Along with writing and performing with his wife Julie Torrence as The Native Heart, Torrence works his days writing and teaching music to kids, as a teacher in a school district just over the Michigan-Ohio border in Metamora, OH. And, when he’s not teaching or performing, he’s playing with musical ideas in his head, tinkering around with videography to accompany his original songs for The Native Heart(‘s) YouTube channel, or just playing his instruments for enjoyment.
Artist Jon Torrence’s Musical Life
To say that an artist “lives and breathes” music is usually mere cliché, but when it comes to describing Breedlove’s April Featured Artist, Michigan-based guitarist Jon Torrence, one half of the husband-wife duo The Native Heart from Adrian, Michigan, it’s an uncommonly apt description.
Along with writing and performing with his wife Julie Torrence as The Native Heart, Torrence works his days writing and teaching music to kids, as a teacher in a school district just over the Michigan-Ohio border in Bowling Green, Ohio. And, when he’s not teaching or performing, he’s playing with musical ideas in his head, tinkering around with videography to accompany his original songs for The Native Heart(‘s) YouTube channel, or just playing his instruments for enjoyment.
Recently, Jon sat down with Breedlove to discuss the makings of his very musical life, The Native Heart’s forthcoming EP, and the unparalleled connection he has with his go-to guitar, a Breedlove Legacy Concertina.
Interview has been edited for length.
Breedlove Guitars (BG): To start, I wanted to get more of an understanding of how you got into music and Native Heart. When did you start playing music? Was music a part of your upbringing?
Jon Torrence (JT): Yeah. Music was always around my house when I was a kid. My dad led music at a church and there was always guitars and drums and different things around the house and we would mess around on them as kids. There was a lot of just being around music as I was getting into who I am as a person. And it was really cool environment. A lot of gospel music, a lot of funk music, jazz, as I got older I was discovering more and more just from my dad’s CD collection and then I was stealing CDs from my older brother so I was getting other kinds of influences as well.
BG: Ah, so cool! Do your siblings play as well?
JT: I have three brothers and one sister and all three of my brothers are also musicians. It just became a thing whenever we get together we have family jam sessions where every instrument is played and we’re all just trading off and having a good time, so.
BG: That’s so neat. So, your parents join in too?
JT: My dad does. My mom doesn’t but is a great cheerleader.
BG: There you go! So, where exactly did you grow up?
JT: Well, my dad is in the military so we bounced around a lot throughout my childhood. We lived in Alaska for a few years, we lived in England, we lived in Buffalo, New York. Just a lot of different places. We ended up landing in Ohio – as random as that is – so that’s where we ended up growing up from like fourth grade on.
BG: Ah, wow, so I know your band is based in Michigan, but I also noticed that you work as a music teacher in Ohio, right?
JT: I went to college in Ohio and everything and I live in Michigan, but I teach in the closes Ohio school to the Michigan border. I am connected with the church up here in Michigan and that’s where I lead music on Sundays and do things with them and our band and everything.
BG: That’s awesome. What ages do you teach?
JT: I teach elementary school but I also work with older kids. I have a group of students currently that we come together to do like a jazz combo or a group band, kind of like that.
BG: I hear that jazz influence and experience in the music of The Native Heart! I also hear a lot of folk influence too. Did you listen to a lot of folk growing up?
JT: No, I did not listen to a lot of folk growing up. That came a little later. I started off by writing poetry when I was a teenager and then I thought it would be a good idea if I learned how to play guitar, because girls liked guys who played guitar. Typical 15-year-old boy mentality. So, I was starting to learn how to play guitar and fell in love with the song writing aspect and a lot of folk artists just have such rich stories within their songs so it was the story that really drew me in. Listening to Bob Dylan, listening to modern ones like Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, those are people that I really gravitated toward, so I went down a big rabbit hole going all the way back to Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash later on. I have an equally strong love for the folk side of things as I do the jazz, R&B, and hip-hop style of things, so I kind of fuse everything together [in The Native Heart].
BG: Well, the way you blend those sounds in your music sounds very authentic and natural. I definitely hear what you’re saying. Where does your wife, Julie, come into the mix? When did The Native Heart officially form?
JT: Me and my wife Julie would always play music together when we were dating. I would write a lot of songs and we would share them together and we would play at different events and things like that – this really started when we were in college and we didn’t necessarily have a name for about three or four years. Then, we ended up going in pretty seriously about this endeavor called the Native Heart. My wife is now a stay-at-home mom and we’re both schoolteachers and when we had our first child, it was difficult leaving him. She wanted to find a way to do stay home with him. I was like, well, what about this music thing? I can play, we can do gigs together, or do different things and find ways to supplement income and all that. I’m already writing music, we love performing. And so it was a natural transition to look more into this.
BG: Ah, that lends a deeper meaning to Native Heart! Is that partly what contributed to your band name, this idea of the heart being at home?
JT: She had the idea for the name, the Native Heart, which just is about this idea of life and music and love and all these things that are brilliant and bold all being at the core of who we are as humans. It’s this love of storytelling. This love of sharing something that comes naturally.
BG: Tell me a little about your guitars – what was your first guitar you started on?
JT: After I started getting an interest in the guitar, I would ask my dad to play one of his instruments. My dad was very generous in letting me play on his guitars and he has a Gibson 135 and he had a Guild that was very similar, tobacco burst, single cutaway, gorgeous guitar.
BG: Oh, so you were spoiled! Only kidding, but those are nice guitars.
JT: Yeah, yeah, so I would play on those but as I started to needing to play more and more, he was like, you know, we’re going to get you your guitar. I saved up money and I bought my first – it was just a Fender acoustic, just a cheap little guitar that played decently. By this point I had started to catch the bug for Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer, just guitarists doing things, electric guitarists. So I quickly saved money and bought a made-in-Mexico Fender Stratocaster. Those were my main two guitars.
BG: And then you got your hands on a Breedlove? Is that your main guitar, now?
JT: 100%. My goodness. My oldest brother lived in Cleveland for a while and was looking for a guitar and he came across Breedlove and so he bought one. He was playing it at a church, and I just fell in love with that guitar. But, it was too far out of my price point at the time. When I was able to pick a guitar of my own, I always had Breedlove in my mind because of being younger and playing on my brother’s acoustic. And about two years ago, I was in a guitar shop and they carried Breedlove guitars and that was when I played the Legacy Concertina. I did not go in the store to buy a guitar, but when I saw it there with a slotted headstock and the Celtic knot, and the twelve fret, and the shorter scale—I played a G chord and was like, dang it, I’m buying a guitar today!
BG: That’s the risk you run when you go into a guitar shop, I guess.
JT: Yes it is, yes indeed it is. That was just it. I had gone through so many different acoustic guitars over the years and had just never played one that felt so much like me. It’s just another extension of me, of myself. The wood that’s used on this guitar, it’s resonant wood, so even though it’s a smaller body it carries such a big sound. The way that the neck feels is extremely comfortable. Like when I played that guitar, it makes me do things that I would not normally think of. I like to do a lot of funky chords and jazz chords and different things where I can have different voices, different colors added to the music, and because of the shorter scale neck, I found myself naturally jumping to more theoretically deep chords than I would normally, even if I’m playing a Johnny Cash tune. I might throw in something with a ninth where I wouldn’t normally do that. It’s been a lot of fun gigging with it over the past few years.
BG: Speaking of gigs, are you able to play in 2021 at all? What’s on the horizon for The Native Heart this year?
JT: I have definitely been blessed in this way, where I have had certain opportunities – I think my first one was only just a few weeks ago. In February there was a song and poetry night at a college campus and I had a connection with that campus and so I was asked to come down and do some stuff with it and it was the first event and it was safe and socially-distanced. That felt amazing to play at that event and then certain restaurants and venues around [Adrian] are slowly but surely starting to open doors and have some live music and I’ve been playing at a couple of those places – outdoor and indoor.
BG: What about new music? Do you have any new releases forthcoming?
JT: I have a single called “Push” that I just released about a month and a half ago and I’m currently working on a more stripped, acoustic EP that will likely drop toward the beginning of summer, as well.
As Breedlove’s April Featured Artist, look for social media takeovers from Jon on Breedlove’s Facebook throughout the month. You can also enter to win an Organic Collection guitar throughout the month here. To keep up with The Native Heart, visit their website and Facebook.