Armon Jay's new solo album, The Dark Side of Happiness, is coming up on September 18th, and ahead of that release, he's revealed his first single "Half-Life", which is debuting right here, right now, on Tower Records' PULSE!
Jay has been a musician and songwriter for a number of years, garnering some substantial successes, but in 2015, he also joined Chris Carraba's Dashboard Confessional as their lead guitarist at Chris's invitation, and recorded their latest album with them, as well as planning to take part in their 20th anniversary tour this year.
Jay has been working on his new album for quite a while now, and designed it to move forward from his very open discussion of getting sober and dealing with mental health issues in his first solo album, Everything's Different, Nothing's Changed (2014). In The Dark Side of Happiness, Jay takes on the bigger challenges of learning to face yourself every day, and maybe even learning to love yourself somehow. In his new single "Half-Life", we hear about that struggle with internal forces that can keep you in a middle ground where it takes courage to find real happiness.
Armon Jay joins us here on PULSE! to debut his single and talk about The Dark Side of Happiness.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on managing to meticulously craft and put out a new album despite everything else going on in the world. When did you put the final touches on the album?
Armon Jay: It’s kind of a weird journey. I finished the album in December of 2018, actually. I didn’t do it during the pandemic, but I decided to release it during one. I started touring with Dashboard in 2015. I was already on my second solo record. Chris actually lives like two miles from me, which has always been bizarre. A mutual friend let me know he was looking for a guitar player. Long story short, I joined Dashboard and have been touring with them since 2015, so I had to adjust schedule-wise regarding solo stuff. The first couple of years, we did a record with Dashboard.
HMS: Oh, yes, you were on that studio album.
AJ: Yes, that took some time, but when that finally slowed down in 2018, I decided that I needed to do the solo album. In 2019, I wanted to release it as soon as possible, but I wanted to explore every option about building a team for release, and that leads me to now. 2020, the beginning of this year, was Dashboard’s 20th anniversary, so I decided to wait until after that 2020 tour to release my record. But I finished this album, I spent 14 hours a day on it, I did it at my house. I ended up getting it mastered by the same guy who mastered my last two albums, in Los Angeles, and I was able to be there when he was mastering it. Then there was a year of building on things and deciding what the best route to go for release. It’s all good.
HMS: That all makes perfect sense, because you have two work identities. There’s your solo work, and your involvement with Dashboard, because you don’t just tour with them, you are their actual guitarist. Your story is very interesting because it’s the reverse of what most people do. A lot of people are members of bands and eventually put out a solo album, once they have the time to do so. But you were an established solo artist with some great work first, but are now also band member as this other fulfilling part of your life. That’s going to take some time and some doing.
AJ: I appreciate that. Chris, first of all, is an amazing dude and one of my best friends, but he’s also a prolific songwriter. When Chris approached me, it was in an understanding way, since he’s an artist as well. He was a fan of my music, and he’s always been insanely supportive of my solo career, which has been really cool. That’s helped elevate my solo career, too, so kudos to Chris.
HMS: That’s wonderful when you have people in your life who make such a difference. Everyone needs people in their life like that, or else where would we be? I mean, you can try doing it without them, but it’s not much fun.
AJ: Totally! That’s the truth. It’s definitely not as fun.
HMS: That’s the other thing about working solo versus working with other musicians, especially for songwriters, it helps them get outside of their own heads to work with other people sometimes.
AJ: Absolutely. I’ve played in various bands over the years, and one thing I do like, though it’s a little selfish, is that when I do solo work, I don’t have to argue with anyone except myself.
HMS: Your lyrics are very personal, though there’s a lot of universal stuff in there. With The Dark Side of Happiness, the title is very surprising, since you don’t hear people say a phrase like that very much, if it all. You hear people say, “Look on the bright side.” Where’d you get the idea for the title?
AJ: I’ve had an interesting journey since 2013. I got sober, I got diagnosed with ADHD, and I talked about this a lot on my first record. It is connected deeply to my lyrics, including my struggles with depression and anxiety. If I’m going to be vulnerable lyrically, I have to be open about where the songs come from, because I hope that it sparks conversation. I am shining a light on the stigma of depression and things we don’t like to talk about. So the phrase, “the dark side of happiness” comes out of the middle ground that we can tend to live in that’s almost the worst form of depression.
It’s a middle ground where you might be happy on the outside but you’re walking through an area in your life where there are internal struggles that you live with. It’ becomes a kind of lull, and in everyday life it becomes this thing in the back of your head that just kind of lives there. In the last five years, I’ve had some success and bought a house and a car, all these things I thought I’d never do in my music career, but I realized, “Shit, all these things don’t make me happy. I still need to be okay and be happy with myself.” So, working through the record, it points back to that, “How do I live with myself, but more than just live with myself, how do I love myself? And walk in that every day?” Those are benchmarks for the record.
HMS: That really makes sense. A lot of people are stuck at home right now, and we’re really forced into confronting all the things we might have going on, personally. If we can’t live with ourselves, and if we can’t find a way to care about ourselves, we’re going to be in a worse place right now.
AJ: For sure. Absolutely.
HMS: When I looked at the title for the album, some of my thoughts were similar. I wondered about the kind of gray feeling of going through life by going through the motions, and you feel like you’re drifting. Or sometimes when people are really happy, they are actually really mean to others because they are so wrapped up in their happiness. There are ways to neglect people in your life because you’re excited by something like a new relationship, or creative work.
AJ: That’s really cool. That actually speaks to me. That’s so true. Like you said earlier, we all need each other, and we can only go so far by ourselves. If we are able to allow people into our lives, and actually give to them and make their life richer, that’s when I find that I’m the happiest in my life. At the end of the day, some days depression is real life and some days it isn’t, but most days are kind of in the middle, and on the album, I explore all sides of that.
HMS: Is that kind of the same idea that comes up in the song, “Half-Life”, your single?
AJ: Absolutely, yes.
HMS: It’s very close to what we were just talking about. I think I might have had the wrong response to that song, and I probably shouldn’t tell the world, but I’ll do it: I thought it was darkly funny. It had me laughing at first. I was aware that it wasn’t really the right, sensitive thing to laugh, because maybe this is very serious. It made me laugh because it was audacious, because you were confessing things that people don’t say.
AJ: That’s cool! I think that’s awesome. This is a side-note, but I went through some therapy five or six years ago, and I was called out, though not in a bad way. The therapist noticed that every time I would get serious, I would start to laugh, and make a joke out of it. Maybe I’m okay with you saying it made you laugh, because it’s an awkward song lyrically. It talks about people calling me, and me not wanting to answer the phone, because I don’t want to talk to people.
HMS: I think I laugh when something is almost too true.
AJ: Me too. You would have laughed at some of the lyrics I replaced. I changed them because they didn’t sing well. It talked about cigarette butts being piled up in the corner of my garage. Whenever I was anxious, I would open my garage and chain-smoke, and toss cigarette butts in the corner of the garage. People thought maybe I could think of some better lyrics, though.
HMS: I’m sure a certain percentage of the public (and myself a few years ago) would relate to those cigarette butts. I listened to the song “Lighthouse”, too, from the new album, which must be pretty special, with a lot of composition work there in piano and violin. It’s multi-instrumental, with lots of layers. I also saw somewhere that you liked orchestral music. Is that what went into the sound for “Lighthouse”?
AJ: Yes. I actually grew up in elementary school and high school playing violin. I never was that good, and eventually I just laid it to the side, but it is the framework for a lot of my songs. I love artists who are cinematic. When I got sober, I listened to instrumental music all the time. Guys like Max Richter, especially Olafur Arnalds, who does Nordic instrumental music. You’ll hear similar vibes on his records. I love instrumental music and I have a background in it. I was never able to go down the rabbit hole until I did an album myself.
HMS: “Lighthouse” has a very uplifting sound but some of the lyrics are a little harder, a little tougher, and it’s an interesting effect to put them together.
AJ: I wrote that on tour, and I always want people to interpret lyrics in their own way, but I wrote that about going through depression on tour, and going through that half-life feeling, and missing my wife. But it also has a separate meaning for me, that even at home, I can be away if I isolate. I can not be present with the people in my life and that’s where “Lighthouse” has a deeper meaning. I wrote it in Canada when it was really cold.
HMS: I wouldn’t have expected that! It’s a very warm song that makes you think about ethereal things. But people don’t always need happy music. Sometimes they need real music, and it can be great to connect with a real feeling.
AJ: I know that I have a weird desire for sad songs, and maybe other people do, too.
HMS: It’s a thing. It’s a driving force in creating and making music.