For years, Jonathan Stephen Simons and his bandmates performed under other names, but at the end of 2021, they began going by his birth name. He describes the sound as “expressively free, genuine heart music,” which sums up the style perfectly.

We asked him about his life as a kid in Cape Town’s deep south, his introduction to music, his new full-length album, and how he opened up his own recording studio.

Jonathan currently resides in the town of Kommetjie, though he was born in Johannesburg. He spent his childhood in the nearby communities of Glen Cairn and Fish Hoek. At the tender age of 14, he was inspired to want to play the guitar after hearing a song by Rodrigo y Gabriela. “I asked my family for a guitar for my birthday,” he explains. In short, everything changed after they gave him his first nylon string.

I’m the lead singer of my band

The four-piece, Jonathan Stephen Simons, was formed in 2021 and consists of Ray Adam Morgan (drums and backing vocals), Stephen de Souza (bass and backing vocals), Anton Smuts — aka Ant Mr Bardo (lead guitar and backing vocals), and Jonathan himself (rhythm guitar and lead vocals).

Jonathan Stephen Simons

[The band members (from left to right) Stephen de Souza, Ant Mr Bardo (at the back), Jonathan Stephen Simons and Ray Adam Morgan. PHOTO: Skye du Plessis]

In 2016, Jonathan was at the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay, helping a friend with sound for Ray’s band, and that’s where he first met Ray. Since then, he says, “Ray has been a best friend ever since. He’s an incredible, like-minded human being, and I really value his friendship and his input.” 

After that, Ray introduced Jonathan to his friend Steve, a jazz student at the University of Cape Town. “We gelled really well. He’s an incredible friend and an unbelievable bassist,” says Jonathan, “He’s so in demand that we struggle to book him for shows,” says Jonathan. 

Finally, he moved to Kommetjie where he met Ant. Jonathan claims he was not exposed to music much at home because his parents did not listen to it on a deep level. “Ant has become a musical mentor and someone who really gets me and my music on another level. We jam together all the time, and I really value his contributions and his friendship,” he adds.

In the past, Jonathan tried to pursue his music with a band mentality, where all members contribute equally to the project, but that wasn’t working. “[I] decided to take on the role of creative director for the music I make,” he explains. Jonathan Stephen Simons is his personal project, and he calls on fellow musicians to support him when it’s needed.

The seasons change

On 5 August, Jonathan independently released his first full-length album, To Change the Weather, which features 12 original songs he recorded, produced, and released.

He says that this album marks a major shift in his creative direction and musical philosophy. “It was the first album I recorded that was truly me, expressing myself in the way I wanted to, and giving myself an opportunity to really showcase my abilities as a producer,” he says.

Because full-length albums are so rare in today’s EP- and singles-centric music industry, Jonathan made the bold choice to go against the grain. “I see an album as a full body of work with a narrative, and I want my music to be heard in that same way. Some of my favourite musicians release albums, and it’s amazing to listen through a whole record and be taken on a musical journey. It’s more fulfilling,” he explains. 

Jonathan Stephen Simons

[Jonathan Stephen Simons says it’s impossible to choose a favourite track of his album, because they are each an important part of the complete project. PHOTO: Pierre-Louis Bredenkamp]

‘It’s Taking Too Much Of My Time’ is one of Ant’s favourites on the album, and one he really enjoys playing. “It’s got a sing-along part that the audience always gets into,” he says. He also has a soft spot for ‘Small Things’, “[It’s] a beautiful thing, the way there’s no build-up. It just cranks from the start. Jono’s lyrics and voice come up front and centre — what’s there left to be said? It’s a banger.”

Ray, on the other hand, prefers ‘Wandering Around’ and ‘It’s Frightening, This Rain’ — both for completely opposite reasons. “One is a deeply emotional, lyrical, and musical journey with massive dynamic differences from one section to the next […] and the other is a straight-ahead jam with a consistent groove and dynamic range,” he says.

Jonathan has always done his own recording and production work, and To Change the Weather was no different. “It’s what I’ve always done. It just feels natural,” he says. So that his work wouldn’t be diluted by the influence of another producer, he taught himself the craft of music production.

“I worked at a record label when I just came out of high school in 2013, and I realised how quickly the wrong producer can lead you to lose sight of your true intentions when it comes to making music. Sadly, the ego can get involved, and that’s not what making music is about for me. It’s about raw expression,” he says.

Jonathan wanted the freedom to release as much of his own music as he wanted, whenever he wanted, which is why he launched Mountainside Studios in 2017. When he and his friend, Josh Hundermark, launched their YouTube channel, Mountainside Sessions, that’s when the concept first emerged. “We started [Mountainside Sessions] as a way of giving local artists a platform to showcase their work for free. This is what gave [it] the reputation that it has today,” he says.

There is, however, a lot more to Mountainside Studios than merely recording music. Beyond podcast production, Jonathan also fixes broken audio and does voiceovers.

Not just another singer

A number of new singer-songwriters have recently emerged in Cape Town and throughout South Africa, but Jonathan’s manager, Seren Briant, claims that his voice is what sets him apart and really draws people’s attention.

Jonathan Stephen Simons

[Jonathan Stephen Simons and manager, Seren Briant, at Roxy’s Late Night. PHOTO: Pierre-Louis Bredenkamp]

“No one expects the angelic voice he has to come out of the 6’5” [1.95m] man that he is,” she says. The other quality that makes Jonathan unique is his songwriting. “He never fails to impact people on a deep emotional level when he performs. There’s always someone who comes up to him after a show to explain how a song really impacted them or helped them. He performs with his whole heart, and people respond really well to that,” says Seren.

Teamwork makes the dream work

After sharing a lineup at District’s Foulplay Thursday band night on September 15, Jonathan and Hartleyvale agreed to put on a series of gigs together. The first one is on 27 November at café Roux, while the second one is scheduled for next year in January at The House of Machines.

James Nevin, Hartleyvale vocalist and guitarist, approached them after the District show to ask if they could collaborate and use it as an opportunity to share their followings with one another. “We are based in the Deep South, and they are based in Town, so by inviting [Hartleyvale] to play at café Roux with us allows us to introduce them to our audience,” says Jonathan. 

The same logic goes for Jonathan Stephen Simons playing with Hartleyvale in Town. “We get to perform for their following, and so the community grows. It also just feels great to collaborate with other local musicians and support one another in this industry, which is, quite frankly, lacking in adequate infrastructure,” he says.

According to Jonathan, performing with Hartleyvale was incredible. “I’ve always known that Hartleyvale was a band full of talented musicians, and watching their full set really pumped me up and got me excited for our own set,” he says. 

He also gives Foulplay’s founder, Josh O’Bree, praise for creating something truly special that “the industry really needs.” “Playing alongside brilliant musicians like Hartleyvale is enriching,” he adds.

Jonathan mentions that, due to the high quality of the sounds, it was his favourite show to date. “Also, the venue is great, and we played so well together as a band. There’s something so special about the energy we share when we play together,” he explains, adding that the audience was very receptive and responsive as well, providing heartfelt feedback after their set, “That’s why I do what I do, for those moments when I know I’ve really impacted someone through my music,” says Jonathan.

Local is not always lekker

Jonathan claims that everything in the local music space is more challenging than it needs to be since the industry is not what it could or should be. “Venues that pay musicians what is deserved are few and far between, but there are a couple of solid spaces that have kept my performances alive,” he explains. 

Jonathan Stephen Simons

[Jonathan Stephen Simons just wants to keep making and releasing music and performing for people who want to hear what they have to share. PHOTO: Pierre-Louis Bredenkamp]

Bassist, Stephen, says one of the toughest things is searching for venues that truly care about live music. “There are some venues that have live music but don’t have any respect for musicians. Sometimes we’re treated as non-skilled workers which is furthest from the truth,” he says. For this reason, they tend to stick with the places and people who treat them well and their work with respect. “That’s when it makes what we do worth it,” says Stephen.

Jonathan has had a lot of self-doubt over the years, but he has kept going because he believes this is his calling. “I’m not going to stop just because external factors make it more challenging,” he says.

Jonathan hopes to release a lot more music for the remainder of the year and into 2023, and they will be collaborating with other bands to put on more memorable events.

Author

I can’t play any musical instruments or sing, so this is my contribution to the local music scene — which I love immensely. I can’t touch my toes, but that has held me back only slightly in life. My hobbies include reading, beer, bringing up Let’s Get Local when no one asked, writing, and surprising people with my pool skills. I believe somehow all of this will lead me to Dave Grohl.

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