Ethan Johns, the mastermind behind many of the most exciting and critically lauded albums of the last 10-15 years is finally stepping out of the shadows and taking his moment on lead vocals with his new album If Not Now Then When.
In a number of collaborative forms, he has of course been with us for years. Just dip a toe into his discography of production credits and one will immediately find acclaimed records by Ryan Adams and Laura Marling. Mention these names to any self-respecting music fan and they will smile as they recall many happy hours spent enthralled by records that seem to reveal the very essence of an artist at their most creative, records that reward the listener with an intimacy rarely captured in music today. It’s not just the introspective stuff either, the rush of hearing an early Kings Of Leon rip through their unique, rebellious take on visceral guitar music can also be attributed to that much sought after Ethan Johns authenticity. More recently he has helped both Paolo Nutini and The Vaccines on their way to Number 1 records and huge commercial success with their albums Sunny Side Up and Come Of Age respectively.
With If Not Now Then When released next Monday (4th Feb) and an upcoming 17 date UK tour next month. Glasswerk caught up with Ethan to discuss his record, the tour and all things musical.
After working with so many different artists down the years, does it feel strange to be speaking about yourself and your own songs?
I don’t particularly relish talking about my work, but I guess in a nutshell, I’m really happy with what this record is. I’m happy with the songs, I’m happy with the way they were performed and captured. So you know you have to sort of follow these things through. I really want to go and play shows for people and I’ve got to let people know that I’m doing it so here I am!
Are the songs on the record relatively new or have you been holding on to them for a long time?
Most of them are pretty new, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them were written during the recording of the record. I think the oldest one on there is about 4 years old. I’ve got a huge back catalogue of material that I’ve never put out. I’ve been writing songs for… it’s actually scarily for over 30 years. Ridiculously. I don’t really know why it’s taken this long. I got distracted in collaboration!
The idea of being a front man never really sat that well with me. The process of collaboration is incredible, making music has always been totally enthralling to me but I was never really comfortable being the mouth piece which is why I did what I did for so long. But there’s something about these collection of tunes now, something’s changed and I’m really enjoying singing them and really enjoying sharing them with other people. So it’s not quite as hard now as it used to be getting up and singing them for people.
Some of my favourite records that you have been involved in ‘Heartbreaker’, or’ A Creature I Don’t Know’ feel very honest. I don’t know whether it’s the sound of the room you manage to capture or the live nature of the performance that make the listener feel so connected to the song. From what I’ve heard from your record so far it seems as though it shares some of those qualities. Did you use some of the same techniques you used on those records and apply them to your own?
Well it’s my sensibilities that give those records that you’re talking about what they have. I believe my ideals with regards to how records should be made are pretty unusual today. Actually it’s been unusual for decades, but I still value live performance. I like spontaneous musical conversation, which means multiple people playing together in a room and recording. That’s how you get magic moments and to me that’s the real goal when you’re making a record, you can’t manufacture those moments of magic.
A lot of people like to record one thing at a time very isolated and incredibly managed with click tracks, all that kind of stuff and everything has to be incredibly controlled. But what that does is it disables the musicians from being able to inspire each other as they’re playing. With the combined effect of those moments you get an incredible elevation of performance that feeds on itself as its happening and that’s what creates great performances. You can’t manufacture it, you can’t fake it, it’s impossible. You make different records when you do it the other way. So that has been my desire and design with regards to my process of making records. I think that’s why people call me up because they want their records to have that kind of feeling. I think it’s the environment that’s created on those records that provides them. So to me it makes perfect sense that my record would have that too.
Yeah it seems obvious that if the songs were organically created in a room with friends, it makes sense that they should be recorded that way.
Well it depends what you’re trying to achieve, its one way of doing it. I mean there are some fantastic records that were made in the other way or many other ways, it’s like art – you can’t really judge any of it you either like it or you don’t like it. My artistic sensibilities are what they are. They happen to be what I like. I like impressionists, that’s my thing. I’m a fan of Monet and Sergent those guys, I mean I’ll look at their paintings all day. I’m not a massive fan of Mondrian, I’ll appreciate what he does, but I’m not gonna hang it in my house you know what I mean?
So you know I can listen to a Beyoncé record on the radio and I’ll go “Holy moly man that is the most incredible thing I’ve ever heard!” (laughs) But I’m not going to rush out and buy it. That’s the beauty of life isn’t it. Thank goodness that everybody has their own idea about what’s good, it’d be pretty bland if everybody liked the same stuff wouldn’t it?
Absolutely, I suppose your saying you can appreciate the technical nature of it but it doesn’t stir inspiration inside you.
Yeah, well you know interestingly enough a Beyoncé record, I can’t help getting excited when I hear that incredible – (Sings Crazy In Love intro)
Oh the first one yeah Crazy In Love
-yeah that song blew me away when it came out, I mean it makes you want to move, it’s a perfect radio record I think. A stunning pop record. I think there’s room for all of it really.
Are you looking forward to touring in February?
Very much yeah. I did this little record store tour recently and it was a great experience and I really enjoyed it. It was great to get into a room with people and sing these songs for them. In the same way as making records, I love to improvise; I love to feed off the moment, feed off the energy, feed off the environment. So live is the pinnacle of the experience. The feedback loop you can get from the audience can be phenomenal. I love it.
The upcoming tour is titled “For The Sake of the Song”. Ray LaMontagne who I know is a friend of yours once said that he realised that songs only really exist, only really come alive if they are performed for an audience, is that title exploring a similar sort of idea?
Yes that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of it exactly in those terms but I like how you’re coming at that, it’s a nice parallel. You’ve hit the nail on the head, the whole reason I’m doing this is for the songs. I think a lot of the artists I work with struggle with what it is to be a performer. There are so many different types of entertainers. To go back to the Beyoncé thing, she is just a consummate entertainer, but in a completely different vein from Laura for instance. Laura is all about the music so I think I’m in the same vein as someone like Ray or Laura. By nature quite withdrawn, but as a writer there’s this crazy motivation that comes from the material, you have to put them out there otherwise I think you’d go mental.
Will you be performing solo on your February Tour or will you have other musicians with you?
I’ll be performing solo.
I saw a video recently of you performing Hello Sunshine from the record. It pans down to reveal you sneakily playing a little interlude on the pedals of an organ, will you be doing that sort of thing?
Yeah I’ll have that instrument with me and I’ve got this crazy instrument, we call it the magic music box, it’s got all kinds of speakers and horns. So I’ll be playing along to tape loops and there will be all kinds of crazy stuff going on. It’ll be a really fun night I think, yeah I’m really looking forward to it, it’s going to be really good fun. I’ve got loads of tunes, loads of new songs I want to play, been learning a few covers it’s going to be a good night. I’ve been filling up the barrel as it were!
Oh really you’ve been doing some covers, are we allowed to know what or is that a secret for the night?
Well I’ve got a bunch, I don’t know what I’m going to be playing but I’ve got quite a few to choose from. I’ve got about 30 songs in the arsenal and I think I’m probably going to write the set as we go, depending on the room and I’m just going to let the mood of the night dictate what I play.
I suppose that’s the flexibility of playing solo isn’t it.
It is yeah. It’s great and also having all this stuff around, you know I might even do some instrumental stuff, those pedals and midi pedals mean I can play all kinds of weird things with my feet. So I can play octagon with my feet and play guitar along with it, I don’t know there’s all kinds of stuff that could happen! It’s going to be fun man there’s no doubt.
The BBC are about to do a series of programs on ‘The Golden Age of the Album.’ Is it important to you that the album be seen as a whole rather than just a selection of tracks as it seems to be nowadays?
It is. I’ve always looked at it like that. I’ve always thought that it’s a great opportunity, a great form to explore. The potential for expression within the format of the album is just massive, you can say so much over 40 minutes. I’ve often thought about it like a book, like a novel or a play rather than like a book of short stories. You can get into all kinds of interesting depths. Whether or not everyone gets it or everyone enjoys it I don’t know but I’m always looking for a theme that plays into the whole. Some of them can be quite loose and some of them can be really specific. You can find and create all kinds of narratives within songs that the writer didn’t even necessarily know existed. When I’m trying to put records together I’m constantly exploring every angle to try and find something that makes the whole thing a piece of work. Because to me there is nothing better than sitting down and listening to a whole record and going on that journey with the artist. It’s incredibly satisfying I think.
I like singles too you know, I’ve got an IPod and I know how to use the shuffle button, (laughs) It’s great if you’re doing the washing up or whatever it’s like the best jukebox in the world. But it’s a different kind of enjoyment and there’s a place for it. I think it’s great but it seems to me that there’s a whole generation of kids that are starting to explore records again in a slightly different way. Perhaps because they’re a little bit dissatisfied with what they’ve been presented with over the last ten years. I think that’s why vinyl is making a bit of a resurgence which is really exciting for me. I think it’s just music fans getting out there and going “Wow, I can enjoy music more in this form” and it makes me pretty positive about the future. Particularly from the point of view of retail, I think it’s great for the shops that are selling them, it’s good for the music fans its good for the communities that are out there, it’s all good man.
Well with what is happening to HMV maybe independent record shops with see a resurgence.
I think they absolutely will, there’s no question. While I feel for the guys that might lose their jobs at HMV. I’m not surprised with what’s happened, they stopped selling music years ago really it’s been DVD’s and Video games. I mean DVDs became their prime money maker. I think it’s awful that they’ve gone down but at the same time I think everybody needs to know that there are still places to go and buy records and your local supermarket probably isn’t going to be the place. I don’t want to be mean, I think it’s great that you can buy the top 40 in the supermarket. But that’s not the only place that you can buy records in this country. There’s over 200 great independent record shops all over the country that are going to be more than happy to sell you whatever music that you want. From a bit of Thelonious Monk to Enya. Whatever floats your boat. I think people can be quite intimidated by walking into independent music shops because they think they’re going to be judged if they’re not buying the cool music. But I don’t believe that that’s true, all the record shops that I went to I didn’t get a sense of that from anyone. I think they’d be more than happy to sell you whatever it was that you wanted to buy. I think we need to encourage people to use their local record shops again and long may they continue.
Ethan Johns album “If Not Now Then When” is released on the 4th February 2013 through Three Crows Music. Head over to link for more information.
Ethan Johns “For The Sake Of The Song” Tour:
1st February – Brighton, Unitarian Church
2nd February – Reading, South Street Theatre
4th February – Bristol, Colston Hall 2
5th February – Cardiff, The Gate Arts Centre
6th February – Exeter, Phoenix
7th February – Nottingham, Glee Club
9th February – Sheffield, The Lantern Theatre
10th February – Birmingham, The Glee Club
11th February – Norwich, Arts Centre
13th February – Liverpool, Capstone Theatre
14th February – Stockton, Georgian Theatre
15th February – Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre
16th February – Edinburgh, Pleasance Theatre
18th February – Manchester, Sacred Trinity
19th February – Leeds, Brudenell Club
22nd February – Dublin, Sugar Club
25th February – London, Purcell Rooms