Back with their second record since returning to active service, ‘The Album’ sees JONAS BROTHERS laying it all on the line with some classic style.
Words: Ali Shutler.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Nick Jonas is choosing his words carefully. “Throughout our career, and I say this with a real sense of gratitude,” he begins, aware of how quickly things can spiral out of control. “Someone’s distaste for our music, or their lack of respect for what we do, has never affected our ability to do what we do,” he continues as his two brothers, Joe and Kevin, relax. “We just keep our heads down and keep going.”
There’s a lot of baggage that comes with the Jonas Brothers. The trio are celebrities in their own right and chart-topping pop stars as a unit. They came of age in pop’s most intrusive era and fell apart in the public eye before finding success as actors and solo musicians.
None of that choppy history weighs down their new record, ‘The Album’, which is their second since reuniting in 2019. “There’s just an ease to it,” says Joe. “We feel like this is a whole new beginning,” adds Kevin.
But first, a history lesson. The Jonas Brothers released their debut album ‘It’s About Time’ in 2006, which featured original songs written by the brothers alongside a couple of Busted covers. “The idea was that we were going to be a punk band,” says Nick, with the trio inspired by the pop-punk and emo bands that defined that time. Producers Michael Mangini and Steve Greenberg had other ideas, though, with the record instead channelling classic punk bands like The Ramones.
“The biggest misconception about us is that Jonas Brothers was and is a boyband,” says Nick with a grin. “From the very inception of this group, though, it’s been a band. Especially back then, when it was really raw with loud guitars and loud drums. It wasn’t the most complex music around, but it was certainly in your face.”
That debut wasn’t exactly a commercial success and is still unavailable to stream, but the group built up a small, dedicated following through various club tours and raucous gigs. It wasn’t enough for Columbia Records, though, who dropped the band. Then Disney swooped in.
Their self-titled second album was written in the basement of a family friend’s house, with the trio heavily in debt after chasing their pop star dreams. With seemingly nothing to lose, they made the sort of snotty, bubblegum pop album they’d always wanted. Backed by the full might of Disney’s Hollywood Records, their cover of Busted’s ‘Year 3000’ started opening doors before singles like ‘S.O.S’ and ‘When You Look Me In The Eyes’ made them undeniable stars. They quickly found themselves among a new wave of Disney talent that featured the likes of Miley Cyrus and the cast of High School Musical. “It was the sort of exposure we could never have imagined,” says Kevin. “It was crazy.”
“The biggest misconception about us is that Jonas Brothers was and is a boyband”Nick Jonas
The successes kept on coming for the band, as they added acting to their portfolio with turns on Camp Rock and their own Disney TV show, Jonas. So did the pressures, though. Back in the noughties, pop stars were expected to be polished, perfect idols. “You were living under a microscope,” explains Joe. “We were kids in an adult world, and people had no problem asking interesting questions to teenagers that would never fly now,” he continues, referencing the countless headlines about Jonas Brothers’ “purity rings”, a sign that they were abstaining from sex before marriage. “There were times when we just wanted to be normal teenagers,” he continues. “In our world, our senior class was our Disney group of friends – other young artists who were also performing and touring.”
“I don’t really envy any young artist that is coming up in this day and age, but I definitely have an understanding of what it means to grow up in that spotlight,” he adds. Luckily all three had a ready-made support network when being in one of the biggest acts on the planet got too much.
“We were really fortunate to have each other,” says Nick, who describes that period as challenging. “It would have been more challenging if we went through it on our own, though. The benefit of having your best friends, your brothers and your blood there was massive.”
“We could lean on each other when we needed to,” says Kevin. “We could also take out our anger on each other as well, and there not really be much of a repercussion. We always had a punching bag, in a way, but it always worked out because family is family.”
Things stopped working out after 2008’s ‘A Little Bit Longer’, though, with the band’s Disney generation wanting to come of age. Miley Cyrus quit Hannah Montana, explaining, “I can’t base my career off of the six-year-olds”, while Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens had moved on from High School Musical after three movies. Jonas Brothers also wanted to expand their sound but were still fans of radio-friendly pop. The result was 2009’s ‘Lines, Vines and Trying Times’. “It was a little scatterbrained in what we were trying to say musically because we were all starting to drift in different directions,” says Joe.
“We all had different ideas about what we wanted to make. We’d walk into a room, and one of us would want to write a breakup song; someone else would want to sing about how depressed they were feeling, while another would want a song about how happy they were. Everybody was fighting one another.”
Jonas Brothers went on a break and focused on solo projects to try and cool the drama, but it only made things worse. When they reunited in 2012 for a world tour and a new album, it was without Disney’s Hollywood Records. They held things together for about a year before abruptly cancelling the final leg of the tour due to “creative differences”. Three weeks later, the band went on hiatus and scrapped new album ‘V’.
“After so much success, it started to feel like we were walking back down that mountain,” says Nick. “Instead of acknowledging it was time to evolve and work with new people to push ourselves, we hermited. We made this album [‘V’] that we said was us taking back creative control, but really, we just didn’t think anyone would want to work with us anymore.” Trying the same thing that they’d always done and getting the exact same results only “created tension” between the trio. They realised that the band wasn’t the “right” thing for them to do anymore and walked away.
That struggle for identity was such a huge part of the Jonas Brothers story, but since they returned in 2019, there’s been nothing but self-assurance. “We had to all go on our own separate journeys to figure that out.”
“We wanted to be respected as musicians from day one because we knew that we were putting in the hard work. Looking back, though, it’s so funny to be saying ‘respect me’ because that’s something you have to earn,” explains Nick. “That desire for respect was a factor at one point in time, but eventually, you realise you’re never going to make everybody love you. Nor do you want to.”
“We’re speaking about something that bears more weight than having a good time or life being awesome”Joe Jonas
The decision to return “certainly felt like a risk”, says Joe. In their documentary Chasing Happiness, Kevin asks, “Do you think anyone will care?” before the film cuts to a string of post-reunion successes. The band had to live it, one day at a time. “The question really did echo and gave all of us different layers of anxiety,” Joe continues. Once they recorded sleek pop banger ‘Sucker’ though, “we felt fairly confident”.
“I don’t know if we had anything to prove by coming back, but we had stories to tell,” adds Nick.
He thinks part of the reason their comeback was so successful was that it came at the time when a lot of their earliest fans had started reclaiming the things that had first brought them joy. “It happens to everyone – you dismiss the things you loved as a kid before coming back around to them when you’re comfortable enough to be unapologetically yourself.
During the ‘Happiness Begins’ era, the band saw this massive wave of people “coming into adulthood and accepting themselves for who they are. Part of that was reincluding us in their lives.” That said, they’ve also reached a new audience. “We’re a brand new band to some people,” says Joe, with them playing songs to people who “weren’t even alive when it all began.”
‘Happiness Begins’ took influence from Joe’s dance-rock band DNCE and Nick’s R&B-indebted solo album ‘Last Year Was Complicated’. “It was a great segue for us coming back together as one,” explains Kevin. New record ‘The Album’ is “very different”, though.
Sonically, the band pulls inspiration from timeless greats like Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Bee Gees but gives it a modern twist with the help of producer Jon Bellion who’s worked with the likes of Justin Bieber and Miley. ‘The Album’ sees Jonas Brothers breaking new ground lyrically as well.
“Historically, romantic relationships were the primary focus of the stories we were telling,” says Joe, with other tracks tackling “broader themes” about life. “This one, we were really intentional about allowing people to have a window into our lives.” ‘Little Bird’ tackles parenthood, ‘Waffle House’ is about the band’s relationship as brothers. “It’s interesting to be 20 years into a career and be tackling new things we’ve never spoken about.”
The band know that marriage, kids and healthy sibling relationships aren’t exactly the sexiest of topics for songs. Recently, Nick read an article about how happy people can’t make good music. “It’s presumptuous to assume someone’s happy because everyone deals with things in their own way,” he starts. “I guess I agree to a certain extent, though. The reason film and TV is engaging is because of that tension that makes the story connect.”
Still, they believe ‘The Album’ says something worth saying. “By expanding our creative vocabulary, we were able to open things up beyond the need for drama. We’re speaking about something that bears more weight than having a good time or life being awesome.” Joe points at ‘Little Bird’, a delicate song written about father/daughter relationships, and the Oasis-inspired ‘Walls’. “There are some complex, dynamic themes in there.”
‘The Album’ is, undeniably, a feel-good album. “The world is such a dark and intense place,” says Nick. “We like to bring positivity in where we can,” with the band naturally gravitating to upbeat themes. “It wasn’t an intentional feel-good record, but the fact it ended up there makes a lot of sense.”
“We are celebrating life with this record”Kevin Jonas
The Bob Dylan-inspired ‘Americana’ touches on peace and inclusion. “It’s about celebrating what makes us who we are as well as certain figures who have helped shaped culture,” explains Nick, with the track name-checking Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen and James Dean. “It’s almost anti-politics because it’s about people who represent good in the world. Blue jeans and marijuana is the America that I love.”
Then there’s ‘Summer Baby’, which started life as a Shania Twain-inspired country song and ended up paying homage to people letting loose and celebrating who they are. “We wanted to write a song that gets played at every family barbecue,” says Joe, with the band reflecting on “simpler times before the world became as complicated and nuanced as it is now.”
“As a group and as a collective of individuals, messages of inclusion and accepting all people from all walks of life are really important to us,” he adds.
The band didn’t feel pressure to make any sort of statement with their music, but those messages of acceptance just came about from conversations they were having. “There’s nothing we’ve said or done on this record that doesn’t feel completely authentic to who we are. It’s impossible to be a human being and not be sensibly aware of what’s going on in the world.”
It’s a freedom that’s typical of this latest chapter of the Jonas Brothers’ journey. Back in the noughties, pop stars were supposed to be these perfect role models, but nowadays, authenticity is king. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Kevin. “It’s nice that we can say, ‘This is who we are; this is what we like’. Take it or leave it.”
“We are celebrating life with this record,” he continues, pointing out there’s literally a joyous song called ‘Celebrate!’ on ‘The Album’. “It can be fun to make a record that makes you want to go out and party. Sure, there are days when you want to listen to melancholic music, but it’s nice to have something that’s uplifting at a time when so many people have felt down for so long.
“We’ve also been performing in front of people again, so of course it’s a celebration.”
That vibe extends across Jonas Brothers’ back catalogue. The band have “always” been happy with the music they’ve made, but this making this one “helped us look back at everything we’ve done over the last 20 years and be really proud of it,” says Kevin. It’s why the album is full of so many easter eggs and why they’re comfortable touring under the promise of ‘five albums, one night’.
“When we play songs from albums where our vocals might sound like chipmunks, or we touch on things like MySpace, we can still look out and see how much our music affects people. Ultimately, we want to make people feel good,” says Joe. And that includes each other. Rather than projects outside of Jonas Brothers causing tension in the group, solo work is now fully embraced.
In fact, Joe’s DNCE bandmates Jinjoo Lee and Jack Lawless currently form part of Jonas Brothers’ live setup. “It makes it so much easier to write songs,” he explains.
“It’s good that we have our own individual journey; it brings clarity to what we do together,” adds Kevin.
“This album says a lot about who we are now as well as the way we were raised and the places we grew up,” Joe continues, with chirpy opening track ‘Miracle’ starting with him shouting out “New Jersey”.
“There was always the fear that what we had would disappear,” says Joe. “But we are still here, and somehow, it keeps getting better.” Later this year, the band play two of their biggest-ever headline shows at Yankee Stadium alongside a full US run. “It’s still blowing our minds a little bit. Even at the last biggest point, that was not possible.”
“At the same time, where does it go from here?” asks Kevin.
“It’s not a nostalgia play for us because that would never work in this group,” he explains. “We want to continue to release music that is career-defining. We don’t know what the future holds, but it’s nice to be able to think about us having one,” he says before looking around at his brothers. “I think our best years are ahead of us.” ■
Taken from the June 2023 edition of Dork. Jonas Brothers’ album ‘The Album’ is out now.
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