Noah Francis Johnson - Interview
Sitting in a back room in Madrid, Noah Francis Johnson took some time to speak to Contactmusic about his new album 'Life and Times', as well as give us a broad depth into the enigmatic soul which has seen him transform from a cabaret singer at seven years old to opening live for Slayer and how the people around him gave him the positivity to reach his goals today.
Contactmusic.com: Hi Noah, you have a new album coming out in the UK this month, what can you tell us about it?
Noah Francis Johnson: It has taken a long time to write. It was inspired by my whole life to date. I started off in cabaret when I was seven years old, and I learned a lot of tricks; as well as a lot of bad habits. With this album, I cherry-picked every moment that I wanted to share with people; and that's exactly what is on the album. There's a track called 'You're The One That I Want' and it's a Grease cover that I would sing for hours. When I got a little older, I was messing around with it; and I did it my way. It really worked, and I feel that it was a way of monitoring my growth. I've been really blessed because all the tracks are all moments of my life. It's a real honest, organic album.
CM: How long have you been writing the album for?
NFJ: In all honesty, it's been since I was nine years old. Obviously I never realised that I was doing it, but when I got to the point where I was choosing which songs to put on the record; I said "Let's put the songs on the album that mean something to me and hope that people will relate to that." And that's what seems to be happening.
CM: So you began performing at a young age doing cabaret with your father?
NFJ: Yes, I was seven years old doing the covers with him. The music he always played was Marvin Gaye and Motown. My mother played Bob Dylan and Van Morrison; I was really inspired by that. I saw my father on stage, he was a tall 6"3 black, cool super dude with his shades on, in a band called The Shades and I just thought "I want to be like him". And I am sat here, in a back room in Madrid, with my shades on talking to you. I've stolen my Dad's look haha.
CM: I read somewhere that you had an album ready in 2010, is it the same one?
NFJ: It is the same one with the messages in it. I guess in a way I am blessed, in finding your-self every day. I had an album with a friend of mine, Chris Kimsey who did eight albums with the Rolling Stones, he said "put some cello under that, and some keyboard would lift that hook a little better". Other people like Bob Clearmountain who worked with Bruce Springsteen would say "putting a backing vocal over that line would lift you". It is the first record and first songs and for the people out there it's going to be a first listen to me. The exciting thing is after this; I can move on to the new chapter and find new experiences.
CM: You mentioned Chris Kimsey, did you work with any other writers on the album?
NFJ: Yeah I did, mainly I worked with friends who played guitar. I had a guy called John King who made a lovely riff; he's a young guy from rock group AMEN. It was really just various friends who would play something. When I'd jump in they would be playing a riff, or they would jump in if I was playing something. A lot of the time something magical would happen if I was sitting there alone.
CM: Is there a certain process you try and follow when it comes to song writing?
NFJ: Well one of the songs was written whilst I was sat in the studio. My dad, who was my icon, passed away recently and I was sitting in Abbey Road, with a band watching the clock ticking. I was thinking about my father and I wasn't thinking about writing, and the guitarist played this riff that hit me; like really hit me. So I asked one of the engineers to mic it all up, I had no pen or paper or real idea what the song was about, I just started singing all the way to the end. When my dad died he said "Son, don't mourn my death; I want you to celebrate my life, and know that I had a ball". This song just came out of my mouth, and the hook was 'Ballroom Blues', it's the first time I have ever done that. It was coherent, it had a bridge, a chorus, a hook and a verse; just like a story has a beginning, middle and end and all without sitting there trying to write anything. It really was a testament to my song writing.
CM: You mentioned recording at Abbey Road and at Metropolis Studio, how was it recording in places with such a musical heritage?
NFJ: Initially you get caught up in the hype, due to The Beatles, Oasis recording there etc. and then you get over yourself and think it's just a studio with walls and equipment, and then you realise no its not! The reason these bands played here was because there's magic in these walls. I keep going back now because when I go to other studios it's great, but you don't get the same feeling. It has been amazing and a blessing that I can actually do those things. It's a bit like, when you fly economy and someone puts you in first class, and you go "Wow this is great". One of the other funny things is that people draw on the walls and graffiti them so they don't paint them anymore. People flood to it like it's the mecca and stand in awe of it. I pull up in my car and I say to people "Do you want to come in?" If the record doesn't do anything, at least I did something nice. The one thing that gets me is the looks on people faces, they are just in awe. I met an Australian guy who I took round with his wife, he was so grateful, and he still e-mails. I really am a guy, who likes to share, and I get to record here, and people get to enjoy a special moment too.
CM: Apart from your father, who has made the most impact on you in life?
NFJ: I know the answer immediately. I worked with a band called Killing Joke who were a big band in the 80's, and their guitarist is a guy called Geordie Walker. He was the first experience I had of Rock and Roll. It was his aura, and I said "Whoa, you have the thing that everybody talks about", he had the thing that the Sex Pistols and James Brown had. He made the biggest impact on me; he gave me the biggest compliment. I was on holiday in Spain, and I was stood in a vineyard, soaking up the atmosphere and I got a phone call from him and he asked what I was doing and then he said "You know what Noah; you are an enigma to me". I replied with "I don't know what to say but I'll take that as a compliment as you are the meaning of Rock and Roll to me".
CM: You've previously been in a rock band, was that just for fun?
NFJ: Yeah that's right; I played with some heavy bands. I opened for Slayer, and that is like the Academy Awards of any rock band to play with. It was so funny because we played like four notes and the whole mosh pit started chanting over us because we weren't loud enough, and we were all hoping for them to give us a break. I remember thinking "come on guys, give us a break" but they weren't going to. It was funny. We have played with Mushroom Head, Ted Nugent and Lenny Kravitz and we got better and better. We turned up the dial on the hardness of the band. I did a couple of tracks with Metallica; we got quite heavy but never went the full way, we had more of an Audioslave/ Soundgarden feel.
CM: Having inspirations like Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan, a rock band seems quite diverse?
NFJ: You got it in one, because the sounds I had in the house simply stayed in the house, when you left you were open to a whole new catalogue of music. When I was younger I was a DJ in a rock club for a while, and that's where that came from. I also love Reggae and that is subliminally in there on my album. This album really is rock, it's soul it's folk but you have to look for it; and you can't individually define it; I'm into music.
CM: With all this diversity in music you like, are there any bands that have captured your ears recently?
NFJ: It's really difficult you know, at the moment its Damien Rice and Adele. I also like The Sugarman. I like the first Mumford & Sons. It tends to be very folky stuff that I like at the moment.
CM: You've toured with some major names in the past, landing such large gigs before your solo career had really kicked off, were you intimidated at all?
NFJ: I'm a Leo, and Leo's have a bit of an ego. I have controlled it but at the same time I was thinking "Yes, I should be playing with these guys". I believe I should be playing with them; I've been doing this since I was a kid. I wasn't intimidated at all; I don't get nervous playing on stage. People always think that's strange but I always think "Do you get nervous going to the toilet, or going to work?". I've been doing this since I was seven, I couldn't be more comfortable. When I hang out with people like Killing Joke or System of a Down and they treat me like one of them, you are not going to get intimidated. I belong on the stage and I have worked hard for that and I can't wait to show everybody else what I can do.
CM: Do you feel like you have learned any life lessons?
NFJ: It's taken me a long time to learn this but everybody is amazing, everybody runs on their own frequency and you can't replicate that. Bob Dylan wouldn't necessarily be regarded as the best singer in the world, but he has something unique just as everybody does. And that goes for other people who cannot replicate me, they didn't have a white mum and a black dad and grow up on a council estate, they didn't claw their way through and boxed; that's my story. We are all the same but we are unique and I love that.
CM: You're from Wales but spend a lot of time in LA. Are you planning in staying in America for a while?
NFJ: I was born in Tiger Bay. It sounds like a very flash lifestyle living between two countries. It has been a long time coming. Wales has got this big bridge, and across it is London. In London, the music is a bit Indie, and coming from Wales where we have our own language you can be taken as a bit of a yolk. So it was easier to look the other way; over to the states. Wales and America aren't too different, the radio shows all used to play American music. I never grew up listening to The Beatles, I grew up with American music so I was programmed like that I guess. In London, they say I'm very American. I love being in LA, people seem to know what I'm about so I'm planning on staying for as long as they will have me. I like the lifestyle, you just kind of cruise around in your car because it's difficult to walk around. If you get on a bus, it's usually full of fruitcakes, I got on once and there was a man sat with a radiator, and he said "You look like a nice looking man", to which I replied "Driver let me off at the next stop please".
CM: I believe Quincy Jones has had many complementary things to say about you?
NFJ: I am so glad you mentioned that because I talked about the other guys before and never mentioned Quincy; he's probably going to kill me. With these people, Geordie Walker is like meeting Jesus; Quincy Jones is like meeting God. Quincy Jones is so down to earth, you would never believe he had ever made a record, he's not a drink or drug guy or a rock and roll guy; he's a music man and he just blew me away. He said to me "If you are going to produce, learn how to read music". From Frank Sinatra, to Elvis to Marilyn Monroe to Michael Jackson and the list goes on.
CM: When you need cheering up Noah, what record will do it for you every time?
NFJ: I can't remember the name of it but it's an Aretha Franklin song that she sang on the Cliff Richard Show in 1960's or 70's. It really is a song that puts me in awe. The song is about slavery, it's about freedom and hope too, there's definitely every emotion. It really does cheer me up.
CM: And finally what is next for Noah Francis Johnson?
NFJ: Next for me is tomorrow and the next half an hour! I've never planned anything, and I never have. I sound like an old Buddhist now but I'm not, I just welcome everything with open arms. There's no such thing as good and bad because you learn from all. I am here in Madrid recording with Quincy Jones, I'm sitting at a table and enjoying some food, and then I'm going to go and record another song for the album and then go and see some Spanish friends. I'm doing a show 26th February and it's at Bush Hall in London.
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