Singer-songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Polonsky has been actively involved in the music industry for over a quarter century, both as a solo artist and as a session musician and member of several bands, however he’s never become a household name. He grew up in the north Chicago suburb of Wilmette, Illinois, where he started playing music before he was ten, and performed in his high school orchestra and jazz band. As a precocious teen, he began writing songs and recording them on homemade cassettes, handing them out to friends and using them as an excuse to go backstage and meet some of the musicians he admired.
One of them was Reeves Gabrels, who was a guitarist for David Bowie and now with The Cure. Gabrels in turn introduced Jonny to Frank Black/Black Francis of the band Pixies, who ended up producing his first demo. That demo resulted in famed record producer Rick Rubin signing Polonsky to his record label American Recordings. Here’s the demo for “In My Mind”, which was later used in 2012 for episode five of the first season of the HBO series Girls.
The demos were eventually released, however, Polonsky re-recorded the songs himself using digital home recording equipment, and self-produced what would become his debut album Hi My Name is Jonny. The album, released by American Recordings in January 1996, showcased his strong songwriting, singing and musicianship, and received critical acclaim from numerous international news outlets including The New York Times and MTV.
Following the record’s release, Polonsky and his live band supported Frank Black on his North American tour, and also played the Second Stage of the 1996 Lollapalooza summer tour. He spent the next several years touring with other acts like Pete Yorn, and working as a session musician for such acts as Donovan. In 2001 he released an EP There is Something Wrong With You, and a year later moved to Los Angeles, where his connection with Rick Rubin led to work as a session musician on albums by Minnie Driver, Neil Diamond, Dixie Chicks and Johnny Cash, among others. In 2004 he released his second album The Power of Sound, and in the spring of 2005 he and his band opened for Audioslave on their North American club tour.
Serendipity and the power of networking paid off once again for Polonsky, as this time his touring experience with Audioslave led to him becoming part of the short-lived band Big Nose with Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tim Commerford. Big Nose collaborated on two songs with Tool and A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan. who used those songs for his music/art project Puscifer. That resulted in Polonsky having a collaborative relationship with Puscifer lasting from 2007 to 2010, during which time he also toured with the band as their guitarist.
Eight years would pass before Polonsky would release another solo album, and in 2012 he dropped his third LP Intergalactic Messenger of Divine Light and Love, a fine work that saw him experiment with more psychedelic and alt rock elements. On his 2015 album The Other Side of Midnight, his music continued to evolve into a darker, more atmospheric sound with greater used of synthesizers and programmed drums, all self-recorded on his laptop. Also, his singing style incorporated more falsetto and whispered vocals.
In 2018, he released his fifth album Fresh Flesh, a fascinating and eclectic work that fused alt rock with post-grunge, psychedelic and shoegaze elements. The album was recorded with his live band in two days at Rick Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu California, and features guest performances by vocalist Mark Lanegan (formerly of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age), and drummer Kevin Haskins of the band Bauhaus, (and formerly with Love and Rockets and Tones on Tail). The title track “Fresh Flesh” is particularly good, with trippy synths set to a haunting melody, and highlighted by a blistering guitar solo.
On March 6, Polonsky returned with his latest album Kingdom of Sleep, an eclectic collection of eight captivating songs. He delves deeper into dream pop and vapor wave territory here, while retaining some of his signature alt rock and psychedelic elements. It also sees him going full-circle, in a sense, as like Hi My Name is Jonny, Kingdom of Sleep was entirely self-recorded and produced at home. Polonsky moved to Brooklyn, New York in 2018, and no longer has his old band of musicians nearby to record an album with him.
In an interview with The Big Takeover webzine, he explained “I live in an apartment in Brooklyn, so I can’t make a lot of noise, and I’m not in a position where I can spend thousands of dollars in recording studios or in hiring musicians. So that also plays a large role in why I’ve been recording everything on my laptop and most of the drums are electronic. Plus it’s fun. I like these sounds. For this record, I felt like making really pretty, dreamy, beautiful and melodic music that painted a picture. I was listening to a lot of Cocteau Twins and Prince. And David Lynch is always an inspiration. I love his films, but his records are really great, too. They are strange, little worlds you can enter and feel like you are somewhere new, just like with his movies.”
The album opens with “Ghost Like Soul“, a moody track with languid, psychedelic synths creating an appropriately spooky and mesmerizing atmospheric vibe. Polonsky’s breathy vocals alternate between an eerie, electronically altered monotone to an almost menacing whisper, while guest vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala (of the bands At the Drive-In and The Mars Volta) provides echoed spoken word vocals. The lyrics are cryptic and packed with meaning, and though I’m not sure, the lyrics seem to speak to changing societal and cultural mores, and how those in power use communication and propaganda to influence our thinking: “Seasons change and people get strange / In the courtroom of your mouth, you put all tongues on trial.”
Polonsky changes things up on “Sign in the Window“, a lovely song with a bouncy, driving beat and soaring melody that reminds me a bit of Future Islands’ “Seasons (Waiting On You)”. The smooth synths and gently strummed guitar provide an enchanting backdrop for his breathy vocals as he sings of his love and desire “All I want is for you to be real / And let me heal inside your light.”
On the wonderful Beatle-esque “The Weeping Souls“, he uses lush sweeping strings, keyboards and flute, combined with an exuberant mix of chiming and jangly guitars, and layers them over deep, rolling percussion to create an exhilarating and colorful soundscape. Polonsky fervently sings the rather explicit lyrics: “We live inside of a dream / If you let me in I’ll protect your heart / Turn lead to gold / I live inside of your thighs / Just to make you cum / And avert your gaze from the weeping souls.” It’s one of the standout tracks on the album.
Another favorite is “No Tears“, an achingly beautiful dream pop song with drop-dead gorgeous chiming guitars and magical synths. Polonsky’s breathy croons are positively sublime as he laments of a love that is no more: “Oh what more can you say? / After you cry yourself to sleep / And there are no tears left to weep.” “Take Me Home” has a rich cinematic feel, with dark, pulsating synths, twangy guitar and harmonica giving the song a sweeping Sergio Leone Western vibe. On the sultry “You Turn Me On“, he leaves no room for doubt as to his carnal intentions as he seductively croons “You turn me on / Close the window, shut the blinds, leave your panties and your past behind.”
“Aenerone” is an enchanting, mostly instrumental track with sparkling ethereal synths accompanying a mesmerizing synth bass beat. The only lyrics are “You / Me / Us / We / All Of Us Are On our own.” “A Willing Eye” seems to speak to the incredible power of love, and opening oneself up in order to be able to love others, and accept love in return: “To realize you’re alive when you’re most vulnerable / Ooh you’re the only want I want /You lift me up above the fear/ To see with a willing eye is all it takes.” Polonsky’s soaring cinematic soundscape is a lush backdrop for his plaintive, breathy falsetto vocals. The song ends on a positive note with him reassuring us that “Love is the force that does surround you“.
It’s an uplifting and beautiful close to a really marvelous album. With Kingdom of Sleep, Jonny Polonsky continues his winning streak of delivering solid, well-crafted albums that reflect his ongoing desire to keep pushing himself into new musical realms. While reaching back to the past for classic stylistic elements, he simultaneously manages to create music that’s fresh, cutting-edge, and always a pleasure to hear.