Rich Howells

SONG PREMIERE: Scranton singer Jay Luke warns against addictive tech in ‘Trapped in Your Cell’

SONG PREMIERE: Scranton singer Jay Luke warns against addictive tech in ‘Trapped in Your Cell’
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Cell phones have become such an essential part of life for so many people that it’s becoming difficult to remember a time without them in the modern world. Scranton singer/songwriter Jay Luke not only remembers that time but often captures it in his 1970s and ‘80s-influenced rock music, particularly on his latest single premiering today on NEPA Scene.

“Trapped in Your Cell” isn’t just railing against technology, though. The 41-year-old Throop native is warning listeners that the screen you may think is taking your problems away is actually compounding them, leading to a breakdown in communication that is dangerous in more ways than one.

“I find more and more each day that cell phones are both a tool for good and a weapon for negativity, much like the Internet is. In this time period, we are losing the simplest of concepts, such as actually socializing without typing out our feelings. I see couples sit next to one another and text rather than looking up and facing one another using spoken words, or families out to dinner where not one of them is lifting their heads to look at one another – just a table of zombies with their heads down in their screens. It is all very odd,” Luke told NEPA Scene in an exclusive interview as the song becomes available on all major streaming platforms.

“I used to think one of the scariest things to look out for while driving on the highway was a drunk driver – now I am terrified that someone texting and driving is so much more common and so much more dangerous. It is a true problem, the addiction our cell phones have on us, and that is the exact reasoning for writing ‘Trapped in Your Cell.’ It is a play on words, but it symbolizes how I see it. We have these electronic prisons we are attached to so much that even though they are cordless, we are forever chained to them as our attention spans get worse and focusing on one thing is becoming an impossibility.”

Luke’s focus, however, has never been clearer as he continues to work on his third solo album in three years. “I’m not sure that I know what relaxation really is!” he admitted with a laugh, adding that he is always in a race with himself as he tries to “keep up on recording and releasing material” as it comes to his head while juggling everything else in his life.

“I have a terrible problem shutting my mind off to rest or even sleep often. I guess it is both a curse and blessing to productivity. I find while most of the world is asleep is the time I get the most work done. No distraction, perhaps. In the vampire hours, I feel free to write and get through the things I am prevented to do during the day, so I don’t take much time off,” he continued.

“I guess, as an artist, a big motivator is that once you put a release out, you want to always do better with the next one and so forth. I feel you are always competing against yourself and your last album. I don’t see life as a competition with other artists like the ‘American Idol’ world wants you to be brainwashed to believe. To me, the only competition is with myself; I want to be better than I was yesterday. And as it has only been two years since my first album was released and a year since the last release, I am blown away that I am so close to hitting 100,000 online streams. If I bought into competing against everyone else, I don’t for a second believe that I would have made that impact, as I would be too unfocused on the sounds and the message I am trying to get through.”

Finding the time

After 15 years of performing live and struggling for many of those years to find reliable musicians to form a permanent band, Luke packed his aptly titled debut album, “It’s About Time,” with friends and guest players on each track. Recorded at JL Studios in 2017, he released the record in 2018 and soon found himself back in the Olyphant studio to record 2019’s “Vandalized Memories” with a lineup that stuck with him for his upcoming album, “Alone in the Crowd” – Luke on vocals and rhythm guitar, Michael “Duds” McDonald on lead guitar, studio owner Joe Loftus on bass as well as assembling drums and percussion, and Lori Leader playing a kalimba and providing some spoken word segments.

“On my first release, ‘It’s About Time,’ it was very much like me getting as many of my musician friends as possible to record a bit on it. Now with what I am doing, I think I found the right personnel to get the songs done as efficiently as possible. We all work really well together, and I am so grateful for that,” he emphasized.

“As far as my solo career and recording goes, Joe Loftus is an essential part of everything I do and record. I cannot imagine recording anywhere else. He is not only one of the best producers/engineers around, but he is a member of my recording band as well. He has handled all bass guitar on every track I ever recorded, minus one. [Engineer] Jay Preston is another invaluable member of the team at JL; the way Joe and Jay work together to pull out what each artist is looking to achieve is amazing. As far as I am concerned for what I do, they know my process, thoughts, and ideas on what I am looking to create and are all about making it happen, so I will always support JL Studios and anything Jay or Joe work on, as they do it with such passion and confidence.”

The coronavirus pandemic shut the studio down during this next production, however, so while the album is fully written, it’s only halfway recorded with five songs finished and four or five more on the way. With the record on hold and everyone stuck at home, Luke felt it would be a good time to upload “Trapped in Your Cell” as so many eyes are glued to screens like the one portrayed in the cover artwork.

“For this release, I knew what I wanted to try to convey, and as a visual artist, I had the concept for the imagery as fast as I had come up with the lyrics. I wanted to illustrate the best way to show that our phones may be cordless, but we are forever chained to them. That they are called ‘cell’ phones and the irony of them being so close to a prison cell should be noted. Visually, I wanted to have a vibe that looking into your screen is reminiscent of looking through prison bars. I think the final image achieved that concept,” he explained.

“Just being one of the people that walk around with my head up observing the landscape was enough of a reason to see how similar any city block with foot traffic is like walking amongst the living dead – people bumping into other people right in front of them while typing and people walking into poles as the all-important text has to get sent. I have seen a few stories of people in New York City texting and walking right into open manholes. It is that lack of attentiveness that worries me so much and inspired this particular song.”

Using smart devices intelligently

As Luke talks to a digital publication, he doesn’t believe all technology is bad, of course, as long as it’s used the right way and not in place of some basic skills.

“One of the main benefits of technology today is that everything is so immediate. You used to have to do a bit of digging around or searching to find your answers to basic things, but with Google constantly at our fingertips, we get answers as fast as we ask questions, but that same convenience also brings about a laziness that we are so dependent upon. I am a believer in not forgetting how things work in case the electronic world ceases to be for any reason,” Luke said.

“As an artist, I use a computer for much of my graphic design, but I always keep using pencils, paint, and ink to create works because it is so important to connect to a paintbrush, pencil, or pen as much as it is to use a mouse, phone, or laptop. If there is a power outage, that takes away our social media, and if our online backups get erased, we all have to relearn the basic ways of doing the simplest things. As children are being raised without learning these things, I find it to be frightening. Kids not knowing how to socialize without a phone to hide behind, not knowing what cursive writing is, or how to do anything without being connected to a network or Wi-Fi is like a horror movie to me, imagining how the world will be in 10 or 20 years because of it.”

While he was out performing weekly right up until COVID-19 hit, technology has also helped him reach an even wider fan base online.

“When you put music or art out into the world, I guess there is this excitement that you never know where it will end up or why it may resonate. I am continually surprised to find how many fans overseas are streaming songs I could never have imagined them latching onto. I know I have been fortunate to have songs included on over 30 playlists on Spotify, which provides a much larger audience, and even as recently as last week, I got three songs onto two more lists, so they sort of take on a life of their own,” he recalled.

“I woke up one morning to find close to a thousand fans in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil liked my page, and I guess that is the beauty of music; it is unpredictable in time and place. Something you released a lifetime ago may be rediscovered at any time in any place. I am thrilled the two albums in two years are closely approaching 100,000 streams on Spotify alone. If you asked me if I thought that was a remote possibility two years ago, I would never have dreamed it. I wish I had a logical explanation for a lot of the things that seem to occur, but I absolutely love it for that very same reason.”

It has also helped him continue to perform on live streams, a concept he initially hated but soon warmed up to.

“I made no secret that I found it so annoying to constantly get notifications of everyone going live and doing mundane things such as describing what they were eating for lunch, so when it was the only option left for performers to get their music out, I reluctantly gave it a go. My attitude changed as I saw the obvious benefits in it. I have been able to reach people I would never have been able to reach by simply performing in my basement on this bizarre virtual world tour with a number of viewers that almost knocked me over in surprise. I did a live stream on a show in San Francisco recently and took part in ECTV’s televised performance of ‘Lackawanna County Arts and Culture Live.’ I found it strange to be doing so well in a time that is so bleak for many. Most of my fans in other countries don’t get to see me play live, and even the ones locally don’t always get out or have kids, which prevents them from catching me out in a club. Now with the live stream, I treat them as a gig to plan and promote them, but I try to not overdo it – once a week seems to be more than enough. I see so many musicians doing sets sometimes multiple times a day, and that is fine and good, but for me, I like to keep it to once a week if possible so I am not rehashing the same set,” he noted.

“This Friday, I will be doing a live stream for ‘Steamtown Live’ in conjunction with The Marketplace at Steamtown. I have done a few live sets for them now and it is really cool – diverse audiences and always a fun opportunity to reach new people. I have done a few streams of exclusively original material where I have performed most of the new album acoustically and have done a lot of eclectic covers that are special to me. That is a danger in the performing environment I am always mindful of – the content. So many artists are doing live streams and so many of the song choices overlap, so I always take pride in trying to be different by ignoring a lot of the same things.”

Isolation and inspiration

Another way Luke has stood out has been to actively develop and move forward with each album while still looking to classic artists for inspiration.

“Each album I work on I want to progress. I don’t want everything I do to sound alike, but I do not want to make a massively drastic jump from, say, being a really rocking album to a weird country sound. I look to people like David Bowie or Prince in the way they were fearless as to trying out whatever they felt in their hearts and not thinking of pleasing others to compromise their art. I feel that if I want to have a punk song, a metal song, and an acoustic song together in one album where most people may separate them is always cool. Painting yourself in a corner is cool if that is what you plan to do forever. I could never imagine the Ramones or AC/DC releasing an all-acoustic album, and that is great because they know what works for them. For me, I always found the fearlessness of Bowie and Prince to be something so appealing, where you are not constrained to a style and can just write your songs how you feel they belong,” he detailed.

“This new album is sort of a continuation of previous themes and maturation with how my life progressed since the last one. I think each song has a story or meaning that, to me, are like little snapshots of time. Some may take happiness, sorrow, indifference, anger, or confusion from the music or lyrics but, to me, it is always just me opening up my soul and seeing what falls out and making some sense of it.”

For “Alone in the Crowd,” themes include “hope, the future, observance, love, loneliness, and alienation, to name a few.”

“That saying ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ is something I always felt to be so true. In lyrics and music, I am such a fan of double meanings or seeing a yin and yang of good and bad in everything, so one person may see hopelessness and one person may see hope. And I would want it no other way. I like that the meanings are up to the listener to choose from,” he said.

“The title came to me after spending so much of my life doing shows. I am constantly around scenes and situations so many people could never relate to at hours most people never experience. There will always be excitement in the unknown for me, but there is also predictability that gets so old in a lot of ways too. I am a person that is around different people in different areas often, and more times than not, I feel the most alone when I am surrounded by others. People that think they know you but have no clue – I am pretty sure it is a feeling most people can understand. The theme is what I felt strongly about, and once the lyrics came together about what I took in through my eyes so many times, I felt it was a good move to use it as the album title as well.”

Reaching new creative heights

Luke is also able to scratch a different creative itch with Scranton punk rock band Reach for the Sky, who started as a Social Distortion tribute band and developed into an original punk rock act.

“Reach for the Sky is definitely a different animal for me and offers something that my solo work does not. I am strictly a lead guitarist in the band, and I may add some background vocals, but there is a satisfaction that I enjoy so much in not being the frontman or main songwriter for this project. It allows me to really aim at playing lead guitar that serves the songs properly. We released our second album in March of this year called ‘Set Me Free’ while we were under quarantine, which I found strangely fitting in both the title and the time,” he explained.

“I felt much like I do in my solo work, that the release was a progression from our first album, and that is always a goal, to continually do better, and the band feels the same way. It is enjoyable to collectively share a vision and see it through. That is a rare thing with music and bands, so I am very grateful to have it and to work with my bandmates on original material. It has provided us with great opportunities and really cool live shows with bands we enjoy and admire.”

The pandemic has also prevented them from doing more with it as the entire music and entertainment industry remains on hold. Even when Lackawanna County likely transitions into the “yellow phase” of reopening next Friday, June 5, all bars, restaurants, and clubs will remain “takeout only” for at least a few more weeks, if not the rest of the summer.

“I am used to doing shows in front of people at least twice a week, and this year as opposed to all others, I actually booked out a full 50+ shows by January, whereas I used to just go week by week seeing where I could end up. My planning ahead felt like it would be such a productive year. To have all shows canceled was absolutely frustrating, then to have the studio close as I wanted to finish the album equally as frustrating. It has affected me in the loss of work for one, missing out on hanging out with people, holidays being different, and events we are all so used to happening being canceled, as well as the everyday difference in wearing masks in public and feeling so disconnected from so much,” Luke lamented.

“I think so many people I know have given into a sort of hopeless feeling and gone to their own devices. Some are eating a lot and drinking a lot, but I have been putting time in thinking outside of the box any way I can to keep pushing forward and doing my best to try to convince everyone else to do the same as well. During this quarantine, I have worked on getting my music as far out there as I could and have been lucky to have been added to a lot of radio stations, web shows, and done a lot of interviews with new people. It has kept me feeling like each day is a blank canvas to make a new painting, with the music being the paintbrush.”

He has also had to face the harsh reality that the music scene as we all know it will take some time to bounce back completely, even after restrictions have been lifted.

“You know it is odd when just two months ago seems like four years. I laughed when I saw a meme that showed a black and white image of people in a restaurant illustrating that same point, saying ‘This is an old photo of people gathering in public in 2019.’ It shows humor and also a real truth. The world we knew just months ago seems so far away from us. I am the sort of person that didn’t want this quarantine to be something I came out of with no hope, overweight, and not using every available opportunity I could, so I have stuck to my guns on all of that. I have no crystal ball that can say when this will end, but I do know I am making the most of it with all the resources available to me,” he enthused.

“Quarantine shows the best and worst of humanity. The worst of humanity is so easy to give in to. Anyone can complain about the state of things, but I choose to take advantage of the learning, creating, and positive things to be done. I feel that we all have asked for all of this time when we were all so busy with work and our day-to-day lives, and now we all have nothing but time. Many complain that they are bored with so much time on their hands, but I am trying to make the best of each day learning new things, pushing myself harder, and trying to continually be better than I was yesterday.”

There is a bright side to all this with the right perspective, and Luke certainly has that in spades.

“I just want to thank you for doing what you do in both quarantine and in the way of life we knew before. You are always fighting for the artists and musicians by giving them a platform and voice. You have done it without compromising yourself, and you deserve every bit of the good fortune you assist so many others in. By the time this is out, I hope everyone will find my new single on whatever streaming platform they listen to and enjoy the music. And to those who haven’t heard my music, I hope it will bring some new people to check out my other albums, my music videos, and the work with Reach for the Sky as well,” he concluded.

“I say it a lot, but NEPA has such a wealth of original talent, and to think we are in a competition is foolish – that is what the corporate world wants you to believe with their forced opinions, but the truth is that we are all in this together in so many ways. There is no glory to be had in burning bridges when we are all walking on the same ground doing our own thing. I think the sooner that we all realize that, the better things will be.”

Learn more about Jay Luke and watch an acoustic performance in Episode 50 of the NEPA Scene Podcast:

Photos by Rich Howells/NEPA Scene