“What do you think? Should I go for it?” I turn around to meet a goofy grin and a New York Giants jersey that looks like it could be roomy on an actual football player. The young man holding the jersey is decidedly not of football build, but he is Jon Bunting, a lanky 20-year-old recording artist making some of the most genuine and honest music I’ve heard in my many years sampling the Bay Area music scene. His grin is earnest, like his music, and he is still waiting for a response.
I tell him to snatch the jersey—it is a total steal—and he nods, seemingly content with my answer. Jon is memorable without being flashy, sporting a slime green tee and a navy beanie that he takes off periodically to readjust the dark brown curls underneath. He told me once that if someone is really truly interesting, they don’t have to try that hard to be remembered. I took it to heart when he said it the first time at the show where we met, but the second time he said it to me stung just a little. I guess we can’t all be The Jon Bunting. When I tell him this he laughs wryly and assures me that almost everyone around us probably is; I wrinkle my brow and watch him purchase the jersey.
Earlier that very rainy day, Jon and I had agreed to meet at a café called Musical Offerings. The store is aptly named thanks to the small record shop it hides towards the back of the restaurant. Classical music drifts over the shop as I look for him through the blurred, curved windows of the storefront. I’m seated in a booth with my sibling, Jonah, Jon’s friend, co-collaborator, and fellow musician, and my most helpful “in” to the music scene here. The rain patters against the metal table tops left outside for sunnier days which adds to the score of the music, slightly off-tempo but still pleasant in the way only rain can be. The scene feels picturesque and warm in the way old, French movies often are.
Jon strolls in soaking wet and 20 minutes late but still donning an easy smile. “My apologies! I walked to a different café across town. All mixed up!” I lie and say I just got there too to assuage any leftover guilt he may be harboring.
Jon has a lot of that, I find out. Guilt about his successes, his failures, his moments of just allowing himself to be human. All the competition here plays into it, he says, there’s no room to not be the best. This is true. We are living in arguably the most artist-saturated time in music history with the rise of internet streaming and non-physical media, anyone off the street can go home, record their album and maybe even break onto the scene. This is especially true in the Bay Area where Jon swears that you could pull up to anyone on the street asking if they’re in a band and leave with someone’s SoundCloud or Bandcamp account info.
But this guilt drives a lot of his creation too, encouraging him to write and perfect more songs than he knows what to do with, locking himself in a studio for days just to work on his upcoming album, and even writing songs inside his hospital bed as he healed from an emergency liver transplant. Most aren’t that dedicated on a good day, but that’s just part of Jon’s charm.
“What else would I be doing?” he asks me. “I don’t have anything else.” I have no way of knowing if this is true, but it is clear that this thought drives a lot of what he does. He expresses his desire to write and create music—his “need” as he calls it—throughout our day together, and how working helps dissipate the guilt he feels while following his dream fully. He’s not in college and mentions twice that he has no real back up plan. He writes about this as well in his songs, particularly about feeling like he’s falling behind his friends who have all gone off to college, moved out of their home towns, and pursued other, more practical dreams.
One of my favorites of his songs, “I Had a Dumb Night”, captures the complexity of the pursuit of being an artist within a generation of young people funneled into college as the only means to live and thrive. Jon perfectly demonstrates his role as the “dumb friend” only being able to provide entertainment, like a jester, while his friends conquer math and crawl into their ivory towers.
“Is that song true, Jon?” Jonah asks. “Of course it’s true! I’m no faker!” he replies as he readjusts his beanie. He plays with his hands while looking down and tells us about his “Dumb Night” and the friend who meant well but hurt him in her quest to get into the best school, telling him she had no desire to live in a car all her life. Jon lives at his parents’ house in Albany but thinks a lot about the nature of tour life and the inevitability of the starving artist who lives out of their car trope roaming from gig to gig.
This brutal honesty and self reflection is indicative of his style as a musician, but doesn’t bog down the optimistic nature of the sound. He’s like this in person too, with constant asides and a strong desire to make people laugh. I can see his eyes glimmer when he steals a smile or a particularly ugly laugh out of me while I’m trying to play serious.
At one point he pulls out his wallet to grab something and me and Jonah catch a glimpse of a tattered portrait of who we assume is his dad. “Oh no, baby, this is the Cannoli King!” He says, again with eyes glinting, and smirk that gives away that he was waiting for us to ask about it. The Cannoli King, it turns out, is a very pompous man Jon and his brother encountered in New York while searching for the perfect New Yorker. The Cannoli King fit the bill a little too well when he was heard yelling at some poor soul over the phone in a thick New York Italian accent about his bulk order not coming through in time, urging the grocer to reconsider the fact that he was “THE Cannoli King!” Jon recalls how “authentically into himself” the Cannoli King had been and laughs every time he tries to execute the accent.
That’s the thing with Jon. Through his music and his persona, he is engaging without holding you hostage. Just in this interview I had quickly lost track of time, and we had commenced on an informal tour of Berkeley. As we walk up and down the hills of the UC Berkeley campus, I ask him what place his music would be if it was a place anywhere on Earth, and he quickly shoots back Disneyland. As we near the vintage shop where he later acquires the Giants jersey, I want to know about what shoe his personality would be. He thinks for a minute, nods decisively and tells me he’d be a croc. He is not for everyone. In fact, he doesn’t want to be. And while that makes for more interesting sound and more genuine interaction, celebrity status does not this make. As he reaches further musically, and we near the natural ending point of our four-hour interview and excursion, I wonder if his fanbase will expand too. Then, I wonder if he’d even care.
Jon Bunting just released a new set of songs on April 18th that he likes to think is more of a “dissertation of songs” than an EP. This “DOS” will touch on topics as diverse as SF techies and body image in his signature experimental folky-pop-y sort of style. You can find his music (and the new EP) on Bandcamp at https://jonbuntingtunes.bandcamp.com/.
Jay Lounds is a third year at UC Davis and serves as the Public Relations Director and a DJ for our very own KDVS. They really like live music, good food, making new friends, and Jon’s song Dignity.