Guest Playlist: John Johanna
John Johanna is a singer and multi-instrumentalist based in rural Norfolk. This Friday, 26th January, will see him release mini-LP, I'll Be Ready When The Great Day Comes on Faith & Industry. It’s collection of tracks recorded to cassette and reel-to-reel tape both at his home in the countryside and with Capitol K at Total Refreshment Centre. Both the surroundings of his home and the stripped back recording techniques contribute to the raw, organic and devotional feel to his music.
John Johanna’s music spans a huge range of influences. There’s the psychedelic ‘Marantha’, the folk-fuelled 'Cockleshell Laye' and the singer-songwriter feel of Sufjan Stevens channelled on ‘Bound’. Yet despite the range of tone and style, it all feels pleasantly coherent.
It only felt right to ask him to put together a playlist so we can unpick and understand the man behind the music. The result is an in-depth collection of seventeen tracks, betraying a vivid, humorous enjoyment in recounting the stories behind the music. Much like his own music, each track picked paints a colourful and often emotional picture of John Johanna.
THE WEATHER STATION - 'WAY IT IS, WAY IT COULD BE'
If this song were a river, I would definitely want to be an otter.
OL' DIRTY BASTARD - 'GOIN' DOWN'
Russell Jones: genius, shaman, holy fool, a completely free and transgressive human being and an inspired rapper. Had a heart of gold too. I was thinking of putting 'T-Shirt' by Migos as one of my choices, because I probably listened to that track more than any other last year. It's a great time for rap music at the moment I think. But then I thought, no, go back to your number one man: O.D.B. During a court appearance he once told a judge that he was the rightful owner of Manhattan because his Native American great-great-great-grandaddy had sold the island to the white man under false pretences. The FBI seemed determined to crush him. He came out of prison a broken man.
VIOLETA PARRA - 'RUN RUN SE FUE PAL NORTE'
Parra is one of those characters of mythic stature. No one's voice can move me like hers. Such a great songwriter too. There's a really good biography called 'By Whim of the Wind'. Her life was marked by triumph and tragedy. For instance she went to Europe and in Paris she became the first living woman to be exhibited in the Louvre (she was a painter and tapestry maker as well as a singer). But while she was away from Chile her infant child died. Makes you think different about your own ups and downs. She wrote 'Run run se fue pal norte' about a man who left her, the love of her life. If you don't speak Spanish, find an English translation of her lyrics, and you'll see she was a great poet too.
BO DIDDLEY - LIVE 1973
This is Bo Diddley unleashing himself on an audience at the age of 45. It's quite something. I like the bit when the MC comes out and tries to bring the jam to an end. Kind of like stepping out in front of a truck. I don't know what possessed him. Maybe the management didn't like Bo holding his guitar like a big old knob and thrusting it at the crowd? We'll never know.
HOWE GELB - 'THIS PURPLE CHILD'
This is one track I've held in my mind ever since I first heard it nearly 25 years ago. The raggedyness and mystery of it was like nothing I'd ever ever heard before. Grandaddy play behind Gelb on it and it's a real good match. "New world order / Old world birth and pain..." and "Crushed between the slip of dreams / Hard to explain..." Those lines made my hairs stand on end then and they still do.
Ô PAON - 'C'EST GRAVE'
About 15 years ago I was accosted by a cartoonist named Timothy Winchester in a library. He introduced himself and invited me to a Casiotone for the Painfully Alone gig. To be honest I don't remember much about the headliner, but I remember the support act to this day: Geneviève Castrée. She had a powerfully uninhibited and pure presence, and her music was great – so arrestingly simple and direct. I still see her clearly as she told us she had been in Hiroshima not long before and had visited a museum dedicated to the nuclear attack. She told us about some artifacts she had seen and it was clearly all still troubling her. I was touched and impressed by her straightforwardness. I'm very sorry to say that she died recently, not long after giving birth to her first daughter.
LAURYN HILL - 'NEUROTIC SOCIETY'
A great and quite recent track by a record-breaking global music star and hardly anyone's heard it. I just can't work out why the majors and the press didn't get behind this one. Oh no, wait a minute, yes I can! It's because they're skid stains who work for the devil and she's a badass renegade who works for the Most High.
CANNED HEAT - 'IT HURTS ME TOO (WHEN THINGS GO WRONG)'
I sometimes get a bit worried when I listen to this live recording from Topanga Canyon around 1968. Needless to say, there were probably people listening in the audience who were very high on good quality hash. And naturally, during the slide solo, their souls will have left their bodies and are no doubt still orbiting Alpha Centauri A. I just hope they're OK.
TI PARIS - 'COCHON ST. ANTOINE'
This one is fire, as they say.
JOHN LENNON - 'NOW AND THEN'
When I was sixteen my first girlfriend played me a cassette mixtape of the Beatles that an older friend had made for her. And so it was that I heard 'I Am The Walrus' for the first time. Till then I'd never heard anything other than their early hits. My mind cracked open like a chestnut in The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke. Here's Lennon at home on the piano with a late demo that never did get recorded 'properly'.
COLEMAN HAWKINS - 'I LOVE YOU'
If I could have one wish it would be to spend a day with my grandad and listen to records like this. Coleman was his favourite tenor man, and of course he's mine too. A heavenly player. I had the honour of putting up the producer Joe Boyd for the night a few years back, and on top of being at the mixing desk when Dylan went electric at the Newport Festival, and recording Vashti Bunyan, the Incredible String Band, Nico, and Pink Floyd and so on, his first job in the business was tour manager for Coleman Hawkins. So I had only one request : "Tell me all about Hawk!". When I was a kid, my grandad would get me to sit down with him and listen to Jazz Record Requests on Radio 3. I like all sorts of jazz, from King Oliver to Alice Coltrane, but it's the stuff from the 30s and 40s that really peels my onion.
THE BLACK CROWES - 'GONE'
Released in 1994 at the height of grunge in America and Britpop in the UK, 'Amorica' by The Black Crowes is a great, almost psychedelic, country rock album that never got its due. They were musicians' musicians. The singer was deep in heroin addiction at that point. This song is about that I guess. In the swirl of the music I was devouring as I came into young manhood, the memory of this album evokes some the warmest feelings for some reason.
USTAD SULTAN KHAN - 'RAAG YAMAN'
I'd say that the ancient art and science of music as a meditative communion with God has been best developed and preserved in India. The sarangi is my favourite Indian instrument. Actually it's my favourite instrument full stop. If there's such a thing as reincarnation then I'll come back as the son of a sarangi virtuoso please. It's bowed like a cello but played with the cuticles of the fingers so that notes can be slid into one another. I got into Indian music when I was a teenager, I guess maybe through George Harrison's work with the Beatles. There's a big Indian and Pakistani community where I grew up in Leicestershire and my dad mentioned to an Indian man who worked next to him in the factory that I was interested in Indian music. The man very kindly burned me a load of CDs. I never even met him but I'll always be thankful. It was a real education and now I realise that this dude must have been a real connoisseur. When I listen to this recording of Ustad Sultan Khan on the sarangi, I feel like I'm hearing another man's heart express things that are beyond the reach of words, and probably beyond the reach of equal temperament! There's a good book called 'Dawn of Indian Music in the West' all about the Indian influence on everyone from La Monte Young (and from him to John Cale and the Velvet Underground) and John Coltrane to the Beatles and the Byrds. I think that book's how I got into the likes off C.C. Hennix and Henry Flynt...
THE GOSPEL CLEFS - 'OPEN OUR EYES'
This is an immense track. Lyrically, my music is nearly always inspired by my faith; for the time being anyway. I recorded a track, 'Deep River', very much in the African-American gospel tradition, on a cassette recorder, and it's what got a few labels interested in me the first place. I've mostly moved away from that style for my current EP, and for my almost finished debut album. Maybe because my white ass could never really do it justice! Anyway, I love it. When a great gospel singer like Mavis Staples or Dorothy Love Coates has the Holy Spirit on them, no one can match them.
GROUP DOUEH - SUBLIME FREQUENCIES TOUR 2009
I knew a girl back around 2009 who would make me these amazing mixtapes of vintage and modern pop music from the Middle and Far East, among other stuff. I was awestruck but she never told me how she found all these tracks. Anyway, I had a good friend, Mavs, who used to DJ at Trash, and he bought us tickets to go and see Omar Souleyman in Brighton when he toured the UK that year. Seeing Souleyman was great, but again it was the support act that really got me: Group Doueh. They were off the hook. I had an old Folkways record I loved, a 1960 collection of field recordings of traditional Tuareg music, but nothing prepared me for Group Doueh and the NW African electric guitar blues. And the label that made the tour happen? Sublime Frequencies, the same label (it transpired) that put out all the wondrous pop music the girl had given me. Such a brilliant label. I'm still surprised their catalogue hasn't inspired a revolution in Western pop and rock music. Come on kids! Please make it happen!
THE STAPLE SINGERS - 'MASTERS OF WAR'
A great Bob Dylan cover by the greatest of the gospel groups.
PATTI SMITH - 'GHOST DANCE'
With Patti Smith, I was late to the party. Seems everyone but me knew how great she is. I'd never really listened to her. Then last year I read 'M Train' and 'Just Kids' in quick succession. I was inspired in the truest sense of the word. Especially by 'M Train'. She was such good company that I felt sad when I finished it, sad to say goodbye. By some kind of weird power she really put her presence into the book. Then it turned out that my producer at Total Refreshment Centre, Kristian Craig Robinson (Capitol K), had got to hang out and travel around Malta with her after he and some others organised a show there not so long ago. I was listening to him telling me about it and I'm thinking "I've never been so envious of anyone in my life". Then he says something like, "And then after she left, it was weird: I really missed her for weeks..." Patti Smith, to know her is to miss her it seems. Her music's great. 'Ghost Dance', what a track. Shall we live again? If Patti says we will, then yeah, damn right we'll live again.