I don't need to be so, mad.
You know how if you live in a small town and everyone is like, "Man, I don't know. Tampa sucks, I'm moving to Ft. Lauderdale." And you're like, "Well, OK. Go then. Fucking go."
Yeah, like stop talking to me about it.
Yeah. Like, "I just wanna enjoy Tampa. I like Tampa. I just wanna be in Tampa, so fucking go to Ft. Lauderdale." But they won't. They're not going to. Or they will, but there'll be another person right behind them that'll be like, "Well, Tampa sucks."
The beautiful thing about Los Angeles is that the only people that hate Los Angeles are people that don't live here.
I can't believe it. I've never heard so much shit talked about a place when I go everywhere else. I can go anywhere, and someone will be like, "L.A., that sucks. You should move to Knoxville." Knoxville?
"Go to Denver, man."
Yeah. It's just so odd. I've never thought to talk shit on somebody's town, you know? I just find it to be the rudest thing ever. I don't know where I'm going with this, but I just find this place to be so utterly fascinating. It's the only place I've lived where the only people that talk shit about it are ones that don't live here. People who live here love it more than anywhere. It's really quite refreshing. I guess I feel like every idiot in every small town who wanted to leave, the people that finally got sick of hearing about the small town people that want to leave, they kept moving until they found a place where nobody was talking shit about the place that they live. And it's here.
Yeah, I grew up in Canoga Park.
Where is that?
It's in the valley, Topanga.
Yeah, right on.
Being there, you're just plopped in there. You're nobody, but you're with everybody at the same time. Real quick, you're a Montana baby that moved through Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and now California?
Yeah, I went to Philly from Virginia and then to New York, then Nashville then L.A.
Gotcha. I think we're getting close to time here, but I wanted to say congrats on the 10-year anniversary of your leather work.
I'm actually with a family that commissioned a belt from you. Marlins, fish, it was a birthday present or something.
Yeah, fuck yeah.
A year ago you talked about being your own dream client when it came to leather work.
That's absolutely true.
But you mentioned that you never make anything for yourself — was that you subtly saying you need to care about yourself? Or were you just talking about decking out the Geo Tracker?
Yeah, that's right.
So it wasn't you trying to say that you needed to care for yourself better?
No. It's kind of like that old adage where the cobbler's kids don't have any shoes, or that the carpenter's house is always under construction. The real estate agent is always renting. Let's keep going. The baker's kids are gluten-free.
That's a good one.
Mormons are drug addicts.
The journalist's kid is always telling lies.
Haha. Yeah. The journalist doesn't read.
Yeah. That's halfway true sometimes.
Yeah, like do you find time to read?
It's a problem. You're always under this pressure to put out content all the time.
Exactly. Like the musician doesn't listen to music. That's a classic one. Like, I listen to five artists, and that's it. So when someone's like, "Hey do you know this band?," I'll be like, "Let's not even start this conversation because I haven't heard the band, and I don't care to." It's a funny thing. It's the same thing with leather. I definitely don't have a wallet. I don't have a belt. I have a belt, but it's not leather. I would love to make myself some stuff, but I don't have anything. Kind of funny.
Should we talk about the Traveller record?
Traveller was this great collaborative record where you did lyrics while Cory Chisel did melody and Robert Ellis did the Dr. Frankenstein on the songs.
Yeah, that's right.
So that record got plopped on everyone, they got to digest it — how’d you feel about the reactions to the Traveller record? Outside of getting to make music with some of your very best friends.
I think it's easy in music to have expectations and not have them met. The same way you wished that your songs are better. I think that's common for musicians to be like, "I thought people would like it more." So I don't know. I try to turn that part of my brain off and be more like, "I don't care, I made it. Here's the thing that we made, and I love it." That's all I can really do. I love that record. I'm so proud of that record. I wonder if people like it, but I also kind of don't want to find out too much. Like, I don't want to look at the numbers and be like, "Well how did it sell?"
There's no point in looking at those kind of numbers anymore. Everything is...
I don't want to look at it. I would rather just go back to work and make more stuff.
Sell more houses.
Yeah, I want to sell more houses about it. Write some shitty real estate songs about it.
I don't think they'll be shitty. If if it's a book, I think it could be great. The Jonny Fritz take on it.
Thank you. That's it. I want it to be under my scope. The Jonny genre. All kind of the blanket genre of Dad Country, and kind of like, my thing, whatever it is. That's kind of my approach to real estate, too, which has been really funny. It's been really fun. God, I just love it so much.
Is there pressure in real estate? Like the client relationship isn't there a certain way it works as far as tension, the absence of tension?
Yeah. I'd say that's right. It's definitely a new kind of relationship that I have with people that I've never had. Somebody really relies on you to not fuck something up. To not make it about you, and that's kind of what's nice about it. Like, "This isn't about me at all. This is about this person and this is the most important transaction of their life." That's kind of cool. I like that I can take myself out of it and just be a helper for once and not be like, "Hey everybody, look at me, I'm being crazy and wild." I mean, I am being crazy and wild in my marketing. I've been making memes, but who cares — I'm having a fun time with that. But when it comes down to looking at houses and making calls and writing offers and stuff — it's nice because I can just be a responsible, good person about it. A good helper. That feels good — to step into a new playing field, which is awesome.
Well, I think a lot of your songs have helped people think about the way they move through the world. They've definitely provided me with a conduit to be more empathetic towards other peoples' situations and the subtleties of existing. I appreciate that.