It’s been literally a year since I last wrote a blog on here.
Social media is such these days that there are so many sites to cover. As an artist when you have a PR firm working for you well that’s fine but like the vast majority of independent artists I am more or less my whole team; myself, me and I.
My focus has changed in this last year. It had reached a point with all the airplay that Telegraph Road and I Don’t Work Without You in particular received and the interest the next step was obviously live shows, but unless I can do them the way I would want to, I’d prefer not to. I’m also set in my ways. When you’ve been gigging all your life, and it is all you know that’s great but to start traveling and being away from home now, no. I still want to play some selected shows but ones with no pressure.
Three of my books were published though in the last year,
plus an album, The Journey …. So Far.
I plan to concentrate on my writing, be what I see myself as, a songwriter and a writer. My music and my books are selling, so I want to work on that.
There’s an EP, Carnival, and then an album,
Songs From a Trailer Park planned. They’re going to be very personal, glorified demos really. Carnival will be available November and the album Songs will be released early next year, to coincide with the production of the new play, Circles into Squares, which we staging here in Nashville in January, and which I’m very excited about.
A new book of poetry is also planned for December. It’s called Today was Tomorrow, Yesterday. Here’s a mockup of the cover.
It will include new poems and song lyrics, plus photographs, and it also revisits some poems and lyrics I wrote when I started writing years ago as a teenager. The cover shot is a picture of the lane I used to play in and have to walk down every day as a young kid in Cardiff, from Wellfield Road up to Penywain Place.
This last year has passed so quickly, it reminds me that life is short, precious and we must make the most of our short time here on earth.
Yesterday we released the new album.
Also, yesterday, Thom Yorke of Radiohead issued a statement saying that he was withdrawing his music from Spotify and other websites that stream ‘music’ free, as the artist gets very little if any at all royalties from these sites.
We were talking the other night about the record industry and the irony of how things have changed. I was shocked and appalled when I found out the true sales figures for new releases by major artists, both sides of the Atlantic. CD sales are seriously in decline.
As a teenager starting out writing songs and singing I would have died to have had the technology that is available today. Instead of using a portable cassette player like I used to use to record ideas on, today you record on Garageband on an iPad and simply upload it to iTunes for the entire world to hear – and buy!
That’s just it though, the world is not buying, certainly nowhere near what they used to.
At the same time as I was using that cassette player I was working in a record store in Cardiff after school and on Saturdays and weekends. New albums by Zeppelin or Floyd would be ordered in sometimes as many as five hundred copies, and they’d sell in a week, the first week of release certainly. The same was for Saturday Night Fever and Grease, we would actually sell out of them, despite ordering hundreds of copies and this was the same with many albums. The albums would also sell for weeks, months, and have a very long shelf life – and this was just one shop, albeit a ‘chart return’ shop, which contributed to the BBC’s Top 40, albums and singles.
Nowadays five hundred copies will get you into the charts. The debut album of last year’s winner of The Voice sold less than a thousand copies, despite the exposure and the fact that thousands and thousands of people voted for her. These talents shows are often blamed for the state of the music industry, and perhaps so, but there has always, always, been talent shows.
People stream or of course download but I think even the days of downloading are numbered, but at least you as an artist are paid for a download; not though for streaming, not really.
I think people just aren’t excited about music as much as they used to be. Before I worked in it when I was a few years younger I remember waiting for my local record store to get the new single by T.Rex, along with a number of other people.
I also remember listening to Johnnie Walker present the new charts on Radio One on a Tuesday lunchtime, listening at school to see who had gone up, and who had come in, who was the highest entry and so on. All that has changed. Games took over for a while but I think even that has changed.
Why should kids, or indeed anyone, buy a track or album when they can stream it, free on Spotify or Pandora? In my personal case, my last single, Telegraph Road, received a lot of airplay, around the world, and secured a lot of ‘friends/fans/followers’ for me, which was wonderful, but they don’t need to buy it, download it, when it is readily available for them to hear for free. So do you not make it available on say Spotify and lose out on the exposure or make it available and just accept you’re not going to make any money from it?
Myspace, attempting a revamp, allows for streaming, for which they pay the artist for any advertising connected to the stream, not the actual stream itself. It does not allow for downloads.
Also of course, there is You Tube, where you can watch and listen to videos and music, past, present and future. Again there is little return for the artist.
The money today for an artist is mainly live shows and merchandise. Record labels cottoned on to this a few years ago and now present 360 contracts, which mean they get a percentage on merchandise and live shows and indeed any other source of income the artist earns.
Another avenue is sync licensing where your track is featured in a television series or film, but as you can imagine this is hugely competitive.
Some people say all music should be free; I had a twitter discussion a while back with Tim Lovejoy who was saying just that; I asked him if he was giving away his latest DVD free? He replied that that was different! No it’s not, how is it? Would you do your job for free, provide your skills and talent to a company and say, “Don’t worry about paying me, I’ll work for free.” Most artists would say it’s not about the money, and it isn’t, that’s not the main motive, but it is a need obviously.
So can you make a living today as an artist? If you’ve got the history and have already got an established following, artists from the sixties, seventies etc., well then yes, if you tour, a lot. You sell your CDs after a show, and of course merchandise, captive audience, and that income helps you survive.
Up and coming bands though of course can’t command a decent fee, they invest in their career by playing live but losing money initially. I remember one Welsh band playing for three hundred pounds, four hundred and fifty dollars. They had had to travel in a van well over three hundred miles to the venue, and then back again and there were five in the band plus a driver, plus the cost of their equipment.
For those artists though who don’t tour or play live consistently, the need for hard copies of CDs is negligible – other than perhaps for promotion. You can end up with nearly a thousand copies of your latest release in your attic. Where are you going to sell them these days anyway? There are hardly any record stores left, not here in Tennessee or in Kent, just used record stores. Grimey’s in Nashville supports new music and I only know of one store in Kent that sells new CDs and that’s in Whitstable, (where you should find a lovely guy called John working) – the rest are again used record stores, which I love but without accounts with distributors they don’t stock new releases. You can always drive around and leave them CDs on a sale or return basis and the stores I’m talking about are very supportive – they’re music fans themselves, first and foremost.
Sadly there are very few indie shops like Spillers in Cardiff anymore, (Spillers is still open, moved into an arcade behind the original shop that was on the Hayes). The supermarkets, (Target and Wal-Mart in the US, Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s in the UK), are the place to buy chart CDs, but space and therefore selection is severely limited and by deciding which CDs to stock represents surely a vicious circle wherein they dictate successful CDs? If you want to buy a CD from a brand new artist locally, well good luck!
There is revenue to be earned through airplay and through the songwriting royalties; publishing has always really been where the money is. I’ve mentioned before the Spandau Ballet case which perfectly highlights the situation, or perhaps better still East 17 – songwriter Tony Mortimer lives in a mansion along with his classic car collection, whilst the others rent flats and have returned to other jobs.
I write this from Nashville, where the songwriter is still needed, as many artists in country, unlike other genres, do not write their own material. Most songwriters though would tell you that they are treated like dirt. They have to give away points, or a percentage, of their royalties to the artist if they want that artist to record their song – long time practice, Elvis is a prime example – Heartbreak Hotel.
The main reason given for that is that here in the States artists themselves do not receive a royalty if their track is played on the radio, unlike in the UK for example where stations have to pay the artist (mechanical rights) and the songwriter, so the argument is that by the artist recording your song, you’re going to make money from the airplay, and the artist isn’t! (I wonder if Thom Yorke therefore is going to stop airplay of Radiohead tracks in the States as the band don’t get a penny from that airplay, only the songwriters.)
How this was ever made law in the States in the first place and accepted industry practice I don’t know; how the record companies allowed it again I don’t know why. The radio stations, and then television stations such as MTV would argue that they were ‘advertising’ the artist’s new release, that the single was a ‘trailer’ for the album.
This view though might be the answer to today’s industry. An artist provides a single track to the websites that stream but not the full album. That album can only be downloaded (or bought), and only from selected sites. People have always bought albums on the strength of purely hearing a single or just one track.
As for radio stations, well rotations are smaller, you’ll hear the same track twice within hours, with the station’s playlists across the country dictated and controlled by a very small handful of people.
I remember sending in a tape to John Peel in the seventies – it was three months later when he played it, but at least he played it – twice! Very, very few presenters on mainstream radio can pick what they play, certain presenters on local BBC stations in the UK can, to a degree, which is wonderful. Local UK commercial stations, such as Heart, well, you don’t stand a chance really as a new act. Internet stations are different, I’ve had a number play my songs but of course the audience is small – but supportive and greatly appreciated.
If you go looking, you’ll find some great music out there, shuffler.fm is a great place to start. Americans ‘surf’ far more than any other country and this is reflected in feedback and sales.
The times they are indeed changing, they’ve changed even in the eighteen months I’ve been promoting my own work, and adapting to the changes is paramount to survival. Today’s artist has to be an everyman – songwriter, musician, record company executive, promoter, publicist, photographer, social networker, you name it, and most do it. There are so many sites that a new artist has to cover apart from them main obvious ones – Reverbnation, Myspace, Bandcamp, It is a full time job, networking all the time, and the songwriting almost becomes incidental. Press releases, twitter tweets, Facebook status updates, mail outs to stations, to venues and more, sometimes there aren’t enough hours in a day, but I think most artists, like myself, would prefer it to be that way than no way at all.
What makes it all worthwhile is when a person you don’t know messages you and says that they love your music – that is priceless.
The title song from Country Tales and Hobo Trails was actually the last song I wrote for the album. I’d had the title for a couple of years and knew that the song would come along when it was ready – and it did, thankfully.
The first inspiration for me I guess was a book I bought in a library some years back, Kenneth Allsop’s, Hard Traveln’, The Hobo and his history.
Shortly after that I saw John T Davis’ documentary, Hobo, on television.
I was, and am, fascinated by the life of the hobo. There was a photograph from Life magazine from the 1930’s I believe that is so poignant to me, a man walking along railway tracks, everything he owns on his back.
I had also visited an old trail just outside Hartsville in Tennessee, Holston Trail, complete with a small cemetery with its graves and headstones of pioneers from a time long gone. This trail was also the inspiration for the song Ghosts of Tennessee that’s on the album.
One night I was playing around with tuning on the guitar. We were sitting outside our home in Mount Juliet as we usually do most summer evenings and the song just came within a few minutes. The back cover of the Songs From a Trailer Park CD shows me recording it outside on my iPad. I wrote the lyrics properly the next day.
Johnny Cash once said that his favourite sound was the horn from a freight train. When Bob Harris was staying in Nashville a few years back he said that he too loved the sound of a train’s horn. The train Bob could hear was the Music City Star, the passenger train that runs from Lebanon right into Nashville, and we’re woken every morning by the sound of its horn as it approaches the small station at Mount Juliet.
It seemed fitting to start the track, and indeed the album, with the sound of its horn. I hope Johnny Cash would approve.
The cover of the single is a photograph I took of Main Street in Watertown, my favourite American small town.
Country Tales and Hobo Trails album is available now from iTunes, Amazon and all good websites, or you can order a CD direct from jonjohanson.com.
Country Tales and Hobo Trails single is released on July 4.
It all started with an idea; I have them occasionally!
I liked the idea of three separate plays that could be performed individually, but at the same time could be ‘joined’ to make one longer play.
I’ve been fascinated with certain ‘celebrities’, people who are constantly in the media and yet have no talent – they don’t act, they don’t sing and yet their publicists secure column space in the tabloids daily.
There is though also the obsession with celebrities; the magazines that act as publicity vehicles for PR people who feed them constant ‘exclusive’ stories, that are in every paper!
There have been stories of stalkers though that are disturbing and indeed of course, tragic, as in the awful case of Rebecca Shaeffer who was murdered by a ‘fan’ in 1989.
That gave me the basis of the story. I liked the idea though too of ‘cry wolf’, where an imaginary stalker is created, only for a real one to appear.
I’ve also observed how people reinvent themselves – Stephen Fry is a prime example, Leslie Grantham another, both sent to prison for serious crimes. Everyone has a secret, all families have secrets. The ‘secret’ in this story is actually based on a true situation that friends of my parents were involved in when their teenage daughter, my mum’s goddaughter, got pregnant.
There is usually an innocent victim. Where the title The Murder of Summer came from I have no idea, but gave the name Summer to the young girl in the stories.
I also liked the idea of a ‘one-hander’ play; all my previous plays have been two handers, for two actors. This is how The Haunting of Owen came about – a man driven crazy by the voices he heard in his head, the split personalities inside him. There is a great episode of Criminal Minds with James Van Der Beek, (best known as Dawson in Dawson’s Creek), in which he plays a schizophrenic murderer who is his bible-bashing, obsessed, violent father and also himself at the same time. One of Michael Jackson’s guitarists once told me that working with Jackson was like working with two different people – a ten year old kid one minute and then he’d be like a sixty year old man; Jackson was ten or so when he was thrust into the spotlight and his childhood was killed then – the sixty year old man was his father who controlled him.
As I was writing Summer the images came fast and furious; I was there in the bare and dark bedroom with Owen, with his demons. In some ways I felt sorry for Owen, he had been deceived, but good doesn’t always win.
I hope you like the stories.
Jump into the taxi
that pulls up to my side
I can’t see the driver
no such thing as a free ride
Cruise along the front page
Not sure of what we’ll find
Pass an all night website,
time to press rewind
Print an image of a dream
that I don’t recognise
I’m sure that I’d remember
if I had survived
Racing now past curfew
they’re pulling up the bridge
Shoot an arrow across their bow
They’re telling me how to live
(Don’t take me to the bridge)
Can’t change what’s done,
Life’s a loaded gun
Take it as it comes
If I don’t go crazy
I’m sure to go insane
I really need to find myself
but when did I escape
Don’t close me in these four walls
I really need my space
We really must do lunch sometime
Same time, another fake
(Gotta get away)
Move a little closer,
have you got the edge
on a narrow ledge
The chorus of a morning,
mass murder of midnight
Life’s a price we all must pay,
does anyone get it right
Time’s the untamed master,
hands faster than the eye
Reaching the conclusion,
not a theory in sight
You say the words
But they’re not meant
they don’t sound true
How could they
But it’s the only way you know
And your words do fool most
Those who want them to be real
Want it to be real
I think your words
even fool you
Have you been swept away
By your own charade
Lost in your garden of lies
Lies which grow
As you nurture them
As you feed them
Bring them more to life
To a point
When even you believe them to be true
Blurred and lost between the lies
And the truth
You know which buttons to press
A caring caress
A gentle touch
When you want someone
to do something for you
With a lingering look
Because that’s what it’s all about
To get what you want
What you desire
You offer false hope
But none of it is real
And the price is far too high
Will leave them
But still they pay
Desperate to believe
That they are the one
Is it sympathy
You are after
So they want to rescue you
When you tell them
one of your hard luck stories
Or are you really looking to be loved
To find true love
But if they knew the truth
They’d feel sorry for you
Or is it just a game
With you the controller
The puppet master
You pull the strings
The heart strings
Cut them with a knife
Because in the end
Who will lose
And who will end up
I thought it’d be nice to write about the inspirations and stories behind the songs on Country Tales.
COUNTRY TALES AND HOBO TRAILS
I had the title for sometime and then one night sitting outside our home in Tennessee, which we love to do, drinking wine, watching lightning bugs/fireflies, the lyrics just came, the chorus first. I’d been playing around with tuning on the guitar, tuned down the top string, and the ‘riff’ played itself! Having been fascinated with the lifestyle of a hobo for years, this was the hobo’s song. The theme of trails runs through the album.
I had a dream, famous words, not mine of course, but I actually did, and I remember it vividly, (it certainly though wasn’t as world changing as Dr. King’s dream!). I was deeply influenced by Rod McKuen as a teenager, his poetry, and in his books would be little illustrations, roads with telegraph poles. Also, one of my favourite songs, as it is with many people, is Jimmy Webb’s classic Wichita Lineman, and all the pieces just seem to fall into place. The first line “There’s a road on the outskirts of my mind” set the tone of the song really. That image also inspired the drama series we’ve created, based on the song really in some ways. The song is more about life, and where we are in our own life, whereas the series is about a small town called Waterville and a prodigal son.
HEART OF THE SOUTH
- Drum programming
- Tim – electric solo fade
Having crossed the might Mississippi many times I couldn’t fail but to be in awe of the great river and it seemed to me to be a symbol of the heart of the southern states. I remember driving out of New Orleans some years ago, parallel to the river and seeing just how important it is to the South. I have also been to the all the states I mention in the song and find the people so, so friendly. I started writing this one day in the theatre I used to have. I wasn’t sure of it but played part of it that night on the piano to Julianne Regan from All About Eve, she sharing the piano stool with me, and she loved it, so I worked on it some more the next day and finished it. The only line I changed for recording was “I bought a farm in Tennessee”.
BLUE MOON OVER NASHVILLE
Last year there was indeed a blue moon over Nashville, (there’s a picture of it I took I think in the Country Tales lyrics and pictures book). I wrote the song that night. When we came to record it Tim and I tried to recapture the Sun recordings feel, this time though with the Jondonaires on backing vocals! The effect on the voice is replicating the old microphone used.
I’ve told this story on numerous occasions, but it never fails to surprise people, so here it goes once more. I wrote the song some years ago. I saw in my mind a small town, the stores, people, Main Street, even down to the sign welcoming you to Hartsville. Two years later through eBay I bought our land and when we went to visit it a few months later I was amazed to see that the nearest town was called Hartsville. The town sign is almost exactly the same as I imagined it. Spooky eh?
MIDNIGHT IN MEMPHIS
Think of Memphis you think of Elvis, quite rightly, but there is so much more to the city. The mighty river, separating it from Arkansas, with the barges travelling north or south. Also of course Beale Street and the blues! I’ve been to Beale Street when it was packed, and also when Tim and I were the only ones walking down the street. In this song though you could be in any motel room in any city, it just happened to be Memphis and so of course the spirit of Elvis has to make an appearance, riding shotgun in my car!
GOOD TIME ANNIE
I’ve known a few Annie’s in my life but this was inspired by a singer who felt it necessary, one morning, to call me to tell me that she had been up all night, doing line after line. She was still buzzing at nine in the morning! Her story though is quite sad in that she so much wanted to be a singer, and was good, but her demons and her desire, or need, to party, and to be loved, simply controlled her and she blew it. She was also on the verge of losing her ‘day job’, due to her coming in late and general appearance and lost her chance to sing. Every bar in every country nearly has an Annie.
THE GHOSTS OF TENNESSEE
One afternoon a couple of years ago we went for a walk along a trail called Holston Trail, between Hartsville and Gallatin in mid-Tennessee. There’s an old house there, a coach stop I think, and also a small cemetery from the frontier days I guess. It was all quite moving really. Walking down the tree-covered trail, I just imagined the ghosts of those travellers from a century or more ago still there in those trees along the trail. The area of course is also known for many battles of the Civil War and the deaths of many young men. I wrote this in one night, and it was more a question of editing the lyrics as the visions were blinding me almost, if that makes sense, making my head spin, they were so vivid.
JAILHOUSE JESUS AND THE PREACHER
I have to admit that when writing these notes I skipped this track, as I’m not too sure how much to say. It was inspired by a certain preacher and his life, and also Nashville’s weekly newspaper. His story intrigued the hell out of me; can someone really change that much? I’m not so sure, neither is the paper. I’ve just deleted a sentence about two of my family meeting him and their personal impression of him, and his church. Not good. People do ‘find’ Jesus in jail, in prison. Being skeptical, it helps with their parole appeal. Some are sincere, they do repent, they show remorse, (to the best of my knowledge he never has for the murder of a totally innocent woman, for which he was tried and convicted); some though will say whatever they need to. I found the recording of the preacher I use on the track, not the one in question here I hasten to add, and the cell door Tim found for me – it sets the mood I hope. With the arrangement I wanted to show the contrast, the starkness of a cell, the freedom of true faith. Many people need to believe, believe in something or someone, and many people take advantage of that.
COUNTING MISSISSIPPI BLUES
- Cigar Box Guitar
- Stomp box
The Delta Blues. The blues are of course as American as apple pie. There was a wonderful programme on television recently with the cook Rick Stein where he visited the home town of BB King and also looked in to the history of the blues. He told me he loves the blues, and so do I. I bought a dobro last year (still trying to learn to play it properly) and a cigar box guitar, that was made especially for me. I’m still trying to really play them. Put them together though with a cajon, a stomp box and a harmonica and you’ve got Wolfman Jay and the Smokin’ Catfish Blues Band! We put on another effect on the voice and also Tim found the scratch effect. Do not adjust your set!
I originally wrote this as an up-tempo song, on guitar. I’m a huge fan of Robbie Robertson, and I’m also fascinated by the Native American culture, having had someone called Pretend Eagle III work for me in California, his grandfather had been a Sioux chief. I worked on the song though, changed the tempo to mid-tempo and then changed it yet again, slower, when I was working with the female singer Olivia Sparnenn, (now the vocalist with Mostly Autumn, and who has easily one of the best voices in the business). I had also changed it to piano, made it more haunting. I don’t class myself really as a singer, Olivia’s version is wonderful, but hopefully the feeling still gets through.
DIARY OF A SMALL TOWN
It will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me but I love America and especially small town America. That’s it. As I kid I used to dream that my bed could fly, just like in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and I would inevitably end up in America in my dreams, in LA usually, with a basketball hoop over a garage! When I first went when I was seventeen or so I thought it could never live up to my expectations, but it did, and more so. My father had instilled pictures in me, he had been in the U.S.A.F. based in San Antonio and had spent quite some time in New York. I am sure I will end my time on earth living in a small town in Tennessee. I love the drama of Friday Night Lights or To Kill a Mockingbird, or the community feel, Sweet Home Alabama (I know, a guilty pleasure!). Keller’s Bar exists, on the town limits of Hartsville. My favourite town though is Watertown, about twenty minutes east of Nashville on the i-40, although I may change that soon to Lafayette, which is just north of Hartsville. Hartsville and Watertown make up the fictitious town Waterville, used in my drama series, Telegraph Road. All three, Hartsville, Watertown and Lafayette, are complete with town squares, grocery stores, a grill/bar, small town high school and again that community spirit. I also used Michael J. Fox’s movie Doc Hollywood, and imagined him forth years later, still living in that small town his car breaks down in. “Where all the days can seem the same ……..”.