Rockstar behind the scenes: 6 questions with Fort Wayne music producer extraordinaire Jon Gillespie

For some, talent is raw—a part of one's DNA. Sweetwater's Jon Gillespie is a prime example. While he prefers to remain behind the scenes of the music industry, his talent and drive rival the greats.

Along with working as a Sales Engineer for Sweetwater by day, Gillespie has worked with platinum artists, Oscar and Grammy winners, and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members in his role as the Founder of the former commercial recording studio, Monastic Chambers, and currently, the Cloister. Now, Gillespie is working on his next chef-d'oeuvre, a project called "Dream Rodeo," which is a collection of 30 albums that take traditional music from around the world and create a fusion of ancient, traditional sounds combined with new composition techniques and technology.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Gillespie to meet the man behind the music, learning more about his career from child virtuoso to rubbing shoulders with some of the industry's most acclaimed. 

1. How did you get into music?

JG: My family was very musical. My parents and grandparents always performed, so it came pretty naturally to me. I started playing piano when I was very young. I never read music, but I could play by ear as a little kid. So ever since I remember, I've been playing the piano and just playing it by ear, which led me to be interested in writing my own music. That was always more interesting to me. 

2. How did you end up down the path of recording, specifically? 

JG: As early as high school I had talked about having a recording studio. But I thought that was a crazy pipe dream, because back then, in the 60s and 70s, studios cost millions of dollars. 

I did my first work in real recording studios throughout my college years at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music and shortly thereafter. Later, I traveled with a Christian rock band that I thought was going to be my career. We were really good and had a pretty big following, but nothing ever came of it. That was back in the day when it was important to get signed by a record label.

So after the band broke up, I realized if I were in control of the entire process, then it was all on me. If anybody was going to screw it up, it would be me. So I got a second or third job and just worked and worked and worked and worked and bought gear. Then I opened up a studio charging $20 an hour at first back in the early 90s.

After a while, I realized, "Okay, I can do this. I have the abilities to make professional-sounding recordings." My studio developed as a business to the point where I could quit my day job as a Zookeeper at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo and do this full-time, prior to coming on board at Sweetwater.

3. What inspired your latest project, Dream Rodeo, rooted in an appreciation of global cultures?

JG: I enjoy finding gems in other cultures and in their music. It's like discovering the world. I haven't been incredibly well-traveled physically. I've only been to a few different countries in Asia and Europe, plus Mexico and Canada. But I'll immerse myself in another country by making an album of their music.

For instance,  I found one artist, in particular, to be interesting was Mz Menneh, now known as the "Beyoncé" of Liberian music. When I met her, I was a she was a hairdresser in Fort Wayne, here on a cultural diversity visa. She wanted to be a singer, so we traded studio time, and she did an album of Liberian gospel songs for me for "Dream Rodeo." Then I did an album for her.

I’m always searching for the next "Dream Rodeo" album I can do. There have been times when I've been walking down the hallway in a mall, heard somebody speaking another language, and have gone up to them and said, "Hey, can you sing?"

I think it goes back to having a curiosity about the world. I can't imagine not being curious about other cultures—people who think differently than I do and see the world through different eyes. They’re a great mystery to me, and I just love to dive into that mystery. 

If I weren’t open to new ways of thinking, I would just assume that I was right, and everybody else is wrong. That paradigm is boring and ignorant. 

4. What do you wish more people understood about your craft?

JG: There's a lot of technical learning about recording that needs to be done if you're going to be good at it. You can't go, "Hey, I want to learn recording," and go to school and learn recording. There has to be an innate understanding of how sounds are combined, how music works, and what sounds good in music. If you don't start with that, no amount of school is going to help. 

5. What’s it like to work with the likes of award-winning musicians? 

JG: It's interesting, of course. It's a cliché to say that they're people just like anybody else. But, generally speaking, the most successful musicians I've worked with have been the coolest, with a couple of exceptions. 

For instance, take 2 Live Crew. You would think that those guys, who once had the biggest bad boy reputations in Hip-Hop during the 90s, would have been a couple of jerks. But they were consummate professionals and were super polite and nice to work with. They had a respect for my skill, and they were great. I'd work with those guys anytime. I've met lots of local artists who had way bigger egos with no reason.

On the contrary, a lot of the most successful artists are driven, and they know what they want. But they're cool about it and easy to work with. Another example: I’ve worked with Kenny Aronoff, the most recorded drummer in the world, a number of times at this point. He's just really cool. 

But the thing about working with pros like him is that you can enjoy it, and it's relaxed because everybody trusts that everybody knows what to do. And nobody gets all hung up about what other people are doing. 

6. What do you most appreciate about the local music scene?

JG: What I enjoy most about it about the local scene is just the amazing talent that's here. I can call up any number of incredible musicians who will deliver world-class performances on projects. You don't need to go to Nashville because you've got the people here who can do it.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.