Taking cues from his famous father, the producer-musician learned to work both side of the board.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
When your dad is Glyn Johns, one of the most renowned music producers of all time, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and the man behind the boards for some of the greatest artists in rock history — the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Band, the Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, Eric Clapton and the Eagles to name but a scant few — and you’re given opportunity not only to develop your craft alongside him, but also to learn a few licks from his illustrious clientele, it’s obvious from the outset you’re going to follow him into the family business.
At the same time, it’s little wonder that having developed an impressive production resume all his own — with artists like the Kings of Leon, Ryan Adams, Tom Jones, Crowded House and British songstress Laura Marling, among his production credits — Ethan Johns was also eager to make name for himself and establish a legacy all his own. What is somewhat surprising is that as a gifted musician in his own right — as his performing credits alongside Emmylou Harris and Crosby Stills and Nash will attest — he waited to record his first solo album until he was well into his 40s, the age of 43 to be precise.
Happily though, the aptly titled If Not Now Then When proves to be well worth the wait. Although surprisingly low-key and of a bare-bones variety, it affirms the younger Johns’ remarkable song craft and offers proof he’s equally adept on both sides of the boards. And while it’s also evident he’s perfectly capable of asserting these affecting melodies all on his own, the musicians who make cameo appearances – Bill Wyman, Ian McLagan and bassist Danny Thompson in particular — prove Ethan is capable of drawing some star power of his own.
When BLURT spoke to him from his home in the U.K., Johns proved to be remarkably disarming, and despite the 15 years he spent honing his craft in L.A., the epitome of a urban Englishman, his precise diction and genteel disposition affirming the image one might expect from someone bearing such a remarkable lineage. Despite the time difference and the lateness of the hour, he amiably indulged our questions for nearly an hour and when the conversation was over, he left the impression that here indeed was someone that was well worth getting to know, both as a man and a musician.
BLURT: So the first obvious question is — what took you so long to make your solo debut?
ETHAN JOHNS: It’s a good question, and I’ve answered it many times over the past year and I’m still not altogether too sure what the concise and direct answer is. I’ve never approached life with much of a plan. I tend to, as much as possible, go with the flow and go on instinct. I don’t tend to let my head make decisions about opportunities when they come up. The fact is, I’ve written songs for quite a long time. I’ve been playing music pretty much all my life really, and I started writing songs when I was a teenager. But I think what ended up happening is that in apprenticing as a recording engineer to my father — which was between the ages of 10 and 15 — I developed an unholy obsession with the art of recording and record making, even though I continued to play and continued to write. When I ended up in Los Angeles in my early twenties, I found that I was able to do what I wanted to do — which was to hang out with musicians and play music. Inevitably we would want to record what we were working on, and by default, I was the guy who would always make those recordings, because I was the best engineer in the room. And I was good at helping people to make their recordings. So one thing led to another and I met some extraordinary artists during that time, and also started getting some incredible offers to play with some legendary musicians. You know, I guess I was just too busy learning and helping other people do their thing. I never felt the desire or the need to make a record of my own because I was having so much fun working with other people. I guess that’s what it was! When I look back on what I’ve been up to over the last 25 years, there was nary a dull moment. It’s been a pretty amazing run. So I guess something changed. I think a lot of it has to do with the songs. The songs had a louder voice in my subconscious ultimately.
You’re speaking of the songs on your new album?
Yeah, these songs. The ones on this record. I think I moved through my life in my twenties, and as with most people’s lives in their twenties, there was a lot of heartbreak. A lot of the earlier material I wrote was about that, and there’s enough of that stuff out there, to be honest. Really, who needs another heartbreak record? There’s a lot of people doing that really well, but these songs seem to be… well, I don’t think there’s a love song on the record. Well, “Willow” is a love song in a way, but none of the others are. I don’t know. I guess I just felt these songs needed to be sung.
Were you encouraged by any of the artists that you work with to venture forth, as it were?
Well, Laura Marling was a big part of it. We were working on a record late one night and we were talking about songwriting, so I played her a couple of songs. And she said, “You’ve got to sing those for people. That’s really good stuff. People will enjoy those. You’ve got to sing them.” So she kind of dragged me up to London and put me in front of an audience basically. She was doing this thing at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a pretty big thing actually. That’s a daunting venue. She was curating a folk night and had invited all her compadres for this huge show. I don’t know how many acts there were on the bill — maybe ten or fifteen — and I was one of them. It was a really positive experience for me. It was a realization that the circle was not complete, having only written them. When you sing them, it closes the circle and it was sort of a life-changer for me. A big realization. And I’ve been doing it ever since and loving it! I’ve been on the road on and off since November of last year and having more and more fun as the months roll on.
Are you playing with a band or are you going out solo?
I’m just going out solo. I can’t afford to take a band out at the moment.
Your album cover shows you looking through the curtain as if backstage and somewhat reticent to go out in front of the audience. What’s that about? Some stage fright perhaps?
The key to the joke is when you flip the album on the back side, what I see is just an old man and his dog.
Ah, okay, we get it now.
It’s not that obvious. The image is split into two halves.
Do you see yourself ass having your own singular production style? A signature sound perhaps? For example, the work you’ve done with Tom Jones seemed to put his new music in a very special mindset.
I don’t think I do. I do think there is an element of consistency with what I hope to achieve when I’m making a record, which is capturing as much as I can in terms of the essence of the artist and the songs in performance. I do like to work live as much as I can. I don’t like to manufacture performances, which is easy to do now with computers. I like the records to be very real, very human, if you like. I’m not adverse to doing arrangements obviously, and crafting a record, but there’s a very strong element of performance — I think — in the records I make, which gives them a life that people tell me is very alive. I don’t think there’s a stylistic thread, because I have an appreciation for all forms of music, and I think you can look at the Kings of Leon or whatever on one hand, and then look at Tom or Laura on the other, and they’re all very different. I think so anyway, what do you think?
Well, you used the example of Tom Jones… and even on your own album, you seem to extract a very atmospheric kind of ambiance that seems to define you in those circumstances. It’s haunting… there’s a certain gravitas to it.
That’s great to hear. I think that’s a byproduct of the way they’re made. There’s a certain feeling in a room that you try to capture. It’s hard to talk about these things without sounding pompous, but I have a very spiritual connection with music in a way. The way I work it’s really very cognitive. It’s very trance-like really. The perfect moment for me is when inspiration takes you over, and you’re drawing and performing in a place where the mind is almost disconnected somehow, so you get the pure expression of the spirit and how you’re feeling… It’s the emotion of the performance, which is why I don’t like to edit things really. I like to keep things whole, because you get natural arcs in performances. So the whole becomes very affecting, whereas if you start to go and work in the kind of detail like a lot of people do now, you end up looking for perfection, where you’ll work on tracks and build them from the ground up until the last thing that goes on is the vocal. The singer may do ten, fifteen, thirty takes — and you may go through it with a a fine tooth comb and pick every word and line them all up. You’re cutting together a sort of detailed perfection of a performance, but there’s no emotional travel in it. What it tends to do is to take the magic out, because there’s no tension, there’s no build, there’s no release. It’s just a sort of very flat, transient thing, and I find it very boring. But you have to be working with an artist with talent that‘s in a good place creatively, and Laura is a phenomenal talent, and so is Tom. So I feel like I would be doing them a disservice if I were to disconnect Laura from her instrument for example. It would be a travesty to get her to sing and not have her playing her guitar at the same time. I would be making my life incredibly difficult, because you would never get those performances that way, the way that the songs that move and breathe. That’s where the magic is. It may be that in just that that there’s a certain ideology or knowledge that I’ve applied to the records I’ve made. It allows those atmospheres to exist I suppose. It’s a bit like taking a photograph or running a film camera in the moment, and you get sucked into what’s happening at that moment. Ultimately it’s hard to define.
You’re obviously very astute in your understanding of the artists, so that must make you able to pinpoint their strengths and draw that out of them.
It would be nice to think so. Again, I’m just going on instinct really, trying to be in touch with what’s going on. I guess it’s really just about making records in a way that I would appreciate to hear them. I like a lot of the older recordings because I feel like they have that magic. Those Alan Lomax recordings — I feel like they’re just so arresting, and I feel like that’s… well, the talent primarily (chuckles). But also because they haven’t been interfered with. They’ve been captured.
You also produced some older established acts, like Tom and like Crowded House. When you take an artist that already has a long established track record and an established sound, is that a greater challenge because you want to change the MO?
It can be, but the key to answering that question is how I get involved with that project in the first place. I have to be sure that whoever I’m working with is going to be looking for the same thing, that there’s a fundamental reason as to why we’re working together, and that there’s a shared vision. It keeps the friction to a minimum if you’re both on the same page. I’ve never approached an artist and asked if I could producer them… ever. It has to come from the artist, and you hope that they’re coming to you because they’re familiar with what you do and how you do it. There’s a reason why they want to work with you so you’re off on the right foot from the start (laughs).
It seems somewhat ironic that as a producer, your album is so stark and almost reserved in a kind of naked way. There’s not a lot of production on it, but you credit several other individuals with producing the various tracks. Was that a new kind of give and take for you, to have other people behind the boards?
It was a very natural environment. Again, we get back to that thing of creating an environment that is positive for the music, so the only influence that I had on the record was calling the people that I thought would respond in a way that I thought would enhance what I was doing. I didn’t tell anyone what to play and I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the way I thought the songs would turn out. I couldn’t produce myself. I think it’s a fatal idea for almost any artist to think they can. There are very few people in history that have done it successfully. I think Les Paul did it successfully. I think Brian Wilson did it successfully. I think Prince did it successfully and Peter Gabriel did it successfully, Those are the only guys I can think of off the top of my head where it really worked out. Although in truth, Peter Gabriel actually collaborated with Daniel Lanois, so I’ve shot myself in the foot there. You’ve got to have a sounding board. I couldn’t judge my own performances, and that’s why I couldn’t mix my record. I mean, I can mix a record, but I couldn’t judge my own songs and my own performances. How could I know how loud my vocal was supposed to be? You know what I mean? There’s no formula for it. I needed someone who was going to respond to what they were hearing. I had to give that over to someone else. Same with everyone else I credited as producing the record. People were very helpful to me in making this record. We’d do a take of something, and I’d look around and ask, “What do you think, guys?” Because I didn’t know (chuckles). I need the people I trust and respect to help me be able to go, okay, that’s it. Obviously, not every track we cut was successful. I left a lot of tracks on the shelf. We would try things, I’d take them home, and a couple of weeks later I’d listen to them again and I’d go, “You know what? That doesn’t feel the way I think they should. I think I could perform them a little bit better.” But all I wanted to think about when making this record was to perform the songs and sing the songs as best I could. I didn’t want to worry about sound or any of that other stuff. I wanted to populate the process with people I respected and trusted and let them do their part. I wanted to focus just on my bit. But I still can’t listen to it…
No, I can’t. The last time I listened to it was when we got the vinyl mastering back and we listened to about a minute and a half of the first song on the first side and I said, “You’re going to have to do this, mate, because I just can’t listen to it.” As far as an accomplishment, I’m really proud of the way the record was made. It wasn’t about the end result. It was about how it was done, the motivation behind doing it… which is kind of hard to put into words in a way. It was a very enjoyable process for me and allowed me to let go of a whole bunch of stuff. You always feel like you can do better. You’ll be in a constant state of non-movement. But you’ve got to give it over. That’s the big question. When’s it done?
Seeing Bill Wyman’s name in the credits for “Red Rooster Blue” was kind of cool. He doesn’t do a lot of session work.
I was so lucky. I’ve known Bill since I was a kid, due to Glyn. Well, I don’t know him. He’s a loose acquaintance of mine. He’s a dear friend of my dad’s obviously. So when we cut that track with just drums, guitar and vocal, again, I had no idea how that track was going to come out. I had just written it. My friend Jeremy and I were hanging out in my studio and I went, “Hey, I got this,” and we just made that recording. It came out a certain way, and it felt a certain way, and we played it back and it was a great take and it had a lovely feeling to it. You can hear how we crack up at the end of it. It was the first time we had run through it, so we didn’t know how we were going to end it… that’s why the end is a mess and we both started to laugh. huh huh. The take was so great, we just kind of left it. I was thinking later, who would be the perfect person to play bass on this if I had my druthers. The first guy I thought of was Bill. He would nail this to the wall. So I sent him the track, and he wrote back immediately and said “I’d love to play on it.” It was an absolute honor and a real thrill for me. You can’t even imagine how thrilled I was when he said he’d do it. And then I got double cheeky and got Ian McLagan. Pretty incredible. It was the same thing. Of all the keyboardists in the world ever, who would be the perfect guy for this track? Mac! So again, I sent it to him and he said “Yeah, this is great, I’d love to play on it.”
Wyman’s bass is especially emphatic. He’s usually very low in the mix on the Stones albums.
It was amazing, I think he really liked the tune. We only did a few tracks. He had just gotten a custom Bill Wyman bass – I think he had just gotten it that day – so he was kind of excited to play this instrument, and when he did, he was just on fire. He did a great take and it’s so integral to the feel. Glyn mixed it, and of course he’s one of the best mixers that’s ever been. It’s an incredible mix.
Did it help or hinder you to have such a famous last name and to be the son of a man who really is a legend in his field? Did it create this unreasonably high bar that you felt you had to live up to?
Both. Unquestionably both. When I look at the opportunities I had to learn from such a phenomenal record maker, I couldn’t have been luckier to get my foundation as an engineer from him. He’s a great producer. His ideals are very strong and kind of a cornerstone. So I gained a tremendous amount being around him – more than I could ever express in words – but also, yes, it was hard. It was very hard! I remember distinctly turning 27 and being flat broke, living in L.A. at that point, playing clubs for $100 and thinking, yeah, well, okay, better get over the comparison quick. Honestly, it took me a long time to get over it personally. But he also taught me how to be independent when I was a kid. I did strike out on my own very young. He knew before I did that I needed to get on with it on my own terms if I was going to make something of it. That I needed to step out. But the reality of it is, I’m never going to be able to step out from under the shadow of him and once I accepted that, it didn’t matter anymore. In fact, I’ve not only accepted that, but I kind of welcome it. I’m very proud to be Glyn’s son. I think also having made records that I’m very proud of, that are uniquely my own, I have my own tastes, my own sound. We’re very different as producers. Once I’d made a string of records that are very solid and where I’ve found my voice as an artist, it made it easier for me to accept my position in life as being his son.
What sort of feedback does he give you?
Actually, I think he’s very proud. He likes some of the records I’ve made very much. He’s a very honest man, my dad. He’s never given me undue praise. Obviously, I always play him whatever I’m doing. If he didn’t like it, he’d tell me. Which is great; I’d much rather have that, because when he does hear something he likes, it means so much to me because I know it’s true.
It must have been a great time at home when the family got together for holidays… what with all the stories that were exchanged. Maybe having someone like Peter Townshend over for dinner…
It was pretty fantastic. It didn’t dawn on me until a certain age who all these people were. I was excited when musicians would come round to the house when I was a kid because I was so desperate to learn. I started to play guitar at the age of five and I had been playing drums already a couple of years by then. I got my first kit at the age of three. I was totally obsessed, so when a musician came round, Glyn would say, “This is so and so. He’s a drummer.” I’d light up like a Christmas tree and say, “Oh man, can you show me some stuff?” I had no idea they were famous. It was luck for me to be able to sort of tap into such incredible musicians.
And meanwhile you were witnessing British rock history, with British rock royalty coming around right before your very eyes!
It was pretty incredible and again, that’s where the luck came in, because I had some incredible revelations laid out for me. Just the simple things, but things that were so important, things like sound. That was quite a revelation. That was one of the biggest lessons I ever learned… that 99 percent of a musician’s tone comes from their fingers. It doesn’t come from the equipment that they’re playing. So for a musician, having that door opened at any point in your life is huge. Talk about a head start! (laughs) It’s like “Oh, that’s how you play it. It’s not the kit.
How fortunate you must have been to have gotten such great lessons from such masters.
I realize how insane it is, but I make no apologies for it. I can’t help who I was born to. I learned the values of sound through some of the greatest names in rock ‘n‘ roll just by watching them play. I had access to that knowledge.
You moved to L.A. and lived there for 15 years. So what prompted that move and what made you decide to move back to England?
Well, I came to L.A. for the music. It was as simple as that. England has always been very heavily top 40 oriented, at least the industry here. There is diversity over here, but it’s very difficult to earn a living unless you’re making chart acceptable music. I found myself connecting more with musicians in America, and I thought the music I was making at the time would resonate more with Americans. So I found myself going over there to work quite frequently, and then coming home and being quite frustrated that I couldn’t find like-minded people over here. On one of those trips, after really struggling to find anything over here to do or for work, I went for two weeks and found two months‘ worth of work. So I said to myself, you know what? I’m just going to stay there for awhile. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but nevertheless one thing led to another and I just stayed. I met some incredible people. It was such a great artistic community in L.A. and I met a fantastic group of musicians at a club called Largo and I kind of fell in with that crowd and found a home. And then the Crosby Stills and Nash thing happened, and then Emmylou, and again, it was too good to be true.
So what made you decide to leave?
I came home because I got married and had a kid, and even though we were very happy in L.A., I realized it was not my home. It was just somewhere that we were, and I didn’t really understand L.A. culturally to the degree I felt I needed to in order to help my kid go through school. It was still very alien to me. I wanted to understand the school system my daughter was in so that I could help her navigate it successfully. I went to school here obviously, so all my experiences were in the British school system, and consequently I know it intimately. We had traveled a lot. We left L.A. when she was eight months old and traveled all over the world looking for somewhere to live. I came here to Wiltshire to make the Crowded House record and we just sort of went, “This is it, this makes sense, this feels right,” and here we are. My kids are both at the same school, and it’s a great school, and they’re doing really well. And it’s really easy for me to connect with her teacher and with the system. It just sort of made of sense to me.
You struck up quite a close friendship with Ryan Adams didn’t you?
How did the two of you meet? At first, that would seem quite an interesting culture clash.
Yeah, but musically, we’re total brethren. I met him around ’98 at Ocean Wave Studios in L.A. where I was recording, and he was making a record with Whiskeytown next door, and so we got to know each other around that time. He took an interest in the record we were making and it obviously made an impression on him. So when it came time to make the last Whiskeytown record Pneumonia, he called me and asked me to do it. And we’ve been making records together ever since. I worked on four of his albums in a row and fifth one that came later. Pneumonia, Heartbreaker, Gold, and then we did a record called 48 Hours that never came out, and then 29 was the last one I did.
He seems to have the ability to put out an album every couple of months. He’s remarkably prolific, is he not?
Did he ever call you up and say, “Hey, I want to do another album!” and you replied, “Oh gosh, you’re wearing me out!”
Laughs) Ryan is an unstoppable creative force. It’s been like that since day one. When we were getting ready to make Pneumonia, every week new songs would arrive. By the time we started making that record, we had 100 songs to choose from. I still have the box of CDs. And a lot of my favorite stuff was written during the session. He’s just an unstoppable machine when it comes to writing songs. The trick with Ryan is to try and recognize the stuff that’s resonating the most truth at that time, and to try and make something that’s cohesive with him. But he’s always working on a bunch of different things, so that’s why those records were coming out. He’s multi-tasking to such a degree he’s always working on lots of stuff. When we started 48 Hours we had just finished Gold and it had been quite a run, because we had just finished mixing Pneumonia before we went in to start Gold. That was an epic session because we recorded 30 songs for that album. I was pretty beat when it was done — and so was he actually — but he called me up days after that record was done and said, “I’ve got to go back into the studio and make another record.” I definitely went, “Oh man, really? I’m pretty empty, dude.” But he was insistent. And that’s when the 48 Hours sessions were done. That was begun within days of Gold being completed.
We were sort of being facetious, but apparently we weren’t too far off the mark.
Trust me, he could release a lot more than he does. I’ve got boxes of his CDs and cassettes. He would make entire albums in two or three days, and he could potentially be doing that every week.
It sounds like there’s an archival box set in the offing.
Oh man. It would be of titanic proportions. (laughs) He’s a remarkable fellow.
You also have your own record label. Why did you opt to become an entrepreneur in that regard?
I guess for a couple of different reasons. I feel, and I’ve felt l for some time, that the industry had been doing itself a disservice in the way it operates. And I thought — foolishly I might add — that I could offer an alternative. Of course the reality is that it’s no easy thing running a record label. The flip side of the coin was that I wanted to understand exactly what it takes to put out a record. It’s all well and good to complain about the way record companies do business if you’re not taking the risk. So my idea was to stand up and be counted and say, okay, let me understand exactly how this works. It’s been a very educational process for me over the last several years. This record obviously came out on my label. And I’m starting to know and value the idea of signing to a label again because now I understand a little bit better what they do. I have a newfound appreciation of what it takes. I’ve assembled a team to do all the things that need to be done, from distribution to marketing and promotion. It’s a huge task on a global release. It takes a tremendous amount of work and it’s also very expensive. So it’s allowed me to understand a lot better. I’m hoping that the label will become successful, but it’s no easy feat.
Do you actually go out and sign artists?
Yeah, I’ve been trying to. I did a deal with Atlantic in the U.K. When I started off, I was literally licking envelopes in my bedroom. Which was great and I loved to do it. Now, I’ve moved up into this Warner Bros. deal and I’ve been trying to sign a few people. However unfortunately, I’ve lost out. But I have found some great talent. It’s just that we haven’t managed to get them to come with us yet.
In the meantime, you have your album, and that’s not a bad anchor for your efforts.
Yeah, I’m very happy with it. I really enjoy playing the songs off of it. I enjoy playing live. I just got off my third U.K. tour and I’m relishing it more and more… just getting out there and playing the music and connecting with audiences. I’m going to actually record the next album in two weeks. I’m doing it at Ryan’s studio in L.A. I’m very happy and I’m having a ball!