Melody as Truth

The Music of Johnny Nash

Melody as Truth

For those of us that have attended after hours parties, chill out rooms at music festivals, or the hangout on your friend’s living room floor after a night out at the club–still buzzing, a soundtrack to these moments are critical. Somewhere between late night and early morning there lies a mood, a moment that should be experienced by all. Depending on when you crash; it could be lingering between 4 am and 5 am, or maybe it’s 1:45 am and 2 am. Regardless, it’s an important juncture in our daily cycle full of soft light, hushed tones and distant memories. Unfortunately, it is missed by most of the mainstream population who are usually asleep, dreaming of sheep. For those of us that have attended after hours parties, chill out rooms at music festivals, or the hangout on your friend’s living room floor after a night out at the club–still buzzing, a soundtrack to these moments are critical. Whether you’re coming down or waking up the right music can transport you in a way that can only be felt in the ether of time. An experience commonly associated with ancient religious beliefs, spirituality, or heavenly space. A feeling that only you and your inner voice understands. Nothing can explain, not these words, not words written 2,000 years ago. If you were to set a soundtrack to this mood you would choose Jonny Nash.

Writing with guitar as a lead instrument, but using keys and synths to supplement and expand his ideas, Nash has created a timeless sound. It could have fit in nicely in the 1980s on the influential 4AD label or maybe it’s the sound of an outtake from a Cluster/Eno collaboration the 1970s, or it could also be a track from an early 1990s ambient on the R&S label, there’s are a few reference points but ultimately it’s Nash’s melodic sense that makes it him special. His playing is distinct, it ripples with echo, delay and various spatial effects that only enhances his playing.

Jonny came across as having some sort of sapient sense. We emailed back a forth to set times for a call, I was surprised to hear that he was in Bali, I assumed on vacation, but it turned out he had recently moved there.

How’s Bali?

Yeah, it’s good, I still don’t know if it’s somewhere I would stay or settle down, but it’s providing a nice, welcome break from London.

Did you take some gear down?

The majority of my studio was a nightmare logistically and ended up being really expensive to get here. It should arrive, fingers crossed, all in one piece in about 10 days, and then I’ll find a place to set up and get working again. So yeah, it’s probably been the longest period of time I’ve of not having all of my stuff around me, so it’s been interesting.

I discovered your music through my friend Lee who turned me onto the Dutch label Music From Memory, they released a Gigi Masin compilation last year that I really love. I then interviewed the guys from the label and stopped by the Red Light Records store in Amsterdam when I was there…Lovely people.

Oh yeah, they’re great.

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When the setting works, and you draw people in, that’s when the magic can happen.

I ended up at your first EP, from last year, Phantom Actors and really, really love it.

Nice man thank you very much! Always nice to hear.

And then I heard your collaboration with Gigi Masin on the Gaussian Curve album and picked up your latest release, Exit Strategies. But let’s start with Phantom Actors, is that your first proper release?

I’ve done quite a few things in the past but they’ve all been under different names, my first release was probably in 2009, when I used to live in Japan. I was involved with a DJ crew and we called ourselves Discosession, we were doing parties in Japan, and at that time we were really into the leftfield disco sound. I released a number of records with those guys on a Japanese label called Crue-L Records. I also had a project with a friend, Kyle Martin, as Land of Light. The Land of Light record was released on the ESP Institute label, Lovefinger’s label, a couple years ago. And I’ve done a bunch of different things as well under different names that people maybe don’t know is me. But the Phantom Actors release is the first of proper release in my own name.

So I guess it’s not collaborative, it’s really just you?

Yeah, the Phantom Actors was literally just me. It came off the back of the very layered and textural approach to music that I experimented with on the Land of Light project. It was a record where we really got into the production and spent a lot of time layering many, many things. There wasn’t much space in the record. And I think after spending time listening to more ambient stuff, I really got drawn towards the idea of space, so I think Phantom Actors is an example of that desire to open things up, along with a bunch of interesting things that kind of built up along the way i guess.

I’ve been collecting and listening to a lot of ambient music and I definitely heard some influences of Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, some Harold Budd, some Eno.

Yeah there’s two different strands of music that have really taken their hold on me over the years. One of them is the ambient side of Detroit techno. I’ve been a big fan since, God knows how long. John Beltran, Detroit Escalator Company, Tony Drake–who I think is a massively underappreciated artist–and this sort of beautiful, melancholic, melody-driven music is something that’s always had a hold on me ever since I first heard it 15 years ago. I tend to work on the guitar and I like to compose melodies as often as I can with the guitar as the starting point. That sort of textural, deep ambient guitar music you hear in Robin Guthrie, ambient, leftfield jazz guitarists like Steve Tibbetts, I guess my love of this kind of mood is something you can hear in Exit Strategies. Phantom Actors was made during a time period when I didn’t have my guitar because I was moving house, so a lot of the compositions were keyboard and piano-based whereas on Exit Strategies, the compositions were guitar-based. You can hear the two different sides of how I work in the differences between those records. Though I think the sensibility or feeling behind them is the same.

You know there’s definitely a thread in the playing, I can recognize it. It has such a nice, deep melodic element there which draws you in, and when you’re playing, your melodies aren’t too intricate where you overdo it. You seem to play just enough.

Well thanks man thats a real compliment. I’m not such a rhythmically minded person and I’m not so drawn towards percussive elements. Programming drum patterns and things like that really aren’t my forte. The way that I really feel I can express myself is through melodies and through these generally improvised melody lines, that’s when I really feel comfortable. I hope that people might say that, “Oh there’s a melodic style or something that I can recognize in your music,” that makes me feel really happy because I think that’s the core.

Another reason I liked it so much is because it is so unique to hear this kind of music with guitar. It is so commonly synth driven or keyboard driven. Harold Budd made a couple of records with the guitarist Clive Wright, do you know him or those records?

No I don’t.

It’s a trio of record they collaborated on, and I believe one of them is recorded live. They are beautiful, simple yet profound. Most of the ambient stuff you hear especially by young guys, it’s not guitar driven, it’s usually synth or keyboard driven.

Yeah I experimented a lot and played the guitar as a kid. I stopped for a long time and got back into it in a nice gradual progression. It’s still is very strange to me to think of myself as a guitar player, in fact I don’t think of myself in this way. It’s more like I am someone who uses the guitar as a tool to express melodic ideas, if that makes sense! I’ve gotten to a point where I do feel comfortable using guitar as a basis for this expression and I find it very difficult now to not have guitar elements in anything that I’m doing really, I mean I’ve tried to do a few things but I always find that I have to add that in and gives the pieces more of the expression I’m after.

Tell me about Gaussian Curve, what a great record! How did that come about?

That was a great process, the whole thing. I’ve been really good friends with Tako Reyenga, who’s owns the label Music from Memory. We’ve been hanging out and listening to music for a long time, over 10 years now, and we’ve actually released a couple of records together under the name Sombrero Galaxy. We have an amazing friendship and musical relationship as well. Tako introduced me to the Gigi Masin albums a couple of years ago and it was totally up my street in terms of the mood and feeling I like in music so I was really captivated by these records, they really burned themselves into my long term memory. Then those guys, Tako, , Jamie and Abel managed to get in touch with Gigi because they were looking for backstock to sell in the Red Light Record Store in Amsterdam. So they established contact with him and got talking and then compiling the retrospective. As that process was beginning they invited him over to Amsterdam just to meet because it’s always great to meet in person and be able to make a connection. It’s such a personal thing, the way that those guys work and they have so much respect for the artists they’re working with. Tako asked me to come over too and we just hung out with Gigi along with Marco, who’s another friend of mine. We were all hanging out and Me and Marco said “It would be great if we could jam in the studio.” We were getting along so well that we went to Marco’s studio and had a little jam for about half an hour, really enjoyed it and really connected. Then we all had to go our separate ways but Tako really kept the momentum going and said “Listen, you guys really have to do something.” So with a bit of planning we got together in Amsterdam, about 6 months later. There wasn’t really any plan to make an album, it was really just us saying, “let’s see what happens.” A few of the tracks are unedited, nothing had to be done to them. I think we all felt that we really managed to express ourselves with ease, that really reflects on the record.

Yeah it really does comes across, I wouldn’t say it sounds live but it definitely sounds free and improvised and that’s what I love about it, it’s really flows. Was it really all in one session?

Yeah it was over 2 days and one morning actually. I think the first track that we made on the record was called “The Longest Road”, and that was us kind of finding our feet and there’s a lot of tension in that track. After that it just flowed and we had a few overdubs like a trumpet part on “Broken Clouds” and a few minor tweaks. We didn’t actually involve ourselves in the mixing process, we recorded it and gave the stems to our friend Gordon Pohl, so yeah, a really simple process. Without getting too “new-age” on you, for me, making music is a magical thing, a portal to the unknown and a way to connect with something beyond yourself. Making Gaussian Curve was a totally magical and spiritual experience for me.

So tell me about the Melody as Truth record label and the 3 releases so far.

That really came about from me wanting to have a little bit more control and ability to shape an aesthetic. There’s a certain vibe and feeling which I want to express and I think this goes beyond the music itself and encompasses more of an overall aesthetic. It’s also a way for me to have a hands on approach to the music and I’ve really enjoyed the process of watching the label grow so far. It is primarily intended to be a platform for my work, but not exclusively. Like the latest release with Suzanne Kraft, that again was a very organic, natural thing that happened. Diego Herrera and I spent a bit of time together, we’re now good friends and we’ve done a few live shows together–kind of improvised things. I went over to Los Angeles last November and stayed with him. He said “I think I’d like to do more of an ambient thing, I’ve got one track and he played it for me and I said “let’s do it.” Format wise I really like the idea of 30 to 40 minute records like mini-lps on one piece of vinyl, I really like that. I don’t know why but they are the kind of records that I really enjoy listening to in the house. They can really immerse you into the sonic world of the artist. I like to base a record on a specific idea or working method that might be intriguing me at a specific time. I think each of the three releases so far are the result of that way of thinking and working. I also feel that there is alot more to scope now for people getting into experimental and ambient music so the timing is maybe good. My background is very much from the dance music world so I sort of come from that side so sometimes feel I’m occupying this weird fringe, middle ground now. Most of my collaborators are people from the dance music world so it can be difficult to pinpoint where I fit in terms of other stuff that is going on, but I think there is definitely more crossover for these kinds of records.

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Is the record only on Vinyl and MP3 or is there a CD version as well?

No it’s only on Vinyl and MP3 at the moment. There might be room for CD releases but for now just the Vinyl and digital.

And who’s doing the covers? The covers are really great.

Well that’s mostly me and a great photographer from London called Andy Malone. And then for the third one I kind of gave that to Diego and said “Why don’t you run with the idea?” He worked on it himself and with a photographer and got that shot over in Los Angeles and that worked very nicely and I’m sure that the direction and the design will continue to evolve and grow.

Yeah and it comes across as really well thought out. How about playing live and touring, is that in the cards as well?

Yeah this is something that I’m really keen to do. I really, really enjoy playing live. I’ve developed a guitar and drum machine based live set up, it’s a nice way of playing. I did some gigs in the UK and in America last year and I just did a bunch in Europe this summer. It’s sometime hard because I think promoters don’t really know where to place me, but that seems to be changing slowly. For example I played at the Garden Festival this year in Croatia and the whole setup was curated specifically for the kind of mood I want to express, I played on the beach at sunrise which was pretty special and the perfect environment for me. When the setting works, and you draw people in, that’s when the magic can happen.

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