Local musician makes it big

MIDDLEBURY — These days, singer/songwriter Jer Coons rarely stops moving.
In the months since he released his first album, the 21-year-old Middlebury native has marked several major milestones. For one, he has a single playing in Hollister stores nationwide. For another, this July he will be coming home to headline at Festival on-the-Green.
By any standard, Coons is off to a good start in the music business, but the up-and-coming pop artist is realistic about how far he still has to go. He describes the music world as a television screen full of static, where each pixel is an artist, and attracting notice is a monumental task.
“It’s really tough to get to the point of obscurity I’ve obtained,” Coons in a recent interview.
But at his April 8 concert at Higher Ground in Burlington, fans of all ages turned out to hear him play his upbeat brand of pop music — from swooning 13-year-olds to adults swaying and bobbing their heads. Coons interacted easily with the crowd, cracking self-deprecating jokes between numbers.
Coons was first exposed to pop music at a very young age in the house of his parents, county sheriff James Coons and Julia Coons.
“My parents played a lot of early Beatles,” he said. “My whole childhood I was drumming along on tin cans and margarine tubs in my living room to ‘Help!’”
His first album, “Speak,” which was released last September, drew comparisons to a range of pop artists, from the Jonas Brothers to John Mayer. As Cleveland Scene, an Ohio newspaper, put it, the album sounds like “John Mayer and Jason Mraz were riding on a tandem bicycle and crashed into Jimi Hendrix (who was listening to the Beatles on his iPod).”
For Coons, it’s been a long road — both musically and otherwise — to get to where he is now, though.
While a student at Middlebury Union High School, Coons played in punk rock bands and, later performed solo with an acoustic guitar at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café.
He described his growth on the Middlebury music scene.
“It progressed from just getting someone to put down their Sudoku to going, ‘Wait, I drew 50 people!’”
At that time, he said, the expectation was that if you were a musician in a Vermont high school, you played in a jam band or maybe a rock band. Pop, as a genre, was too mainstream and structured.
“My decision to play pop music was rebellious,” he said. “I rebelled by being a conformist.”
After high school, Coons attended Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., for two semesters. When he found himself skipping music classes to play shows, he realized he had a tough decision to make. In the end, he decided to throw himself headlong into playing and writing music.
Three years later, Coons has an album out and is working on songs for his next. He’s touring the country with local band The Grift, and last week opened a series of shows for Colin Hay of the band Men at Work.
And above all, Coons is not taking himself too seriously. The biography on his website informs fans that “he does not shop at Urban Outfitters trying to buy trendy things in an attempt to look 10 years younger, because if he did look 10 years younger, he would look like a 10-year-old.”
When he’s not on tour, Coons lives in Burlington and writes music. The way he sees it, his choice of genre keeps him on his toes — the abundance of pop music out there forces him to be original.
“If you can do it in a way that no one’s ever done before, that, to me, is exponentially greater of a challenge,” he said. “You might forget about it, but the next morning you wake up and it’s in your head and you say, ‘Damn that Jer Coons!’”
And paradoxically, his decision to take the plunge and pursue a career turned out to be as safe as any job these days. Now he’s watching his friends graduate from college and try to find employment in a depressed job market and realizing that sometimes taking the plunge is the better bet.
“I definitely took the riskier path,” he said. “But I get so much out of it that it really negates all of the bad parts.”
Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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