Donald and Jack, by any and all of the usual standards, are Unpopular. Not unpopular in the sense of having been evaluated, and rejected by, the Great Unwashed or Washed Masses of the listening pubic. But unpopular in the sense of being completely unknown.
The slimy kid who hunches over his notebook in the back of the class, and who disses and is dissed by the sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, dweebees, and bigheads is unpopular by social evaluation. The kid who is home schooled, isolated in the socio-plastic bubble of his parents’ paranoia, is unpopular due to his total anonymity. He may be a perfectly nice kid, but no one will ever know. Thus Donald and Jack.
Donald and Jack are Eric Bartholow (all instruments and vocals) and Gary Hudach (songwriting and dreams), two factory workers from Youngstown, Ohio. They labor in musical anonymity, assembling startlingly wonderful songs and setting them adrift on the Sea of the Internet.
Last year Reverb Raccoon had the good fortune to stumble over Sad Guitars, Donald and Jack’s 5-song EP. In my review I wrote, “The most notable aspect of the album lies in the overdubbed harmonies. Eric may have limited experience in recording music, but he has obviously figured out how to arrange and record vocals. Layered over the sparse backing tracks, the harmonies evoke a Rust Belt version of the Beach Boys, what Brian Wilson may have produced if he actually had to work for a living.”
Taking that cue, Donald and Jack covered The Beach Boys’ “In My Room.” The track does not aspire to the technical perfection of the original. But it conveys a grittiness that was beyond Brian Wilson’s experience. This is not a person who has built a giant sand box in his living room and deposited a grand piano in the middle, where he sits barefoot pounding his feet into the sand and noodling nonsense. This room has a television, pictures of the wife and kids on an end table, maybe a guitar on the couch. It is a room where someone takes a hard inward look at his life before driving back to work.
The results of that inward look are revealed in a cover of the Beatles’ “In My Life.” We hear a man who is shaped by his past, not haunted by it, and who embraces the present. We have all heard this song a million times. And yet here it sounds fresh, infused with a sense of reality and honesty that the Beatles rarely captured. Let’s face it: John and Paul were great musicians and songwriters, but genuine emotion was not their strong suit. Their sentiments were always expressed from the other side of the room, with just a hint of cynicism.
We “sat down with” Eric Bartholow to learn more about Donald and Jack, and their willingness to take on the works of some of the greatest musicians of our time…
RR: Tell us how “In My Room” and “In My Life” came about…
EB: The Beach Boys cover came about because of your very own words when you called me a Rust Belt Brian Wilson. I have always been a Beach Boys fan. I didn’t realize the true genius of Brian Wilson. Brian’s work is truly amazing. I told Gary that I wanted to cover a Beach Boys song on our Donald & Jack Soundcloud page. He suggested a song from the album Pet Sounds. I wanted to cover an earlier song so I chose “In My Room.” I wanted to have it start out as the harmonies from the Smile song “Our Prayer” and go right into “In My Room.” I soon found out it was beyond my current abilities to sing all of the harmonies of “Our Prayer.” I was bummed out but happy with how “In My Room” came out.
The Beatles song was brought up by Gary. I was going to do “A Day In The Life” but Gary suggested “In My Life.” I thought it fit in with the Donald & Jack sound. I was worried about covering a song by one the best, if not the best, bands of all time. People on Soundcloud seem to like it so I am a little relieved. I gained a new respect for the Beatles after covering “In My Life.” It sounds like a simple song but it isn’t.
RR: Your version of “In My Room” has a bit of grit that the original lacks. I guess that is the difference between northeast Ohio and southern California. Is that by design, or is it just natural?
EB: On “In My Room” I slowed the tempo a bit on purpose to change the feel. It does have a grit that the original lacks. I guess it is just naturally there. I really felt a connection to that song. I feel about my music room the same way that Brian Wilson feels about his room.
RR: When you did the covers, and also when you did the D & J originals, did you chart out the various parts before you started? Or did you just start adding things until it sounded “finished?”
EB: When I set out to record something I usually have a general idea what I want to accomplish. I play around on my acoustic guitar or on my keyboard with a piano sound to get a general feel for the song. I’ll play the chord progressions and sometimes I can create a melody line by doing that. A lot of times I’ll play like that and something else will pop in my mind. I don’t chart out the songs, I just kinda wing it.
RR: Before you start, can you hear it all in your head?
EB: When I’m working on a song it is like a radio is on in my head playing over and over. I wake up with the song in my head and go to sleep with it still there.
RR: Here’s a personal question: how would you evaluate your own talent? I would rank your talent above that of many who have been more “successful” (by the usual measures of “success”). Would you care to comment on that?
EB: I hate to compare myself with others. Everyone is so different with their talents and abilities. There is always room for personal improvement. I know that I am a late bloomer. My parents say I was late to walk (18 months)! I didn’t take a step then fall. I walked all the way across the room. I was late to talk as well. I didn’t say one word at a time. I began speaking full sentences. I think I just like to do things on my own terms when I’m ready. I think the best has yet to come.
RR: Any new D & J songs on the horizon?
EB: I put a new Donald & Jack song called “Dreamers” on Soundcloud today. It’s a bit of a departure from our other work. It’s a satirical look at our lives right now. It talks about how hard it is to be an artist with all the competition in music and also social outlets. I like the idea of going on a carousel feeling like you’re going somewhere, but you’re not. We watch stats of how our music is doing and sometimes it’s pretty dismal. I take the listener musically on a carousal ride. It’s inspired by the Idora Park Carousel that is now in Brooklyn Bridge Park, NY. The carousel is now called Jane’s Carousel. Idora Park closed here in Youngstown in 1984.
RR: Has it been a rough winter up there?
EB: Winter has been rough up here in northeast Ohio. More snow today. Yippee!
Thanks, Eric! More sad covers and original songs by Donald and Jack can be streamed on Soundcloud. Sad Guitars is available on Bandcamp and CD Baby. And be sure to join Donald and Jack on Facebook and Twitter. Or email the band at firstname.lastname@example.org.