Waiting for the Sound of His Heart: An Interview with Ethan Johns

Ethan Johns calls upon the ghosts of such British songsmiths as Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, while developing interwoven and metaphorical narratives in the footsteps of Richard Thompson and Bob Dylan.
Ethan Johns
The Reckoning
Three Crows

Ethan Johns has just gotten off a plane … again. With years of touring, Johns’ near nomadic existence has been the nature of his life for some time. He recently completed tours in the U.S. and UK, and is now preparing again for shows on the east coast of the U.S. in the coming months. During his time of traveling throughout 2013 and 2014, Johns spent a considerable amount of time capturing his observations, writing obsessively and faithfully, with enough material for a new album. The strength and scope of the material was enough to put him in touch with his old friend Ryan Adams to dialogue about getting it down on tape.

Those songs found their fruition in his second full-length album The Reckoning, an album of fragility, aching humanity, and a true milestone of song-craft for a producer of his stature. Stripped down to barrenness and immediacy for the majority of the album, Johns calls upon the ghosts of such British songsmiths as Bert Jansch and Nick Drake, while developing interwoven and metaphorical narratives in the footsteps of Richard Thompson and Bob Dylan. The album plays like a novel, a fictional journey of discovery and regret, with Johns’ introducing us to a host of characters meandering through detail-rich stories, as well as melodies deep with melancholy and wonder.

Of course, for years now, Johns has made a name for himself, first and foremost from his namesake, being in the lineage of the renowned Johns family (his father being famed British engineer Glyn Johns and his uncle Andy who captured the best of the Stones and single-handedly changed drum sounds forever with his work on Led Zeppelin IV).

However, in spite of the impressive work of his elders, Johns has built a reputation for himself as a producer of the highest order. One need only peruse the jaw-dropping content and quantity of albums that he has had a hand in, with Johns partnering alongside of some of the greatest artists of all time (Paul McCartney and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, to name a few), as well as many of the genre-shaping artists of recent memory, including Ray LaMontagne, Kings of Leon, Rufus Wainwright, Laura Marling, and Ryan Adams. Of course, when Ethan tapped Adams to consider swapping roles to help The Reckoning come to life, he welcomed the opportunity to serve as producer for Johns’ newest outing. “We didn’t know what to expect going in,” Johns notes. “I think we ended up getting an interesting result, somewhat ragged, something very real which I think Ryan had a hand in making that happen. He’s terrific. It was quite an experience.”

The album’s core tracks were recorded in Los Angeles over the series of two days, with Adams preparing a simple set-up for Johns to essentially demo out his new album. Johns flew into Los Angeles and headed into some long hours of work in the studio (“He had a couple of microphones set up, and we made recordings of the first eight songs in sequence … all of a sudden it was 10 o’clock at night and we’d recorded 80 percent of the record”). The sessions wrapped up with a break to go and catch a movie and some more work followed the next day. As playbacks commenced the two quickly realized that what they had captured was much more than just a mere outline for the album. Rather, the moments that they were listening to were exactly what they were looking for. Johns may have been surprised by the results, but he suspects that Adams probably had that in mind when they first started. “I think Ryan had an idea of what he wanted on that side of it,” Johns said. “I don’t remember him saying that this was going to be the final outcome, but I think he wouldn’t have told me, so I was basically unaware that this was what we were going to end up with.”

To that end, Adams played the role that Johns has so often been accustomed to, and for Johns that was crucial. Not only did Adams offer direction, but he also was immediately enthusiastic for the songs that Johns brought in from the road. “He really grabbed hold of the music. I had ideas about certain things that I wanted to see. He had very specific ideas about what he wanted to do, focusing on the takes,” Johns remarked.

For Johns, the vision of how to make the album was something that the two of them shared from the outset, having built a decades-old creative and mutually respectful partnership. “We were really into that idea of a very brief way to the album from the recording, in a very direct way. But the reality of it is that when you go in, you may expect one thing, but end up with something very different. It really did push me in many ways, and forced me to think about the way that I believe about record making in general. I’m really glad that I went through it with Ryan … him giving feedback was critical for me. I’m terrible at just trying to record myself. It’s important for me to work with people that I really trust to give me the confidence to allow the takes to be what they are. I want to know that there is someone in the room with me that I trust, that I believe in, that is honest with me.”

That ethos is born from the years of experience that Johns has spent being on the other side of the process, as a trusted producer and the confidante that his artists are looking towards to steer the creative process in the right direction. For Johns, that co-existence has always been about the interpersonal dynamic between the artist and the producer. “I define the role of the producer like this: that it requires different kinds of help, different temperaments, and the role of relationship is so vital. The producer helping the artist, and the artist helping the producer.”

Many of the songs on The Reckoning find Johns reflecting deeply on the tragedy and inevitability of consequences, both in the personal as well as societal. At times, there is an ache of desperation, as found in Among the Sugar Pines where Johns laments that “some things never change, but you wish you could.” Johns appears at many turns to follow the fault lines of years gone past, much in the oft-quoted sentiment of William Faulkner that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Throughout The Reckoning, Johns ponders how severely the ghosts of the past are haunting the present. Being on the road, this idea grew as he interacted with people from various countries, the sentiment finding it’s way into tracks like The Roses and The Dead and This Modern London, a track that echoes Nick Drake’s Parasite with the lament that “sometimes the prices we pay are more than I can bear.”

The story of the album and Johns’ reflections on the changes of the world are channeled through the journey of the fictional character Thomas Younger (introduced to the listener in the gorgeous and melancholic album opener Go Slow. “I think the touring and traveling definitely found its way into the story and idea of moving from one’s own country, a pilgrimage and just the idea of world, the country outside of the comfort of your own home.”

With Johns, that creative process is a constant. While he toured he consistently disciplined himself to get all of his ideas down in some form, a habit that he continues to practice on a daily basis. “I find myself thinking about music constantly, when I’m dreaming, it’s part of my subconscious, if you like,” he explained. “It’s running ’round my head all the time. It’s about trying to let this stuff fall out and grab it while it’s there, while it’s running through you or you are in a certain mood. I always have a device on me and am writing at all times. I used to use a Dictaphone, but now with the iPhone, I just use an app to capture my ideas. I’ve got hundreds of things I’m working on in various stages. They sort of splash around.”

One example of capturing the immediacy of an idea came through the sudden appearance of the track Go Slow. The song came to Johns, nearly to completion, as he was taking a break before a performance later that night. “I was walking along a canal path after a sound check and the line ‘I go slow’, it just arrived in my head. I got back to the dressing room and I picked up an acoustic guitar, and it pretty much arrived fully formed. I whittled it down, but those first verses were there. When you are walking around, so much of the history of that place just allows your imagination to run wild really. You walk along that canal and you imagine what life was like for the lives of people when the canal was built. I guess it’s just following your interests and allowing them to bleed through into the stories you write.”

The influence of artists that Johns has produced in the past has had a clear influence on his mindset for the album, as well as his approach to establishing the stories for the songs. “The most important lesson was quite early on, not editing yourself when you write. One of the most valuable things I learned as a writer was not to get hung up on specific passages when you’re writing,” Johns explains. “That the goal is to always try and find your language of writing, to use the right words at the right time. If you are in the middle of putting an idea down, you’ll stop the flow of the story, and you’ll get hung up. Get the thing down, let the idea come. Go back later and if you’re unhappy with the language at that point or you feel like there is a more efficient way of saying something, you can work on things later. That idea played hugely on this record. I think that’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned as a writer.”

In the end, the writing of the album became a way for Johns to coalesce bigger concerns with the consequences of industrialization and the effects of human greed and selfishness on the future of the environment. “I’ve spent a lot of time observing the ways in which the society and cultures of various countries and cities have changed and what the greater impact is on the histories and communities that he engaged with. “I like to think that I’ve got my eyes open, I look around. I think one of the main things is that I have children, so I’m very aware now of the world we live in,” Johns said. “I see progress creating some very difficult situations. When America was being founded it was a wild country. There is this dividing line with progress, through the using of natural resources for our own gain. It is interesting to see it’s very obvious the effects that we are having on our environment, as a result of the industrial revolution. But then you have to then look at the personal consequence of this.”

In his final estimation, Johns believes that introspection and an evaluation of oneself is the truest way to change the world for the better. “Look at the way you live your own life and take those responsibilities on for your self, and hopefully some will look at their own moral center and try to do the right thing.” Perhaps for Johns, in investigating the complicated marriage of past and present, that may be the greatest reckoning of all.