Ahead of the release of his new album, Nothing Nice, I sat down with musician John Dionne to have a chat about brutal honesty, the Seattle music scene, and telling your parents you’re a rapper.
Cooper Dioone is a quiet guy. The kind of mellow guy you’d sit down and chat about life with. It comes as an unexpected surprise that his alter ego and musical moniker, John Dionne, is a seething, brutally honest, chain-smoking, self-described “bad man”. The new album, months in the making, is a tirade of pure honesty mixed with infectious jazz hooks and dirty beats to fill darkened rooms. So we wanted to dive into the mind of John to see what makes him tick.
Why John Dionne?
It’s my middle and last name. It has a rhyme to it and a grit. I was going by a different name previously in Seattle and one of my buddies told me I needed to change it to John Dionne. So, I just got stoked on that and let it be.
How long have you been working on this album?
Long time. I’ve been here in Boulder for seven months and I’ve been working on it virtually every day. And even before that, some of the songs go back a few years. One of the songs I wrote “Black and White”, which is on the new madelife Collective, has been a labor for a couple years now. Those lyrics were written when I was in high school and it’s really crazy to think that it’s now done.
Do you feel differently about songs that have taken so long to complete? Do they evolve over time and do your feelings about them evolve?
That song is way different from the other songs. It’s a lot more metaphorical and dark. I would say the lyrics have pretty much stayed the same, but the production aspect of the song is what has changed a lot. It’s changed two or three times completely of the course of the album which has added a lot of texture to it.
If it can be said, the album is like a lounge singer rap riff; the type of thing you smoke cigarettes in a dark room and listen to while you chill. Both angry and raw, its a very human insight into a man coming to terms with himself that a lot of people can relate to. How did this self-journey come into your music? Was that the intention or was it sort of unexpected?
Yeah, that was definitely my intention. I’ve gone through this whole process of getting to know myself and its been only now that I’ve been able to look back to reflect on painful experiences I’ve been through. And my music has always just been a place where I can express all my pain. So it was definitely an effort for me to put all of that energy into this album and create with it. It’s funny you bring up the image of smoking cigarettes in a dark room because I think about that a lot with my music, specific images that help to bring song concepts to life.
There’s a definite jazz-ish quality to many of the tracks. How did that make its way into your work?
I’m very influenced by jazz and the reach and influence that it has had on the history of hip-hop. It just kind of happened that way for me to include it in the album. I feel like a lot of the jazzy stuff helps me communicate certain emotions. I was actually lucky to work a lot with a cool guy, Will, who played saxophone on three of the tracks which added a certain soul to the music.
In one of the tracks, you mention that you don’t know who Cooper is, you know who John Dionne is. Who would you say John Dionne is as opposed to Cooper, your given name?
I feel like there is that distinction. When people listen to my music they are always surprised because it is so starkly different form how I act generally. I am quiet and joke around a lot in person but then, you know, John Dionne is where I’ve put all my demons and inner thoughts; things I wouldn’t normally communicate to people. Things I only really feel comfortable putting in the music.
Has music always been an outlet for you or was that something you discovered along your journey?
High school was when I started to deal with depression and that sort of thing, so I would say that since that age music has been my saviour. It put my mind at ease. I grew up in Boise, Idaho and my sister was the first person who ever introduced me to music. She thought it was so strange that I didn’t listen to music at all so she burned me a massive stack of CDs with classic rock, so middle school was all ACDC and Led Zeppelin. If you can believe it, I really did not like rap music. From all the mainstream stuff I had come across, the stereotypical rapper stuff you see on TV didn’t appeal to me; money and hoes. It just all seemed so fake and I didn’t get into anything more real until I listened to Atmosphere. They had that, like, vibe of meaningful stories and things that actually connected to life.
One significant thing was freshman year of high school, my english teacher was a rapper and that was around the time I started writing raps in my room. So I would show him stuff I had written and he would give me feedback; he really encouraged me. And I would also go to his shows. It was a super strange but awesome relationship, “I’m going to go see my teacher rock this show”. It’s ridiculous but he was legit, really good. We still talk about collaborating. He hooked me up with contacts who helped me get my first shows and that was when I really started to embrace the scene.
Were you big in the scene back in Seattle?
I played a few shows in Idaho when I was a senior but it was when I moved to Seattle that I started performing more and becoming a part of the hip-hop community there. That’s where Golden Alchemy and the Alchemy Union artist collective came to play into my life. Golden Alchemy is a duo; rapper Scribe the Verbalist and Golden Master. And they were kind of the two that started this monthly show in Seattle that I would play at called Turntable Sundae. I was around in the beginning when that started so I got to know a lot of artists through that. And as I’ve been going through the process of making the album here in Boulder, that whole collective of artists has been steadily growing and picking up more traction. It’s so cool to see and I also feel like I want to go back. We still talk and share each other’s projects, so I’m excited to one day get back there. It’s the most loving community of people. To be around other artists creating things is just the best thing.
The album is called Nothing Nice. What inspired that?
It’s a good encapsulation of the whole project and it gave me a focus to put all of my negative energy into. I love the way it sounds. I feel like it’s a common phrase that I picked up and just ran with on the tracks. It’s Nothing Nice.
I think that is why this album impacts so hard for me because it was very much a look into this emotional journey you’ve been on: good, bad, or indifferent. There are parts where the anger and apathy take over but there are also these parts that are so brutally honest that hit home. Emotional honesty is hard but it’s so present in the album.
It’s terrifying. It’s just like I have been through a lot. I intentionally try to be as honest as I can with myself and sometimes I’ll play a song for someone else and I can’t believe some of the things I’ve said. Have I said too much? Are people going to look at me differently? That’s really difficult for me as an artist and it’s something I’m working to embrace. And realize that people aren’t really thinking that. They aren’t judging me.
A lot of those songs, when I was deeper in my addiction, I never would have been able to complete. Its easier for me to look back now and reflect on it now. It’s definitely difficult playing things for my parents. They love the album but they still have trouble understanding some of it. It’s a weird dynamic. I came from a fairly conservative household. When I was younger, til I was 8 or so, we were pretty Christian and then stopped going to church. They might have been shocked by a lot of what I said on the album but our relationship now is based on understanding and openness and not really any judgement. So I can say whatever I want and nothing bad will happen. They love me.
What track would you consider your favorite?
“Holy Smokes” is actually really special to me. The second verse of the track was written by my friend and rapper, Rocco J. Santucci. That was kind of our song together from 2-3 years ago and because I was in Seattle, we weren’t able to record it. That song has a special place because we have both struggled with oddly similar things. Like me, he struggles with depression and addiction issues. And it’s really funny because when I got out of rehab, I gave him a call to let him know what was up and he had just gotten out of rehab as well! It was, like, such a crazy parallel to make the song even more meaningful because of our shared experiences.
What’s next for John Dionne?
I’ve just been doing a lot of research to try and figure out how I can use all of the resources available to me to share this album with people. The internet is so open and has all of these tools for artists to promote their work themselves, which is really amazing. I feel like labels aren’t really a thing anymore except as like a bank, you know. So, I’ve been trying to push the album to as many people as I can myself. Just with “Holy Smokes” I’ve been sending it to as many people in my network as I can as I start to get back into performing and playing as many shows that I think are interesting.
Nothing nice is available January 13th. Check the album out at Soundcloud, here.