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Idiot Johnson Interviewed by Tom Bramhall

Chris Satori

Idiot Johnson is the stage name of Mr Jonathan Tansley, Lancaster based singer / songwriter and general music lover responsible for 2010's debut CD Girl On A Train.
In preparation for his Yorkshire House show on Sunday 10 April with Lancaster’s New Zealand Story and my own po)))nies, I interviewed Jonathan and spoke about writing and recording, listening to pop records.

Since it was apparent early on that Jonathan was someone versed in and devoted to popular music (see below for an eclectic personal playlist), I began our interview by asking who he thought a singer / songwriter sets out to write for…

‘Do you mean all of the songwriters? There's an awful lot, but let's see... Paul Weller writes to impress Ray Davies. Kirsty MacColl wrote to impress her dad. Guy Garvey writes to impress Simon Armitage and vice versa. Billy Bragg writes to impress Joe Strummer. Are there any more I've missed?’

Jonathan surmises than he may be writing to impress his 11 year old self … ‘when I first realised that music is, like, dead brilliant’, listening to Cat Stevens and Ralph McTell coming out of his sister's bedroom (‘not literally, at least I don't think so’) and to the The Cure and The Sex Pistols from his brother’s - ‘and an amazing little DIY band who produced cassettes with hand coloured inserts called The Cleaners From Venus … I loved all of them’.

When I remarked on how small a distinction he seems to draw between popular and more obscure recordings, he replied by describing Idiot Johnson’s own criteria for pop perfection …

‘Well, a choon is a choon is a choon, innit? … The democratisng effect of the ipod age is that when any song comes up on shuffle, it doesn't matter whether the record got to number one on both sides of the Atlantic or whether it never made it beyond the artist's circle of friends - all that matters is whether you like it or not … Popularity versus Obscurity don't mean diddly when you're sitting on the train or walking down the road and a tune comes on which just clicks perfectly with whatever mood you happen to be in. A great New Zealand Story song is every bit as valid an artistic entity as a great Donny Osmond song’

Claiming for himself ‘the likes of Elvis Costello and Squeeze and most of all Kirsty MacColl’ it’s arguable that you can hear all these influences on Girl On A Train. Across the five tracks sit’s a similar balance of pathos and the prosaic you could tack to all the above.

‘"They Don't Know" and "There's A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He's Elvis" perfectly encapsulate the Perfect Pop thing - just so thrilling yet at the same time really sad. It's that mix of hopefulness and weariness she captures so brilliantly: how else could a young boy feel but exhilarated and confused to the point where he thought his head was going to fall off, which did in fact happen to me and kids like me ALL THE TIME back then’.

Girl On A Train sounds both emotive and precise. There’s a moment on 'She Is Gone' where Jonathan is singing about ‘magazines and airport books’; seemingly everyday subject matter - though when I heard it the line and its delivery put me right there in the scene of the song - flipping forlorn in some ghostly airport lounge.

When I remark on this gift of being able to take the common-place and open it up for a visceral connection to the listener, Jonathan advises me listen for inspiration from Kirsty MacColl, ‘(who’s) songs drive home the point that if you're going to try and write your own songs then you have to make them as visceral, as alive with emotion as you possibly can, because otherwise what's the point?’.

This emphasis on the visceral, emotional impact of a song ran through our whole conversation:

‘I know a lot of people say knowing the backstory of an artist or a recording enhances your enjoyment of it and makes you form a stronger bond with the music. I can see that, but I also really love it when you hear a song on the radio or wherever, and you've no idea who or what it is or where it came from, it's just come out of nowhere and knocked you for six. That's my favourite kind of musical fix - when it's out of the blue and you least expect it’.

For all the emphasis on the emotive, Girl On A Train plays for equal emphasis on meticulous production. A self confessed perfectionist, rigorous attention has been paid to the recording; allowing GOAT to sound both luscious and precise. When I tell him this, Jonathan confesses to his ideal role being that of producer - being able to tinker endlessly with an arrangement until it achieves its own ‘Perfect Pop thing’.

Sharing his admiration for the diamond cut arrangements in Goldfrapp and Fountains of Wayne, but equally a love of sloppy, guttural melody; Jonathan explains that the future for Idiot Johnson may promise a stripped down ‘grungy punk record’ a la The Lemonheads - another band he confesses to admiring for their particular brand of slacker-type perfection.

More recently Jonathan’s been lending an occasional lap steel to The Existence of Harvey Lord’s otherwise rich psych-sonic tapestries. With the possibility of his featuring on future Existence recordings in tact, Jonathan remarks on how different the approaches are to one another. Whilst Harvey works with any number of musicians, throwing everything into the mix and carving outward into some very singular sonic sculptures; Jonathan tends to work alone and schematically - 'I wouldn't build a house to live in without having some plans drawn up'.

Since it’s been of interest in previous interviews, I ask Jonathan if he has an ‘ideal listener’ in mind when he writes …

‘You try to write a song that you yourself would want to hear, but … I'm very conscious of the listener. I want a song to be something the listener will enjoy, but at the same time if you try to second guess what that listener might actually like, then you're on a hiding to nothing. Different people like different things and it's hard enough to write something one person can connect with. The problem is learning what works for an audience and what doesn't.
And it's not as if there aren't precedents. The world is full of amazing and wonderful songs but trying to learn from them so you can go off and write your own amazing and wonderful songs, well, let's just say it's something I struggle with…

Most of the songs I've written I've never shared with anybody. Not because I didn't think the songs were finished or ready to be heard, but because,
you know, you're asking a lot of somebody to sit there and listen to your attempts at making music. In the modern parlance it's A Big Ask’.

As Jonathan notes, the utility of the song-writer seems deplete in a world so full of them. In spite of this, it seems of little importance to him where Idiot Johnson will arrive in the immediate future. As noted above, emphasis seemes to lay more with working to create the kind of songs he would like other people to hear - taking cues from popular song.

‘My gut feeling is that I've not entered my Visceral Period yet …
I'm too close to tell. I try to write from the heart but by the time I've made it scan and written a second verse it's already starting to sound overthought to me. So I dunno. I suspect - for me anyway - the songs that are written in an hour are better than the ones that take a year to finish, but there's no hard and fast rule’.

Following our discussion, the lasting impression I got of Idiot Johnson was that of someone trying to stay faithful to the spark of inspiration they got from listening to music for the first time, irrespective of where it led them:

‘I have an older brother who back then would write poetry like a boy possessed, ring-binders and ring-binders of the stuff every month. We'd sit together with a guitar and cassette recorder and I'd set his writing to music and we were PROLIFIC. Not by any means any good but what we lacked in quality we more than made up for in prolificness. He may still have the tapes we made, I don't know. I wouldn't especially care to hear them now, but you know, that's what got me started and I'm grateful for that start.
He once sent a compilation of the best stuff to Sounds, which older readers may remember as a Rock Periodical from Victorian times, and one week we made it to number one in The Obscurist Charts. Obviously, it wasn't a sales based chart. They were whimsical times and I haven't stopped writing since’.

Drawing on a diversity of private loves, from Elvis Costello and Kirsty MaColl to Goldfrapp, his debut release Girl On A Train offers five songs deep of emotive song writing paying debt to some of the more hum drum, pathos soaked pop of the past thirty years. Released on Jonathan’s own Castle Hill label in late 2010, Girl On A Train is a labour or love and investment, each track a careful balance of emotion and craft.

As a parting gesture, I asked him to list the records he’d come across in 2010 which left a particular mark. The following, in no apparent order of importance, I hope will give a lasting sketch of one man listening, writing and working meticulously to create his own brand own emotive pop perfection.

The Decemberists - The King Is Dead
Y. Niwl - Y. Niwl
Tracey Thorn - Love & It’s Opposite
Teenage Fan club - Shadows
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
Stealing Sheep - What If The Lights Went Out
Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin - Let It Sway
Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs
Phosphorescent - Here’s To Taking It Easy
The National - High Violet
Midlake - The Courage of Others
The Low Countries - A Brown Café At 3am
Laura Viers - July Flame
Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can
Jonsi - Go/Go Live/Go quiet
John Grant - Queen of Denmark
I am Kloot - Sky At Night
Horse Feathers - Kill Rock Stars
Goldfrapp - Head First
Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks
Four tet - There Is Love In You
Foals - Total Life Forever
Everything Everything - Man Alive
Eels - End Times
The Divine Comedy - Bang Goes The Knighthood
Dan Haywood’s New Hawks - Dan Haywood’s New Hawks
Ben Folds - Way To Normal
Belle and Sebastian - Belle & Sebastian Write About Love
Admiral Fallow - Boots Met My Face!

Idiot Johnson will be performing live April 10th at the Yorkshire House, Lancaster.
Girl On A Train is available for CD/digital purchase @

Tom Bramhall writes for po)))nies