A Conversation With Jon Muq

Jon Muq is a bit of a freak of nature in today’s music industry—an unrelenting optimist who’s willing to acknowledge and even celebrate pain. The native Ugandan has just released Flying Away, one of the finest debuts of 2024, on Dan Auberach’s Easy Eye Sound label. With his sympathetic producer’s ear, Auerbach finds just the right balance of classic instrumentation and contemporary sparkle, and Muq’s remarkably efficient songwriting draws on elements of reggae, soul, R&B, Afrobeat and pop. A dozen tracks breeze by in 38 minutes, and nothing outstays its welcome, even while covering so much stylistic ground.

Live, Muq’s pristine vocals require little in the way of enhancement. Nothing is lost by seeing him sing these songs with just an acoustic guitar—and that’s typically how he travels. That journey began modestly enough with performances in his Ugandan village, before a cruise-line gig took him overseas (literally). At some point, Auerbach saw a clip Muq posted on Instagram, setting the wheels in motion for Flying Away. Now living in Austin, Texas, Muq finds himself on the cusp of some serious recognition.

This past September, MAGNET was among the first media outlets to interview Muq, following a rooftop performance at AmericanaFest in Nashville. He’s been a busy man ever since, playing for audiences of all sizes throughout the country in an extended promotional ramp-up to Flying Away’s release. Muq’s schedule only gets busier in the coming months, with a string of European performances, followed by a return to the U.S. for the International Players Tour with the Black Keys this fall.

We chatted with Muq just days before Flying Away’s May 31 release.

A lot has changed since we first spoke. How are you holding up?
I see the whole thing as a train, you know. It can go both ways. Wherever it’s going at the moment, I just make sure I hold myself tight and enjoy the ride. That’s how I’ve been taking it—day by day. 

Social has media played a huge role in advancing your career.
Certainly. I didn’t know it was going to happen that way. It took three years for [Dan Auerbach] to see that video. I was in my friends’ living room singing the song “Blackbird.” I’d never heard that song before in my life. One day, I was chilling with a friend, and he played the melody. I was like, “Man, I like that. It’s just so beautiful.”

How did your stint with Norwegian Cruise Lines come about?
I’d discovered my passion for singing English, and many of my friends didn’t listen to me at all. They were making jokes; I hated that. So, I decided to sing for homeless children in Uganda. When you go to the streets of Kampala (Uganda’s capital), you see many kids begging on the road. I decided to go there with my best friend and sing, and they would sit around and watch me. They didn’t understand what I was doing, but I felt happy that at least I had people who’d listen to me. One day, my friend started to a record video and posted it on Facebook. People shared it, and that’s when I got the opportunity to sing on a cruise line.

How did six months on a ship prepare you for what you’re doing now?
At first, it was scary. I’d never been around so many white people. They wanted me to do originals—I think about 20% of my set. At that point, I had songs written, but I wasn’t so comfortable singing them. I felt like, “Who am I to sing in English to people who grew up speaking English?” I didn’t know many [covers] to sing, but people brought paper to write down recommendations. “Hey, look up Elton John.” I was like, “Oh, who is Elton John?” I went on Google, and I was like, “OK, now I know.”

What was it like working with Dan Auerbach in the studio?
I’d never heard of the Black Keys before, and people were like, “Oh my God, do you know who you’re talking about?” When I met him, I was just so excited to see this person who was so calm, so chill, you know. He’s done a lot of great things. But, to me, I saw him as just a normal person. I think we recorded that whole album in four days and each song in one take.

My favorite track on Flying Away is “Riding.” Was there a particular inspiration for that one?
I went with the couple I live with to visit their grandmother, who was in a place where they keep old people. She was sleeping, so I just sat there and watched the whole process of her waking up. I was looking at the person she was—the person who once had a husband, the person who once had children. And she’s just there by herself, you know. I come from a different culture where you’re with them, whether they’re older or not. You can’t take them to assisted living. It really, really touched my heart. I was like, I think this lady has seen leaders come and go. You know, she’s also believed Jesus will come again. And she’s waited, you know, all these years.

Was the split from your family in Uganda a difficult one? 
It was hard at first, because I didn’t have a plan—nothing. And they thought that if you’re in America, everything is OK. They still know the person who left Uganda—that’s the person in their brain. They don’t know that I’ve changed. I’ve grown. I see things differently. That can be a challenge, but I stay in contact with them every day. I’m planning to go back there.

—Hobart Rowland

See Jon Muq live.