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It’s shortly after 2 p.m. on Friday and the Catholic lunch crowd who came for the Lenten fish special has largely died down. Less than an hour from now a stream of loud high schoolers is expected to descend on Cecconi’s, the small, family-owned diner on Main Street in Springfield.
At the counter — catching a small break behind its row of vintage swiveling barstools — is 22-year-old Johnathon Barlow, who balances his time between managing the restaurant his family’s owned nearly as long, and writing and producing his own music.
The pop demos he’s mixing on his iPad these days are without pretension and don’t require the type of superfluous labels attached to other underground music.
Airy. Breathy. Grainy. Dark.
Barlow’s hip — without being a hipster — and feels free to mash genres, as long as he’s comfortable and confident about the end product.
A melody on one of Barlow’s new title-less tracks is heavy on keyboard and bass. The instrumental ditty sounds like it could have some commercial appeal as a jingle for an upstart computer company or packaging firm.
He’s still working out the lyrics.
Another untitled track seems to be an anthem for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.
After a few rousing sha-na-nas, Barlow sings: “You look so out of place/Allow me to start the conversation.”
Ultimately, it’s an optimistic organ-fueled rendition reminding listeners to remain positive.
“I’ll go into my head, and if it sounds good, I’ll freestyle it,” Barlow says of his writing.
The middle son of three boys, Barlow left Washington County High School and obtained his GED in 2009. Since then, he moved to Louisville, but now resides in Springfield again where he works more than nine-hour shifts Monday to Friday at his family’s diner.
He starts chatting briefly about his music, before turning to his main priority at the moment: Two customers sitting at a window seat.
“Excuse me,” he says, then takes off across the diner to tend to the table. He jots down an order in his mind, then yells across the counter about some of his favorite bands, while simultaneously pouring two iced teas.
Barlow can appreciate many of today’s pop stars: Maroon 5, Grammy-award winners Fun., and especially Las Vegas glam-poppers, The Killers.
But he doesn’t really follow the reality TV contestants on American Idol or The Voice. After all, many past winners don’t go on to great fame, he noted.
“There’s more that goes into it these days than having a great voice,” Barlow says of aspiring musicians. “You have to have swagger, charisma.”
Just look at Justin Timberlake, he said. The 32-year-old pop-culture icon reinvented himself from boy band member to legitimate actor, fashion designer and mega-arena performer.
Even if he doesn’t know it, Barlow has a certain swagger of his own that regular customers to the restaurant likely realize.
He bounces between a vat of sizzling fries and then moves to top a bun with lettuce, tomato and onion as he hums a song that’s playing from the kitchen’s radio.
“Gimme just a second and I’ll be right back,” he says.
Then he loads himself down with two platters on his right arm — bottles of ketchup and mustard in his left hand — and glides across the restaurant to a table of two.
He smiles. He asks them if everything is OK. Then he hurries back to answer a ringing phone.
It’s swagger. And his tips depend on it.
As a teen, Barlow was already booking gigs in Louisville with a few other friends, but after the group dissolved he took a brief hiatus. A few months ago, he went back to his music and decided to try things solo.
“I realized I like having the ultimate control of what it’s going to sound like,” he said
And living in Springfield, where there’s few venues to perform, it’s allowed Barlow to focus on his writing. Through the years, he’s assembled enough material to release an EP and possibly a full-length album.
He recalled a few universal lyrics inspired by a relationship with his ex-girlfriend.
We shared some drinks or 10/I saw you smiling again/ And my feet are on the road right back to you...
“It can be about the girl, but it can be about other things too,” he said.
While he carries out two slices of pies to a table Barlow offers up an oversized pair of Sony white headphones to listen to more of his work.
Barlow plans on releasing a few online tracks in the near future, but remains largely undecided about where his career will take him.
He might go to college. Or even massage school. He’s even dreamed of touring overseas.
“You’re never going to get anywhere unless you take a risk,” said Barlow.
But it’s past 3 p.m. now and a few loud high schoolers have already trickled into the diner.
The playlist is paused, but you can’t stop a good beat.