Jon Itkin is a liar—sort of. After a few listens to his self-released debut, Oregon, the newly local singer-songwriter had me convinced that his mother is in prison. He also had me convinced—based on his mature, insightful lyrics and world-weary voice—that he's been around the block more than a few times.
But, despite his songs' specific imagery and the tired, knowing tone of his 24-year-old voice, my convictions (for the most part) are not true. "I was a fiction major," Itkin explains, "but I didn't write any fiction. I only wrote for class, and I spent all my other time writing music." He also mentions that an early love of Bob Dylan (which he credits to his father's record collection) initially schooled him in "high-art lyrical stuff." And the subjects of Itkin's rootsy music—tunes that range from blues rock to straight-up country to honky-tonk and folk—take you places, whether it's watching Saturday-morning cartoons with that fictional mother, getting drunk in Tacoma or road-tripping to California.
"You always have to put yourself in your art," he admits. "You're a liar if you say you're not there." But it's more through his keen understanding of human emotion than autobiographical details that Itkin inhabits his songs: On "10 Pack of Years," he sings, "We used to make love out in the back lawn/ Now we're eatin' dinner/ With the TV on." Itkin uses convincingly real characters and settings to create songs that are as intensely personal as they are relatable. "I like to take my life experiences...and project them onto stories," he says.
Such effective storytelling won Itkin the New Song Contest at Eugene's 2006 Willamette Valley Folk Fest—where he says he played "for a hundred burnt-out 55-year-old hippies at 12 in the afternoon." And though Itkin wrote and recorded Oregon in Eugene as well, he says he's finally been able to "connect the dots" in Portland. Thanks to a stint playing lead guitar for Scotland Barr & the Slow Drags, Itkin met Floater's Rich Landar, which led to his meeting accomplished steel guitarist Paul Brainard and Chet Lyster, who's worked with Fernando and the Eels.
Now, Itkin has assembled a sort of revolving-door live band (via Craigslist) that he calls "Some Like-Minded Souls," and he's busy recording a new album, Big Gold Guitar in the Sky, with Landar, Brainard and Lyster (to be released in March). "With that first record," he says, "I had full arrangements in my head for every single song." With Guitar, however, Itkin says his music is actually taking on "the sound [he] imagined."
That sound is as evident of the music Itkin loves—old country, Dylan, Nebraska-era Springsteen—as who he is. And for a 24-year-old, he's acutely aware of his identity: "I feel really out of place sometimes with the hip stuff," Itkin explains. But he's quick to add, "I'm not gonna change. I'm gonna do what I wanna do, musically. I'm never gonna wear a mullet, I'm never gonna own a pair of Chuck Taylors, I'm never gonna adopt a persona. It's not real for me. Maybe that is really real for somebody else...I'm not better than them. It's just not real to me."
Itkin and Some Like-Minded Souls play with Celilo and Cabinessence Saturday, Jan. 6, at the White Eagle. 9:30 pm. $6. 21+.