If you want to understand singer/songwriter/guitarist Dennis Jones’ songwriting style, just listen to “Front Door Man,” off of 2020’s Soft Hard and Loud.
It’s a Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired shuffle with shades of Freddie King, a straight-forward kind of blues. But lyrically, it’s a take on the iconic “Back Door Man,” written by Willie Dixon and recorded by Howlin’ Wolf (and covered by others), a tale of someone messing around with married women.
In Jones’ version, the narrator doesn’t sneak, instead boldly going through the front door to meet his companions.
Like just about all of Jones’ songs, “Front Door Man” began with a title.
“I was really shocked when I looked up the title, and it came back blank,” he says. “I was like, ‘Wow, nobody's written a song called "Front Door Man."’ The title inspired Jones to create a strong character who isn’t ashamed of his philandering. Blues cheaters tend to skulk. Jones’ character struts. “It's a guy who just knows what he wants. And he knows his woman's with a crappy guy. And she's a great woman: ‘You need to be with me and not him.” And he mans up and goes to the front door, and he's not trying to sneak around at all.”
Once the lyrics came, he knew he wanted a Texas shuffle, one a la Vaughan, but not lifted from one of Vaughan’s songs.
Together it’s a pure Jones move, taking the known and reconfiguring it through his own lens and influences. It’s a fresh take made out of different, familiar takes.
This is what Jones does best. Soft Hard and Loud is the latest example of his ability to take various song genres and make himself the thread that holds it all together. Because while Soft Hard and Loud goes from blues rock to punk to metal, Jones’ bluesy voice and sensibility underpins it all.
Jones didn’t grow up a pure blues fan in Baltimore County, Maryland. “It’s all horse country,” he recalls. “My grandfather was a big country [music fan].” Jones acknowledges that those early influences wound up in his music, perhaps subconsciously. “I kind of took what I wanted and ran with it. And it's funny how sometimes it just seeps in. When you don't even think about it, it kind of just seeps.”
Jones’ grandfather played guitar, which inspired Jones to learn it. He got a guitar as a birthday gift at 13 and was in bands a few years later, a Woodstock-attending/Dylan-loving older brother helping to guide Jones’ more rock-oriented tastes. Jones served in the military, continuing to perform, and eventually reached back to the artists who had influenced his influences. That brought him to the blues, the journey of so many.
For Jones, the blues is an origin point, but not a destination, a crucial part of his work but, like his grandfather’s country music, now part of his musical DNA.
In this interview, Jones discusses his songwriting process, which relies on a combination of trust in his process and actionable tips to help the songs flow. He’s got the soul of an artist but the discipline of someone who served in the military. Together they make for fascinating insights.
Start the song with a title
Dennis Jones: I write lyrics all the time. I just get an idea. Like yesterday, a friend of mine was over, and we were having a conversation. That's usually how some things like titles happen. I just wrote down this title. I have a book with hundreds of titles; anything that pops into my head. And then, when it's time to do an album, or write songs, I go and find one that really sticks out. And then I'll just take that and try to mold the song around and try to go back to some of the things I've recorded. And sometimes I'll get inspired by the lyrics. And then the music will just wrap itself around in some weird way.
I think Bob Dylan said it a long time ago, we don't really write songs, we're just kind of here to receive them. We're the receivers for them. And I kind of believe that. It's almost like a universal spiritual kind of thing, when you tune in. A lot of people thought I wrote these songs during COVID, because some of the subject matter seems to fit. But I didn't do that at all. This was all done before COVID even came along and Black Lives Matter was a big deal. I think myself and a lot of other artists are tuned in to things that are going on. And some of us are brave enough to write about them. And some of us aren't, because we don't want to...how do you say?...shake things up. But I love shaking things up. I think that's what music is all about. Being a kid in the 70s and listening to music and all the great music that came out.
Working Mojo: Are your more political songs, I was thinking of “Burn Down the Plantation” and “I Hate Hate,” are they harder to write?
Jones: No, not at all. It's very easy to have these ideas and to put them across. You know, being black in America, it's like, I'm not a ‘poor me’ kind of person. I don't feel like a victim. When I wrote "Burn the Plantation Down," I was basing that on a book I read years ago called Bullwhip Days. And it was memoirs from ex-slaves. And I thought, what would it be like for a slave to write a song one day after freedom? One day after he's no longer in chains or bound to a plantation, how would he feel? And I put myself in that place, and I just wrote this song, how it feels, and that's where I was coming from.
I'm trying to write about things from a different place and not make it about me, me, me, and trying to do more from another person's perspective, how someone else might feel about something. That song to me, it sounds like an angry song. But if you were that person, you'd probably feel the same way. Because no, slavery wasn't a good thing for anybody, to be owned by someone and to be property. No, you were less valuable than cattle. So that can't make a man feel good.
With "I Hate Hate," I've had that title for years. I'm surprised one of my friends didn't write about it, because I've been talking about it. And that's something that I stopped doing. I had a friend write a song after I told him a title of mine. He ended up producing an album and writing a song with that same title. I was like, ‘Oh, what a big mouth I have. I will never do that again.’ But "I Hate Hate," I've been kicking that title around for three years and I just sat down and wrote the song. I wrote it in about an hour. To me, knowledge is king. The more you know about things, the more you can react properly, give an honest opinion. And that's the problem I think, with our country and the world right now, is so much misinformation out there. You don't know what to believe. You don't know what to believe on COVID. You don't know where it came from. And if people don't like the narrative, they'll make up their own. And it's a sad state. But basically, we have more in common than we have not in common.
I choose not to be a victim. If a black inventor can become a millionaire in the 1920s, what's my fucking excuse? I think too many people are just singing the wrong song. I have strong opinions about it. A lot of people can't handle it, so I keep it to myself. I'm telling you, but anyway... [laughs]. I have no problem writing about race and religion and people being brainwashed by silly things and doing things that are just ridiculous. And we don't seem to learn from history. We keep repeating it over and over again. I just hope we can be enlightened by something by something or someone in a positive way, very soon, because the world needs it. We really need it.
Jones: I think between 1973, 1975, and 1980 [there were] so many great, great albums and people were mixing stuff together. The Isley Brothers were doing Seals and Crofts songs and people were really starting to just get along. And in that sense, we didn't have these [political] divisions, like we have so much now. And I think music has a lot to do with it; always has. The beautiful thing about Hendrix, if you listen to his stuff, it's still very relevant. His lyrics were just amazing; it was poetry. He was the full package. Not many people I've seen since have that. It's just inspiration. It's focus.
I came up [listening to] many genres of music from R&B to soul and jazz and gospel. It was all in my household. I had an older brother that went to Woodstock and he was into the Santana Blues Band and Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan. I couldn't stand Dylan when I heard him. I remember [my brother] slapping me in the head and saying, 'Shut up and listen to the lyrics. Don't worry about his voice.'
WM: Do you go back to your snippets that you're recording? You must have a lot.
Jones: Oh, God. Tons of them. Yeah, I just go through them and listen to them. And I delete the ones that I thought were great at the time [laughs]. A lot of stuff you put down, you're like, 'What was I thinking?' And most of it is spontaneous anyway. I used to just use a tape recorder. But the phone makes it so much easier. I can use it anytime I get a melody in my head. I'll just sing it into the little recorder in my phone, and I go back to it later and it's saved. Myself and many musicians have lost a lot of great songs by waking up in the middle of the night and not writing them down. And in the morning, they're gone. So I don't want that to happen anymore. It's a great process, man. I really love it.
I write music that I like. It sounds kind of selfish, but it's really not. Because I know my crowd. I know the audience that I'm playing for. And I just write music that I want to hear. Before I record it, I play the songs for the audience and I'm like, ‘Well, they didn't receive that one too well,’ so maybe I'll rewrite it or just not put it on the album. I test my songs before I record them, but sometimes it's just a gut feeling. And sometimes the songs we think are going to be good, to audiences it's like 'Eh' and the ones with like, 'God, it's a throwaway song' and they love it. You never know. I just try to write. I usually write anywhere from 15 to 20 songs for an album, go back and scale it down to 10 or 13 or whatever. That's what I do for every album. Some songs are leftover and I might use them later on. Usually I don't, but sometimes I do.
It's all what I feel in my gut and what I hear. We're not always right, but the thing is, I don't feel like I'm selling out. I don't have any feelings like ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I wouldn't have done that.’ Once it's out there, you’ve got to let it go. You let the album go and you start on your next project. I have friends that are great musicians that have been sitting on albums for five, six, seven years, because they want to get it right. They want to do that Steely Dan thing, which is amazing. But there's only one Steely Dan. Those albums, they set a standard, and I love them. I am more of a guy that likes to get in there, grind it out and do the best you can. Have other people that you trust listen to it and get their feedback.
What I really don't like doing is, and it’s hard to do in the blues field, I don't like repeating myself, or feeling like I'm ripping off someone else, you know? We all have our influence so it is naturally going to be something there. But I really try, even when I write a song title out, I'll look it up online to see if that title's been used before. And if it's used in the same genre of music that I'm doing, I won't do it. I'll change it or I'll do something else. But if I'm writing a blues song, and the same title's a reggae song or a jazz song, then it doesn't matter. Because that to me separates it. It’s the difference. I know people that do it and don't care, but I just don't want to feel like there's still [repeated] ideas out there. Even though there's so many hundreds of thousands of songs, written and out there, I just try my best to be Dennis Jones and nobody else. It's hard, but that's what I try to do.
WM: So you said that with blues, it's hard to avoid repetition. How do you find something new to say, that sounds like the blues, but that also sounds different?
Jones: It's very hard. I have seven albums out: six studio albums and one live album. And I have all my lyrics printed out. So I'll go back and reread some of my stuff. So at least I'm not repeating myself. When you hear a Robert Cray song, you know it's Robert Cray. And that's what I love about Robert. He's just got his sound and I love that. But myself, I'm more all over the place. I'll write a blues rock song, I'll write a reggae song. I have a hard time just doing just a blues album. And I know that my career would be further if I would just pick one thing and stick with it. But that's not who I am. I had a label tell me the same thing one time: just do this, and things will be fine. And I just have a hard, hard time doing that because, like I said, I have so many influences.
Starting with the blues
WM: One of the things I loved about Soft Hard and Loud was the variety and that it felt like a good mix of different styles, but it all sounded like you. Do you keep track of the styles to see if you want to do something like a slow blues or something else?
Jones: Well, like I said, I write a bunch of songs, and then I sift through them and see which ones I think [sound good]. Even though people don't hear [it] sometimes, they say an R&B song and then a reggae song and a hard rock song. To me, blues is the foundation of these songs. So to me, it's not a stretch to do that. Because if you know the history of reggae and think about when Jamaica got its independence, and I think it was in the 60s, and then they had all these transistor radios. They were listening to jump blues, they were listening to all that old stuff back in the day. And that was the beginning of some of the ska and some of the music there in Jamaica. Even though it's reggae, it came from the blues. It was a couple of years ago, when I really studied it and did the history on it. But it's all connected. It's all very connected.
So I don't really think about it. To me, a good song is a good song. If it's country, if it's blues, whatever. And if I can make it flow with the other songs, if it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, if it flows, I'll write it and record it and put it out. Also, there's the sequence of songs on your record, how they flow into each other. That's the hardest part. Before you put your record out, it's like what song is first, second, third, and fourth? That drives me crazy sometimes, to figure that part out. Then sometimes, like I said, you have to just let it go. You do your best and let it go.
The songs always arrive
WM: You said before that you stay off of social media, you try and like take walks, and you meditate. Is that while you're writing an album? Or is it all the time?
Jones: It's not all the time. Sometimes, [I’m online] when I'm promoting shows and stuff like that. Put it this way: if I wasn't in a band, I wouldn't have anything. I wouldn't have social media at all. I wouldn't even be on Facebook, Twitter, none of that stuff. That's not who I am. It's almost like a drug. You find yourself looking at your phone. Anytime you get like a down time or slightly bored, the first thing you do is check emails. It's like, ‘What the hell am I doing? Go do something creative!’
It's mainly when I'm writing, I do it. I'll go in, I'll check whatever I'm doing real quick, I'll answer some emails, I'll go to Facebook, but I don't spend a lot of time on that. And that's usually in the morning. And then I'll just go and, if I'm writing, then I go into that mode where I don't want to [be disturbed]. Even my woman knows when to leave me alone. And when I'm in that zone, she's very aware of that and she doesn't bother me. Nobody does. I won't answer the phone [or anything] because you can't be interrupted in that creative process. You can't because it'll throw you off.
Some days I start to write and I really don't have writer's block. If I'm not writing well on guitar, I'll pick up my bass and put on a drum machine and start writing [on that]. To me, the bass and drums are the foundation of the song and if you have that, then you can build on that. You can build anything on top of that. So I write that way sometimes. I'll grab my acoustic guitar sometimes. I'll grab my electric guitar, I'll turn on some effects, some delays, or whatever, and get some weird effect going. I'm always trying to find ways to keep myself motivated. And the songs will come. They always do. And that's the thing—I know they're going to come. I'm not worried about it. I'm not going 'Oh my God. Can I write another song? Will I ever be able to write?' It's all just relax and get in your zone and let God and the universe take over. And it does. Every time. Because I know it's going to be there. If you know it's going to be there, it'll never let you down. Ever.
WM: So when you're in the zone like you mentioned, how long does it take to write a song or an album?
Jones: You know, it depends. It really depends. Some songs are tougher than others. Some can come out in an hour, some take weeks. Sometimes it'll be just a raw idea and then I'll keep building on it and building it, and some just flow like wine. They just flow like I've known it my whole life. So whatever the process is I just keep working on it. I just keep working on it every day. Sometimes you get stuck, you take a break, go for a walk, you just do something else, and then you come back to it. It usually works itself out. In the middle of the night, sometimes things pop in my head, and I just get up, jot it down, and go back to bed. It's funny, because when things are quiet and everyone's asleep, sometimes that's the best time to be creative. The best time.
Getting to done
WM: How do you know when a song is done?
Jones: [laughs] Well, I think because I've written so many songs. And I've listened to so many other artists and songs...it's a feeling you have. And that's what's good about having a good producer or an engineer that you trust. And I had both of those. My bass player, Cornelius Mims, he's a legendary bass player, first of all. He played with Marvin Gaye, when he was like 15 or 16. He's a hell of a guy and a producer. And we produced the album together. And my engineer, he's a great guitar player. And we're great friends. I'm one day older than him [laughs]. His name's Robbie Malone, we have this thing that it's just like laughter and good times. It's like, nothing's uptight. I'm not worried about the clock and oh, my God, how much time do I have left today? Do I have enough money to pay for a session? It's a very relaxed environment. And I asked them to give me feedback. I want this to be better than the last album. So I do get feedback. But I just knew. It's a gut feeling when you know.
Like I said with "Front Door Man," after I went home and listened to it I was like, ‘No, it just needs something else.’ It's just a feeling. It's hard to describe it. But it's just something when you hear it, and you're like, ‘No, I can do better’ or it needs something else. Like when you're cooking and you don't have enough salt or pepper, you're like 'Ack! This doesn't taste right! I've got to put some more seasoning in.' [laughs]
Interview edited for brevity and clarity.