Meet J Wagner, Gregory Alan Isakov’s songwriting partner. He joins a family gathering, with my father Jon Dee Graham, Matt the Electrician, and myself at the Continental Club Gallery on Sunday, Dec. 29, at 8pm. Free.
Matt the Electrician calls Wagner “a sublime writer, a beautiful human being, and the most under-recognized songwriter in Austin. Wagner and Isakov found their “If I Go, I’m Goin’” featured in Showtime’s Californication. It’s become one of my favorite songs ever.
Austin Chronicle: What inspired the song?
J Wagner: Isakov and I wrote it at the Kerrville Folk Festival. I showed it to my friend John Elliott. He wrote the first two lines of the chorus. Then Gregory finished it in about six hours. I’d just come back from interning as a Park Ranger in Joshua Tree National Park. In Joshua Tree there were all these cool houses that were old and falling apart and had a real cool desert vibe to them. I kept sketching down ideas for songs about “houses hold secrets.” That song also has three voices on it, so it sounds really unique to me.
AC: With you in Austin and Isakov in Boulder, how to you guys write together regularly?
JW: He’ll come down to Austin sometimes, but mainly it’s me flying to Boulder. We’re both super word nerds and really enjoy the writing process. We did try writing songs together via Skype a couple of times, but it didn’t have the same magic as actually being in the same room drinking from the same pot of coffee.
AC: What’s it like to have a writing partner?
JW: Being a writer gets lonely sometimes. Finding a co-writing partner is one of the hardest things to come by. It’s like dating, only harder. A person would have a better chance running a cellphone business out of jail than finding a successful co-writing partner. If you have a good co-writing partner, both of your voices really start to come out in the song. It makes the song not so autobiographical anymore.
AC: Where did you grow up and how did you get into music?
JW: I spent most of my childhood in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I loved it there. I’m still a huge fan of the desert. Most of my songs seem to take place in some sort of desert climate. I wanted to write music since I was in second grade. There was a pretty girl in my class and I thought that if I learned to play guitar I could win her over. I learned to play guitar around fifth grade.
AC: If not music, then what?
JW: The main thing I do to pay the bills is writing and performing music. With a friend, I also run a songwriter’s retreat near Big Bend called Crooked Crow, and sometimes I’m hired to teach dance lessons. I teach two-step, basic swing, and waltz lessons – mainly to musicians who can’t dance.
AC: Why Austin?
JW: I went to college at University of North Texas in Denton. It’s a great town. I loved it there, but I was way too comfortable. A bunch of my songwriting friends lived in Austin, so I just decided to move here. I was here for a year and then took a year off from music. Went to the desert to become a park ranger.
After I came back to Austin, I was able to really focus on writing songs and building a community around that. There’s all this great music floating around town – great tacos, writers and poets – and just a bunch of great songwriters. The summers are too hot, but I guess that’s why I tour Alaska every summer.
AC: You finished a Kickstarter campaign a few days ago. What was that process like?
JW: I love the Kickstarter model. You’re being financed by people who love you and who you love in return and you never have to bring some dude who’s wearing a suit, smoking a cigar, and living in a skyscraper into the equation. If we can learn to be sustainable and give back to those who have given to us, we’ll always be able to survive as an artist.
AC: What is success?
JW: I wouldn’t mind having a song again in a TV show like we did in Californication, but those placement slots are hard to come by. My success is pretty simple: keep writing, stop complaining, keep touring, live within your means, and be thankful. Success will come if you don’t try to take over the world.
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