Best known as a producer for artists including Kings of Leon, Johns performs selections from his album If Not Now Then When? at the Drake on Aug. 3.
Published on Fri Aug 02 2013
Ethan Johns is finally experiencing life from the other side of the studio pane.
Best known for his production skills — he’s overseen Laura Marling’s Once I Was an Eagle (as well as the rest of her catalogue); the first three Kings of Leon long-players; the first trio of Ray LaMontagne projects, including 2008’s Grammy-nominated Gossip in the Grain and some of Ryan Adams’ most applauded solo work — Johns will be at the Drake’s Underground on Aug. 3 to perform selections from his first proper solo album, If Not Now Then When?
And if the 44-year-old Surrey, U.K., native and Grammy-nominated son of noted producer Glyn Johns has learned anything in a career that began in 1998, it’s that he’s too close to his own material to remain objective.
“I don’t believe that you really can successfully produce yourself,” Johns says over the phone from the U.K., where he is working on the latest Tom Jones sessions.
“Prince and Brian Wilson produce themselves fairly successfully, but they’re far and few in-between.
“Because you aren’t able to have that perspective to judge your own work, you need to collaborate with people that you trust and respect,” he says. “I relied very heavily on five people that helped me make this record.”
Those who indulged in a role reversal for Johns included artists Marling and Adams. Johns also recruited his father, Glyn (who’s produced the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and the Who) to mix the album, a 36-minute sojourn of seasoned, folk-flavoured compositions that occasionally stray into blues and rock territory.
The gifted Johns, who has previously honed his multi-instrumental skills as both session man and live-gun-for-hire for artists ranging from LaMontagne and Crosby, Stills and Nash to Emmylou Harris and John Hiatt, says he was strictly hands-off for invited guests, like bass players Danny Thompson and original Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, who performed on If Not Now Then When?
“When you find a great artist and commission them to do the work, the goal is to let them do what they do,” explains Johns, nephew of the late producer and engineer Andy Johns (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Blind Faith, Van Halen).
“They shouldn’t be meddled with by anyone, actually. If you call Danny Thompson and ask him to play bass, you’d be a bit of a fool if you told him what to play. So it was incredibly collaborative.”
For Johns, who is married to Hamilton, Ont., photographer Jennifer Tipoulow, solo artistry helps fulfil a lifelong curiosity about music.
“I discovered my passion for music way young, before I realized my father had a career in it,” Johns says. “I‘ve been very lucky to have someone like him and his friends around to learn from, but I wasn’t aware that the mentors I had growing up were famous.
“I think I was about 10 when I started to come across people who knew who my dad was, and would want to talk to me about him and the people he was working with.”
Despite growing up surrounded by some of rock’s notorious celebrities, Johns says his household was fairly normal. He counts guitarists Andy Fairweather Low and former Eagle Bernie Leadon as musical mentors.
“I saw some pretty crazy stuff, because occasionally it was unavoidable,” he admits. “But that was not considered to be a positive thing in our house.”
By the time he was 16, he knew his way around the studio and eventually landed in L.A., snagging a gig as house engineer at A&M Studios and living in the States on and off for 15 years.
There he met and worked with Whiskeytown, Tift Merritt, the Jayhawks and Victoria Williams, agreeing to take on those clients who inspired him.
“It’s almost like someone turning on a light bulb,” he says. “When I hear an artist, I know pretty instantly if I can help them.
“I remember walking into a rehearsal where Kings of Leon were playing for the first time and they just blew me away. Their energy was so strong. I hadn’t heard a rock-’n’-roll band like that for years. It’s the same with Ryan (Adams) and Laura (Marling), and I wanted to work with Ray (LaMontagne) after hearing half a song.
“You connect on a very subconscious level and it’s an instant musical connection.”
Johns will be bringing a couple of guitars and a beatbox for his Underground date, playing selections from If Not Now Then When? and a new album he’s going to record in a few weeks with Ryan Adams on board as producer.
Until then, he’ll happily motor along as performer and entertainer.
“I love being in the moment and I love reacting to the moment,” Johns declares. “I love the atmosphere that’s created between a performer and the audience because you’re never quite sure how the feeling in the room is going to feed into what it is you’re doing at the time, and often you’ll discover things you couldn’t have foreseen.
“Those periods of discovery are just fantastic moments to have. It’s made life really interesting.”