Ethan Johns has produced the likes of Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and The Vaccines. He’s now working on Sir Paul McCartney’s new album too. But as he prepares to return to Liverpool, he tells Getintothis’ Alan O’Hare that he’s a musician first and foremost.
What took you so long?
That’s the first question most people ask Ethan Johns these days. You’ll know him. He’s the producer who helped Kings Of Leon, Ryan Adams, Ray Lamontagne, Laura Marling, Kaiser Chiefs and The Vaccines realise their dreams in the studio.
Now the Surrey-born man with the microphone is about to step in front of it for the first time – and go on tour with his debut record, If Not Now Then When.
But writing and performing is not all completely new to him: “I’m a musician first,” he tells Getintothis. “I discovered music before I became obsessed with recording!”
It would have been very difficult for him not to notice music growing up: his dad Glyn is famous for his studio work as an engineer for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
“I’ve actually gotten Glyn to mix my album,” he reveals. “He liked the songs, so I left him alone to mix it. What he’s done with it is something I could never have predicted – the mix of a song called ‘The Turning’ just blew my mind.”
It’s making all the right noises this album. Unsurprising really, as Johns also got friends Ryan Adams, Laura Marling and legendary double bassist Danny Thompson (John Martyn, Nick Drake et al) to play on it.
“I really enjoyed playing this set of songs to and with other people,” he says. “It was a lot of fun to make and that’s a real gift for a musician. The songs helped me let go of my hang ups and I felt free to make an exciting record.”
You get the feeling Johns has carried this album with him for a long time. Perhaps they talked to him through stints as a touring guitarist for Emmylou Harris. Or maybe they were in his head when he was mixing, say, Paolo Nutini‘s multi-million selling Sunny Side Up.
Whatever. If Not Now Then When has been a long time coming. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done as a producer – but there was no choice to start writing and singing. I’m driven to do this. It’s difficult to pinpoint a starting point… The album just manifested itself as an entity and I couldn’t ignore these songs any longer.”
Make no mistake: Johns could have released a record at any point over the last decade and toured it on the back of his producer status (most recent clients: Laura Marling again and a certain Paul McCartney).
But this is a bit more important than that: “These tunes kept knocking on my door. I respond to what’s going on and it (the album) felt very natural and not a big step to record them and put it out,” he declares.
Now he’s got to tour it. And he can’t wait. The punch line? He’s already visited your local record shop to meet his people: “That was amazing,” he says of late 2012’s solo tour of record shops.
“I played solo and we did Q&A’s. It was great to get out and ease the record into my community – vinyl is dear to my heart and the people who came to those shows are my kind. Playing at Spike‘s (Beecham) in Liverpool (The Vinyl Emporium, Bold Street) was very memorable.”
It was. Not least when Johns declined to plug into the PA and just sing his songs straight and true. Sing for the sake of the song? “Absolutely. Performance is my bread and butter and it’s what I try to capture as a producer as well.”
Johns will again be performing solo on his upcoming tour – but is promising to “… bring a box of toys with me as well. It won’t be just me and the guitar,” he reveals.
The gig, to be held at the intimate Capstone Theatre with support from Marika Hackman and Thomas J Speight, will be a cracker.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” he says. “I’m so pleased with the response from people to the album. Producing is only one piece of the puzzle – making exciting music and delivering valuable performances are what interest me.”
Ethan Johns plays Capstone Theatre, Shaw Street, February 13. Tickets: £10.
Getintothis reviews Ethan Johns at The Vinyl Emporium, Bold Street.