A little over four years ago, Jocelyn Arndt was on a clear path. The 18-year-old high school senior intended to study English at Harvard, where she had recently been accepted. Her younger brother, Chris, still had a year of high school left, but he too was planning on college being his next “big thing.”
How quickly plans can change. The siblings—Jocelyn, a singer, and Chris, a guitar player—had also been writing original songs and performing around town with a band formed with a few classmates. They had booked a gig in the beer tent of their local fair, and by all accounts, it wasn’t glamorous. “The show was literally for four people,” Chris said. What they didn’t know was that one of those four people was producer and manager David Bourgeois, who saw potential in the duo’s songwriting ability and their vintage blues-rock sound. “That show launched our career,” Chris said.
Behind the Setlist sat down with Jocelyn & Chris Arndt to talk about their national Finally 21 Tour, how they hope to keep rock n’ roll alive, and how they’ve managed to balance writing, recording, touring, spending time with family, and—unbelievably—a Harvard education.
You guys are at home right now?
Jocelyn Arndt: Yeah, we’re in Fort Plain, New York at our parents’ house. It’s about an hour west of Albany in Upstate New York.
Chris Arndt: We’ve had a couple days off this week to do administrative stuff, and then we head out tomorrow for a show in Cleveland before we head out west.
I bet your parents are enjoying having you around for a few days. Do they ever come out on tour?
Chris: When we were in high school, we played around town all the time. Mom and dad were basically our ride. They saw every show. But since we’ve been touring nationally, they only get to see us play a couple times a year. So it’s been a pretty rapid reversal. But I think it makes the shows a little bit more of a special thing for them. When we were in high school, they were always helping us load in and unload. They had to make sure the sound guy was there and stuff. Now there are other people who do that, so they can just enjoy the show.
It sounds like they’ve been really involved and supportive from the beginning.
Jocelyn: Oh yeah, they have been awesome. We have the best parents in the world. I know a lot of people say that, but we actually have the best parents in the world. Their philosophy has always been whatever you want to do, go for it. But if you’re going for it, make sure you go for it all the way. You don’t want to look back and wish you’d have done something differently.
Chris: They’re not musicians, but they’ve always loved music. We grew up with a library of a couple thousand CDs that were from every genre you could think of, and then a bunch that probably don’t have names. Music has always been a big part of our family. Our grandfather is an excellent jazz pianist, we have some uncles that play different instruments, and we have a cousin who’s a world prodigy at classical violin.
When did you realize that you wanted to turn your love of music into a career?
Jocelyn: I’d say the light bulb moment was about four years ago. We had a high school band called the Dependents, and we would play wherever they’d let us play. We were in the beer tent at the local fair. Our now-producer David Bourgeois and his wife were there managing another band that was sharing the stage with us that night. He came up after the show and said, “You know, you’ve got something here. I don’t know if you realize it, but I think you could really go for it, and I’d be interested in working with you.”
It didn’t really hit us at first, but the next day, we were sitting around the dining room table thinking, “Oh man, this producer wants to work with us. That’s got to be a good sign, right?” So we went for it and signed a development deal. I’d actually already been accepted to college. I was on a completely different track, but then I kind of switched gears and have not looked back. It’s been a crazy four years.
Switched gears but not entirely, because you both did end up going to Harvard and graduating, right?
Jocelyn: Chris actually still has one more year, but yeah. We’ve managed to balance the two, which has definitely been a challenge, but rewarding as well.
Chris: We just keep really, really busy all the time, because we’ve loved doing both. Obviously, music has always been and always will be our number one passion, but everything about Harvard is really awesome. I think it helps us appreciate music more as well. So as long as we could balance both, that’s what we wanted.
Having the skill of being able to manage your time and prioritize will serve you well in your music career. A lot of people never learn that skill, but it sounds like you two were forced into it.
Jocelyn: Harvard definitely took their pint of blood, but you’re right. A lot of the skills overlap in unexpected ways, time management being a huge one. And also just being able to communicate with people. You can have a good idea, but if you’re not able to articulate it and explain it to someone else in a way that works for them, then it’s never going to happen.
Chris, I understand the “Finally 21” tour name is in honor of you recently turning 21.
Chris: In June, yeah. It’s really nice not to have “X’s” drawn on my hand when I get in the door [laughs].
How do you guys survive road life?
Jocelyn: Staying healthy gets a little dicey. We drink a lot of water.
Chris: So much water. And unsweetened iced tea is the lifeblood.
Jocelyn: Yeah, unsweetened iced tea is the unofficial drink of Jocelyn & Chris Arndt. That is true. We eat a lot of Subway on the road because you can get quick meals and also not feel really cruddy afterwards. Sleep can be tricky because sometimes we’ve got to get up really early for a morning show or drive, but we try to nap in the car where we can.
There also is usually a day every couple weeks where we don’t have a show and we can go somewhere or see something that we haven’t seen before. You know, get out of the car and walk around a little bit. It’s a good reset for the next run of eight shows in a row or whatever.
Chris: Some venues leave veggie and fruit trays in their green rooms.
Jocelyn: Oh my God, it’s a lifesaver.
Chris: I think most people don’t appreciate the power of vegetables.
Jocelyn: You don’t appreciate a good celery stick until you haven’t had one for 20 days.
It seems like you genuinely get along. I mean, I love my brother, but I think we’d end up killing each other if we tried to tour together.
Jocelyn: We do get along. We do.
Chris: I don’t want to say we didn’t have friends growing up. We did have friends growing up, but we were always a little bit the odd ones out. Other people were going to sports practice or whatever and we were playing music or learning to ski and snowboard—things that were different from everyone else. Because of that, we spent so much time together and naturally became each other’s best friends.
Jocelyn: We have always gone into it with the idea that failure wasn’t an option. It didn’t even register to us that we could hate the other person, because we’re family. That would be rough.
Chris: Awkward Thanksgivings [laughs].
What’s your favorite city you’ve been to?
Jocelyn: I like Chattanooga, Tennessee because I feel like every time we go there, we meet lots of really nice people. But every city has its perks. I love playing New York City because it’s the city. I don’t know if there are many other places where there’s that much music happening at the same time, short of music festivals. South by Southwest was kind of like that where there was a band on every floor of every building down the entirety of Sixth Street. So I guess Austin’s cool, too.
Chris: We haven’t been to San Francisco yet, but our parents tell us that’s going to be one of our favorites. We’re looking forward to that show [at Hotel Utah on 8/15].
Your music has a lot of blues in it and feels very ’70s inspired. What has the response from fans been like, seeing such young musicians come out with this soulful, vintage sound?
Jocelyn: For the most part, it’s been really awesome. People come up to us after shows and say, “Now that’s what I’m talking about. Rock n‘ roll is still alive!” It’s nice to hear that. I think for the most part, I would call it an advantage to be younger in our genre, just because it makes us stand out a little more. A lot of people in the blues-rock genre are definitely older than us and have been around longer. So it’s good for people who are looking for the next band to listen to. If they happen to like rock n’ roll or blues-inspired rock, then they can find us and be like, “Aha! I found somebody that’ll still be around playing music years from now.” Rock n’ roll is contagious.
Chris: And we got that from our family. One of the things Jocelyn and I used to do as little kids is take turns picking random CDs. We would do it for hours. We eventually learned that we love all music as long as it’s got some emotion and substance to it, but we did start gravitating towards certain sounds.I was really big on anything with awesome instrumentals, and once I picked up the guitar, that solidified. So I’m a huge fan of Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin—anything that was made between probably 1960 and 1983. I’m going to like anything that has a two-minute-plus guitar solo. That has really affected the way I think about music, and the way I put things together in my mind and on the guitar neck.
Jocelyn: I always really like those big, expressive singing personalities. Janis Joplin, of course, is the queen of expression. Then Aretha Franklin, Etta James or some more modern singers, like Grace Potter or Sara Bareilles. Those voices you hear for two seconds and don’t even have to look to know who it is. I love that. The great part about music is you can connect with people emotionally. I always wanted to be able to do that.
Do you think about that as you’re writing lyrics, too?
Jocelyn: Oh, yeah. Just like we were talking about being good at communicating and being accessible to your audience—that all ties in there. You want to write stuff that you feel, because if it’s really true, then your audience will feel it too.
Speaking of reaching your audience, what do you think about the way people are finding and listening to music these days? Using streaming services versus going to record stores and buying whole albums. Things have changed a lot, and you just released a full album, Go. Do you find yourselves thinking about the business side while you’re writing?
Chris: It’s tough to go into a studio and be like, “What are we going to make today?” But I try to be pretty conscious about where things are at with the music industry. There is a faction of people who still love the album as a whole musical experience. I am one of those people, and I know a lot of our fans are those people.
At the same time, if you’re trying to make a career out of music, you have to cater to the fact that because there’s so much music available and because everything is so easily accessible, some people aren’t interested enough in one particular artist to devote 45 minutes to listening through 11 songs by the same person.Those people might gravitate more towards listening to a single, or listening to the first 10 seconds of every song on an album and then picking two they like. I’m personally not a huge fan of that approach. When we’re recording, we try to make an album so that it’s an album, but so that it’s also good for people who are going to chop it up and listen to it as individual bits.
Jocelyn: And there’s evidence that the album isn’t dead. I see vinyl coming back. Vinyl’s a cool thing, and that makes me feel good knowing there’s this thing out there that people are investing in, which means some people are listening to the same artist for 45 minutes. But we try to get the best of both worlds. You don’t want to alienate any part of your audience by sticking to your guns too hard in one particular area.
It makes sense that it’s not as much on your mind when you’re in creative mode. But it does seem like artists nowadays have to be as business-savvy as they are creative.
Chris: One thing our manager always says is that being a musician nowadays is pretty much opening a business, except most musicians don’t realize they’ve opened a business. When you’re creating something, nobody wants to think about how you’re actually going to make money. But at the same time, once you’ve made the thing or written the song or whatever, if you don’t support it, it’s not going to be feasible.
Jocelyn: Above all, you have to start with good music you believe in. But also you could have the best song in the world, and if nobody hears it, well, I mean, you can sell it to your parents? Which we do a lot [laughs].
Is there anything about a career in music that you thought would be different than it is?
Jocelyn: The whole idea of the “big break” definitely gets overblown in movies about the music industry. For example, shows like The Voice or America’s Got Talent. Those shows can do a lot for an artist, but they play up the story of “so-and-so has been playing for his family and has never been on a stage.” You dig a little deeper and realize he’s been busting his butt for eight years playing locally and selling CDs out of his car. So I would place the “big break” thing with a caveat that it’s possible if you put in the work first to get yourself noticed by somebody. I don’t think it just falls in people’s laps.
Chris: Some people might say the music industry turned out to be worse than they thought it was going to be. But for us, the vast majority of people we’ve worked with have been super kind and supportive. One of the reasons I never thought music was a feasible career was because I kept hearing, “Everyone there is a shark and they’re going to eat you alive.” But we’ve been lucky, I guess.
What advice would you have for someone in high school or college who has the dream of making a career out of music?
Jocelyn: It’s weird to think I’m in a position to give advice. I feel like the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. We’ve been doing this for a while now, so I can safely say that I would not discourage people from going into music. As a matter of fact, I would encourage it if it’s what they love and it’s how they connect with people around them. I would say don’t not do it because you think that you shouldn’t.
We were lucky enough to have people around us that when we said, “Hey, I’m thinking about being a musician,” they said, “That’s a good idea. You should do that.” A lot of other parents would have said, “But you’re going to Harvard. Maybe you should think about putting the guitar in the closet for four years.”
I’ll be my mom and dad for a minute. If you’re going to do it, do it, as long as you do it to the best of your ability and you go all in. Because otherwise, you’re going to look back and are going to regret things. But if you can look back and say that you’ve gone full throttle, no matter what happens you’ll be happy with the fact you’ve proven to yourself that you can go for something and you should do it.
Chris: If you are going to go into the music industry, never turn down an opportunity. So many people are like, “Oh, but there are only four people at the show.” That’s an attitude I’ve seen a lot of people adopt, not just in the music industry but about a lot of things. If it seems trivial, they don’t put in their full effort or maybe they won’t even do it at all. That’s a big mistake. In our experience, the show we played that hooked us up with our current manager, that show was literally for four people. You never know when it’s your time to shine. So always take the opportunities you’ve been given and take your best shot.
And it sounds like your big break may not always look like how you think it’s going to look.
Jocelyn: Yeah! I guess some “big breaks” don’t look very big at the time.