Jon Lall, a 25-year-old singer-songwriter from Princeton, breaks stereotypes just by existing. There aren’t many people his age who are of South Asian ancestry, especially from central Jersey, who have aspirations to be rock, pop, or R&B stars.
“We live in a world where the stereotype is for a young Indian (and Pakistani/Spanish/Portuguese) kid to be a doctor or lawyer, and come from a wealthy background,” he says. “But I am not interested in being anyone’s stereotype. It might sound strange, but I think everyone has a calling. I believe mine is to break the boundaries.”
Lall, appearing solo with his guitar, performs in the acoustic showcase at KatManDu in Trenton on Wednesday, August 27, and at the Slowdown Cafe in Hightstown on Saturday, September 20.
While Lall is a Princeton native, his parents, Rita and Iqbal, came to this country from India and Pakistan, respectively, in the early 1980s. “It’s sort of a funny story, we say, because, historically, India and Pakistan don’t mix too well,” says Lall with a laugh. They are Christians with some roots in Europe as well. Lall says his family also has some Spanish and Portuguese background. Lall’s parents eventually settled in Princeton, where Lall and his older brother, Sam, grew up. He attended Riverside Elementary, John Witherspoon Middle School, and Princeton High, from which he graduated in 2000.
His father was a security guard, and his mother worked in day-care centers, “blue-collar people,” says Lall. “The thing for us is, they just wanted us to fit into the culture. When they came over here, some people were very welcoming. But others gave them a really hard time. They came to realize that as foreigners, it was harder for them, especially in Princeton. A lot of families that grew up here are third, fourth, fifth-generation people. At least, that’s how it felt at the time they moved here.”
Central New Jersey, of course, has since become home to many more South Asian people, especially along the Route 1 corridor from Lawrence Township up through West Windsor and Plainsboro, and north to South Brunswick, Edison, and Iselin. When asked if his surname is related to or derived from the Sanskrit word “lal,” which means “beloved,” the singer says he honestly doesn’t know. He likes the idea, though. “I think in Hindi it means red,” Lall says. “But your question has piqued my curiosity. I do like the sound of it being derived from ‘beloved.’ Let’s stick with that.”
It would seem as if Princeton was a great place for a kid of any background to grow up, and for Lall it certainly was, albeit somewhat atypical for that community. His parents were not the least bit musical, Lall says, but his home was always full of music. He sang in the choir at the Presbyterian church, listened to WPST, acted in theater and played lots of soccer.
His community was predominantly African American, with some white and Asian families as well. “Do you know where Princeton Community Village is, near the Princeton Shopping Center?” Lall says, a chuckle in his voice. “A lot of people call it the ghetto of Princeton. There is a lot of diversity around here. But growing up for me, a lot of the kids that I knew, their houses were mansions and stuff; I lived in a nice little townhouse. Where I grew up, we were probably the only Indian family around. To be quite honest, it gives you a different mindset, you know? Especially going to Princeton High School, you get a mix of students. You get a lot of families whose dads are CEOs of corporations.”
Lall credits his older brother, Sam, now a 28-year-old graduate student in education at Monmouth University, with shaping his musical influences. “He made me listen to everything. He listened to everything from N.W.A. to John Coltrane, trying to get me to understand all of the connections between everything. I liked that feeling, almost like the music was part of my family. Sam was very integral in my loving music.”
After graduating from Princeton High and matriculating at Rutgers, Lall began getting heavily into R&B and found some other like-minded students to sing with. “One day at Rutgers, I just made a decision. I knew that I didn’t just want to be a listener, I wanted to create too,” he says. An opera teacher at Rutgers told Lall he had a good tenor voice and asked if he would sing in a Rutgers Opera production. “I told him I wasn’t too interested in opera, but he said he would give me voice lessons for free in exchange,” says Lall. After the opera and some voice lessons, his teacher suggested he transfer to a music-focused school.
It was a high-risk decision. Against his parents’ wishes, Lall abandoned his psychology studies at Rutgers and went to the Berklee College of Music, the part-conservatory, part-trade school for working musicians in Boston. Many great musicians have graduated from Berklee. “A close friend of mine was transferring there as well at that time, so we drove up to check out the school, and as corny as it sounds, I felt that same connection I did as a kid, like my family was there waiting for me,” Lall says.
His real family took it a bit hard. “My parents were pretty happy that I was studying psychology. They wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer,” he says. Lall’s father, Iqbal, was especially disappointed, but both parents eventually came to accept their younger son’s decision.
“My mom just wanted me to be happy,” says Lall. “My dad eventually came around. We struck an agreement, more or less. He wanted me to study something practical as well. So I studied music business management in addition to voice and performance.”
Lall is complimentary of both parents, but has a special place in his heart for his mother. “She is so supportive,” he says. “She works three jobs and still keeps a smile on her face. She is my hero.”
At Berklee, Lall quickly became immersed in a culture where learning and playing music was at the forefront. He remembers meeting the pop star John Mayer coming to the school to talk about composing and give a songwriting clinic. “He is already a legend, and will be a representation of our times like Clapton for his generation,” Lall says. “I still listen to the bootleg. I told him I’d be on stage with him one day. I still believe that.”
Even for someone his age, Lall is sort of a newbie when it comes to music. This makes his songwriting process a new experience for him, sort of a trial-and-error endeavor. “I only started really writing songs a few years ago,” he says. “Writing comes to me in a few forms. Sometimes the music comes first. I hear it and the music sounds like an emotion. That emotion evokes some words and the song begins. I find that usually the first thing that comes to mind is sound, both musically and phonetically. Sometimes the words come first. Sometimes it happens in my mind all at once. Those are the great moments. I get inspired by a lot of things that happen in my life. A lot of times I think I am giving advice in my songs that I myself need to hear. My songs are usually pretty uplifting.”
After working running bars and clubs booking talent in Boston, Lall recently came back to Princeton. He is living at home, waiting tables at a restaurant and working intensely and intently on his music. “I felt like I had to get out of that scene; I had spent years watching people every night do exactly what I wanted to do,” he says.
Lall says he wants to change the world through his music. “No matter what anyone says, you can change,” he says. “I have a song called ‘Make Amends’ that I wrote immediately after seeing ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ It’s all about the global warming crisis and our apathy. I believe people are inherently good, but hurt and circumstance can alter that. Call me a dreamer and you’d be right, but dreams can become reality. I hope to be proof of that. Some people will think that I’m crazy, that I think too much of myself, but sometimes, you have to think your life is worth more than just living it as if your actions mean nothing. You have to believe in humanity, in love, and in yourself.”
Jon Lall, Acoustic Singer-Songwriter Showcase, Wednesday, August 27, 8:15 p.m. (showcase runs from 6 to 11 p.m.), KatManDu, Waterfront Park, Route 29, Trenton. 15-minute back to back sets. Produced by Lance Reichert of qbdigital.com. To sign up E-mail email@example.com. www.katmandutrenton.com or 609-393-7300.
Lall also appears on Saturday, September 20, at the Slowdown Cafe, 110 Mercer Street, Hightstown. 609-448-9900.