Like many people, Jon Regen has spent much of 2016 watching and reading the news. With accounts of violence, terrorist attacks and an increasingly divisive political climate filling his mind, the New York City-based musician sat down at his piano and began putting turning his observations about the state of the world into song.
“This was me sitting in my apartment in the sweltering New York heat,” he says. “I had CNN and MSNBC on and it just seemed like a week where the world was caving in. Unarmed black men were getting killed. Then, in response, police officers were getting killed. I really wondered, ‘Are we at the apex of Armageddon?’”
Regen scribbled, “We’re all the same/things have to change,” on a piece of paper, then began filling the piece out with more ideas. “The song wrote itself in a matter of day,” he recalls. He wanted to enlist the talents of his friend, saxophonist and producer Terrace Martin (Kendrick Lamar). Martin heard the song but was unable to commit to a recording session as he was preparing for a tour with Herbie Hancock. Regen decided to record the song at his house instead. The finished version very quickly fell into place.
“It wasn’t a political statement,” he says. “It was just me saying, ‘The world is descending into chaos. Can we maybe pause that for a minute?’”
Regen recalls that just after he’d written “All The Same” he saw an unusual Facebook post from his friend Kim Bullard, of Elton John’s band. Bullard happened to be in Nice, France, during the July 15 terror attacks there.
“He wrote something like, ‘My TV’s working great. My air conditioner’s working great and I had to step over dead bodies to get back to my hotel,'" Regen says. "That was really the impetus for me to put the song online.”
Regen shot a video using his iPhone and sent it out into the world via his social media accounts and website. It began getting attention immediately, including a spot on French newspaper Nice-Matin’s front page.
“All The Same” wasn’t just a departure in how Regen works. It was, for him, the birth of an entirely different type of song than he’d written before. “I’ve never been a topical songwriter,” he says. “I’ve always been amazed by guys like Randy Newman who can channel their rage and their heartbreak over current events into moving pieces of art. But I do think we’re descending into a new place in life where maybe we need people, artists and otherwise, to not shy away from taking a stand against craziness. Things I was taught as a kid about treating people with respect and kindness? I think we could use more of it in the world.”
The reaction to “All The Same” has demonstrated to Regen that his artistic risk-taking was worthwhile. “It showed me that maybe I have more a potent voice than I was aware of,” he says. “This has made me less scared to go into places I haven’t been before.”
This isn’t the first time that Regen has taken risks. Although he began his career as a straight ahead jazz player, he began writing material in the singer-songwriter style as heard on albums, such as 2015’s Stop Time, more than a decade ago. Having studied with jazz piano legend Kenny Barron, he toured with Kyle Eastwood and Jimmy Scott. “Writing songs was a love of mine from the time I was a kid,” Regen says. “I never found a way to do that until I decided I was going to merge the freedom and the possibility of the jazz that I’d been playing with trying to write songs with words and singing.”
Early efforts such as Let It Go and Revolution, he says, were “bittersweet.”
“I had a lot of breakups early on and I think a lot of my songs reflected that," he says. "I got a note from a music journalist about Let It Go that read, ‘What happened to you?’”
By the time he began writing Stop Time his life had improved. He’d gotten married and discovered a new optimism that he wanted to reflect in his songs. “I thought, ‘What if I wrote about the guy who’s happy?’”
Producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson) encouraged him to best himself as a writer. “I’d show him a song and he’d say, ‘That’s great. Write another one.’ He was such a cheerleader and all that positive energy just found its way into the songs.”
Regen will spend the remaining months of 2016 splitting his time between shows in the U.S. and Europe. In addition to being a recording artist and songwriter, he’s a prolific music journalist whose work consistently appears in the magazine Keyboard. “I never had any designs on being a music journalist,” he says. But, having been asked to consider contributing, he decided to begin pitching idea’s to the magazine’s editor. Today, he serves as an editor-at-large for the publication.
“I’m endlessly fascinated by peoples’ creative output,” he says. “I’m also amazed at this idea of the non-accidental success story. When you constantly see somebody succeeding, it’s obviously not by mistake. What are the secrets of some of these people? I met Mitchell Froom because I did a story on the organ solo from [Crowded House’s] ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over.’ That’s one of the first times in my life I ever heard a Hammond organ. It’s been an incredibly restorative symbiosis of being a writer and a musician at the same time.”
It is also, he says, a way for him to connect with other people and learn their stories. And, maybe, in some way, help create some understanding. That very same hope that brought “All The Same” into the world.
“I think John Lennon was right when he wrote ‘Imagine,’" Regen says, "and I think if more of us imagined a world in a better place, maybe we could get there.”