JOHNNY JEWEL thinks sonically—and considerately. During our phone conversation, he ducks down a Montreal side street when the wind begins blowing too hard, making sure I can still hear him clearly. Jewel lives in Montreal now, more or less—"I always kind of feel like I'm permanently visiting, in a way," he says—but he still keeps the studio he's had here in Portland since 2003, in the City Sign building next door to Rotture.
"I'm really ritualistic, and kind of a superstitious person," Jewel says, out of the wind, "and there have been so many good things, good moments, amazing records, and stuff made in that studio, that I feel like it's kind of disrespectful to everything we've been given and been able to accomplish to just shut it down." It's a bit of an understatement. With bands like Glass Candy, Chromatics, Desire, and the recent Themes for an Imaginary Film album from Symmetry, Jewel has not just had some good moments—he's steadily become one of the most distinctive, prolific, influential producers of electronic music on the globe, watching as the Europop and Italo disco revivals have risen around the music he's consistently made for more than a decade.
If the inclusion of Chromatics and Desire songs on the lauded Drive soundtrack was the moment when the rest of the world finally caught up to Jewel, it's Chromatics' epic, gorgeous Kill for Love album that solidifies Jewel's position. Earlier this year, Chromatics—the four-piece of Jewel, singer Ruth Radelet, drummer Nat Walker, and guitarist Adam Miller—birthed a mammoth electrosymphony of tragic-hearted dance-pop that sprawls out of the speakers. Kill for Love's android prom ballads glow like neon signs flickering through steaming rain, offering both echoes of the past and lightning bolts from the future. The album positions heartsick woe and handholding reassurance right next to each other, resulting in an exquisite agony that's utterly captivating.
Jewel has a second studio in Montreal now; neither of the facilities use computers, instead they're built around vintage analog gear. "I bought doubles of everything slowly," he says, "so I have a sister studio that's all the same furniture, even. It looks exactly the same, except that it's backward, and it has multiple gear, which ended up being a really good thing because of things breaking, so I'm able to swap out stuff that does."
The producer and songwriter grew up in Texas and moved to Portland, where he worked at the Fred Meyer on West Burnside for 10 years. "I'd never been out of the US, never even been to Mexico, and then in 2008, we started traveling; I got my first passport and we started traveling internationally, and man, it was a really crazy, mind-bending experience. I realized that—I mean, it seems obvious to a lot of people—but to me, not only is the language different, the food's different, but the whole way of life is different. I was completely shell-shocked when I started going outside of the US. I realized that in order to grow, I needed to get myself into a situation where I [could] challenge myself to bridge the gap between my way of living and other cultures' way of living. Not because I didn't like Portland, but just because Portland sort of reinforced all my tendencies anyway because I felt really comfortable and I felt at home.
"This coincided also with me getting fired from Fred Meyer," Jewel continues. "All of a sudden I had free time for the first time in my life since I was a kid, and I started noticing that, left to my own devices, maybe I'd be destructive—not having to work and being in Portland, I found that I needed a challenge. So I moved here and just became totally isolated and decided I didn't want to really make any friends. I love everybody, but for writing I need the isolation. When you're touring, every night is a party, and when you're not touring you need that deep kind of cabin-type situation, and Montreal is perfect for that, especially in the winter with the snow and everything."
Although the songs were written relatively rapidly, Kill for Love took years to finish, largely due to a lengthy editing process. "It's like chiseling a giant rock or something," says Jewel. "It's like deconstruction: You build it back up and then deconstruct again. Because I work as a writer and a producer, I need the time away from it to have a fresh, bird's eye view of the music. Because the producer will see the idea from a writer and reinforce its strengths and mask its weaknesses. I have to do that to myself, so when you're working on something, you know it inside and out and you can't really get that clear perspective always. I kind of have to put it on ice and revisit it. A lot of musicians don't allow themselves to divorce themselves from the concept of something they're trying to do and really view the reality of what they're actually doing."
Jewel has also been working on the new Glass Candy album—Body Work, which will likely come out next year—and After Dark 2, a compilation album meant to stand entirely on its own, with unique material and a fully realized concept. "I'm trying to make this huge arc through a compilation, which is difficult, using a lot of different bands. I'm trying to make a compilation that's like an album. I view the compilation as a train that keeps going and everybody jumps on and off the train with each song."
But he acknowledges that right now is Chromatics' time. "It's a younger band," says Jewel. "In a certain way, Chromatics has always been in the wake of Glass Candy, so I really wanted to give full attention to Chromatics because I really believe in this record. It was a scary record to make; we took a lot of chances with it, from the way it was released to the video to the content on the record, and I really wasn't sure if it was going to be burned at the stake or heralded. You never know. But now Glass Candy fans are more rabid than ever, especially since the Chromatics album came out. The two bands play together a lot, and it doesn't make a lot of sense for Chromatics to play after Glass Candy because of the mood and the stage energy. So I want to give Chromatics a chance to tour internationally as headliners—touring makes you stronger, and Chromatics need that kind of pressure to grow as a band."
Sticking with the careful process that's resulted in Kill for Love and so many other exceptional records on the Italians Do It Better label, Jewel recognizes the strength in the refusal to rush things. "There are so many good ideas, and everybody just seems to be in a hurry," he says.