Sometimes, the name just doesn’t fit. Such is the case with John Common. He and his band, Blinding Flashes of Light, bring their eclectic sound to Pensacola with a series of dates at The Fish House and the Greater Gulf Coast Arts Festival this weekend. The IN was able to catch up with Common to talk about his Pensacola past and his journey to becoming one of Denver’s favorite songwriters.
IN: How did growing up in a creative family influence you?
COMMON: First of all, they introduced me to music in general. I grew up watching my brother play his acoustic guitar. A creative family makes it seem okay to be creative. When I think about what it might be like if I hadn’t grown up in a creative family like that, maybe I wouldn’t have even done it. Maybe I would have thought it was impossible.
IN: You spent your middle school and high school years in Pensacola. How did the town shape you the most?
COMMON: I’m not sure I can put that into words, other than to say that it’s a “Southern” thing. It’s something you don’t realize until you leave the South, but once you do, you know on a personal level what that means. Something that’s interesting about the culture in Pensacola is how many creative people there are. There’s always been this undercurrent of underground, independent, artistic stuff, whether it’s blowing glass at Belmont Arts Center or live bands or visual arts, it’s always existed. And the culture itself is military-based and right on the political spectrum. There’s a tension in Pensacola that’s extremely unique.
IN: After your Pensacola years, you went through what you call your “Kerouac” phase. Tell us about that time in your life.
COMMON: I traveled around the country, slept in a sleeping bag or in my truck, wrote bad poetry, played a bunch of busking-type street gigs and grew my hair out. I think every young man needs to do that.
IN: You also spent some time working on a wheat farm in central Kansas. How did you get involved with that?
COMMON: I had been couch-surfing in New York City while busking. I got to a point where I asked myself, “What’s the most opposite direction I could go from Manhattan?” A friend’s family had an antique farmhouse that her family homesteaded and still owned in the middle of nowhere in Kansas. It’s literally about 20 miles from the exact geographic center of the U.S. in a tiny town called Denmark. The place is a grain co-op surrounded by 15 or 20 family farms and nothing more. It’s not really a town.
They introduced me to Merril the Farmer, who paid me $5 an hour to do all sorts of manual labor. I went out there and lived alone in a farmhouse, had my little 4-track and wrote songs. It wasn’t lonesome. More like solitary. Looking back, it was one of the happiest times of my life.
IN: Your past bands are starkly different from Blinding Flashes of Light. Describe the evolution in your sound.
COMMON: Originally, I was in a punk psychedelic roots band called Bunkhouse Jones in Pensacola. Then I came to Denver and started a roots band inspired by early Wilco and Jayhawks stuff. Eventually, I got really tired of doing the roots thing, so I put out a record called “Good to be Born” that was much more experimental and meant to stretch myself as a songwriter and singer. I was much happier as an artist for doing so.
When recording our most recent record, I made it a rule that I wouldn’t play any electric guitar. I had always been that guy with an electric guitar standing in front of a tube amp. I was curious to see what would happen to the sound of my music without that element. So we replaced all the sound that the electric guitar can do with more orchestral qualities, like layered vocals, keyboards and cello. It ended up being an immensely organic approach to making music. And for me personally, it forced me to rely on my band more. The space makes the music breathe more.
IN: What artists have inspired your current sound the most?
COMMON: Tom Waits has always been a big-time influence of mine. Leonard Cohen. Sufjan Stevens. The Robert Plant and Alison Krauss record, “Raising Sand.”
IN: You’ve gotten a lot of praise for your songwriting. Where do you get most of your lyrical inspiration?
COMMON: A lot of times the lyrics come from this never-ending inner monologue in my head. The conversations I have with myself throughout the day end up being the basis for most of my music.
IN: Anything else you’d like to add?
COMMON: We really are excited to be playing in Pensacola. I’ve been coming to the arts festival for a while, and it’s an honor to finally be playing there.
Photo: Kristal Sherman