"It takes a very brave soul . . ."
Ace producer and musician Ethan Johns tells TONY CLAYTON-LEAabout releasing his debut album
You’re usually in the background or in the studio recording albums by the likes of Laura Marling, Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon – what’s it like popping your head over the parapet with your debut solo album?
Well, I’ve been a musician all of my life, I’ve toured a lot and I’ve played with a lot of the artists I’ve worked with and recorded over the years. So in some ways it isn’t much of a stretch for me; all it is, is just me up front singing my songs.
Was it a natural move for you, then?
It was, yes, but it’s difficult to know exactly what it was that prompted the record to come into being. The project virtually took on a life of its own – it grew to a point where it couldn’t be ignored anymore, and required attention. Like kids, really! You have to listen to them – you don’t just tell them what to do. You have to engage with them on some level.
As a renowned record producer, do you think digital recording makes for laziness, let alone facilitating a tendency for producers to doctor the sound?
Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? The recording process for most people now is that you don’t have to invest much of yourself in it. In fact, it’s quite common to even record in small parts and not in complete performances. For years now, I’ve come across acts that think they only have to sing a chorus once, because, well, they reckon, why ever not? I haven’t produced any artists like that, because I wouldn’t work with anyone that thinks along those terms, but I’ve seen it plenty. There’s a whole generation of musicians out there that just don’t understand . . . I don’t blame them; it’s the technology they’ve grown up with. A lot of the younger acts I’ve worked with, however, just love they way I record them – I think that’s why they call me.
Your father is legendary record producer Glyn Johns, who has worked with the likes of The Beatles, The Who, Eric Clapton, Dylan, and you have family connections that include Clapton and George Harrison . . .
I’m ahead of you here! Of course, there’s no question that opportunities came my way because of who my dad is, but in some ways the chips were stacked against me because of the expectations. I struck out on my own when I very young because I knew I needed to carve my own path; I’ve had tremendous support from my father and of course I learnt an awful lot from him – I apprenticed for him from a very young age. But then I went to America and made my own way.
Regarding your songs, were you initially reluctant to share them with other musicians?
I hadn’t had the impetus to share them with other people for quite a while – there didn’t seem to be much point, and I’m not so sure that people were too interested, either. I think maybe I started to write songs that felt like they needed sharing. Earlier, maybe the songs felt too personal to share, and were, perhaps, more cathartic for me than anyone else. While some songs on the albums are personal, they’re also dealing with broader issues – not just about having your heart broken or being lonely.
What are your reasons for accepting to produce a band or an artist?
I respond very much to honest artists, honest songwriters; I think I can sense them a mile away. Personally, I don’t have much time for people who aren’t. Light entertainment has its place in the world – it’s not necessarily a bad thing – but it doesn’t interest me.
Some of the artists whose records you produce – Ryan Adams, Laura Marling, Ray LaMontagne – are known for their stark confessional songs . . .
I know that most of the artists I’ve worked with have struggled very much with what it is to put themselves out into the world, but you have to do it. I’ve felt that for many years, and it’s probably one of the reasons why I haven’t done it until now. You’re incredibly exposed when you write from the heart; it takes a very brave soul to put those feelings out for judgment. Finally, though, I’ve got to the place now where I’m completely at peace with whatever anyone says about either the songs or me. It doesn’t matter – love it or hate it is fine by me. Opinion and taste just aren’t the point, and that was a huge thing for me to understand and engage with in putting the album together. What’s important is that the work is honest.
Ethan Johns plays Dublin’s Sugar Club on February 22nd. His debut album,
If Not Now Then When?, is on release