Guitar in hand, foot tapping a tambourine, Ace Jones is a one-man show for all who pass through the Iowa City Pedestrian Mall. This is where the Marion-based artist has come for years to practice his set in a low-pressure environment.
“It’s a great place to just work on songs, or I’ll freestyle a song and see if it sounds good,” Jones said. “You get some good feedback from people and people seem to enjoy it.”
Describing his music as an “eclectic mix,” Jones enjoys performing folk, oldies, alternative and punk rock, which he says he was raised on. His music often prompts passersby to slow their routine and take a seat for a song or two.
It took years for Jones to reach the point he’s at now: a full-time independent performer.
His musical career began in Southern California, where he was born. Jones says he grew up surrounded by music. His Filipino mother liked to sing and do karaoke, and his father, originally from Chicago, had previously been in a band. When Jones was 12, his dad bought him a guitar, which led to him writing his own songs.
But Jones’ first paid gig as an entertainer wasn’t in music. At 15 years old, he got a job dressing as costume characters at a Nickelodeon theme park.
“I did SpongeBob, Chuckie and all those guys from Rugrats,” Jones recalled. “And then I got into juggling, so I became a juggler there.”
A friend at work helped Jones perfect his juggling skills. “I found out that he could play the piano,” Jones said. “I was like, ‘Dude, I can play guitar. You can play piano. Let’s do something.’”
They recruited additional players and formed a band called Rare Breed Romantics. The group toured the South Bay area, attracted a fan following and eventually changed their name to The Strategy.
“We were signed on a small record label,” he said. “I didn’t like doing that, you know, because they kind of try to mold you … And sometimes the direction that they want you to go is the direction that I don’t want to go or the bandmates don’t want to go.”
After about six years of performing, the band members were growing in different directions, and decided to break up. Jones continued to perform acoustically on the streets in California while working a full-time job. It was a way to keep practicing his music while making some extra money, and it was during this phase of his life, on a trip to Chicago, that he met his wife, Shayna.
Shayna was from Iowa, and when Jones visited to meet her family, he said he was blown away by how nice everyone was. While in Iowa, at 23 years old, he saw snow for the first time.
The couple lived together in San Jose, California for a while, then moved to eastern Iowa to start their family. Music remained a side hustle for Jones — and his passion.
“I worked for a couple computer tech companies and I worked with some school districts and things like that. And I was like, ‘You know what? Music is the one thing that really makes me happy. I don’t like being behind a desk,’” Jones said.
He pursued his musical career in earnest by getting on stage at local fairs and festivals. Some of his first venues were NewBo City Market and the St. Jude Sweet Corn Festival. Jones said he felt well received by the audience, and with that affirmation, he pushed forward.
Jones increased his performance rate to 50 gigs a year. At this point, he could take care of his family off of music alone while his wife was taking care of his young son, so he committed himself to music full-time, doing some freelance blogging on the side.
“A lot of more people appreciate music [in Iowa],” Jones said. “I mean, everybody moves out to California to become an actor, a comedian, a musician … You don’t see it as often out here.”
When asked if he is chasing a particular milestone, Jones said he’s satisfied where he’s at: supporting his family while making music. He also enjoys the freedom that comes with being an independent artist.
Just as his parents fostered an appreciation for music growing up, his family encourages his musical pursuits as an adult. His wife schedules his tour dates, and when Jones sat down to chat with Little Village in the Ped Mall, Shayna and his son, nieces and nephews were seated at a bench nearby.
“Here, you can do the fun stuff, or you can do the sadder songs,” Jones said of downtown Iowa City. “I can’t play a sad song at a fair or festival. People would throw tomatoes at me — like, ‘Dude, I’m trying to have a good time here, bro.’ [But] people come here to relax and meditate. Somebody may be able to relate to it.”