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Most producers can only hope to grind and stumble their way to the next level of their careers. In Jon O'Brien's case, the next level had to be built, literally. Last August, the Irvine producer put up thousands of dollars of his own cash and initiated a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to construct the studio of his dreams. Three months later, he sits in his hand-built, 1,000-square-foot Tustin studio, surrounded by a flotsam of vintage amps, guitars and a schedule full of bands.
"Every day I walk into the studio, I feel so proud and blessed to have so many people who've helped me out," O'Brien says. "I feel like I haven't let those people down who did support me, and I'm gonna keep it going."
Up until that point, the better part of O'Brien's impressive local recording résumé was forged in his bedroom of his family's home and included some friends who would become some of the biggest names in OC's burgeoning indie scene. O'Brien's simple, woodsy aesthetic behind the boards has become the standard for sharp, soulful, radio-ready Americana, as evidenced by his turns on Young the Giant's first EP (as the Jakes), as well as records by Yellow Red Sparks and Nicole Vaughn and Her Lovely Band.
You could say O'Brien's methods as a producer stemmed from his own experience as a singer/songwriter and guitar player. Flying to Kansas for a week to record as a solo artist with legendary producer Ed Rose, the axe man who calls himself a devoted fan of Ryan Adams and Limbeck prides himself on connecting with bands on a personal level before stepping in the studio with them.
"I do turn down some bands, but for the right reasons," O'Brien says. "A band typically records once a year; they save their pennies and put out an EP, maybe save up $3,000, and if they're gonna be dedicated to doing that, I need to know in my heart that I do think I'm the guy for the project. I can't take their money. I think that standard is what allows my work to be a good product."
As bands such as Young the Giant continue to gain traction on the world stage, interest in O'Brien's work is growing to the point at which his new studio isn't just a next step—it's a necessity. But despite his busy schedule, he remains committed to keeping his ears open to the live music scene, usually roaming the crowd in his beat-up Emerson ball cap—his college alma mater—looking for the next great local band to capture on tape. "It doesn't have to be the best band in the world," he says. "But if I meet up with them and connect with that person, even if it's one line in one song, I know what to do with the rest of their songs."