Interview: John Vournakis

words by Nate Pollard
| Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Even in the first few notes,  John Vournakis’s EP is steeped in the southern traditions of heartbreaking storytelling that is sadly lacking in today’s popular music scene. It is sentimental, but not sweet. John doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve — he wears an entire suit made of hearts. Hell, the guy likes Third Eye Blind without irony!

But, proclamations of authenticity aside, his lyrical honesty is not just refreshing, it’s actually good.  In the end, that’s all that matters. Introducing the winner of the 2011 Verbicide Unsigned contest Judges’ Choice award!

Aren’t you a little too young for such world-weary music and lyrics?
That’s funny, I’ve never thought of my music as world-weary. That being said, you’re never too young to feel like life has knocked you down and kicked you in the balls a few times.

How did you first fall into songwriting?
I’ve been playing music since I was a little kid. I used to sit on my dad’s lap and plink away at the piano. I was in the school band all the way into high school (I played drums), but I got my first guitar for my 13th birthday, and I think I was 15 when I wrote my first real song. It was about a girl — shocker, I know. Up to that point, I had always written words, and learning guitar helped me slap the two together.

Is there an autobiographical thrust to your music, or is it mostly you playing with ideas? Which song of yours is the most personal, and why?
My songs definitely have an autobiographical bent to them, but they’re certainly not my life experiences verbatim. For instance, “Gold Club” came about because of someone I knew, but it’s not like the lyrics are an exact portrayal of that person or that relationship. Obviously, I take some artistic liberties and embellish certain things, because at a certain point the song isn’t just a way for me to talk about my life, it’s an attempt to entertain and connect with the listener.

I try to be as genuine as possible without turning a song into a diary entry, and I do my best to play to my own skill set. Take Craig Finn, for instance: that guy can create a whole world of characters and places for the listener to get wrapped up in. Listening to a Hold Steady album is like reading a book — there’s a whole story arc. For me, my songs are just stories on their own, and I guess since I pull from my own life, there isn’t much of a cohesive narrative, just sort of snapshots of times and places.

I guess the most personal song on this EP would probably be “Around.” I wrote that song towards the end of college when I was really looking back at the past few years of my life and trying to say goodbye to some things and some people that were hard to let go of.

Both Georgia and Texas — two places you’ve called home — are known for their folk and country traditions. But give us one artist or genre that people would never think you’d like. Not an ironic or guilty pleasure, but someone you really enjoy.
You’re right about those two places, especially Texas. It’s tough playing my kind of music knowing that Townes Van Zandt already did it better than I ever will.

As far as music I love that isn’t really in the same vein as what I play, I could talk about it for days, so I’m probably gonna go off the rails a little bit on this one. Also, I don’t really get how people can like something “ironically.” I think that just means they’re embarrassed they like it, right? Why be embarrassed about it? Everything has its place.

That being said, most people probably wouldn’t expect that I have a huge love of hip-hop and hardcore. I think my favorites would be Lupe Fiasco and American Nightmare/Give Up The Ghost, respectively. Hip-hop and folk music have a lot in common as far as storytelling.

Other than that, I think Third Eye Blind’s first record is pretty close to perfect, and people always laugh when I say that. I’m also a huge fan of that LMFAO song “Party Rock Anthem.” It’s impossible not to dance to that song. Oh, and everything Nirvana ever did, they’re definitely another all-time favorite.

Does your location tend to feed your music?  Would you be the same John Vournakis if you were in a city like New York or Los Angeles?
I think that my music is definitely influenced by location. I didn’t even really get into folk music until I moved to Michigan when I was 19. Prior to that I had played in punk and metal bands, so location had a huge part in providing me with some direction on what to do with my solo stuff. Aside from that though, I really just write what comes out, and I’ve written songs in so many different places, it’s hard for me to believe that would change much based on a different city.

What came first, the banjo or the harmonica?
The harmonica came first. I picked it up about four years ago to be able to flesh out my songs a little more, and the banjo came along about a year later. I’m certainly not a master of either, but they’re incredibly fun to play.

Generally speaking, how badly does a relationship have to go before you write a song about it?
I don’t think a relationship necessarily has to go bad before I write about it. I’ve been with my current girlfriend for years now, and there are definitely songs that touch on our relationship. “High as a Georgia Pine” is about her. Like I said before, my songs aren’t 100% Bible truth, so while there’s elements of people and relationships running around in some songs, it’s not always a case of a song being “about” somebody.

Give us one tour or show story that would shock your parents.
Ha, there isn’t much that would shock them at this point! I’m really tight with both my parents and try not to do anything that would embarrass them. I try to be as professional as possible when I play — not drink too much, and save the partying for after my set. It’s pretty hard to party when you have to work the next morning or get up and drive eight hours to the next town. Get back to me in a few years, maybe I’ll have some rock star shit to talk about then!

Verbicide Unsigned is a contest that was created in support of independent artist. How do you embody the spirit of independent music?
For me, being an independent musician is all about doing what you can with the resources you have available. My EP was recorded by a friend of mine in The Buzzkillers, an awesome ska/punk band from Austin, who gave me a deal because he believed in me. I don’t have a manager or a label, I don’t pay people to book my shows for me. I work 40-plus hours a week to try to keep this thing moving, and I’m lucky enough to have an incredibly supportive network of other like minded people helping me along the way.

Do you have any plans for touring? What’s next for you and the Petty Thieves?
I’ve got a couple things in the works. I recently relocated to Atlanta, where I grew up. Back in November, the other band I play in, Slowriter, did a southeastern tour, and we’re working on new songs and playing regionally as much as possible. I’m trying to plan a short tour for spring and summer, but that’s still in the planning stages. As far as next steps, I’m just working on songs, and will hopefully have another EP out by the end of summer.