Ethan Johns: If Not Now! Then When?
So I sit here today and I’m speechless and that’s a rare thing as people who know me will testify, there are few times in my life when I go to a gig/event and the artist, the music just floors me, it’s only happened a few times, but when it does it’s like a train coming out of nowhere and just pushing your whole life sideways. From my father exposing me to amazing music from The Beatles, Stones, Who and Johnny Cash to witnessing David Bowie or The Sex Pistols on Top Of The Pops…
Ones that stand out for me are the first times I saw REM, Pearl Jam, INXS, Nirvana, NIN, Korn in very small and poorly attended venues, U2 in a small club in Liverpool, these are just examples of a very long time going to watch amazing music over the years, sometimes it’s by default when a band opens up for another and you just feel that moment (Placebo ‘unsigned’ opening for Bush, or the Manics opening for The Wildhearts) but every time it happens it starts a lifelong love affair with the artist and last year in Liverpool it happened once more… The ‘Record Store Tour’ came through Liverpool and it re-affirmed my faith in Rock N’ Roll. Inspired does not even begin to cut it…
Why? How? These are questions that often can’t be answered because it’s a feeling, a moment, an emotion that you can’t put into words, but I will try…
Ethan Johns is best known as a producer of some amazing artists, and he has a father who is more famous than that, but he stands in a ‘shop’ in one of the musical cities of the world and he doesn’t even want to use the PA, he stands in front of the stage, he plays a couple of songs, some covers, one brand new, one off his own album, but in-between he tells stories, and here is the clue, he tells of how some chap when he was five gave him some hi-hats for his drum kit, it was a friend of his fathers called Charlie (Watts) how he was part of a band that was together for a tribute to Ronnie Lane and this was the first time that guitarist Jimmy Page had played with anyone since the death of ‘Bonzo’ How he was awoken on tour by the sound of Emmylou Harris singing while making breakfast and how it seemed like he had died and gone to heaven and why he’d never really thought about being in this position as he’d felt part of every act/band he’d ever produced but he’d written songs ‘forever’ but finally got a bunch that ‘fitted’ together…
Fast forward to February 13th 2013 and i’m at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool watching Ethan deliver his set on his first uk tour and he’s just playing like he’s in his living room or at his studio, intimate does not even begin to describe how this feels. Then there are the songs, so well-crafted and delivered that they stand next to the greats, they make Faulkner, Morrison et all sound like tube station buskers, these songs stand toe to toe with anything Ryan Adams, Glen Hansard, or Damien Rice has ever done, in fact they are the true sounds of the ghost of Dylan and Young and neither of them are dead. A bold statement you may feel but when you see and hear these songs you will realise that the keeper of the flame has been a false prophet, this is the real deal, the sound of the past calling in the present, songs and stories told that you will feel like you will never have believed you would hear again and over the next year Ethan will soar to heights he won’t understand and even beyond. In fact the story he tells of how he imagined one song to have travelled from Ireland via Liverpool to America in the late 1900’s to then make it’s way up river where it found Robert Johnson and then continue onto Bobby Zimmerman! who 100 years after it originaly arrived would send it around the world, tonight Ethan brought it home!
This was one of the best ‘hours’ of my life I have ever spent musically speaking and the whole idea of the ‘record store tour’ that Ethan undertook last year is one that I hope evolves into something bigger, in fact the marriage of the two where he expands on the reason behind the songs, his life, working with others then playing the songs is where it’s at, for Ej is NOT a singer-songwriter! He’s a Storyteller! He’s they here and now with the spirit of old, when you listen to him it’s brand new yet it feels like you know it so well, and you would best check him out for he won’t be in venues this size for very long.
Simply Amazing and 24 hours later I’m still recovering from this event … Jjx
I don’t mind you grinnin’ in my face,” sings Ethan Johns on “Morning Blues,” the second track off his new solo album. “I got a shuffle and a shake, a little noise to make.” In a number of collaborative forms, he’s put that proverbial noise to tape for years: producing and performing on inspired moments for a run of records so well-received they require little introduction. But now comes Johns’ moment on lead vox, his own reel of tunes in tow, for a full-length set brought to fruition with the help of talented friends.
Aptly titled If Not Now Then When?, the LP found its own time to coalesce, to sprout in the spaces between the multi-instrumentalist’s other projects. First, though, a few seeds were planted: Upon playing a piece for regular collaborator Laura Marling, she encouraged Johns to share it with a live audience. “So I did and I survived it,” he says, recalling initial reluctance. Soon enough, more originals would debut onstage and be written in spare rooms during a tour with Ray LaMontagne, when the fuse was lit: “I just thought, ‘Well, wow, maybe these things don’t have to live on the shelf at my studio anymore. Maybe I can roll these out. Because it’s so much fun.'”
Fun for Johns means keeping the creative spirit organic and open enough to trap an honest tune buzzing through a room — a feat he, drummer Jeremy Stacey, and engineer Dom Monks managed for a pair of early album tracks. From then on, more friends (Marling, Danny Thompson, Ryan Adams, Richard Causon, and others) would be gathered in rooms from London to Bath, England, to Johns’ own studio. Letting go of control and placing faith in the players — many of whom had entrusted his ears with their own work at times — was central to the sessions. “I’m asking them to trust me and so I then have to put myself in that position,” says Johns. “I have to look to the people I respect and admire in the room and go, ‘Okay guys, what do you think?'”
The result are 10 tracks that both thrive on the room’s raw energy and reveal the voice of a pensive songwriter ruminating on broader topics behind the scenes. From its intimate opening, “Hello Sunshine,” in which the lyrics bid a “cruel world” adieu, to pondering the human condition in “Eden,” If Not Now Then When? broaches a range of daunting questions from a wise, hard-won perspective. Meanwhile, full-band cuts like the fiddle-laced “Rally” and assertive strut of “Don’t Reach Too Far” draw on a long tradition of blues, rock and folk influences to rousing effect. There’s a pastoral side, as well, where “Red Rooster Blue” swings along to an upbeat, country thrum and “Willow” sets out on a thought-provoking ramble. At the center of the set are four minutes of repose called “The Turning,” in which “time has left us standing, caught like sculpture in a moment in the fading sun.”
For mixing the record, Johns didn’t need to look far for a pair of skilled hands he could have confidence in, as his father, legendary producer Glyn Johns, took the reins behind the board at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. “It was a pretty awesome thing to share that experience with him, to just give him the record and have him present it,” he says. “I really left him alone to mix it the way he wanted to mix it. He’s the least hung up of anybody I’ve ever worked with — if it’s rocking, it’s rocking and it’s done.”
Of all the roles where Johns has woven a lauded mark in liner notes, If Not Now Then When? manages to knit a personal thread to the record’s cover sleeve as well. And somehow its final track, “The Long Way Round,” brings that winding path — from dusting off private songs in public through cutting them to vinyl at Abbey Road — into poignant focus: Bookended by the sound of a venue’s receptive audience caught by a stage mic, “There’s no sense to stopping now,” he sings, the meditative refrain coming to a close. “I may take the long way round.”
Your debut album ‘If Not Now Then When?’ is out, when did you realise you were ready to go solo?
Ethan: It was accidental, I’m always writing and hanging out with my engineer and producer Dominic Monks and Jeremy Stacey, and one day we were playing in my music room recording and having fun. We played back one of the first takes and it had a magic to it. I used this as a blueprint for all of the following sessions. The record was an invitation to use various studios around the world, hang out with friends making music and capturing what was going on – letting things happen as naturally as it could and I had a blast!
You’ve engineered and played on countless tracks for other people, what was it like being on the other side of the screen?
Ethan: It was really liberating and I had a lot of fun making the record. Just giving over the responsibility of production and being the artist was so refreshing. I only had to focus on the songs and singing them as well as I could.
Your dad is world famous and his way of micing up a drum kit, ‘Glyn Johns Method,’ has become gospel for engineers the world over, how was it mixing the album with him?
Ethan: He has been my main touchstone as a record maker all my life. He’s the window that I’ve watched the process of making records through my formative years. I had a lot of training from him and he is still masterful, he blows me away. His natural ability and affinity for recording music and making records is peerless – there is no one like him. I’ve worked with a lot of talented people over the years – I’ve never come across anyone who does what he does in the way that he does it. I wanted him to present this record for me because I knew I could trust him implicitly. I’ve listened to the record twice since we finished it and it really warms my heart.
You toured across record shops last autumn, what is it you love about them?
Ethan: I love independent record shops, I’ve always loved visiting them and I’ve always bought vinyl and it was the only place you could buy vinyl for many years. Record shops are cultural hubs, I’ve met great people walking into record shops and discovered great music.
You’re very well-travelled; can you tell us about the best you’ve visited?
Ethan: Amobea Records, Hollywood is the most remarkable record store I’ve ever been to without question. If there were such a thing as an independent megastore this would be it. It’s almost impossible to describe; it’s vast, independently owned and run by kids who are passionate about music.
And finally, we love a bit of country, tell us about touring and recording with Emmylou Harris?
Ethan: I played guitar with Emmy for quite a few years; the first thing I did with her was the Gram Parsons tribute record and I played on an album she with did Linda Ronstadt (duets record). We made that record in a hotel and Bernie Leadon was part of the session. I can’t say enough about her, she is such an inspiring person. It’s hard for me to find the words, she was an amazing influence on me in so many ways: her knowledge and her experiences, her point of view and the way she lives her life. Her work ethic is extraordinary she’s so dedicated as a musician. I had the best time with her.