RON HARTMAN / CHRONICLE PHOTO – Jonathan Foster plays at the Axe & Fiddle on Saturday night.
COTTAGE GROVE – Jonathan Foster hasn’t discovered the Holy Grail. He doesn’t know the answer to life, the universe and all of its entangled mystery.
But as a biologist by day and a singer-songwriter by night, Foster gets some pretty phenomenal snapshots of how humans interact through his different lenses.
In a sense, he has struck a brand-new chord.
“I treat music as an artistry. Music has always been my connection to humans,” Foster said after playing two sets at the Axe & Fiddle on Saturday night. “I’ve always had a hard time with that socialialization, and music connects me with people.
“In my other world, I’m an environmental biologist. I like being out in the woods by myself, doing solo hikes, things like that. It took the hurricanes down in New Orleans – I did environmental work and clean-up work there for FEMA and the U.S. Corps of Engineers – and that regrouped my human connection, and I took that and put it into my songwriting and ever since then I’ve had an awakening of what is my purpose and connection with how I connect with humans.
“The other side of my artistry and photography and paintings is all related to my love of the natural world – birds, wetlands, critters. Even on this mini-tour, I have two site visits that I’m getting paid for as a biologist. I’m a hustler, and as an artist if you want to make a living, you have to be a hustler.”
Foster says he loves what he does, even if that means having to scramble to make a buck now and then.
“I played 120 shows last year, and I’m on the books for 130 or 140 shows this year,” he said. “I released my fifth studio album last summer, and just put out a new single a couple weeks ago called ‘The Mountain Echo.’ Touring is the only thing I can do substantively to pay the bills.”
To save on hotel bills, he sleeps in his van while touring.
“The van has all the amenities – I actually get kind of giddy about it,” Foster said. “You have to embrace it. When I’m playing, that’s what I want to do. I try to listen, I try to ask questions and observe what’s going on around me. It’s my second time in Cottage Grove and I made sure I went to the river and Covered Bridges and Susan Creek Falls. It’s such a great time to be in southern Oregon because of the outdoors and it was a beautiful weekend.
“Into the Black,” a song on the new album, Lantern Shade, deals with climate change and refers to victims who died because they refused to wait for firefighters to rescue them.
“There was a guy from LA who was disappointed because he thought it was a Neil Young song – “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” – and that’s the first negative review it got. ‘Into the Black’ is firefighters terminology, it refers to running into the black of a fire instead of running away from it. People died. If they would have waited they would have survived. But they panicked.”
Another treasured song on that new album is “May Our Paths Cross Again,” which Foster says he wrote in tribute to John Prine, who was 73 when he died on April 7, 2020.
“We were in lockdown, my wife Susie was working all the time in the medical world, and I did more gardening, yard work, cooking and cleaning than I’ve ever done. We tried to not focus on the news, and we tried to focus on things that were important. There’s pinnacles in that song that relate to what was going on in all of our lives. Relationships, families, our food, our music – especially the chorus where we sit on the patio having a cocktail after Happy Hour and just talk about, ‘How did we get here?’ and, like, ‘Oh (crap), John Prine’s dead.”
Prine represented the common man (or old woman!) with his songwriting. Foster can only hope to be so uncommonly good.
“There are a couple times that Blaze Foley was mentioned on the album. I’ve never been compared to John Prine, but I’ve been compared to Blaze – he’s a songwriter’s songwriter – partly because I look sort of like him,” Foster said. “But I also never try to imitate anybody. I want people to know it’s me.”
Foster’s been doing his two labors of love for 20 years. Now 43, he doesn’t plan on slowing down. Now that the pandemic has eased up, he says he’d like to see a surge in live music.
“This is what connects communities,” Foster said. “These small venues where you always see somebody you know and usually make new friends. As musicians, we love playing in these intimate little rooms like the Axe & Fiddle.”