Jonathan Hart of Crooked Smile
April 18, 1998
North Park College
Chicago, Illinois
By Linda T. Stonehocker

“Can we interview you?” I wrote in my notebook and handed it to Jonathan Hart,--singer, lyricist, and lead guitar of Crooked Smile--who was standing behind his merchandise table while Johnny Respect turned up the volume on stage. Nodding, we crossed the basketball court together and headed for the relative quiet of the green room where the other bands were relaxing before their set. Hart had never heard of The Phantom Tollbooth, and I'd never heard of Crooked Smile before discovering them as openers for Edan Production’s April show. (See the Concert Review section for a full report on “The Ultimate Ska Punk Alternative Weekend.”), but their performance impressed me enough to investigate further.

After we settled down at a round banquet table to get acquainted, I noticed his hands were shaking a little from nervousness. He didn't have much experience with the press.

Tollbooth - How did you come up with the name Crooked Smile?

Hart - When we started becoming a better, more mature band, we wanted a new name. We had a song called “Crooked Smile” and we finally came up with that as the name of the band. It was a song that we tried forever to work out, and couldn't get it to sound right, but we ended up choosing the name for our band, and it worked out real well.

Tollbooth - Does it have any deeper significance?

Hart - We thought about trying to make something up for it, but really, it doesn't.

Tollbooth - You get interviewed enough, you'll start dreaming up things, I'm sure.

Hart - Sure.

Tollbooth - To me, I'm thinking about our eternal imperfections as humans.

Hart - Exactly. That’s what I meant to say. Write that up. It sounds much better.

To build his confidence a little, I asked about his previous musical success:

Hart - Up until recently, we just played the Atlanta scene. That has been going real well. We actually won a battle of the bands at one of the clubs,  and put out a CD ourselves in ’96. I think that is what landed us with Bulletproof, and here we are in Chicago. This is real new to us, being on the road. It is real exciting.

Tollbooth - How many dates are you doing on this tour?

Hart - We've been gone for about two weeks now, and we'll be heading home after Gospel Music Association week in Nashville, Tennessee. Then we'll start doing weekends. We have school coming up again in the summer. We took this quarter off to tour.

Hart and his label, Bulletproof, a division of Grey Dot Records, are taking a long term approach in developing Crooked Smile:

Hart - I'm still in school. I'm studying music, taking theory. This is my second year there. We're all in our second year at school (the other members of the band), so we have two more years. We'll just take it as it comes, and see what happens.

The center of Jonathan Hart the artist is his songs:

Hart - There are two types of songs that I'll write. Either a song that is personal to me, or one that is open to be personal to other people. That’s one of the greatest things I can think of, for people to hear a song, and relate to it. On top of all that, everything I write has God in the center of it. Whether it is about breaking up with a girlfriend or spouse abuse. We're trying to shed some light on some darker subjects.

Another dark subject we have is in a song called “Subway Station.” Some people that lived in a subway station--they were heroine addicts, their lifestyle, and how they got out of it inspired it.

Tollbooth - What about the other type, your personal songs?

Hart - They're the harder ones to interpret because it’s basically just my feelings at the time, but I know that other people go through the same things I feel.

Tollbooth - What sort of topics do you touch on there that people are relating to?

Hart - One song was called “Nothingness.” It is about a time in my life when I felt really far away from God, but yet, we still had the band going. I felt like when it was all stripped down to it, when you get rid of my whole sinful life, I have this band, and this was what I wanted God to have. It’s the most important thing I think I have to give to God. A lot of people can relate to that because when it all comes down to it, there is one gift that they want to give to God.

Tollbooth - So you see this band as a gift. Can you expand on that a little bit?

Hart - As of right now, I believe it is God’s will for us to be on the road here. It’s been very hard for us. We've actually played some shows where we lost some money, but it is all worthwhile because we can keep our heart in the right place, and that in itself is a blessing to us that we can stay strong. I guess that’s how it is a gift.

Tollbooth - How did you figure out that this was God’s call?

Hart - I've always had the band, even before I was saved. It’s kind of funny if you look at some of our lyrics before that and now. It’s amazing, like night and day. Once I became saved, I thought this is a big part of my life, this band thing, and to incorporate my Christian faith with that was the obvious thing to do.

Tollbooth - How long have you been a Christian?

Hart - Since Billy Graham was in Atlanta a few years ago. I went to church a lot before that and claimed that I was a Christian, but I actually became one through his crusade. It just happened there, along with thousands of other people. It was an awesome experience.

Tollbooth - How would you describe your sound?

Hart - We say pretty much straightforward pop rock. That’s the easiest thing to say. We sound kind of like Matthew Sweet, Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Choir, etc. Those are some big influences. I like really strong song writing. Strong lyrics, strong melody, and quality songs are what I look for.

Tollbooth - Would you say you are more interested then in the music than the words?

Hart - Equally. It is very important to have strong words. I'm a little slow at English, but when I come around, I get lyrics that I'm really satisfied with. They change over and over and over again until I've got them the way I want them.

Tollbooth - Is being in the studio a challenge for you? Was it different than playing live?

Hart - The only way that is a challenge is that when you are in the studio, every little nit-picky part of each song comes out, and it gets real intense when the producers are telling you, “No, no, no, no it’s got to be this way.” But being in the studio is great. We had a blast. We're ready to go back now. We won't be back until early next year, but we're already working on material for it. We love being in the studio.

Tollbooth - When did your record come out?

Hart - February. It should be in local Christian bookstores. If it is not, you can order it.