Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Jonah Knight
by Edmund R. Schubert
(Recorded at RavenCon, Richmond, VA, April 2014; edited for clarity and supplemented with
some other material via email)
As a musician, Jonah Knight has been music or filk Guest of Honor four times, most recently at
ConCarolinas 2014. (For those unfamiliar with the term, Filk is a musical culture, genre, and
community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom.) He has to date released six albums about
ghosts, monsters, steampunk, and other cool stuff, including a soundtrack for James Maxey's
superhero novel Nobody Gets the Girl. He has recently begun performing at geek/alt weddings
for people who don't want their day ruined by the chicken dance.
He is also a podcaster. His show Pros And Cons (www.prosandconspodcast.blogspot.com), co-hosted with Mikey Mason, was an official 2013 Parsec Finalist. The show, about geek music and
convention culture, is released weekly. Additionally, he serves as the show-runner
(developmental editor) for Antimatter Press (www.antimatterpress.com) focusing on episodic
and serialized fiction in an electronic medium.
Welcome To The Age Of Steam
EDMUND SCHUBERT: How long have you been performing?
JONAH KNIGHT: Well, if you want to go all the way back, in elementary school I was in a
boy's choir, singing and dancing, and then in high school we had a really good music program
that had guitar classes, which is where I learned to play guitar and had my first music theory
EDMUND: Where was this?
JONAH: Farmington, Connecticut. And I was in bands in high school, bands in college. But the
ghost stuff, and figuring out this was the genre I wanted to work in, that started in 2009. I had
been playing in the more traditional singer/song-writer venues, but when I got married and
bought a house and had a kid, I realized I was singing all these songs about girls and bars and I
just wasn't connecting with them. They weren't that interesting to me anymore. I knew if I
wanted to keep writing music I needed to write about something else. I didn't know what it
should be and spent a long time thinking about it. If it's not girl songs, and it's not bar songs,
what is it?
And then at some point I was with a friend who designed t-shirts who had a shirt with a picture
of a ghost on it, and the caption said "Someday we will all be ghosts." I guess that sparked
something in me, because I wrote a song with that line as the chorus. And then I wrote another
song about a ghost, and then another, and thought, "Maybe I'll keep writing songs about ghosts."
EDMUND: So how did you get plugged into the convention scene? Because the conventions
have really embraced you. They love your music.
JONAH: I finished that first Ghost EP -- Ghosts Don't Disappear -- but didn't know where to
go with it. I was still thinking about more traditional venues, going to clubs and things like that.
Then I found CapClave, which is the convention that's closest to where I live. But CapClave is
EDMUND: I've been a guest there a bunch of times. That's one of the things I love about
CapClave: there's no gaming, no media; it's all focused on the literature.
JONAH: Exactly. And if you're connected at all with publishing, it's fantastic. But if you're a
musician . . . that's just not what they do. But I didn't know any of that. I just randomly emailed
them, thinking, oh, it's science fiction; maybe they'll enjoy songs about ghosts. And they were
really nice, they said come on down. I did a concert Saturday night with two other performers,
and it went great. If they had said "No, we're a literary convention, we don't want any music," I
don't know what I would have done. But it was a perfect case of me not knowing what I was
talking about, approaching a convention that by rights really shouldn't be expected to program
much music at all, and it ended up opening the right door.
EDMUND: But you said to me once before that you view your music as a form of storytelling.
So I wouldn't say it was totally inappropriate.
JONAH: I don't know. If I were on the staff at CapClave I would probably think, "We should
focus on our focus and not get too distracted with this other stuff." So I feel a certain amount of
indebtedness to them for taking a chance on me.
EDMUND: So you performed at CapClave and discovered that conventions were a good venue
for the kinds of songs you were writing. You started doing more cons, traveling, meeting people.
When did you meet James Maxey? Because the soundtrack that you did for his novel Nobody
Gets the Girl, I know that it pleased him to no end.
JONAH: James was at that first CapClave. There was an event in this little lounge and I played a
song about a ghost and he read a story about a ghost, and we just started talking. I floated the idea
of writing songs based on one of his stories and he suggested Nobody Gets the Girl. I actually
asked if I could do it before I read the book, so in hindsight I'm glad that I really liked the book.
EDMUND: The idea of doing a soundtrack for a book is so unusual. I don't know that I've ever
encountered that before. What made you think it would work?
JONAH: It has been done a few times. The highest profile one was back when the band Rush
created a soundtrack for one of Kevin J. Anderson's novels (Clockwork Angels).
EDMUND: I forgot about that. And now that I think about it, if you go even further back -- the
70s I think -- there was that first Alan Parson Project album. They did a themed album based on
short stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe called Tales of Mystery and Imagination. It's
But getting back to James' novel . . . I assume you started reading it before you did anything else.
JONAH: Actually, no. He gave me a synopsis of the novel and I wrote the first song based on
that synopsis. And then after that, then I finished reading the book. I've also written a few songs
for other people since then, based on books that they've written. That project really opened me
up to the possibility of doing more songs like that. In fact, I was so into this type of collaboration
that I signed a contract with Mercury Retrograde Press to write a series of songs based on their
books to be used as promotional tools, free content giveaways, book trailers, that sort of thing.
Unfortunately we had just gotten started on the first one when they went out of business. But I've
since written a few songs for authors like Leona Wisoker and Danielle Ackley-McPhail.
With James' book I did a couple of songs that were character studies, and a couple of songs that
are more thematic in nature. With other people's stuff, I've just written one song based on their
novel. It's actually harder to do that. You can't worry about plot points if you're trying to cover
500 pages; it really has to be something setting the mood, the tone of the story, so that someone
whose hearing it thinks, "Oh, I like that world." You might get a character or two, but it's more
about how the book feels.
EDMUND: To go back to the character studies, back in March of this year you played some
songs at James' 50th birthday party, including one that you said made you feel uncomfortable,
that song about the villain -- Free You All (A Terrorist's Lament) -- that's my favorite song on
that album. I tend to like dark stuff and that song is powerful.
JONAH: Yeah, that one's kind of weird. I don't have a lot of songs that are first person from the
real villain's perspective. A lot of my steampunk stuff is about a protagonist who's maybe a little
nuts, doing weird things that maybe you don't agree with, but that one from Nobody Gets the
Girl, he's a full-blown, no-two-ways-about-it terrorist. And I think for musicians, for anyone
outside of convention culture, if they tried writing a song about a terrorist, it's not going to fly.
Even with conventions, I feel like I have to take five minutes to set it up, to explain what's going
on. I think the song turned out well, but it's not a regular in my set list, it's not for all audiences.
Free You All (A Terrorist's Lament)
EDMUND: That's funny that you say that, because I also talked to James about this and he sent
me an email saying, among other things, "If Ray Bradbury had used a guitar instead of a
typewriter to tell his stories, it would have sounded a lot like Jonah Knight. My personal favorite
was "Free You All (A Terrorist's Lament)," written from the perspective of the villain. It's
chilling and more than a little subversive, since Jonah captures that fine line where a person
passionately devoted to doing the right thing crosses the line into being ruthless and dangerous in
the pursuit of a higher cause. The last time I heard Jonah perform the song, he said he was
actually working it out of his set list, since it made him uncomfortable getting into character for
the song. For me, that's what makes a lot of Jonah's work rise to the level of real art, the fact that
he does have some songs that can make you uncomfortable."
JONAH: Performance is a big deal for me because I frequently write characters in distress from
first person -- or in this case a villain. If I am portraying a character who is a threat, I want the
audience, if just for a moment, to think that I might be a threat to them in the audience. I really do
try to get "into character."
EDMUND: You seem to really thrive with these characters and story-driven songs. Why does
that approach appeal to you so much?
JONAH: Most of my songs are stories. I used to be a playwright, so story and character are very
important to me. One of the reasons I started writing SF/F music is because there weren't
interesting stories in pop music. I don't care about how much you love your girlfriend or how
painful it was breaking up with your boyfriend. The same response that folks have to literary
tropes, I have to songwriting tropes.
I try to start with a story that I haven't heard in a song. I usually have most of a lyric draft before I
go get the guitar. Because I have so few words to work with, the music and the performance must
further the story. The music is setting and scene description. If I were writing a short story I could
add a pile of sensory description to compliment plot and character. I don't have those words
available in a song, so choices like finger vs. flat picking, dynamic changes, and even the key a
song is in establish tone and environment from the beginning.
EDMUND: Let me shift gears to something very different. You've got this hysterical cover of
Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and I love your cover of Credence Clearwater Revival's Bad
Moon Rising. It's so moody and evocative. What do you have to do to cover someone else's
song, and what made you decide to do those two in particular?
JONAH: To play them live, anyone can do that. You don't need special permission. To record it,
if it's not in the public domain, you have to license it. That used to be really hard and smaller
indie musicians just didn't bother. But there's an online service now called Limelight, and you go
on their website, type in all of the information you know about the song, and it tells you who
owns the rights. So you pay them a nominal processing fee and they do all the paperwork, and
you pay a licensing fee based on the number of physical copies of discs you plan on producing,
and you estimate the number of downloads you expect. If you sell more downloads you just go
back and buy more. It's been made so much easier now. As for why I picked them, it's the
reasoning behind the songs I write myself: I think they tell and interesting story. A good story
will always catch my attention.
EDMUND: So what are you working on now? What's the next project?
JONAH: I actually have the next three albums written. It's just a matter of recording them,
which can be expensive if you want to do it well. I'm in the process of getting certified as a
person trainer, and the thing that has surprised me about being a personal trainer is that it's like
solving a mystery. That's the fun part: taking the pieces, what you like to eat, what you like to do,
your goals, and then putting it all together into a plan that will work. It's very creative, and I
didn't think it would be. So it's feeding that creative part of me in a really unexpected way.
EDMUND: Well good luck with that. I'll selfishly wish you a certain level of success with the
training thing so that you can finance the next few records, but not so much success that you
forget about the music. And I guess I'll see you out there on the convention circuit. Thanks for
doing this interview.
JONAH: My pleasure. See you at the next con.