This is an extract from a recent interview I did with Thomas Ellis of Incognito magazine, to be published next month. Thomas is a genuinely lovely guy, very knowledgeable musically and very passionate about the arts as a whole and many thanks to him for providing me with the transcript.
Most men suffering a mid-life crisis buy a Harley or get a tattoo; not Jon Johanson. At an age most people are beginning to take it easy, British songwriter Johanson is following the successful release of The Rodeo EP last year and the single Telegraph Road earlier this year, by releasing an album, Country Tales and Hobo Trails.
Johanson lives in the UK and Tennessee, where most of the album was written. The CD will be accompanied by a book of the same name that features lyrics from the album, plus other poetry and photographs that Jon took last year.
I started by asking him about the recording process.
TE: You record quite quickly don’t you?
JJ: I think Tim (engineer and co-producer Tim Palmer from Mook Musik) and I just wanted a ‘live’ feel to the whole album, even though it was only me playing all the instruments and singing all the vocals, my own one-man band. I loved the feel of McCartney’s first album, recorded at his farmhouse, on which you can hear doors close, dogs bark and the kids shouting, wonderful. So we did them all in mainly one takes.
TE: Recorded in your living room!
JJ: That’s right. Tim is an amazing engineer and also an outstanding musician, which really really helps. Every singer songwriter needs a Tim Palmer! I’m not at all technically minded, over my head most of it, and I’m quite lazy when it comes to technical stuff. It’s a huge skill, one I don’t have; I can just about operate Garageband on my iPad. I do though know what I hear in my head and Tim always manages to capture that.
TE: Talk about the songs on the album.
JJ: Well I think some people will be a bit surprised at the album, I am. I consider myself first and foremost a ballad writer but I have always loved story songs, they led to my writing scripts and books really. I just envisaged a journey around a country that I love, that has been very kind to me, so the songs reflect that journey in a way. I also wanted to create ‘soundscapes’, take the listener on the journey with me if possible. We’ve got Elvis on Midnight in Memphis, an audio clip from a television show from the early 50’s, plus crickets on Diary of a Small Town, a prison door and a preacher on Jailhouse Jesus and the Preacher, a civil war band and ghosts on The Ghosts of Tennessee, and the album itself opens with the sound of the Music City Star train.
TE: Listening to the album, there’s an obvious wide range in influences, genres.
JJ: I listen to all types of music, always have, I think it goes back to when I worked in a record store as a thirteen/fourteen year old kid and had the chance to listen to everything, so I did. Singer songwriters, rock, pop, country, reggae, soul, Motown, jazz, blues, you name it, classical, I heard it. The only genre I never voluntarily listened to was opera, as my Mum would have that on almost constantly at home, as she was a singer with the Welsh National Opera and after being dragged to many productions, I found it, and still do in many ways, too technical for me, absolutely brilliant of course, but with no room for improvisation. I don’t understand people though who only listen to mainly one type of music; music is the greatest art form and greatest form of expression, for moods, or different times of the day or night, and they are missing out by not taking in other styles. It also shows in their own music or writing, where each song starts to sound the same. You can’t draw influence or inspiration from something if you’ve not heard it. You need to be a sponge, soaking in music constantly. My kids will listen to drum and bass or a rap track, or something rock and then stick on The Osmonds! Passionate about music.
TE: And you had a rather large record collection, did you?
JJ: I’m almost ashamed to say that by the time I was eighteen I had over ten thousand albums, I had a bedroom at my parent’s house just for the albums, and these were albums, vinyl, not CDs, so they took up a much bigger space!
TE: So who did influence you as a kid?
JJ: So many artists really, but I guess Marc Bolan (T.Rex) was a major influence, as was Neil Young, Zeppelin, Marley, The Monkees – yes, I know, but they had the best songwriters and the best musicians around them. I always tended even then too to go for singer songwriters – James Taylor, Carole King, early Loggins and Messina, David Gates. I was so pleased to meet David in Santa Barbara one night, share some sake with him in my favourite Japanese restaurant, Something’s Fishy, known for being the restaurant John Belushi and Robin Williams went to before driving down to LA, on the fatal night of Belushi’s untimely death,
TE: Your love for America is obvious; it was on The Rodeo, and certainly is on Country Tales. Where did the title come from?
JJ: I had it for years actually. Two things inspired it; a book called Hard Travellin’, by Kenneth Allsop, and a film by John T. Davis, called Hobo. Both followed the life of a hobo and the simple life appealed to me, but it’s a hard life, violent, uncertain. I have also driven across the States a lot, Miami to LA, New York to the Keys and it is then you get to appreciate the vastness and beauty of the country. I am a very open person myself and I genuinely love the people. They themselves are so friendly and open, which I love. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been invited to stay at a stranger’s home.
TE: Those musical influences you talk about show throughout the album, don’t they?
JJ: I hope so, for example we’ve got an out and out blues track, straight from the Delta with Wolfman Jay and the Smoking Catfish Blues Band, complete with dobro, Cajon, stomp box, harmonica and even a cigar box guitar that was made for me!
TE: The cajon features on a few tracks doesn’t it?
JJ: Yes, it’s very organic, I think that’s why it’s become so popular, and the dobro is featured too; I’m still learning it. I did actually write the title track on the dobro though. I also got a new Takamine halfway through the recording so we added that to a couple of songs and it sounds glorious.
TE: What are you most proud of about the album? You play all the instruments don’t you, and sing all the vocals?
JJ: I did, Tim plays a guitar solo on the fade of Heart of the South and we did the drum programming that there is together and the bass, but as much as possible all the instruments and percussion are ‘live’, real, guitars, piano, percussion but I proud of the harmonies too. I’m not the world’s best singer, by far but again I know what I hear, and try and reach them! I just wish I didn’t hear quite so many high notes! And I’m sure Tim does too! But I guess I’m also really proud of the songs mainly, that’s what I am, a songwriter, first and foremost. Always have, always will be, just denied it to myself for a while.
TE: For a long while really, you had the development deal, then moved to Santa Barbara, opened up for major names, playing to large crowds.
JJ: I did learn so much from doing that, working an audience. We, the band I had at the time, opened for visiting touring artists, and I did learn from watching them from the ‘wings’ and also in sound checks. I really liked the Arlington Theater, a smaller venue, but I used to love the Santa Barbara Amphitheater, outside, looking over the ocean, four and a half thousand people. I used to cheat, in a way, when we played there; we used to close our set with a song of mine that was simply called Santa Barbara. The lyrics went, “I wake up every morning to the sound of the sea, the waves crashing on the beach, Santa Barbara is the place for me, and there’s no place I’d rather be, ooh Santa Barbara!” Now, play that to a large crowd of fellow Santa Barbarians, and they will all sing along to the Ooh Santa Barbara, and you’re going to get an encore, even though sometimes we had been told by the headline act’s road manager we weren’t allowed one, but the crowd went mad with the song and we always got an encore! I remember one very well known singer coming up to me after we’d come off, and saying he loved our set but jokingly asked how the hell was he supposed to go on now? He did though and he was superb, and the audience loved him. I know there are two trains of thought about opening acts; some headline acts don’t like the support to be too good, which is crazy.
TE: Why did you quit them and move in the business side?
JJ: A few reasons, but I guess on reflection I just didn’t want it bad enough. I was twenty or so, had a very young baby and I was totally loving the Californian lifestyle. I had though also seen what the pressures of the industry can do as well, and I still see it actually, but two people I was close to, one in Wales, the other in Santa Barbara, both hugely successful, both had major addictions, alcohol and drugs, purely from the pressures of the industry and trying to survive and succeed. I guess I thought that the potential price was too much or maybe I just didn’t think I was good enough?
TE: So what brought you back?
JJ: I’ve always written, but something just snapped a few years ago and I realised that I wasn’t being true to myself; that sounds so clichéd but it’s true. I was looking at people performing and thinking, “I can do that, I want to do that’. I’ve been spoilt and blessed with the people I have worked with and learnt from. Also, the industry has changed, a lot of creative control has been put back into the artist’s hands, which is great, and of course the internet and downloading makes it very easy for you to get material out, almost instantly.
TE: With Country Tales, the single Telegraph Road is already getting airplay, any live shows planned?
JJ: Well as I said, the industry has changed so much and live shows is now a main part of an artist’s career and I need to get out there, so we’ve got two other albums planned before the summer, so that will give me plenty of material, and then I’ll be out there with selected shows. Receiving so much airplay for Telegraph Road has been tremendous. That’s the one thing a major label can secure, airplay on the big stations, but building from grass roots, well I love that. R.E.M., Sheryl Crow and many others built their career that way, local college stations or small local stations, and now you have these great online stations, run by people who are actually passionate about music, and not quite so much about dollars.
TE: So quickly, the new albums you have scheduled for this year?
JJ: Well the first is Songs from a Trailer Park, because we have a lovely home, which we love, on a beautiful trailer park, and a ’89 Chevy truck! You can’t get more American that that! So Tennessean and yet I’m just a kid from Cardiff!
TE: You have land in Tennessee too though don’t you?
JJ: Yes, we’ve got six acres, by Hartsville and we’re looking at our options about building a home on there, a mini farm, grow our own, animals, sit on our porch every evening, playing guitar, fighting off the mosquitos! I’ve quickly got to tell you about the song Hartsville which is on Country Tales. I wrote the song about eight years ago, about a small town, I could visualise it perfectly, even the welcome sign. A couple of years later I then found the land on eBay and bought it and it was only when we went to see it the first time that we realised the nearest town was called Hartsville! The sign was the same as I had imagined. Meant to be eh? Spooky.
TE: Very, so the feel of the Songs album will be the same as Country Tales?
JJ: Oh no, one extreme to the other. No soundscapes or big productions and arrangements on Songs, no Songs will be purely me, a guitar and piano, recorded on my iPad, my Nebraska album if you like. Demos, song sketches, very honest – bare-naked if you like, not me I hasten to add, not a pretty sight, no, the album.
TE: And the third album?
JJ: The Loneliness of Night will be an unashamedly ballad album, again quite simple arrangements, keeping it pure, mainly guitar, piano, bass and percussion, strings on a couple of tracks and harmonies. Rod McKuen was another major influence on me, lyrically, and Loneliness will reflect that hopefully.
TE: It’s been great talking to you, thank you my friend.
Country Tales and Hobo Trails is released on Blueberry Records on March 25 and available from all good sites for download, or hard copies are available from www.jonjohanson.com. The book to accompany the CD will be available from Amazon.
Jon’s new book, the third in a series of three-story books, Summer; A Trilogy, is published in the spring.