The touchstones in a conversation with singer-songwriter Jono Dorr are vast and varied, and might include discourses on Southern field hollers and prison songs, the Russian Revolution and truths told by ancient Greek philosophers.
Matching emotion to intellect, Dorr’s signature sound as an artist draws upon his diverse musical influences to create a sphere of sound that is both cerebral and grounded, a stunning contrast of darkness and light.
His EP, notably his first-ever collection of original material to be released as an artist, is titled The Unexamined Life. The line is a phrase shared by Socrates as described by Plato: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
While the EP marks his artist debut, Dorr is an accomplished collaborator and producer who has conspired with artists like Hayley Kiyoko, Kehlani, Gnash and the Neighbourhood. With this roster, Dorr is a member of a creative collective. For The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living, he is an auteur. “It’s fun to write as a team. The artist leads the way, and you pinpoint what they’re trying to say. Co-writing goes back and forth. When I’m writing by myself, it’s an intuitive puzzle, where I’m like ‘That’s perfect I don’t know why it’s perfect, but it just feels right.’”
The Los Angeles native, who now resides in Santa Monica, CA, majored in philosophy at UC Santa Cruz with an electronic music minor. Dorr says that his psyche is attracted to both philosophy and songwriting. “You come across very short phrases that cut right to the meaning. What I like about philosophy is how exact it tries to be. I think poetry is similar in that it tries to be exact in an artful way.”
After college, he wrote and recorded cues for reality television shows. “Rock, country, techno. It was
how I sustained myself for a while and it got me into producing and songwriting and it was also my income source.” He records in his home studio, and notes that among his instrument collection is an acoustic piano. “There are some good piano plug-ins, but I prefer the sound of an upright piano, just a little out of tune. It has a texture to it.”
While electronic ambience highlights Dorr’s tracks, there are earthier elements that keep them rooted, as on his songs “Quiet Footsteps” and “Child.” Says Dorr, “I grew up playing guitar. There are different paths, and one of them is the blues world. So I get very obsessed with blues, and that became the thing I wanted to play. You go further back into the blues and you discover a very raw quality that resonates. It’s very jarring. I connect with the blues.”
Serrated memories from Dorr’s life annotate his narrative in “High Tide” with the words, “You always pulled a knife on me/Wait for the sun to rise ‘til you scream.” Say Dorr, “It’s literal. I had experiences when I was young of intense threats of violence. When I’m writing it’s hard for me to say that the lyrics (are?) my ideas––the words just come out.”
While he hasn’t performed since his college years, videos reveal that Jono Dorr is a telegenic and charismatic performer. His video for “High Tide” includes footage of the artist in Italy, highlighted against the backdrop of an ancient Roman aqueduct. “My two best friends both turned 30, as I did in April, so we went on an adventure and I brought my camera. When we were at the aqueduct, a guy just happened to be flying his drone. We asked him if he would shoot, and he sent me the footage––it was all so serendipitous.”
Living in Santa Monica, Dorr derives inspiration from the Pacific Ocean. “I go nearly every day to watch the sunset or to go swimming. One of the nice things during the serious lockdown was that I could get there early before the patrollers kicked everyone off of the beach. It looked like an untouched desert, with wind lines on the sand––this pristine nature. Whenever there is emotional intensity in the environment, we can connect better to music. It can be much more meaningful.”