Column: How Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman found catharsis in 2020’s chaos

Jon Foreman, lead singer of San Diego's Switchfoot.
On his new solo album, “Departures,” Switchfoot frontman Jon Foreman wrestles with the challenges of living and surviving during 2020.
(Erik Frost )

While making his solo album, ‘Departure,’ Jon Foreman tackled his doubts and learned to breathe


In 2020, Switchfoot singer and songwriter Jon Foreman found himself sweating the big stuff. All the time. Perhaps you can relate.

“At first, you think, ‘I’m fighting for normal. I’m fighting for the way things were.’ But when ‘they’ take they away, it’s like, ‘OK, that is no longer an option.’ And that’s when the existential crisis comes in,” Foreman said by phone from his home Encinitas.

“And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that initial flinch is appropriate and necessary. After that, I came to a place where I was like, ‘OK, what is worth saving?’ That is a healthier place to begin a journey than trying to hold on to something because that’s what you know.”

Like most of us, Foreman spent the early days of the pandemic shutdown in triage mode. What was going to happen with the San Diego-based Switchfoot’s planned world tour? What about the band’s annual Bro-Am surf- and music-fueled fundraiser? What about everyone who depended on Switchfoot and its touring business to survive?

Then came the pivots.

The 2020 Bro-Am became a livestreaming event to raise money for many local and national nonprofits. In June, Switchfoot released “Covers,” a six-track digital EP featuring left-field cover versions of songs by Frank Ocean, Vampire Weekend and the Chainsmokers. That same month, Switchfoot played a sold-out benefit drive-in concert in a Petco Park parking lot.

For Foreman, there was also a burst of ambitious shutdown industriousness. While other cabin-fever sufferers were babying their sourdough starters or taking up knitting, Foreman challenged himself to record a song a day and put it on YouTube and Instagram. Yes, that was him covering David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure” while accompanying himself on the ukulele.

“At first, doing these songs was fun and enjoyable. But then I’m sitting in my house thinking, ‘Either this is a high point or a deep low point,’” Foreman said with a big laugh. “I’m covering ‘Under Pressure’ on a ukulele. Is this a success or a failure?”

But while Foreman and his bandmates — brother Tim, Drew Shirley, Chad Butler and Jerome Fontamillas — were coping with the day-to-day challenges of keeping themselves, their fans and their musical families safe and sane, Foreman was also contemplating the big, crazy picture.

With the help of producers Keith Tutt II and Aaron Redfield, Foreman was recording “Departures,” a 12-song collection of new songs inspired and/or informed by the big and small challenges of 2020. Released just yesterday, “Departures” features songs that were written before and during the pandemic shutdown. But even the older songs feel tailor-made for this singular moment.

“I wanted to use the year for what it was, rather than trying to focus something upon it. I saw this as a cathartic album I was able to create by myself in the studio late at night when I could put all of the questions, doubts and concerns into a song and maybe sleep a little better afterwards.”

In the buoyant “Education,” Foreman finds the illuminating joy in being a human under pressure (If you haven’t figured out by now/I guess the pain’s gonna show you how.) In the meditative “Red and Gold,” Foreman sings, So hold your faith, you’re not alone here. And in “Jesus, I Have My Doubts,” the always spiritually minded singer explores the delicate balance of keeping your faith during tough, testing times.

Jesus, it feels like the world’s in pieces/I’m sure you’ve got your reasons/But I’ve got my doubts/Jesus, I’ve got my doubts.

“I usually start the songs almost always feeling depressed and looking for some reason not to be depressed. Music for me is a vehicle to get to places I might not be able to get to on my own,” said the 44-year-old Foreman, who formed the Grammy-winning Switchfoot in 1996 with Tim and drummer Butler.

“For me, that song felt like a direct conversational response to the topic of fear and doubt. In that way, it was a really easy song to write. The subject matter is difficult, but the melody is almost a lullaby.”

In 2021, “normal” is still a work in progress. But Foreman and the members of Switchfoot are doing their best to get their music to the people, even if the people can’t come to them.

The latest installment of the band’s “Fantastic Not Traveling Music Show” will be a Feb. 25 livestream performance of their 2003 album, “The Beautiful Letdown.” And with “Departures,” Foreman has turned a difficult time into music to grow by. He can’t wait to see where it goes next.

“For me, music has always been part of this larger conversation where the most important parts of my life are challenged and maybe transformed. I’m hoping this album will continue the conversation which has brought me here.”

— Karla Peterson is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune