He’s worked with everyone from Tom Jones to the Vaccines. Now Ethan Johns is finally stepping out as a solo performer
Ethan Johns recently got a call from Paul McCartney, not dissimilar to other calls he has had in the past from the Beatles legend. “He says, ‘Do you fancy coming down to the studio?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’” Johns recounts. So is there a new Macca album in the offing? “I don’t know what it’s for. It doesn’t really matter. We’re just having fun.”
The nonchalance is understandable when you appreciate that Ethan Johns grew up surrounded by famous musicians. His father, Glyn Johns, is one of the most respected producers and mixers in the business, with a stellar CV encompassing The Who, The Eagles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Faces and many others. It’s no great surprise that Johns Jr has followed him into the family business, with a list of production credits including Kings of Leon, Tom Jones, Paolo Nutini and Laura Marling, and he now has a Brit Award for Best British Producer to his name.
However, Johns is about to step out of his comfort zone behind the control desk and release an album of his own music. The title, If Not Now Then When?, communicates a certain seize-the-day urgency but also a sense of trepidation. Johns is pictured on the sleeve, acoustic guitar in hand, peeking through the stage curtain at the audience which presumably lies beyond. That audience is depicted on the back cover – as one man and a dog (called Hobo). “I don’t have any expectations,” says Johns. “I’m just honouring the moment.”
The sound is sparse and rootsy, reflecting the intimate informality of its home recording. There are cameo appearances from Marling and Ryan Adams as well as Johns’ sessioneering pals, who all took their turn at producing.
“There are lots of people I credit as producers on the record but, in a way, the point was for there not to be a producer,” he says. “Self-production doesn’t make any sense to me. I think Brian Wilson is probably one of the only ones who has done it successfully, but how many Brian Wilsons are there?”
The production credits may be nebulous but Johns knew that he wanted his father to mix the album. “I have a huge amount of respect for him and it was a great opportunity to sit and watch him mix for a few days. I’m still in awe of what he does. He’s probably the best there’s ever been.”
Johns has been watching his father at work for years, serving his apprenticeship in many studio roles from teaboy to assistant engineer via regular contributions as a session multi-instrumentalist. “Spiritually, music has always been very important to me right from the beginning of my life. My earliest memories are of music and how it made me feel. I expressed an interest in drums when I was very young, so dad bought me a small drumkit which I played every day for my entire childhood. And then I expressed an interest in guitar and he got me a guitar for Christmas. If I wasn’t playing drums, I was playing guitar.”
It wasn’t long before he was recruited to play on his father’s recording sessions. “I remember him parking a mobile recording truck – it was either the Stones’ or Ronnie Lane’s – in the driveway and recording some demos for a record he made with Paul Kennerley called White Mansions in the living room. I played drums on a couple of tracks – I think I was about seven. And I remember the summer of 1976 really well, primarily because there was a band called Buckacre recording in the back garden. I saw some incredible stuff and amazing people growing up.”
Johns cites Eagles founder member Bernie Leadon, Faces bassist Ronnie Lane and blues rock maestro Andy Fairweather Low as being influential mentor figures in his formative years. “There were others who were a little more famous but I didn’t realise at the time who they were. They were just friends of my dad’s who were musicians.”
But despite being saturated in music from an early age, Johns did not become established as a producer in his own right until he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-90s and fell in with the city’s music community. He struck up friendships with Elliott Smith and Aimee Mann, worked with Emmylou Harris and Crosby, Stills & Nash and went on to make key albums with Ray Lamontagne, Ryan Adams and Kings of Leon.
Johns moved back to the UK with his family a few years ago and has been in demand ever since, working with the likes of The Vaccines and The Kaiser Chiefs. Just recently, he co-produced with his father for the first time on The Staves’ debut album. But his next job involves heading out on his own tour with a difference, visiting independent record shops around the country where he will play a few of his songs and conduct a Q&A.
Being an old-school kind of guy, Johns is a big supporter of record shops. The day before our interview, he bought a hefty batch of albums from his local emporium, Raves from the Grave. He estimates that vinyl accounts for 90 per cent of his listening. His own album will be released initially on vinyl and if it sells enough copies, he’ll go for a CD release. He has a tour booked for next February, which he hopes will appeal to more than one man and his dog.
But before then there’s that studio kickabout with Paul flippin’ McCartney. Johns can afford to be picky about who he works with, but says he doesn’t have a wishlist of artists, preferring to just go with his gut.
“If it’s inspiring to me and I feel like I can help, that’s it, I’m in. I’ve always followed my nose and never really had a plan. There’s great music and great talent everywhere. It could be an 18-year-old kid who’s never made a record before or it could be a 70-year-old guy who’s on his 50th record.”
• Ethan Johns appears at Love Music, Glasgow on 23 November and plays the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh on 16 February. If Not Now Then When? is released by Three Crows Records on 4 February. www.ethanjohns.com