Arlington Arts’ Duty Manager Ellie catches up with John Elliot in advance of his show here on Thursday 5 March.
Often compared to the likes of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and Nick Cave, online magazine Dots & Dashes recently referred to The Little Unsaid as:
“A giddying conflation of folk, electronica and lavish orchestration… one of the genre’s grandest successes thus far”
This is what happened when Ellie met John:
Let’s start off with a classic, what got you into music. Your Dad’s a pretty impressive artist; does creativity run in your family?
Yes it does really, my dad has always been very artistic, he’s a great blues guitarist too. He was sort of like my personal DJ from a very young age, he has the most eclectic taste of anyone I know. I had piano lessons from a young age, but I think I was more excited whenever I heard him playing the guitar. I especially remember him playing me a lot of his records when I was learning to play drums and I’d bash along to them on my practice drum machine thing in the living room. ‘Get Back’ by The Beatles was always a favourite to tap along to.
You make a big point of posting your lyrics on your website – what comes first, the words or the music? Or do they grow up together?
It changes song to song. I’m one of those eejits with a notebook in their pocket all the time, scribbling away on trains and such, making fellow passengers paranoid that I’m sketching them. So I pretty much always write words, and then when some musical ideas appear I have a book full of gibberish I can sift through to pull out the usable fragments.
Any tips for memorising all those words?
I tend to labour over the lyrics for so long that by the time they’re finished they’re just embedded into my brain already.
You’ve described your latest album “Fisher King” as a “pretty outrageous mix” of instruments – exactly how many different ones are involved?
I’m counting on my fingers as we speak…piano, guitars, drumkit, bass, toolbox, saz (a Turkish stringed instrument), metal shelving hit with many sticks, sousaphone, alto horn, trumpet, viola, cello, violins, whistle, bagpipes, glockenspiel, various synths and electronic samples, a choir of primary school kids…and my weird little voice. I’ve probably forgotten something but that’s the core of it. We didn’t set out to include so much, we were just grabbing whatever and whoever was around us at the time, going ‘NOW LET’S MAKE NOISE WITH THIS!’ It’ll be a strange-looking ensemble if we can ever afford to recruit the full lineup for a gig.
Can we be evil and push you to pick a favourite?
I’ve really enjoyed playing piano on this album. I don’t have a piano of my own these days as I’m moving around too much, and when you don’t play an instrument often enough to be well-practised it changes the way you write. I enjoy feeling a bit like I’m wrestling with an instrument, it makes you a bit more reckless and I quite like how human and raw it can sound. (Or at least that’s my excuse for being a shoddy pianist.)
With all that talent working on one project, how smoothly do all the ideas come together?
This has been the most enjoyable and natural experience I’ve ever had making an album, and that’s because so many other great people were involved from the start, beginning with my producer and friend Michael Griggs, who got the whole idea of making another album into my head. Some of the previous recordings have mostly involved me spending months in a dark room on my own, recording myself and weeping with loneliness into the night. That process was right for back then as I was a bit more of a solitary Hobbit-man, but now that I’ve learnt how to properly collaborate with others I’m getting so much joy out of working with lots of wonderful people. It feels like we’re closer to making The Little Unsaid what I wanted it to be when I started out on my own five years ago; not a solo project, but instead this ever-growing community of musicians, artists and filmmakers who come together for different projects and who enjoy hanging out and making things together. I’m still learning how to do this all the time, but if you can somehow create an atmosphere of shared creative freedom and excitement when you invite new people in to collaborate, that’s half the job done and the ideas just flow. Like gallons of fine wine. Come to think of it, wine also helps sometimes.
What’s been your favourite live performance memory to date?
I really enjoyed playing at Glastonbury last year. We did one gig where the power cut out just before we were about to start because of an electrical storm. We were stood on stage waiting for the all-clear from the sound engineer for about twenty minutes, just kind of smiling and shrugging at the audience. There was a really strange atmosphere of tension, impatience, thunder raging outside the tent, rain leaking in onto all our gear. It was wild and kind of frightening, but those are the kind of gigs where something outside your control just takes over and I remember going a bit unhinged when we finally started to play.
Yorkshire or London?
I love going back to Yorkshire for some headspace and silence, and to go running. But I do enjoy spending time in London and have lots of good friends there. So I’m sitting on the fence with that one, and the fence is probably somewhere midway. Like Leicester.
Pints or shots?
I like tequila, but proper, decent Mexican tequila, which most bars don’t stock sadly. Hefty shot of that, but sipped rather than knocked back in one. Excellent. Then I get on the table and dance like an idiot.
Folk or Electronica?
I will always listen to folk music as that will always be where I sort of started, but right now I think the most inventive new music being made is electronic. Maybe someone should combine the two genres? Bet no one’s thought of that yet…
Thanks very much!