The War on Drugs’ Eliza Hardy Jones Dishes on Her New Album

The War on Drugs keyboardist Eliza Hardy Jones talks about her experience with grief and how it inspired her latest album.

Eliza Hardy Jones is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, vocal coach and producer. Even if you haven’t heard her name before, you’ve probably heard some of her work, and you definitely know the names of the people she’s worked with.

From Philly favorite The War on Drugs to Iron and Wine and even Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson’s Philly Specials, her body of work includes Grammy nominations, charting rock hits and Christmas folk ballads. In 2016, she added solo artist to that list with her debut album, Become Become, and on April 19 she followed it with a second entry, dubbed Pickpocket.

Featuring tones of folk, indie rock and classic ‘70s orchestral pop, Pickpocket explores themes of perseverance amid grief, loss and depression. Songs from the album include Main Line area inspirations like deep winter trips to Delaware County’s own John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. To explore Jones’ creative process, we sat down for an exclusive interview to get a deeper look into her songwriting and backstory.

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Eliza Hardy Jones is a multi-intrumentalist and has worked with almost half a dozen nationally recognized acts.
Eliza Hardy Jones is a talented multi-instrumentalist who has worked with almost half a dozen nationally recognized acts.

Main Line Today: Do you think the cushion of The War on Drugs’ success allows you to take more risks than traditional solo artists?

Eliza Hardy Jones: Oh, absolutely. And I think I’m in a wonderful position right now in terms of making art for art’s sake in that I’m middle-aged, I’m successful, I feel good in my life. I’m not necessarily trying to break out as a solo artist. I’m not trying to be super commercially successful or sell out a tour. I’m really just trying to make music that is artful and conscientious and, hopefully, that people like. I don’t need it to float me financially.

MLT: How does your sound as a solo artist differ from the sound of The War on Drugs?

EHJ: I’ve been making my own records for, you know, 15 or 20 years at this point. I’ve been able to bring my voice to different bands, like when I played with Grace Potter, when I played with Iron and Wine or played with Buried Beds. When I play with these different bands, I’m servicing the vision of somebody else. But I get to bring my voice into that, and it’s hard to say those people have never influenced me [either].

The things that I’ve learned from each of those people trickle down into my consciousness and into my art, but I think that this record feels to me very different in perspective, in tone and texture. Of course, there are pieces of it that feel resonant and similar in other ways. And I think that’s just the inescapability of human connections, that we all are influencing each other and learning from each other.

MLT: Can you dive a little bit deeper into the theme at the soul of Pickpocket?

EHJ: The theme at the soul of Pickpocket is surviving grief. It was a record that I wrote for myself. I didn’t write it to think, “Oh, let me make a record and I’ll conscientiously say it’s going to be a theme record and be all about miscarriages.” 

I was going through this very difficult time and I was trying to have a baby. I was very unsuccessful, I did lots of IVF and had an ectopic pregnancy and a miscarriage and ran out of embryos. And that process, that many-years-long process, was really, really hard. It broke me down in so many ways. 

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I found myself in a place where I had really lost myself to that brokenness.  And I was really struggling with the immense grief of that loss, of the loss of the ability to be a mother, of the loss of the ability to live out that dream. And so this record was about me reckoning with that. It was about me coming to peace with the idea that I didn’t need to be a mother, but that I [can] have a rich and wonderful life without that and [figure] out how to move on. 

The other side of that is that once I figured that out and wrote all these songs, we had lovely friends who were able to donate embryos to us. And I actually have an eight-month-old baby right now. It’s very exciting, sort of an interesting thing, to be releasing a record about making peace with the idea that I would never be a mother while I’m a mother.

 

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MLT: Can describe your trip to John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and how it helped inspire Pickpocket’s final single, “Long Winter Shadows?”

EHJ: I live…just a few minutes away from John Heinz. And over the last 10 years, when I’m not on the road, I’m a runner. And so I probably go to Heinz four or five times a week.

It really has become my peaceful place, a place that I’ve spent a lot of time alone with my thoughts, but also with my husband. And I think when we were going through all of our IVF trials and transfers and all the things that go along with that, going to Heinz was a big part of how we were managing the stress. [It was] where we were able to talk with each other about what we were going through, what we had hoped for the future and what we were  looking at. Heinz became this sort of place where we felt all of the magic of the dream was connected to that place. When I had a miscarriage, we literally got in the car and drove to Heinz; it’s that important. 

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One time when we were there, I saw an eagle fly and try to pull a fish out of a blue heron’s mouth. It was this wild kerfuffle, and it was like 15 feet from me. [Heinz] is just such a beautiful place and a place where I think a lot about nature and survival. 

“Long Winter Shadow” is about that idea of “how do I survive the winter?” I feel like that song specifically is describing the shadow of the blue heron’s legs or the sparrows flying out from underneath the boardwalk and the branches blowing in the wind.

MLT: What was the toughest part about coaching Kelce, Mailata and Johnson for The Philly Specials?

EHJ: My gosh, there was no tough part. It’s a dream. They’re absolute dreams. It is just so driven by joy. Those guys are coming to the project with open hearts and open minds and are so willing to ask for help and be directed. They really want to make these records truly good. It’s not just a gag and [to] raise a little bit of money. It’s like, “Let’s really make great Christmas albums.” 

Philly Special Christmas Special
Philadelphia Eagles linemen Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson make up the Christmas trio Philly Specials.
(Photo courtesy Mixtape Media, credit 9.14 Pictures)

I think that they are bringing all of their spirit to it, and it’s just a dream. It’s so easy to coach them. It’s so easy to work with them, and there’s so much excitement. In the studio, there are no egos. Everyone’s just in there having a blast. It’s been such a wonderful thing to be a part of that project.

MLT: Among Iron and Wine, Grace Potter, Burning Beds and any other acts, what’s the biggest lesson you learned as a touring and session musician?

EHJ: I feel like whenever young people ask me, “What’s your best advice for people who are doing the very sort of unique job of being part of a touring party?” What I always say is be kind, be on time and know your sh*t.

I think what I’ve learned is that all of those projects are so different. And I’ve never felt stifled by that. I’ve always felt it’s this incredible challenge to be able to bring somebody’s vision to life and be able to make sure that I’m bringing my voice to that project. I’m not just trying to slot into something. I’m trying to bring my own unique creativity and voice to it. 

[Another] thing I learned is that if you’re going to be in a tour bus for two years with people, you really have to love them. It’s important to check your sh*t at the door and just be kind and patient and loving and, when people do that with you, it’s a dream.

MLT: What is next for Eliza Hardy Jones?

EHJ: I’m getting ready to head back out with the War on Drugs. We’ve got a European Tour this summer and then a U.S. tour this fall. I’m working on some new solo music right now. I’m back in the studio doing session work with a few folks. And most importantly, [I’m] just hanging out with my beautiful new baby. It’s been a real joy to be able to have this year be kind of slow musically so that I can spend as much time as I’ve been able to with him and take him to Heinz and soak up the birds with my wonderful husband and my wonderful baby boy.

Listen to Eliza Hardy Jones’ Pickpocket now on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube or on vinyl from her website. You can catch Jones and The War on Drugs live at the Mann Center on September 17.

Related: Eagles Players Debut “A Philly Special Christmas Special” Album

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