Working musicians constantly evolve
Updated: Mar 6, 2021
Adrian > Ann Arbor > Michigan – First Stage
I learned that Jason Magee was musically gifted shortly after we met. He and my husband Steve have been friends since high school. After moving to Ann Arbor, I met Jason on my first date with Steve, back in the winter of 1992 when we were all going to UM.
One weekend, we were hanging out at my Aunt Honey’s house near Michigan Stadium, playing records from her music collection – Ray Charles, The Beatles, Dizzy Gillespie. Jason sat down at her piano and started replicating the songs, playing chords it had taken me years of classical piano training to learn.
“How many years did you take lessons?” I asked.
“None,” he said.
“That’s crazy,” I said. I couldn’t play off the cuff like that. In fact, I’d never met anyone with Jason’s innate musical ability.
That night, Jason confessed that he was disappointed that he hadn’t ‘made it’ yet – talking about some of the musicians he admired, like John Lennon who was a household name by 23. I remember thinking, We’re young, dude. Don’t sweat it. You’re going to make it.
By that point, Jason had been playing in a band for five years. As a junior in high school, he’d been asked to join the much-revered Adrian High School Assembly Band by classmate Brian Kleinsmith, who mentored him for the next year and is to this day a talented musician, said Jason.
Drummer and friend Ben Lorenz joined the band, as well. In addition to playing at school assemblies, they starting playing out at the local teen club and a few Adrian pubs as the Restroom Poets, Love Coats and the Latin Love Baskets. Note – none were Latin. At 16, Jason started writing original music and they produced tapes in his basement the ‘old-fashioned way’ - on a 4-track recorder. The first album they started selling was called Old Man.
“I was really into swearing and trying to shock people,” Jason said, laughing. “Those first albums were mixes of shock and love songs.”
The Restroom Poets’ first gig in Ann Arbor was at the Heidelberg on Main. They were supposed to open for a punk rock band, Dag Nasty, which was enjoying a fast-growing following at that time.
“It was the summer after I graduated high school, so I thought it was cool to be 17 and playing the Heidelberg,” Jason said. “Then, the band canceled and we ended up opening for a heavy metal band called Road Kill. It was a bit of a let-down!”
After booking a prime spot during the A2 Art Fair that summer, playing on the porch of the Herb David Guitar Studio, Jason and Ben picked up a third member, guitarist Chris Jasinski. Chris was friends with members of The Difference which, that year, had been named one of MTV’s Best College Band in the US. Another Adrian High School alum, Brian Poore, joined that year as the bassist.
The first couple of years in college, the foursome, then known exclusively as the Restroom Poets, started opening for The Difference and produced two more original albums – one in the basement of East Quad with Ramsey Gouda and one in the basement of The Difference’s commune farmhouse on the outskirts of Ann Arbor.
The Blind Pig was and is the top gig for rock bands to book in Ann Arbor and “man, it was hard to get into,” said Jason. “It took a couple of years for us to headline there. We started out by opening for other bands, then asked to headline on Tuesdays. Then we were moved to Wednesdays until, finally, we were booked to headline on the weekends. You had to convince all your friends to come those first years, when we were playing weekdays. Steve was actually great at that – rounding up an audience for us!”
By the time I met Jason in early 1992, the Restroom Poets was arguably the most popular alternative rock band in Ann Arbor. The Free Press and Billboard Magazine listed the Restroom Poets as one of the top 10 unsigned bands in the Midwest. They were getting regular air-time on Ann Arbor and Detroit radio stations and started opening for Rhythm Core who had a smash hit with Common Ground.
“I’ve always been inspired by exploring new genres from a technical side,” Jason said. “For a few years, I was obsessed with Ray Charles, what he does with his voice. I think he’s one of the top five singers of all time. He really inspired me to work on my vocals. I’m constantly trying to learn more about singing.”
Here are three of the songs Steve and I jammed to in our college days, from their self-titled album:
World’s Largest Free Circus One – Bookends to the album.
Death in Canada – Harder-hitting, great guitar solo, could be written about the present-day Opioid epidemic.
Managers > Chrysler Arena > Burning Out – Main Stage
About a year after graduating from UM, the band started working with a nationally-renown manager and producing their next album in one of Detroit’s most famous studios. That year, 1992, they started playing with The Verve Pipe, The Hannibals and Spank. They played Crysler Arena, opening for George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic, as well. Life was getting more complicated, though, dealing with the business side of the music industry.
“It was a super weird time,” Jason remembered. “There were all of these people wanting to work with us and telling us what we should do. We were really young and there are a lot of people involved in the music industry who are just shady. A lot of people had their own visions about who we should be.”
Around this time, people were booking them and forgetting to tell them about the gigs. “We’d get a call from a frantic owner and they’d be pissed, wondering where the hell we were,” Jason said. The Poets and their manager parted ways and the band ended up stuck with a huge production bill.
To regroup, the Poets decided to produce their next album at a friend’s professional studio. Working with Ben Ripley, it took two years and, all the while, the band was coping with the debt and living hand to mouth.
“We started taking all of these shitty gigs because they paid more,” he said. “We were all working part-time jobs trying to make ends meet. It was a rough two years. We were so sick of it all, sick of each other and sick of being poor.”
The band finished the ‘lost album’, but it was never released. Then they split up.
“Being so young and making some poor decisions cost us the opportunity to be successful the way I imagined. Unless you have a mentor you can trust, it’s really difficult to know what to do in those circumstances,” Jason said.
“I got my first ‘real’ job when I was 29. That’s how long I lasted. Here’s the thing, though, you can’t not play. If you’re a musician, you keep going. You make it a priority.”
Regrouping > Reconnecting to the Music - Evolution Stage
After the Restroom Poets broke up, Jason started playing with other bands and making a solo album which was engineered by Detroit’s Steve King, the Grammy-winning music engineer who worked with Eminem, 50 Cent, Aretha Franklin, Patti Smith and many others. In 1999, Jason had been working as a musician for nearly a decade.
In looking back, Jason admits, “I used to be so serious about music, back in the day. It was all about how music could change the world. My life changed when I stopped trying to be an ‘important’ artist. Music got way more fun.”
In 2001, the Restroom Poets came back together and played for another five years. During that time, they finished an incredible body of work in their second major release, Into the Endless.
Three O’clock – A sexy, blues-influenced song about falling for someone who’s already taken; heartfelt.
Perfect Time of Year – Reminder that life will be alright, that life is beautiful.
Time – Great vocals, poetic, chill song about longing for the past and moving on.
Then, in 2006, Jason, Ben and Brian decided to go in a totally different direction and formed a new band called Sixteen More Miles. This band was a mix of country and bluegrass, which seemed a leap from their days playing alternative rock, but for Jason, it was actually quite a natural switch. UM Music Professor Erik Santos joined the band and was a great impetus for their evolution.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the frontier era – the discovery and adventure of that time,” Jason said. “And I’d always written country music songs, though they were never produced. Country has connections to the blues, jazz and bluegrass. I wanted to understand more about it, so I went through this whole period of time listening to the greats, you know, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson.
“I listened to the shit out of those songs. In fact, when Sam (Jason and wife, Deb’s, daughter) was a baby, there were times when the only thing that could calm her down was putting on a country record.”
What’s more, their music became increasingly complex and interesting. From Jason’s early songs to now, much of the writing is about stepping into a character’s shoes.
“It could be one sentence I hear, and a song takes off in my mind.” Other times, it’s been a bigger event. Jason wrote a beautiful song, My Love, the day his daughter, Sam, was born.
My Love - Love this line describing Sam as a “Ray of sunshine deep in the coal mine.”
Wide Open - How do you write a song that’s both heart-wrenching and hopeful?
Lost and Found – Truer words…You can’t know the ups if you never fall down.
Which Way To Go – A great sing-along song – one of several on this album.
Sixteen More Miles played together for four years before they reformed as J. Magee and the Crossed Lines.
They were joined by new members including Jason Dennie on mandolin, Jesse Morgan on piano, Jordan Adema on fiddle and Kristin von Bernthal doing female vocals.
New Sounds > New Band Members > New Music Studio - Joyful Stage
The Crossed Lines likes to be a band in genre flux - basically, one where members write and play whatever they want, regardless of labels. Their first album primarily pays tribute to Americana and alt-country. Blood in the Water is based on character immersion about the journey of a man who has been screwed over in a land deal by the government.
“I set out to write an album that was a mix of the second side of Abbey Road, where you have small bits of song that run into each other and tell a story, and themes and melodies that come up throughout,” Jason said. The album was also inspired by Willie Nelson’s album, Red Headed Stranger.
“Mainly, inspiration for me is totally out of the blue,” Jason said, adding that he wrote five songs for the album in one day, and then didn’t write again for a month. The Crossed Lines recorded the record live, with no dubs, and invited some incredible local musicians to play with them.
“I basically told them the story I’d envisioned and asked them to set themselves in that scene. Then we let loose – it was very spontaneous. I never like to tell another musician how to interpret a song. On the other hand, I only play with musicians I trust. That’s how improv happens and that’s really where the magic is. Recording that album was one of the best experiences of my life.”
It’s great to listen to the entire story/album, but here’s a sample from Blood in the Water:
High Road – Incredible instrumental improv during last half of song.
Bottle of Gin – Great saloon song; my sentiments exactly;)
Hard Times – On the bluesy end of the spectrum – also shows off Jason’s vocals.
Wide World – Whimsical, kind of makes you feel like laying under a bright blue sky, watching the clouds; love the piano parts by Jesse and harmonies with Kristin.
Jason’s latest musical obsession is Hip Hop, which he has been studying for the past couple of years. He and Ben also opened their own music studio, Willis Sound, which will be featured in a future blog piece.
“I realized someone needed to be able to produce Hip Hop, so I’ve spent the past two years working on the drum machine and making samples. I’m the electronic music guy now and I really love it.” Jason’s started collaborating on songs with local rappers.
“Sometimes, I still feel like I haven’t gotten there, wherever there is,” he said, “but I get to play on a regular basis and I get to live in this creative scene. My life could have been very different, if I’d made other choices. Honestly, I’d rather be where I am.”
Jason and I were 21 when we met and my idea of what constitutes 'making it' has evolved drastically since then. What I’ve come to learn watching Jason and other artists over the years is that what truly matters is continually growing.
I’m grateful that we met when we did and that the Restroom Poets was the musical backdrop of many incredible friendships, and of my falling in love with Steve. But, while I still enjoy listening to those early songs, Jason’s new music is so much richer, so full of joy. His artistry continues to evolve, and that’s what the best artists do.
Special note to Jason and Ben - When I was researching for this article, I saw that your first Battle of the Bands was in March 19, 1988. That’s 30 years ago. You have so much to be proud of - Congrats to you both!
The Crossed Lines will be playing this coming Friday, May 4 at the Heidelberg’s Club Above. Come on out and join us!