Ethan Johns With the Black Eyed Dogs
Ethan Johns is renowned for the vividness and purity of his productions with the likes of Ryan Adams, Ray LaMontagne, Laura Marling and Paul McCartney. But Johns has always worn more than one hat; for starters, he’s an accomplished musician on a variety of instruments. He first came into view as the drummer/guitar player with Crosby, Stills and Nash and then as a guitarist in Emmylou Harris’ band, and subsequently, as a producer, Johns frequently contributed on both sides of the control room glass. He played all the lead guitars, drums, bass and piano on LaMontagne’s 2004 breakthrough debut album, Trouble, for example, while handling a variety of instrumental duties on the various Adams LPs he helmed. More recently, the rarefied level of this polymath’s talents as a songwriter and performer have been revealed through his belated entry into the artist arena.
“There’s never really been much of a distinguishing demarcation,” Johns begins, “between the way I ‘produce’ records and the way I am as a musician, sideman, whatever it is that I’m doing—I’m just somebody who just does music in a bunch of different roles. For the first 25 years of my career, the stuff that was getting released was me collaborating with other people—just being a musician. As for my own stuff, it was enough for me to just write and record them at home. I never really thought about putting them out; I don’t really know why.
“The only thing that’s changed is now I’m releasing them,” he continues, “but I feel like I’ve joined the two ends of the circle together, and I’m exercising every aspect of what I do, and that’s very fulfilling to me. I’m learning more, and it’s allowing me to progress as a writer and as a musician. If you don’t play the songs you write live, if you don’t share your music with other musicians, you can stagnate. So the experience of making my own music has benefited me as a musician, and it’s making me a better producer as well; it allowed me to get deeper into understanding what artists go through when they make records, and I’m a lot more empathetic, because I’m going through the same stuff.”
Johns began his opening-up with the aptly titled 2013 album If Not Now Then When?, on which he gathered a passel of musicians he’d produced or used on sessions over the years, Adams and Marling among them, putting his trust in the expected chemistry of their interaction. He followed that promising initial foray with the conceptual work The Reckoning, which charts the journey of a young Englishman in the mid-19th century as he ventures across the untamed American frontier. In making that LP, he cast his fate to the wind, so to speak, audaciously ceding control to the mercurial Adams, who oversaw the sessions in his characteristically anything-goes manner, with charged results.
When plotting Silver Liner, by contrast, Johns decided to return to his sweet spot, assembling a virtuosic set of core players—pedal steel legend BJ Cole, in-demand bass player Nick Pini and drummer Jeremy Stacey, who would be entrusted with producing, engineering and mixing the album in Stacey’s own London studio—the aim being to capture the moment so fully and with such immediacy that the term “performance” no longer applies.
Johns needed to be resourceful to pull it off. “It was a major budgetary challenge,” he admits. “I was living in my van outside the studio as we were making it.” The record was tracked in just ten days, as Johns and his crew of virtuosos got in the zone and let the magic happen. When the tracks were complete, Johns didn’t hang around, giving Stacey complete control of the mixdown. This series of decisions has yielded the richest, most satisfying album in Johns’ rapidly expanding body of work as a solo artist.
“It was important to me to put a band together on this record because I wanted to cut it live,” he explains. “I just wanted to play guitar and sing. What knocks me out about this record is what everyone else is playing in it. The musicianship from the band is extraordinary.” The album’s emotional resonance is deepened by Cole’s evocative playing. “I really wanted a pedal steel on this record, and BJ uses the instrument in a unique way; he’s a fascinating character to play with. I was really fortunate to get him. It was a fantastic experience to be in the room with that band playing those tunes. And besides being a great drummer, Jeremy did a brilliant job on the production and sound. He’s an incredible creative force.”
Unlike The Reckoning, Johns had no overarching theme in mind as he was writing the songs that would find their way onto Silver Liner “I can’t be credited with any kind of predisposition on this one,” he acknowledges with a wry smile. “Tom Petty once said writing songs is much like sitting in front of a rabbit hole with a net—you just wait and hope that you’re in the right mindset to engage them when they show up. There are some interesting stylistic jumps on this record, but somehow everything seems to hang together really nicely. That has to do with the fact that it’s the same core bunch of guys, and we recorded it all together in a short period of time, so there’s a real consistency to the sound and the musicianship.”
The new album straddles timeless British and American roots forms, familiar terrain to this Englishman who has lived and worked in America for a good chunk of his career.
The opening title track taps into the American mythopoetic realm explored by Neil Young on such songs as “Down by the River,” “After the Gold Rush” and “Cortez the Killer”; it’s topped off, fittingly, by an incendiary guitar solo from Johns. The backdrop shifts 6,000 miles eastward for the following “Sun Hardly Rises,” a rueful lament informed by the stoicism of the British folk tradition. The rollicking “I Don’t Mind,” with Johns on mandolin and hurdy-gurdy, gives way to “Juanita,” a big-sky campfire singalong featuring backing vocals from Gillian Welch and onetime Flying Burrito Brother and Eagle Bernie Leadon.
The lovely “Won’t Always Be This Way”, a reflective piano ballad with string accents, recalls the music of Randy Newman. The Santa Ana winds are blowing ominously on the film-noir shuffle “Open Your Window,” the album’s musical centerpiece, as the players engage in an increasingly heated musical conversation of breathtaking immediacy. “6+9,” an epic Dylanesque yarn told in the first person by an enigmatic loner roaming the wide-open spaces, turns on the resonant refrain, “I set ’em up just to knock ’em down.” “Dark Fire” is imbued with medieval mystery, and the closing “I’m Comin’ Home” is a welcome breath of release following the previous 40 minutes of crosshatched intensity. Johns comes into his own on Silver Liner, as a nuanced interpreter of his own songs, which come across as fraught with meaning—the nine rabbits Johns netted in coming up with this intuitive song cycle are a lively bunch indeed.
“I know what this record is about, but I don’t want to plant any seeds of preconception into anyone else’s mind,” he says coyly. “It’s pretty specific to me, but that’s almost immaterial. It’s more important for me for people to come to this batch of tunes on their own terms and have their own ideas about what they’re about.”
The album unfolds with the burnished, three dimensional expansiveness of recordings from the late ’60s and early ’70s. “Those records were made on 16-track tape, pretty much live, and that’s how we did this record, so it just came out that way,” Johns points out. “But that’s the way I like to work, anyway. This record has got a great feeling to it, partly because of the way it was captured by Jeremy, but also because we performed it as an ensemble.
“I think this is a very contemporary and vibrant record. I like to hear music that feels that way, which is just a bunch of guys playing a song together. I don’t buy the notion that that to make a contemporary-sounding record you have to employ modern recording techniques. It’s got more to do with doing things live and capturing complete performances. But it’s also purely and simply sound. I like to record on tape and use older tape machines because I really like the way that equipment delivers the sound to the listener.”
Everything Johns has done during the course of his distinguished and varied career has led him to this deep, enthralling album. “The fact that I’ve been playing and performing as much as I have the last few years is showing in the performances that we got on this record, and I’m happy to be progressing,” he says. “I really enjoy listening to this record, and that’s primarily because of the sound that Jeremy got and the way the guys are playing on it. I’m still hearing new things in the intricacies of the way they played as an ensemble.
“It’s not like I’m not proud of the first two; I’m incredibly proud of them,” Johns continues. “I think they’re both important stepping stones on the path that I’m laying down. I’m enjoying the process of throwing myself into the mix, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity to play with these guys, to continue to grow as a musician and as a writer, and to explore new territory. I’m already looking forward to the next one.”
Ethan Johns’ musical explorations to continue to warrant—and reward—our rapt attention.
-Bud Scoppa, 2015