Adaptability is a style for Salem musician Jon Fro

When Jon Fro found his home in Salem, he never left.

It’s perhaps been the one constant in his otherwise free-flowing life and musical career.

Fro, 46, has been writing music and performing in Salem for over 20 years. Meanwhile, he has been building up other local artists on the rise, producing their music in his studio and putting them on stage.

His first record in six years debuted on April 8, plainly titled, “……….” 

The album release means Salemites will soon find Fro’s name on concert bills as he returns from a months-long hiatus. He’s planning a tour across Oregon and possibly beyond.

The first song on his latest album has sprinkles of his brother, who has “had a really hard life.” Fro said his brother had surgery on a leg that was too short, which later became infected. After 10 years of living with pain, he had to lose the leg.

The song is called “Living Just to Breathe.”

“I want the words and the story to match the emotion, as well as tie that in with the music so it all is cohesive and expresses the same emotion out to whoever’s listening,” he said.

Even as a young musician in Salem, Fro said he’s never considered moving away to an industry hub like Los Angeles, New York or Nashville. 

“This is my home,” he said. “I don’t have a desire to leave. And if I’m going to be here, I want to make it better, and I want to network with people and try and help them as best I can.”

A self-described singer-songwriter, Fro is best known for his acoustic work. But he has performed nearly every genre of music, and each record has been a product of his ever-changing approach to songwriting and production. 

Before he ever picked up a guitar, his ability to adapt on the fly came by force of circumstance.

Fro’s childhood was one of transition. Born in Los Angeles and one of seven children, he said his parents were travelers searching to find their place. He lived in eight different cities before his family settled in Salem in 1989, when he was 10 years old.

“It was a mellow place,” he said of Salem. “I lived in lots of not-nice neighborhoods, so coming here was a nice change.”

Fro had an early knack for creativity – drawing, building models, making paper mache and pottery as a child. When he was 17 and his brother started playing guitar, he followed suit. 

“I literally haven’t stopped,” he said. “I played every day.”

Fro said he largely taught himself by studying the music of his favorite artists: Nirvana, REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Screaming Trees and Bruce Coburn, “considered Canada’s Bob Dylan.” He listened for fine details like where solos and bridges were placed in a song.

Fro pivoted soon after to playing bass when he joined a band with a friend who played guitar.

“I was always more of an adaptive musician,” he said. “I could really fit in and adapt in any environment, which is why I think I can run a studio and produce well, because I can adapt to the artists and fit into what they are requiring from me.”

He performed for the first time at 19 when his band, Sylphide, played for a packed house at a hall across the road from Salem Heights Elementary School. 

A couple of years later, he started writing songs single-handedly and decided to go his own way. “I was always in lots of bands and just wanting to grow as an artist and a musician,” he recalled.

Fro attended Chemeketa Community College for a couple of years before stopping to focus on music full-time. He began recording his first album, “afterthoughts,” in 2000 and released it two years later.

His songs are primarily rooted in rock, he said, but they’ve individually touched on alternative, indie, country, folk and blues.

Fro said he has also produced many hip-hop albums. Inspired by rap artists of the 90’s like the Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest, he participated in battle rap until the mid-2000s. Circles of MCs would gather on a stage or street corner and competitively trade off verses, “Eminem-style.” 

The minute-long verses were impromptu, with judges deciding the winner. “In that era, you weren’t a true MC unless you could freestyle,” he said.

Fro said it has always been vital for him to develop his own style and sound. “I never ever wanted to sound like somebody else,” he said.

Still, he’s had vocal comparisons such as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Violent Femmes thrown his way.  “I do not sound like Bob Dylan at all. I just think people are trying to grasp at who I sound like,” he said, laughing.

Jon Fro (Laura Tesler/Special to Salem Reporter)

Songwriting is not a linear process for Fro. Often, he starts with the music and the lyrics follow. Other songs just come to him. 

“I try to never force anything. I try to let the song lead me in,” he said. “Coming from learning late and moving around a lot young, I think it’s given me a really open mind. Because I had to always adapt and be able to change into a situation, a whole new city, a whole new school, all these new friends, all these new people, and I had to be able to flow in there and figure out, ‘Who am I? Why am I here? And what’s happening?’”

Fro said albums are like his personal diary, each a chapter of his life.

“I can go back and listen to them and be like, ‘Okay, that’s where I was at when I was writing this, and that’s how I felt, and this is where I was living and what I was experiencing,’” he said. “This album in particular that I’m releasing, it’s like a time capsule of an era of my life.”

His previous albums have all come in different styles – with some acoustic, and others including digital drumming by Fro or another artist. Fro said his latest five-song release is “a full production.”

“I did all the programming. I basically did everything on this one,” he said.

The six years since Fro’s last album was the longest gap he’s ever had between records. He said he took the time to build his studio business and help other artists get their projects out. “I wasn’t able to focus on myself,” he said.

Fro has also promoted local artists since the 90s. With a network of musicians he’s built, he occasionally puts on what he calls “acoustic showcases,” with singer-songwriter performances that are all acoustic. He said it’s the only such show in Salem.

Fro said promotion is especially vital in an era where anyone can upload a song to platforms like TikTok or SoundCloud.  “If you do not promote yourself properly and get yourself out there, you will get lost in the mix of this huge sea of artists and musicians out there,” he said. 

According to Fro, Salem’s music scene has changed dramatically over the past two decades.

The Triangle Tavern, where Fro hosted his album release party earlier this month, used to be a lighthouse of live music in the city.  “There would be venues that would pop up periodically, but there were periods of time where The Triangle was literally the only live music venue in town,” he said.

More locations brought in live music around ten years ago, but the local scene took a hit during the pandemic.

“In the last year, things are starting to really just bubble up again, and there’s lots of cool venues opening up,” he said. 

Fro said he arranges live performances in “a free flow structure,” interchanging the musicians he plays with and the vocalists who sing with him at live shows.

And Fro’s penchant for freestyling goes further than rap battles. Whenever he performs a show, he makes up a song on the spot in front of the crowd.

“I feel actually most alive musically and just as an individual when I’m in that moment of spontaneity, and just creating something just in the air out of nothing,” he said. “You get lost in the moment and it just comes out.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

SUBSCRIBE TO GET SALEM NEWS  We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe today to get our daily newsletters and more. Click I want to subscribe!

Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.