Ethan Johns has worked with artists Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and Kings of Leon and has created sounds that the discerning alternative music lover has come to adore. Only now he’s experimenting with using those sounds for himself that made others famous. Now he’s a recording artist de facto.
Kicking off his seventeen date tour in trendy and young-spirited Brighton, Johns is quick to establish an affable and relaxed presence on stage and creates warm dialogue with the one-hundred-strong crowd. His mixture of acoustic/folksy blues is pleasant and rough-and-ready in equal measure but doesn’t really warm the heart or inspire imitation. Seemingly he plucks out home-grown influences and crafts them into his own sound. There’s certainly an eagerness to gain a connection and intimacy with his audience but it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend what Johns is trying to express. The lines between myth and realism can be blurred.
He jumps around the stage, like a magician almost, fiddling with sound equipment, just trying to get that perfect sound. It’s almost like we are sitting and looking through a soundproof glass wall that isn’t actually there, waiting patiently for the producer to twinge that fader or a FunkBox to create something visceral.
Very much a one man show spectacle, we sense that Johns is in unchartered territory. Suddenly he is on his own; the comfort and familiarity of a studio is gone. He moves between two electric guitars, a grand piano, and his iPhone - each with an amusing and enchanting story behind it.
“My dad was best friends with Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian Stewart and he bought my dad this piano. He was the coolest of all The Rolling Stones by far. My grandmother used to play it in the house and I grew up with that sound.”
He speaks also about his new iPhone with humour and light-heartedness:
“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t turn up late to sound-check and he plays in time. He can’t speed up if I want him to though...” he shares about his app.
We get the impression that Johns is caught in between two worlds - the world of the observer and the tinkerer and the world of the musician who is a focal point. It’s perhaps telling that Johns’ album is named ‘If Not Now Then When?’ signifying that his debut album could be his only release.
Johns is most impressive when he uses his immense production experience to create landscapes of autographical splendour to a (at times) captivated crowd. Towards the end of his set in which he played tracks from his new album including the excellent ‘Whip Poor Will’ and other newer tracks, he confesses that he's “feeling like my insides are out.” Quoting literary figures such as Gary Snyder he drifts into a warm on-stage daze: “The world is enough. Nature will provide!” he explains like a spiritual non-denominational preacher. Fitting that his first gig is in a church that "welcomes all who seek spiritual meaning in life, all who believe religion is wider than any one faith" as quoted on their website.
After putting himself "out there" he's probably sensing what all his artists go through in their careers. He is still emotionally attached to his artists - but who wouldn’t be? Laura Marling, Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon arouse powerful emotion in all of us. Now Ethan Johns could do as well...
Words by Michael Somerville