Jono Manson wakes up before the sun rises. These days, he grabs his guitar for a 30-minute session on Facebook Live, performing a daily, 5:30 a.m. coronavirus-era concert series he’s dubbed Morning Voice. The 59-year-old’s brown hair is scruffy but rather lustrous, and he has a soul patch on his chin. From under heavy-lidded eyes, he greets listeners in the new language of the pandemic, in which time has jumped its rhythms. At Manson’s house in Santa Fe, it’s not March 26 but Day 9 of social distancing.
Although the view through the window behind him indicates that it’s currently still dark outside, “as this broadcast progresses, we’ll be arriving at the time of year when the sun will indeed be coming up over the horizon at this hour,” he says to his viewers.
He’s dressed in a rocker’s uniform of black T-shirt and denim jacket. He’s probably wearing jeans, but the video feed only shows him from the waist up. He cheerfully chats to the webcam about his daughter’s online piano lessons and the strong coffee he’s drinking, and he shows off his guitar, which has eight strings. “It’s an old Stella acoustic guitar that has been retrofit and retooled, refurbished to become a harmonized tenor guitar,” he explains. Manson is a natural digresser who likes to talk almost as much as he likes to play music, but his folksy rambling tends to have a point. After riffing in glowing terms for some time about the talented man who refurbished his guitar, as well as about his daughter’s kind and gifted piano teacher, he says they’re both self-employed and will need plenty of business to get back on their feet “after all this blows over.”
It would be tough to imagine today’s Santa Fe music scene without Manson. When he’s not on the road, he’s often found strumming onstage at Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery on Agua Fría Street. He records numerous local musicians at The Kitchen Sink, and he has won veritable fistfuls of New Mexico Music Awards for performance and production.
Another Santa Fe music staple, singer-songwriter Jaime Michaels, has 11 albums out, and Manson has worked on 10 of them. He holds his longtime friend in high esteem. “When you get in the studio with Jono, all he cares about is the song,” Michaels says. “And he’s usually right. I wanted to put a glockenspiel on a song once and he said no.”
Finally, Manson’s ready to play “Tomorrow We Live.” The song is by his friend, Bruce Donnola, but Manson is not sure he remembers how it goes. In the opening chords of Americana, you can hear the richness of the retooled Stella until Manson stops abruptly and starts over — once, twice, and then a third time — until he’s sure he’s got it right. Satisfied, he starts to sing. His warm, confident voice has been honed over more than four decades of live performance in venues all over the world.
“Angel,” he sings, “try to forgive.”
Manson believes in staying positive, in giving people something to look forward to, even if it’s only a good cup of coffee, a third-hand New Mexico sunrise, and a few tunes. He is concerned about the coronavirus, but he doesn’t want to let fear rule his every waking moment. For him, keeping the music going is vital to our collective sanity as we hunker down in our homes and try to avoid spreading the potentially fatal illness.
Manson was touring and working on a recording project in Italy in late February, just as that country’s infection and death rates began to climb. He scrambled to get to an airport before quarantine measures would prevent him from boarding a plane.
Manson is particularly big in Italy. “It’s a long story, but I produce records for a lot of Italian bands and Italian singer-songwriters,” he says. He sometimes tours there with other American musicians, including John Popper of Blues Traveler, and Jason Crosby, a multi-instrumentalist who has played with huge acts like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, as well as
Phil Lesh and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead.
“We’ve been playing together for over a decade, including being part of Pete Seeger’s band at Madison Square Garden,” Crosby says. “I’m constantly inspired by how prolific and diligent he is when working on his craft. He takes all of his projects very seriously, yet somehow creates an atmosphere of kindness and selflessness.”
As he tried to get the airport, Manson wasn’t thinking about whether or not he’d get sick. He just wanted to get home. “That week is when everything changed in Italy as much as is happening here now. All the venues were closed. Ordinances were put in place to limit public gatherings. We’re about three weeks behind them in terms of the sequence of events,” he says.
Back in Santa Fe, he spent the first half of March self-quarantining in an empty East Side condo lent by a friend of a friend. When he didn’t develop symptoms of coronavirus, he was able to move back in with his wife and 10-year-old daughter — on the same day that Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham began advising New Mexicans to stay inside.
Given what’s happened in Italy and how rapidly the infection is spreading in the United States, Manson says that he’s happy to shelter in place. He’s grateful to have a roof over his head, although he is worried about finances. As a musician, he doesn’t operate with a lot of savings. Now there’s no money coming in from gigs or from sessions at The Kitchen Sink, the recording studio he owns and operates on Jose Street. He has a few artists’ albums in the hopper to mix and edit, but his income stream has mostly dried up. The only cash coming in is from the virtual tip jar he puts out during Morning Voice and from checks that come now and then from projects he’s worked on.
A song he co-wrote with John Popper of the band Blues Traveler was used last year in an episode of the television show Silicon Valley. “I’m waiting for that check,” he says. “That’s mailbox money. That’s one of the things that will help us survive the next month.”
Manson is a born-and-bred New Yorker who first picked up a guitar at age 6. His childhood arced the riotous 1960s and ’70s. In the 1980s, Manson was a popular performer in the city, playing hundreds of live shows a year with a band called The Worms. Fronted by another guitarist who went by the name Joey Miserable, and Manson (whose moniker was Frankie Sominex), The Worms were a funky, rocky, slightly surf-punky act with a horn section.
They appeared most often at Nightingale Bar in the East Village.
“We were making a living playing music in front of packed houses of adoring fans,” he says. “We were young, and having a great time.” There were a few brushes with commercial success, including a development deal with CBS/Epic Records that never really took off. It didn’t matter. “We were having more fun than we probably deserved. We already felt like we were living the dream.”
Neil Strauss of The New York Times reflected on The Worms’ legacy in a 1995 article. “The Worms helped turn Nightingale into a hangout for local musicians and scenesters and wound up becoming local heroes, influencing countless local bands, including the Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler. Though proficient at building up a local following, the Worms were never able to nail down a record deal. The band broke up in 1989, and one member, Jono Manson, went on to do what few local musicians have done: escape from New York.”
Manson found his way to the Southwest in the early 1990s via a girlfriend who wanted to study at the now-defunct College of Santa Fe. The New York scene he’d grown up in was changing, the old neighborhoods gentrifying, the good gigs drying up. “It felt like a good time to move on,” he says. He got teaching work at the College of Santa Fe through a connection to the director of its contemporary music program, Kevin Zoernig. “He knew me because he went to Bennington College, in Vermont, and The Worms used to play there.”
Within a year, Manson’s girlfriend had split town, but he stayed. “I liked it here. I knew it wasn’t the center of the music world, but I found community and I was able to work and build a base of operations for myself,” he says. His first gig in town, a few weeks after he arrived, was at the city’s oldest bar, El Farol. Back then, the name didn’t mean anything to Manson. The guy who hired him to play in his band told him it was a tapas bar, but Manson misheard.
“Over the phone, I thought he said ‘topless bar.’ I thought it was really weird — who’s going to pay attention to singer-songwriter dudes in a topless bar? But it was a gig. I figured I’d try it out.”
He’s played in dive bars and hotel lounges throughout Santa Fe ever since. He tours regionally, nationally, and internationally as a solo act, as well as with other musicians. He’s written music for movies and television, including earning a few bucks writing songs for and appearing in the Kevin Costner movie The Postman in 1997. He met the Academy Award-winning director when Costner was in Santa Fe shooting Wyatt Earp , which was released in 1994. The two became friendly after Costner saw him play at a gig. Manson even gave Costner guitar lessons.
“I think he had to learn for a part,” he says.
Today — Friday, April 10 — is the official release date for Manson’s new album, Silver Moon. He was supposed to play a show at Tumbleroot, but it was canceled. That means he won’t be able to sell CDs at the bar, which is yet another missed source of income. To celebrate the release, he played songs from Silver Moon during his Morning Voice concert. (To watch, visit the Jono Manson artist page on Facebook.)
Silver Moon was recently described as “comfort rock” in the pages of this magazine. Far from the potentially insipid “easy listening” effluvia such a label might connote, comfort rock is reliable and timeless. And it’s firmly anchored in the tradition of true rock and roll. Tom Petty. Bonnie Raitt. John Mellencamp. Bruce Springsteen.
“I’m happy to bring comfort,” Manson says. (He says he’s happier still to be lumped in with Petty and Raitt.) “The songs that I feel good about putting into the world are ones that, to me, feel like they’ve always been around. People can feel like they’ve heard it before, but not because I’ve copied something else. Like my early band, The Worms, my music encompasses a variety of styles. The new album, it’s not all the same thing stylistically, although I like to think that it still holds together as a cohesive body of work.”
Silver Moon’s 13 tracks run from alt-country and Americana to blues and gospel. Some are hybrids of those genres, and others are of the sort that never get much airtime on mainstream radio but are critically beloved. Think late ’80s Warren Zevon or Leonard Cohen. Not unlike Cohen, Manson’s lyrics can dwell in the realm of the spiritual, sometimes talking directly about Judeo-Christian religious ideology. Its recurring theme on Silver Moon wasn’t intentional, but he noticed it during the recording sessions and chalked it up to where he is in his own life and what’s happening in the world. He’s not trying to tell anyone what to believe — a word that happens to be the title of what he calls the most spiritual song on Silver Moon.
I believe in the holy spirit. I believe in timeless soul. It’s high up on the mountain and in that low-down rock and roll.
And then there’s “The Christian Thing,” an organ-heavy tent revival tune about comparative religion that he sings with Eliza Gilkyson and Terry Allen. It was inspired by an online argument with a born-again Christian who refused to accept that Manson could understand the teachings of Jesus without accepting him as his lord and savior.
“I said that I was raised Jewish. (My father changed his name to Manson — my name should be Jonathan Polikoff.) In this exchange, I claimed that based on the way I live my life, I am more Christian than many people who call themselves Christian.”
With conscience as my compass, my heart will know the route, Manson and the others sing. And I’ll strive to walk in righteousness — the Christian thing to do.
Manson isn’t pretending to be a saint. He just thinks it’s important to remember what Jesus was actually asking of humanity — maybe now more than ever, as kindness, empathy, and caring for those less fortunate seems to be key to maintaining a civil society in the face of this unprecedented global health calamity.
“It doesn’t matter to me where you pray,” he says. “It’s how you treat your fellow humans and the world around you that matters.” ◀