Interview: Ash Johnson

ash johnson interviewWith his debut solo record The Mad Ship, consummate songwriter Ash Johnson offers a diverse range of lyrical viewpoints adorned with rich imagery and memorable hooks. With songs about everything from love and dearly departed friends, to dealing with change and trying to find light in dark corners of our lives, it’s proving to be one of the most engaging and relatable releases of the year thus far. I caught up with Ash to find out more about how the record came about: 

Thanks for your time! You’ll be releasing your new album The Mad Ship at the end of the month, are you happy with the way it turned out?

Absolutely! The recording process itself was fairly straight forward with the guest musicians coming in and adding their little bits of magic. However, there was a lot of thoughts about production during the recording. John Clay from Stunted Records worked tirelessly to get the record to sound how it does, constantly rechecking the weight of sound against other ‘albeit mega bucks’ recording artists. I was always questioning weight vs vocal clarity thinking I knew a lot about production. I had a go at even mastering a track – It was awful. So I just let the ‘Captain’ of the Mad Ship hold the reins. He did a sterling job and I would recommend John’s production and mastering skills to anyone. He really takes it to the next level. If he believes in the music, he seems to treat a body of work like it’s his own material which is really all an artist can ask for in a studio setting; the buy-in from the producer/engineer. Not to mention the artwork which for me is totally awesome. I am indebted to Emma Johnson whom again burned the midnight oil in getting the artwork to a fantastic standard whilst working around her own design work.

Though you’ve been involved of plenty of projects over the years, this is your first album as a solo artist. What made you feel like it was the right time to pursue a solo project?
After the dissolution of my last local band I hated music. I took around 6 months off doing anything musically. Bear in mind I spend 5 years in my last band where I did not play the guitar in that band at all, just singing. My fingers had literally lost it. Some of these tracks were written during the latter part of that period but they were raw demos that were not particularly stellar guitar wise. After a chance conversation with John at a wedding, he urged me to finish the tracks and play him a demo. I was so nervous, I went home and finished ‘Quoting Waters’ that night ready to take to John. He loved it thankfully and literally offered me a deal that week. So, to answer your question, it wasn’t a conscious decision of mine that this was the right time. But once I got my head in gear, the melodies and guitar work started to build to the point where it was addictive. I literally couldn’t stop writing and finishing what I had started.

The record explores a range of topics, both personal and looking at the bigger picture. Where do you find the inspiration for your lyrics?
Now that’s a question right there. You hit the nail on the head in your review when you used the word Americana. I love stories in songs and have been drawn these last couple of years to certain Americana artists like John Mayer and Ryan Adams, as well as country artists like Jason Aldean and Luke Combs. I have always been a fan of English folk and roots music, and again that style is awash with storytelling. So I guess subconsciously I wanted my lyrics to actually say something to the listener but moreover, some of the songs I needed to exercise some ghosts. So in that sense, a lot of the lyrics have personal links. That said, I was also conscious that I wanted some of the more commercial tracks to be fairly accessible lyrically, and so a lot of the lyrics are ‘veiled’ for people to attribute whatever they want to the track from their own lives. At least I hope they are! Essentially the subject matter comes from personal experience as with most things in life.

I feel like there’s an interesting contrast at work between the songs about the mistakes of youth, and those about ageing and dealing with change. Did your approach to writing differ much when it came to tackling these two different themes?
I guess, ‘mistakes’ is heavy word. As with anyone, especially in this day and age, you could look at it two ways. I made a mistake back then and I wish I could change it, or you could say that ‘mistake’ allowed me to grow and see it more as an opportunity for change. Either way, whether writing about past experience or the uncertainty of the future and growing up / older, my approach did not differ. I try to use imagery as much as possible to convey pictures I guess and this style is just my way I suppose. I did once try the cut up style, where you have various lyrics for different topics, then you cut up each line and put it back together in random order. I tried this for ‘There’s No Goodbye’ as I had a bad case of writers block on that one. However the lyrics, once cut up and reformed, looked awful to me so I canned the approach. I’ll try anything once though!

All the songs on the album seem to have a deeper meaning or moral to them. Do you find yourself drawn to songs like that when listening to other artists?
Absolutely, though I am actually a quite jovial character… Honestly! But when it comes to music, well that for me is a serious thing. I am a fan of various styles and artists but I have to connect, on some kind of level anyway. I have always been a fan of darker music or subject matter and that tends to lend itself to some kind of meaning, that shows there was an actual reason the artist wrote the song. Almost like they had to write it for their own sake, rather than for the masses or a yearning of acceptance. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great, very commercial sounding tracks out there that have deserved to be successful, but these tracks (that I’m thinking about) again for me, still have some kind of connection of a ‘deeper meaning’ to quote your question. Please don’t think I am down in the dumps though, I’m generally a happy regular type chap.

The title track features a guest appearance from Chloe Rodgers. How did that collaboration come about and why was it for ‘The Mad Ship’ in particular?
Initially ‘The Mad Ship’ was written as a single male vocal track, and the original home demo still remains that way. However, due to the subject matter, I figured that with just a little tweaking on the lyrics that the track would lend itself very well to a duet. We banded a few idea’s around for possible singers with nothing really sticking or working out. After a couple of weeks Jonny Kerr, who plays bass on the album, sent me a YouTube link of Chloe in action. After seeing it I got hold of her number and called her to invite her down to the studio. Her voice is incredible. Hearing her sing live is a special experience. She has one of those unique tones to her voice that, (even though my voice does not have any unique character in my opinion) gels well with my own. The final chorus in the track just sounds glorious to my ears from a male/female harmony perspective.

Musically there’s a very distinctive vibe that connects the album as a whole. Who were your biggest influences when creating the sound of this record?
That’s a good question. I always had a sound in my head that I am not sure I can attribute to any artist in particular. I have always been a fan of albums that have a coherent sound or feel. Almost like a concept of sound! I didn’t want any track to stick out like it didn’t belong in the collection. ‘Azazel’ initially did stick out like the black sheep of the family, but John’s production work on the chorus and addition of some organ, kept its head from pushing too far from bow of the ship. Artists that are able to get a totally different feel and vibe on the different albums they do have always intrigued me. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I love the bravery of trying something new, particularly after releasing a winning formula. Flip side, you can listen to certain artists where, even though the songs are quite different from album to album, their original sound or vibe spans all of their work. I’m not sure I had any particular artists in my mind when thinking about the sound of the album. If I was to really think about it though to try to answer the question, I love the sound of the following –

Crowded House – Together Alone, The sound of this album is Haunting!

China Drum – Goosefair, Production is exactly the same throughout but the songs are so strong, it’s just brilliant.

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell. Post Waters’ Floyd, production and sound seems much more focused to me on this album. A different take on the Floyd legacy.

Tom Petty – Damn The Torpedo’s. Jimmy Levine’s production on this classic is nothing short of immense given the year it was made. It still stands up now and the album has a sound all of its own.

Mumford and Sons – Wilder Mind, A great themed sound across the board. Love it!

The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium, Words can’t really describe this one. A coherent but mad monster nonetheless.

John Mayer – Battle Studies, Very deep. A fabulous production and something I may aspire to for future releases.

Sorry, you’ve got me started!

Now that you’re finally sharing the album, what’s next for you?
Next up will be some live performances with a trio I have put together. Josh Rigby (piano), Chris Dale (electric guitar), and myself (vocals and acoustic guitar). We will be doing a few shows over the summer. The plan is then to have a full band up and ready for next year. Meanwhile, I have started writing again. The writing seems different this time though, maybe that’s a good thing, as I don’t want to do a “Mad Ship 2”. I am hoping to have a few tracks for an EP around Christmas time. I’d love to do another album but that will be up to the label!

Massive thanks to Ash Johnson. His album The Mad Ship is out 22nd June.