Ethan Johns: Voyage of Discovery

Music Features Ethan Johns
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“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,” Ben Franklin once sagely opined. Ethan Johns can totally relate. As an inquisitive 10-year-old, the Brit first asked his father—renowned Faces/Rolling Stones producer Glyn Johns—if he could accompany him into the catacombs of his Sussex home studio. Like a hawk, he then spent much of his teens watching the intricate twiddling of countless knobs and dials, as projects were perfected, such as The Who’s It’s Hard and The Clash’s Combat Rock. And gradually, the student began to glean from the master just how a record gets made. Now, in his mid-40s, Junior’s own production schedule is so overbooked, it’s a wonder he found any spare time to track his just-issued sophomore solo set, The Reckoning.

“There are so many things that I learned from my dad, like little things about engineering that I’m incredibly grateful for,” sighs Johns, who actually wound up co-producing a recent effort with Glyn, singing sisters The Staves’ 2012 bow Dead & Born & Grown. “But I could distill what he taught me into a short sentence—basically, listen first. Listen to what you’re going to record before you walk into the studio, and listen to the sound in the room before you start trying to record it.” Another lesson: Always trust your gut instincts, your first emotional response to a thumbnail sketch of a song. “Don’t second-guess it, don’t question it—when you hear something and you get that physical charge, where your whole body lights up like you’ve been struck by lightning, don’t even ask why. It’s like, you’re done, record it, then move on to the next track and don’t look back,” he says.

Later, this mage would metamorphose into one of the most sought-after studio
wizards in modern music. To date, he’s helmed recordings from a stunning array of stars, including The Jayhawks, Crowded House, Joe Cocker, Counting Crows, Paolo Nutini, Ray LaMontagne, Robyn Hitchcock, Rufus Wainwright, Kaiser Chiefs and Kings of Leon. He oversaw two jaw-droppingly great gospel albums from Tom Jones—2010’s Praise and Blame and 2012’s Spirit in the Room—playing guitar behind the icon as they cut the rafter-raising music live in a single room. “It was about as close quarters as a band could get, and it was an incredible experience to be standing three feet away from him while he was singing, and not even listening to him through headphones,” Johns recalls wistfully.

It’s no surprise, then, that this apple didn’t fall very far from the mixing-desk tree. Johns’ first forays were as a guitarist and/or drummer, playing behind artists such as Mike Peters, Emmylou Harris, Joe Satriani, John Hiatt, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and ex-Marillion bandleader Fish. Most of these assignments came in after he relocated to bustling Los Angeles for 15 years, where he worked as an assistant engineer at A&M Studios. But it was while he was at Ocean Way in the late ‘90s, producing Stephen Stills’ son Chris Stills, that he bumped into Ryan Adams. The ex-Whiskeytown anchor liked the warm tones Johns was eliciting and asked him to produce his solo bow, 2000’s Heartbreaker. The pair would team up again on Adams’ 2001 followup, Gold. But now, the roles have reversed for The Reckoning, which Johns invited Adams to produce. “And it was not that strange, really,” he swears of the sessions at Adams’ Pax-Am Studios in Hollywood.

Still, Johns felt his hands instinctively reaching for the controls (before Adams nixed any ideas of meddling) as he began laying down rustic new tracks like “Dry Morning,” “Among the Sugar Pines,” “The Roses and the Dead,” and the first funereal cut he penned for The Reckoning, “The Lo Down Ballad of James Younger,” which he’d been playing live since touring behind his 2012 debut, If Not Now Then When. The instrumentation is sparse, gently acoustic and plucked mainly by the performer, with Adams adding occasional bass, drums and harmonium, and The Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench adding some piano and farfisa filigrees. Johns’ voice is straightforward, with a touch of traditional English folk in high phraseology and a scarlet tint of Appalachia in his lyrics, which tell a Wisconsin Death Trip-grave story of the circa-1850s fictional Younger brothers, Thomas and James, both heading West across the American wilderness.

The composer never intended to script a concept album, he insists. But the more he played his “Lo Down Ballad” in concert over the past couple of years, the more he began considering a possible origin tale for the vagabond characters he’d created. So he set out to explain it in an expository dirge called “Go Slow,” which now opens The Reckoning. “For whatever reason, my imagination kind of went crazy, and it turned into an epic song with 35 verses,” he says, laughing. “So there was a lot of editing, until I got it down to just 10 verses. But a lot of the story that wound up on the record came from that original song, ‘Go Slow,’ so there’s a lot of writing in the record that you don’t actually hear. But if you get the vinyl,” he adds, “there’s a booklet that has maybe 40, 45 poems that are all relevant to the backstory.”

Johns also hired vintage-engraving-styled artist Jessica Palmer to hand-illustrate the Youngers and their Wild West adventures. And he can easily make such creative calls, since he owns his own indie imprint Three Crows Music, to which he’s signed up-and-coming talents like Sarabeth, Julianna Raye and Dave Palmer. He, his Canadian wife and two daughters reside in rural Britain these days, he says, “about a half-hour away from Stonehenge. And it’s a special place, very magical, where I like to go for long walks and connect with nature. I love the peace and quiet of the countryside, and, as an observer, my attention is often drawn to detail. And I’ve also got a keen interest in history.” Even while hiking along, say, a Manchester canal, he’ll start to wonder about how and when it was built, where it was that its workers were housed, and what their living conditions were like at the time. “This is just the stuff that I’m always thinking about, and there’s quite a lot of that on this record,” he admits.

Left to his own devices, however, this Renaissance man can’t stay idle long. In fact, he’s already completed a Reckoning follow-up, tentatively titled Silver Liner, that he’ll release early next year. And he’s got his fingers crossed for two upcoming production details he’s expressed interest in—he won’t jinx them by revealing names, but one is a legendary Memphis artist he adores, and the other a hot young Austin outfit that has caught his ear. Asked to comb through his impressive list of accomplishments and choose a couple of favorites, he instantly selects another concept record, the stark Once I Was an Eagle by his sorely underrated folkie friend, Laura Marling. “She’s a phenomenal artist, and she’s a good hang, too,” he says. Another is Come of Age, the brainy second set from British folk-punkers The Vaccines. “But I didn’t wave a magic wand,” he stresses. “Their guitarist Freddie [Cowan] is a great player—all I really did was let him off leash.”

Ultimately, Johns concludes, his whole career comes down to his solid skill as an editor. “It’s certainly one of the main facets of my job as a producer—I’m constantly stepping back and looking at the whole,” he says. “I’m always trying to find the story, the thread, even if there isn’t any discernible theme. And there’s always something new to learn—it’s a constant voyage of discovery. And it’s still completely mystical—I haven’t figured it out in any way, shape, or form. So production is still a challenge, it’s still interesting, and I hope that it remains that way.

“Because I am still completely in love with what I do.”