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12th September 2022

In Conversation with Jon Coley

From folk to blues, fingerstyle guitarist Jon Coley discusses his career highlights and aspirations with The Mancunion.
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In Conversation with Jon Coley
Jon Coley performs livePhoto: Ellie Hughes @ The Mancunion

Describing itself as the only true dedicated jazz venue in the North-West of England, Matt and Phred’s in Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a melting pot of traditional musical styles.

From rhythm and blues to soul, roots rock to funk, and everything in between, if you live in Manchester and enjoy live music, you’ll know Matt and Phred’s. When I moved here from a small town, I was daunted by the gig listings. A jam night always levels the playing field, and Matt & Phred’s hosts one every Monday night. So that’s where I headed.

The only thing I remember clearly from that night is Jon Coley’s exquisite performance of Amos Lee’s ‘Arms of a Woman’. He infused the melancholic, soulful tune with bluesy, fingerstyle licks. His gravelly vocals were interspersed with a falsetto that had everyone looking up from their candlelit cocktails.

I learned later that Jon is a renowned self-taught fingerstyle and acoustic musician, influenced by performers such as Nick Drake, Neil Young, John Martyn, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and Sam Cooke. He has played New York’s famous club, The Bitter End, and played supporting spots and festivals alongside Michael Chapman, Ralph McTell, Wizz Jones, and Dylan LeBlanc.

Jon Coley performing at Matt and Phred’s Photo: Ellie Hughes @ The Mancunion

Calling Matt and Phred’s his “bolthole”, Jon tells me it’s a place he can play just for himself and have fun without the pressure that comes from headlining his own gigs. Since I saw him at that jam night, he has made Piccadilly Records’ top 100 albums of 2021, supported Tré Burt’s UK tour, and was nominated for a Mercury prize for his album If All I Ever Wanted Was All I Ever Needed. This month, he supported Paolo Nutini’s intimate album launch at Jacaranda Records in Liverpool.

Jon is from Staffordshire but moved to Manchester five years ago. Despite coming from a musical family, as a child he didn’t play much himself beyond a bit of clarinet at school. He tells me that when he was 22, a serious injury put a sudden end to the archaeology career he had just started. As he speaks, he points to a long scar down his forearm where a metal plate has been inserted. Unable to dig, he turned to the guitar as a means of rehabilitation, becoming very good, very quickly.

As a beginner, he saw open tunings as a gateway to more innovative playing. It opened up new chord voicings and – only partly in jest – he says by tuning his guitar to the first chord of a song, he had one fewer to remember. “It doesn’t quite work that way, but it’s certainly shifted what I do”.

He spent the next few months and years soaking up the techniques and sounds of his favourite artists, honing his own in an effort to develop a distinctive style. He had no formal teaching, joking that if someone asks him to play a diminished chord, he plays it slightly quieter.

In a matter of months, he was playing fingerstyle guitar to live audiences. Within a year he was writing his own material, and by the end of a second had recorded an album with the memorable title Hamsters Can’t Climb and Other Tales of Disillusionment.

His newest album takes a more contemplative title: If All I Ever Wanted Was All I Ever Needed. He had originally intended on finding a path back into archaeology, but it soon became clear to him music was what he did best and was, he claims, “the most useful thing I could put into the world”.

Indeed, in those early months, he was so impressive that at times he exaggerated how long he had been playing just to avoid awkward exchanges with those who did not believe his prodigious progression. He still pleads: “I genuinely do not know what I’m doing on a guitar – it’s different every time – it’s just completely autonomic”.

Jon Coley performing at Matt and Phred’s Photo: Ellie Hughes @ The Mancunion

Still, this extraordinary ability didn’t magically open doors. He may play guitar like a demigod, but just like a mortal, throughout his career Jon has experienced his fair share of frustrations, crises of confidence, and even tragedies. “It’s up and down with me. There were a lot of points where I’d have felt justified in going, ‘OK, I get the message’…but I like contributing”.

Despite the setbacks, he attributes his impressive trajectory as a working musician partly to luck, partly to hard work, and partly to good old-fashioned networking, which he fears is becoming a lost art. “I don’t think enough people make that connection with the people they’re touring with, particularly in America where security means there’s almost no contact between the support acts and bands”.

This yearning for personal connection spills over into Jon’s other endeavours, including the monthly folk session he runs at the Rose & Monkey in Manchester city centre. This isn’t your usual folk session. Scribbling Town, named after a line in the old folk song ‘The Wandering Bard’, referring to this very inn, is centred around inclusive and diverse collaboration. It encourages musicians to listen to others and identify complementary skills.

Jon explains that part of what drove him to launch Scribbling Town was observing a segregation particular to the music scene in Manchester that he says often works to prevent collaboration. Those put off by the ‘folk’ label shouldn’t be. “It’s about taking folk music back to what it used to be: anything made by the people, by the untrained community. The nicest thing about it is introducing two people who you can’t believe have never met before”. The delightful venue is reason enough alone to come along. As Jon says, it is a piece of magic in a dwindling milieu of historic and characterful Manchester inns.

Creating spaces for others to learn and collaborate like this sets Jon apart as an authentic advocate for meaningful music-making in all its forms. Scribbling Town is a platform that is at the same time a nod to tried and tested tradition and an innovative way of forging musical communion. It is not enough to say  Jon is an important part of the Manchester music scene; he strengthens its very foundations, helping others to climb up.

Jon’s approach to most things appears unorthodox, and nothing at all about his songwriting is hackneyed. One song on his new album, which has been described as “heart-wide-open”, is about what he describes as the “nihilistic upside to bipolar disorder: sometimes, when you should be sad, your brain just won’t let you [be]”.

The album lurches from optimism to despair with no mercy; its second track is based on something a friend said to him soon before she died which led him to conceive the unforgettable line: “Sympathy for Judas, because no one gets to be who they deserve to be”.

Jon’s empathy with his own music is palpable on the album, and his live shows seem to draw you into the experiences that influence each song. Be warned: they demand your attention and your emotional energy; listen to ‘Only Call Me When You’re Ready’ at your own risk.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



Sub-Editor for the Mancunian

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