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Rich Jones

Photo By: Katie Levine

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Rich Jones, a prolific creative figure in the Chicago hip-hop scene, turned a series of personal hardships into the artistic fuel he needed to get his music career back on track. Setting a plan in motion, Jones left no stoned unturned, reconnecting with producer Ryan Lofty and exploring a more pop-infused aspect of his music. That eventually lead him on the path towards his latest album, “The Shoulder You Lean On,” which he is self-releasing tomorrow.

We recently sat down with Jones to discuss silver linings, creative rediscoveries snatched from the jaws of defeat, and how he has learned to trust in his abilities and not give into his fears.

TrunkSpace: You’re based in Chicago, which is a city rich in musical history. Does a city – a musical scene – directly influence an artist and how has Chicago influenced you?
Jones: From my experience, very much so. From the age of 14 on, I was very gung-ho about supporting what was happening locally, particularly in Chicago’s underground hip-hop community. I was enamored by not just the music but also the idea that the talent from my city merited the attention and accolades that a larger audience could provide even if the spotlight seemed to more often then not fall just short of us. The silver lining that comes from an environment like this is it puts the onus on rolling up your sleeves and doing things for yourself. I feel like pre-internet it manifested itself in a more dog eat dog sort of way, but I’m thrilled to say that this has changed immensely in recent years. People have begun to see the strength in collaborating and supporting one another, so it’s a very exciting time for us.

TrunkSpace: When you first set out to give life to “The Shoulder You Lean On,” what were your overall goals, and when you called wrap on the production, did you achieve those things you set out to do?
Jones: Initially, whether I was in LA with J. Kelr or was receiving production via email from him, I was mainly focused on creating a reservoir of records. Eventually, I realized that we actually had a project on our hands! From a creative/writing perspective, I wanted to earnestly address some of the changes that have happened the last few years – I’m older, slightly “wiser”, I’m a bit more settled then I was even a year ago, and most importantly, I’ve made great strides as a lyricist. I would say I achieved that with this album.

TrunkSpace: What are you most proud of with the album?
Jones: I’m proud of the fact that I feel like we crafted something that’s eclectic and truly reflective of where we are not only as artists but also as fans of music. Both of us have catalogs that initially were primarily rooted in hip-hop but we’ve branched out considerably over the years. This project tips its cap to our previous work while also acknowledging who we are now!

TrunkSpace: The album talks about the various paths that life can take, often heading in directions that we’ve never expected. Where has your life and career zigged when you intended it to zag?
Jones: I was seriously considering moving from Chicago four years ago to see how I might be received elsewhere. I’d spent some time in New York and was also looking into what living overseas might look like. That all ended when some unexpected financial hardships befell me out of the blue. I was pretty devastated. I’d been feeling a little stuck but now I felt I’d hit a very serious wall. After living in a daze for what felt like an eternity, it was time to make a plan and get things back on track. I did the only thing I knew how to do and threw myself into making records, calling in favors as I went. I also made a call to my friend Ryan Lofty, a producer who has had great success in sync/licensing, to see if he was open to bringing me in to work on music that we could pitch for placement. He enthusiastically said yes, thus beginning what would be the first of several sessions that would see us explore a more pop-oriented side to my music. This would eventually become the “VEGAS” EP, a project that would in many ways set me up for where I’m at today. From the jaws of defeat, I truly snagged the W.

TrunkSpace: When discussing topics through music, particularly those heavy life subjects, does that become a way for you yourself to process the many questions we (as humans) have on a day to day basis?
Jones: 100 percent. I’m very lucky that I’ve found a meaningful way to at the very least try to work through my shit so I don’t just feel totally lost all the time. And catharsis doesn’t just come from the act of making the song; it can also be from the dialogue the music generates, whether it challenges or supports the message at the heart of it all.

TrunkSpace: What aspect of songwriting do you enjoy the most and what do you struggle with? Where are you hardest on yourself in a creative capacity?
Jones: I love the moments where I know I’ve finally articulated something integral to my experience as a human and get even more excited by the prospect of other people being moved similarly. On a more light-hearted tip, I heavily appreciate people having fun with words. (A big reason I was so attracted to hip-hop in the 1st place.) My biggest struggle and the thing I’m hardest on myself is trying to find words that are unique without being overly complicated. I hate the idea of dumbing something I’m writing down too much, but I also don’t want to confuse people if I can avoid it.

TrunkSpace: We love great music, but we also love great lines – lyrical snippets that stick with you beyond the macro of a song or album. What is your favorite line from “The Shoulder You Lean On” and why?
Jones: Off of “Drone Kids,” I say, “I’m fighting hard to not feel paralyzed by the weight that I put in my stride/You see I’m fighting hard, for a piece of paradise and bad news don’t go down nice.” I’ve worked very hard over the years to earn my place in a highly competitive environment. Part of that was learning how to trust in my abilities as an artist and as a person and not play scared or give into my fears even in the face of adversity.

TrunkSpace: We started our chat by talking about Chicago and local music scenes. As a career progresses and a fan base grows, does it become difficult for a single city to support the music? Does it become a juggling act to nurture a career within a scene but not to over saturate?
Jones: It depends on where you are and what your goals are. I feel like in Chicago, there’s a higher level of diversity in our artistic communities then a lot of places. This means there are more groups of people to do your thing for and lessens the chance of over saturation since you have options! Where over saturation occurs is when you’re trying to appeal to the exact same group of people every time. Sure you might develop a die hard following, but unless you’re really mixing it up, enthusiasm can wain. For me, I’ve always felt inclined to explore what’s out there and to do my best to put myself in new spaces whenever possible. Even so, I have felt more pressure to be selective with the events I agree to perform at. If I’m on a bill, I want to be respectful of the opportunity and make sure I carry my weight on the promotional end.

TrunkSpace: You are very involved in the community and politics. Given how divided we are right now as a country, is one of the benefits of this period of social uncertainty that it is inspiring musicians and artists to say more? Are there more voices speaking up today than there were even five years ago?
Jones: Artists have been vocal about the issues plaguing this country long before what faces us now. If them speaking on the causes they’re passionate about inspires more people to challenge the status quo and push for a real transformation of this country and world, I’m all for it. It may be that more people are indeed sharing their opinions, but I do know that the platforms available to artists now allow for their opinions to be far more widely disseminated then five years ago.

TrunkSpace: Beyond the release, what’s next for you as we finish out 2018 and look forward to the new year?
Jones: I’m looking forward to hitting the road a little bit and getting back in the studio to make some more records/finish up some things I’ve put on hold while I’ve been getting “The Shoulder You Lean On” ready.

The Shoulder You Lean On” is available tomorrow.

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The Featured Presentation

Sarah Jones


Set in the American heartland during the 1930s, USA Network’s new drama series “Damnation” is prepared to show just how many shades of gray a person can represent at any given moment. Times may change, but human nature does not, which means questionable decision making and life-altering conflict stretches all the way back to the presidential tenure of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “Damnation” is looking to shine a spotlight on that complicated period in American history, all while taking viewers on a wildly entertaining ride.

Series star Sarah Jones is no stranger to entertaining television. The North Carolina-born actress has worked on countless long-running pop culture mainstays, from “Big Love” to “Sons of Anarchy,” and recently appeared as Alison Kemp in the Hulu series “The Path.”

We sat down with Jones to discuss the dissection of a period piece performance, her incredible costars, and why she’s thrilled about the current creative state of television.

TrunkSpace: Your new series “Damnation” premieres in just a few short weeks. The trailer paints an intense, dramatic journey for your character. What was the personal journey like for you in terms of finding who she was and then bringing her to life?
Jones: (Laughing) It was an intense and dramatic journey. The research and inspiration of who I drew from to relate to Amelia was the easiest and most enjoyable part. To come to terms with what Amelia and I have in common, how women have historically been viewed and treated by society, and the amount of work that still has to be done to maintain a fair balance in how women are viewed and treated by society—to acknowledge all of that, and to use that in a productive way without allowing a cloud of resentment hanging over my head was a little trickier. Of course the current political and social climate seems to intensify the experience, but I couldn’t be more grateful to have this kind of outlet in working on this show and playing Amelia to work through it all.

TrunkSpace: “Damnation” is a period piece. Does that add a different layer to a character when you have to not only find who she is inside, but also what that particular period meant to people in terms of how they presented themselves in public and in private – basically, how society influenced who they were?
Jones: Yeah, of course there are added layers when you’re looking at common mannerisms and societal pressures of a specific era and how that would relate to a particular social class, but I think in terms of how we present ourselves in private and public really hasn’t changed. I mean, isn’t that what social media branding is all about? And it doesn’t matter whether someone is trying to create a personal brand or not, they present themselves in a way that they feel will garner the attention they want. Societal influence may have evolved and given us more ‘options,’ but the pressure to fit into a mold that is deemed worthy of a person’s perceived character or values is still very much alive and well.

TrunkSpace: What is an aspect of the series that you feel will surprise viewers? Is there something tonally about it or story-wise that isn’t reflected in the trailer that is a big part of the “Damnation” experience?
Jones: I don’t know if this will surprise anyone because I think it just makes for great television, but the characters’ decisions and conflicts are full of grays. It’s messy, and complicated, and raw, which represents a very real human experience.

TrunkSpace: The series is stacked with this great cast of character actors who always seem to steal a scene regardless of the project that they’re in. In your opinion, how does this cast compare to other shows you’ve worked on in terms of pure talent on-screen?
Jones: I have to agree with you 100 percent on how talented this cast is. Wow, what a cast, right?! And I love that you brought this up, there are no ‘stars’ or ‘names’ in this show. We’re working class actors—we have to hustle for our jobs that we actually get (no one sees all the jobs we don’t get), stretch and save what we earn because we don’t know when our next job will be, and prove our worth every time we show up on set. There isn’t a single actor on this show that doesn’t arrive fully prepared and invested. We’re grateful to be here and tell this story, and that makes for an inspiring group of actors to be around and a highly creative and engaging environment to work in. That doesn’t take away from some beautiful experiences with other cast members on other shows, most everyone starts at the bottom, but from day one there’s been a sense of solidarity between us that’s felt really special and exciting.

DAMNATION — “Sam Riley’s Body” Episode 101 — Pictured: Sarah Jones as Amelia Davenport — (Photo by: Chris Large/USA Network)

TrunkSpace: Television is stacked with incredible, character-driven content these days. How exciting is it for you to see such a shift in the medium over the years, and at the same time, is it also a little intimidating knowing just how much competition is out there, all of which is vying for the same set of viewer eyeballs?
Jones: I saw this coming years ago when I worked on “Big Love,” and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I love the intimacy that storytelling through television brings. It’s like you’re inviting these characters into your home every week or hanging with them for a full day or two depending how you watch a series. And I can imagine that contributed to the shift in the way that shows are made now. You’re not gonna invite someone over to your house every week if you don’t want to spend time with them. In terms of all of these fantastic series coming out, I’m not intimidated by the notion of ‘competition’—there’s not another show like “Damnation” currently on the air, and if this show is considered to join the ranks of shows with ‘incredible, character-driven content,’ it’s because everyone involved in creating it worked hard for it and the viewers connected to it. I also think network executives, as far as cable is concerned, pick up a show with the intention to let it breathe and give viewers a chance to invest in it. Some shows are overnight successes, others are a slow burn with a major pay off of a dedicated following and a loyal fan base. (Laughing) I have zero control over any of it so I just try to focus on the work and hope for the best! But I really dig the viewer/content relationship, feedback, and conversation that television has created when it comes to its series.

TrunkSpace: Another big change in the way that television is being rolled out is in the number of episodes being produced each season. And while that means there’s less story to tell, more often than not, those series with fewer episodes feel richer and more character-driven than their 22-episode counterparts. What are your thoughts on shortened seasons from a storytelling/character point of view?
Jones: I support it completely! And I agree with your sentiment—it does feel like a quality over quantity situation. On top of that, writing, shooting, and editing a series is done so quickly that too many episodes will not only burn out everyone involved in making the show, but I think it’ll eventually burn out the audience too. Especially with all of the other shows out there.

TrunkSpace: Is there a part of your job or of the experience of what you do that still feels new each time you set out to do it? What still excites you as much as it did the first time you set foot onto a set?
Jones: I’m always excited at the prospect of who I’ll connect to and collaborate with, and when it comes to working on a TV series, I’m always excited when a new episode’s script comes out.

TrunkSpace: Going back to that first time you set foot onto a set, we’re curious, how much of your personal journey – the jobs and experiences you’ve had within the industry – have directly impacted your acting? Is the performer we see now completely different from the performer you were then due to the projects that came between?
Jones: God I hope so! If my work hasn’t improved and my life hasn’t evolved over the years, I need to take a hard look at what I’m doing with them. I’d like to think that my performances and my personal life have a symbiotic relationship of being fed by the experiences of living.

Jones with Thomas Jane in “Texas Rising”

TrunkSpace: We all change as people as we get older as well. How much of that personal growth impacts what you do? Does it alter your point of view regarding your take on a character or specific choices you’d make for a character?
Jones: I don’t see how it couldn’t. I find the advice, ‘don’t take it personally,’ ironic when it comes to working as an actor. That’s the only way I feel I can take on a character or job—whether I get the opportunity to play it or not, which of course leaves me vulnerable to disappointment. But I’ve figured out how to move through it instead of around it, and I hope that raw and exposed space translates to something deeply personal and honest on screen. That’s a skill that’s taken years to build and I have yet to master it. And that example is just scratching the surface in regards to how personal growth impacts what I do with the work I get.

TrunkSpace: You’ve appeared in some very memorable series over the years that have left a lasting impact on the world of pop culture. Are there any characters, even short-lived guest spots, where you wished you had more time to explore and see where that particular person’s journey was going?
Jones: Yes and no. I’d hate to think I might’ve missed out on playing certain characters because I wasn’t available for them. Walking away from a character feels a bit like a break up—sometimes you’re relieved, sometimes your heart aches, or maybe there’s a combination of both, but ultimately it all works out the way it’s supposed to. And, of course, sometimes embracing that mentality is easier said than done! (Laughing)

“Damnation” premieres November 7 on USA Network.

Featured Image By:
Photographer: Logan Cole 
Hair/Makeup: Travisean Haynes 

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