It Starts With A Melody


Anyone who doubts the vitality and sophistication of local music should listen to the Romance of Plants, the band Jonathan McLeran formed.

Actually, the name preceded the band. McLeran recorded his first album, "The Romance of Plants" in 2003 at Popaholic Studios. He recorded all of the many instruments on that album himself, with the exception of the cello and violin. It was only after the album was finished that the band formed, taking their name from the album.

Now, Warren Ard plays the other guitar, Russell Welch plays bass, and Steven Taylor plays the drums. They recently relocated from Jackson to Hattiesburg, where they are recording new material. McLeran loves to spend time recording, because it is both challenging and intensely satisfying. "There's no end goal in mind," he says. "If at the end of the day, there's an album there that makes sense, there's an album."

McLeran attended USM, where he studied composition, performance and jazz. This education has served him well. Few popular musicians, however talented, can notate music for strings, and fewer still approach music with the breadth of knowledge that McLeran brings.

"Studying composition and form really marked a new point in my music," McLeran says. "That's when I started to think of these melodic fragments not as simple pop hooks but as distinct musical statements that could be developed and played off one another."

There is an ethereal, almost haunting quality to many of McLeran's songs. The music is recognizably pop, yet it has a depth and sophistication that are rare for popular music. Although songs like "Sleeper" are by no means marose, they convey a longing and mystery that sticks with the listener long after the music has stopped. Other recent tracks, like "You Are Not X Infinity" and "Happiness Machine" are more playful, although they are also abundant in weaving, unexpected melodies and harmonies.

"Usually, it starts with a melody and no lyrics. Then I write a second melodic line, a counter-melody, that is usually on the bass or another prominent instrument. Then the voice takes the melody, and I add more lines." In fact, McLeran says he would like to add more members to the band, since four members cannot create the layered textures he loves.

His writing is not always so controlled, however. "Sometimes," he admits with a self-depracating laugh, "it comes out all at once, like a rock 'n' roll burp."

Still, not all burps are the same. Like most musicians, McLeran says he has occasional fantasies of writing a Top 40 hit to make a lot of money, but the effort never gets him anywhere. Fortunately, he is stuck with his unique musical vision.

McLeran lists Brian Wilson as one important influence, particularly for the ways in which he arranged vocals. He also loves piano works by Debussy and Chopin. Contemporary favorites include Blonde Redhead and Midlake. All of these influences point to the layered complexity of the Romance of Plants' music.

"I love writing a natural, beautiful melody that could have been written 300 years ago," McLeran says. "Then the harmony underneath starts to unfold and elbow its way through the piece. You could easily imagine conventional harmony underneath, but you take little chromatic jerks to the left and right. Then there's more to listen for. The harmony has a dimension of its own.

"Turn-of-the-century composers like Ravel and Debussy did this," McLeran continues. "They heard things in the harmony no one else did."

Recently, McLeran and Welch have been recording music for a side project called Magic Carnie with Matthew Gill. Gill writes songs and lyrics on guitar, and then McLeran helps him arrange them. He also plays the keyboards and guitar, while Welch plays the bass. "It's been really fun and rewarding," McLeran says. "I think we might work that up for a show soon."

Meanwhile, the Romance of Plants will be back in Jackson for a show at Martin's on March 21. Whether you're an avid fan or a curious newbie, this is music you won't want to miss. The eponymous album is available from Be-Bop or online at www.popaholic.com


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