Best known for his 1971 folksy hit “Sunshine,” Jonathan Edwards will return to the Barns at Wolf Trap on Saturday for a concert featuring songs he’s recorded over the last four decades. Here, the Fairfax native catches up with A&E about the thrill of performing live, what the future holds and how “Sunshine” almost didn’t happen.
A&E: You’ve said before that you really enjoy performing live. What is it about the concert experience that you love so much?
Edwards: I just love the opportunity to go out in front of an audience and embrace them and have them embrace me. I keep understanding more and more about what I’m doing and how it sounds and how it affects people and how it affects me. It’s just a joy. It’s something I’ve always loved to do and gravitated toward. It just kind of comes natural although you wouldn’t want to hang around with me before the show much [laughs].
A&E: Oh yeah, why is that?
Edwards: Well, I get a little antsy and I get a little apprehensive and anxious to go on and do it and try to bring something new to the party every time.
A&E: You still get nervous after all of these years of performing?
Edwards: Oh, for sure. There’s always new stuff to bring. I get nervous and anxious and I’m always [thinking] about what song to do after what song and what story to tell before which song. It’s an ongoing work in progress and hopefully always will be.
A&E: In 2012 you released a two-disc album of your Top 40 hits. Was it hard to choose which songs to include?
Edwards: It was difficult to select 40 songs that are both crowd favorites and my favorites. It was a tough decision to make. But it was just fun reminiscing about some of those recording sessions. I don’t listen to that archival stuff much but this project ... kind of forced me to go back and listen and I really, really loved it. It was amazing to put myself back in that chair, where I was sitting or standing during the vocal recording of the tracks. It was really informative and inspirational.
A&E: You said earlier you always like to bring something new to the party. What do you think was new about your latest studio album, “My Love Will Keep,” which you released in 2011?
Edwards: It follows the normal formula for whenever I make a record. It always seems to be half my songs and half other people’s songs I’ve collected over the years. “My Love Will Keep” was a perfect example of that. Half the songs were written by people I’ve known and met along the road. Friends and songs I’ve admired and put in my saddle bag and thought, ‘You know, someday I might drag this one out and record it.’ And this album offered the perfect opportunity for that.
A&E: Your first major hit was 1971‘s “Sunshine.” But that song almost didn’t make it on to your first record, right?
Edwards: Yeah. We were lucky to get some studio time and it was really expensive and it often involved going into some studio at two in the morning because that time was available and cheaper. The engineer accidentally rolled over a song that we’d spent all day recording and he looked at me after going through six boxes of two-inch tape — it wasn’t written on the outside so you had to listen to them all. We couldn’t find this song and there was now a gaping hole on this two-inch tape; about three or four minutes long. And he said, ‘Don’t you have anything else that you could put on here so it won’t look like as much of a hole tomorrow when everybody else comes in?’ And I said, ‘Well, I got this.’ And I went out and I just did ‘Sunshine.’ And there was a bass standing in the corner and I went and played that and it sounded even better, and there was a 12-string there, and I thought, ‘Let’s throw a 12-string on the end,’ and that sounded good, and I put a little harmony on it. And the next day my drummer came in and overdubbed onto this crazy track I’d created. And that was it.
A&E: And how did that song change things for you?
Edwards: It changed everything. Suddenly my little community of singer/songwriters I was living with ... suddenly I was plucked out of the nest and thrust upon the national stage. My job, as I saw it, was to not change; to forge ahead with who I was and what I was and not change my beliefs or my behavior just try to keep my mind and energy on doing the shows. And I loved doing that.
A&E: Did you feel like you were able to stay grounded even after the success of the song?
Edwards: I noticed that everywhere around me was changing because of my newfound notoriety, but I’d done the work, I’d done my homework, I’d written songs. I felt like I deserved it in a way but I also felt like it was something that came so natural that I didn’t deserve it.
A&E: Why do you think this song in particular appealed to so many people at that time?
Edwards: It appealed to people on two levels; happy little folk song that sounded like several other folk songs. And it was a happy little melody and it was about sunshine ... and it was, but it also had a much deeper and a much more meaningful level about the frustration I was feeling with the direction our government was taking our country. It was the middle of the Vietnam War and this whole tragedy that was happening in Southeast Asia because of us ... I kind of saw the government for what it was all of the sudden. I kind of saw what our leaders were all about. My dad was an ex-FBI agent and he was now working on the Defense Appropriations Bill in [Washington,] D.C. ... and here I was occupying ROTC buildings and singing to the crowds in front of the demonstrations. They were strange times. Really divisive times.
A&E: Are there plans for another studio album anytime soon?
Edwards: We are in pre-production for the next project. I really can’t say much more than that.
A&E: And what can audiences expect to hear from you at the Barns this weekend?
Edwards: This will be 15th time or something at [the] Barns ... I’ll be doing a mix of old songs that people know me for and I’ll throw in a bunch of new ones, as many as I can get together between now and then.