Getting lost in sound with Sycamore Willow

Joel Oliphint
Jason Gonzales of Sycamore Willow

When Jason Gonzales moved to San Francisco from Columbus several years ago, he planned to keep playing music with other people. But nothing seemed to pan out the way it had in former bands like the Lilybandits and the Regionals.

“After a while I was like, ‘It's OK to not do music so much,’” he said. “I’m not young. I've had some ups and downs in my involvement with music, and it always just bubbles back when it's ready.”

Gonzales lives around the corner from a bar that hosts an open mic night organized by a friend, who urged the songwriter and guitarist to check it out. When he finally made it there, Gonzales only intended to watch, but then his buddy put him on the list to play a song, so he obliged. Then he kept returning. “Open mics can be super cringe-y and awful, but this particular open mic is a really warm, welcoming community,” he said. “It forced me to start working on stuff every week.”

Once the pandemic hit, the open mic night necessarily went away, and Gonzales looked for something calming and useful to do as an artist. While working on music alone during shelter in place orders, he began messing around with experimental songwriting techniques that had little resemblance to the more traditional methods he'd employed in his former alt-rock and Americana bands.

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“I'm an obsessive guitar pedal collector, and the nice thing about collecting guitar pedals, as opposed to baseball cards, is you use them. They're fuel for creativity,” Gonzales said. “When you get a new guitar pedal, it's just so exciting to sit down with it and not only see what it can do on its own, but how it interacts with other pedals and how it interacts with instruments or vocals. It's just endless fun.”

Gonzales began chaining pedals together in unplanned ways to see what would happen when he plugged in his guitar, and one night he stumbled upon a particularly satisfying sound. “You could feed one note into it, and then it would morph and bounce back and forth in your ears. Then you add another harmonic note onto it, and you think, ‘Oh, it's just gonna make a chord.’ But it would start to make all these weird, disintegrating textures. Then you could feed a third note and do something small, like roll your tone knob all the way off, and it would be like, ‘How does my guitar sound like a French horn now?’” he said. “It was just so delightful and surprising, and I'm pressing record on virtually everything just to capture it.”

Eventually, Gonzales’ recording experiments turned into a new ambient project, Sycamore Willow, and a series of digital and cassette releases on Scioto Records, the label of local musician and recording engineer Keith Hanlon. The first release, No. 1, came out at the end of April, and Gonzales released No. 2 last week, with two more tapes in the works.

In Sycamore Willow, Gonzales gets lost in sound with the hope of evoking something cinematic, which is part of what he has always loved about ambient music. “Brian Eno blew my mind,” Gonzales said, which led him to artists such as Stars of the Lid and William Basinski. “Over the years, I got to know so many other ambient artists. They all tend to be that really slow, … artsy, weird ambient.”

By making music in a way that’s similar to a performance, rather than a generative process, Gonzales feeds off the built-in creative anxiety. "If you have all these nice, happy-sounding harmonic relationships going on, and then you throw in a dissonant note, you’re like, 'All right. Now I need to build around what I just accidentally did and be intentional about trying to develop that for a minute,'" he said.

The song titles always come last. The goal is to somehow capture the mood of the song with a short, one-line poem: “Two slices and a coke, cool sunny day”; “Speak loudly into my ear over the band. I have a crush on you”; “My punches fall soft and powerless: Dream fights.”

“Writing a song as a singer-songwriter, I think the perception is that it's more intentional. And this feels a little more like reacting,” he said. “It’s reacting to everything going around me.”