Former Silverchair frontman Daniel Johns’ ‘future soul’ album Talk is likely to be just his latest remodelling.By Mark Mordue.
Daniel Johns pushes forward with debut solo album, Talk
Mid-2011 and Daniel Johns, the former singer and songwriter for Silverchair, is experimenting with new material within months of the band announcing it was going into “a deep sleep”.
It has been four years since Young Modern, Silverchair’s last release. The intervening period has been marked by intense jamming, talk of a new album, and then complete collapse as Johns’ renewed obsession with “dirty sounding” electronics swamped his band-mates and the songs they were trying to develop.
“I really did not want Young Modern to be our last record,” Johns insists. “I wanted us to go out with something artier and weirder.”
He favours the metaphor of “a committee trying to design a horse and coming up with a camel” when he tries to explain where things went wrong. Ending the band was his call; but, Johns admits, “it probably affected me more than my marriage breaking up. We’d known each other since primary school.”
It would be almost five years before anything emerged from Johns as a would-be solo artist. Post-Silverchair he would spend his first two years “blocked” for something to say – and “honing my craft”, he adds, as if to discern a method to his madness as he toyed endlessly with synthesisers, vocoders and drum machines.
The result? A host of relentless, stripped-down beats accompanied by what Johns describes as “just brutal noise” and no recognisable vocals. When he started playing these new “tech-y sounds” to friends their responses were muted, even aghast. “I wanted to get dark – Scott Walker dark,” he says, suppressing laughter. “I thought it was a masterpiece.”
By reputation one of the great recluses of Australian rock’n’roll – when not sporadically emerging in gossip headlines as a kooky stoner and out-of-control party boy – Johns has variously been reported to be agoraphobic, anorexic, anxiety prone, battling depression, drug addicted and, Jesus wept, gay.
One can imagine him home alone in his beachfront Newcastle mansion, staggering semi-comatose off a divan and on through a prescription haze to his studio set-up. Wearing nothing but a kimono he starts recording yet more hellish music, primal therapy for a lost soul. He hovers between a modern-day Howard Hughes and a missing scene from Gus Van Sant’s Kurt Cobain docu-nightmare, Last Days.
I mean, you must know your reputation, I say to Johns, having painted this picture for him. I wasn’t even sure how good you would be at talking today. As in, maybe you might not be capable of having a normal conversation at all?
Johns is amused but not especially surprised by preconceptions of him as a kind of rock’n’roll idiot savant. “Well, I do like the idea of recording in my pyjamas,” he admits. “Just getting up at home and making myself a coffee and heading straight to the lounge room to work. And I do put on a robe. But I like to think it’s more Hugh Hefner than Howard Hughes.”
At that, Johns cracks up. In the flesh he’s a pretty funny guy. Articulate and quick-witted, he’s also easygoing company and, well, almost normal. But not quite. Perhaps real stardom invariably embodies physical paradoxes. Johns is toned and refined, yet dissolute. He is classically handsome – the fair looks, the blue eyes – yet slightly alien – the mascara, the fey gestures. Highly fashion conscious, yet out of whack, like a model who has left a runway and started walking down the street. In all this he reminds me a little of David Bowie.
One quickly registers that Daniel Paul Johns has been famous most of his life and this goldfish-in-a-bowl experience makes him who he is today. He wryly refers to his teenage years in the spotlight with Silverchair as “The Truman Show”. “I am reclusive,” he agrees. “But being fucked up and being reclusive are two different things. A lot of people think I’m more fucked up than I am. I’m really committed to my art and I don’t like being around people much … Some people think I’m a head case. The longer I’m around people the less I creative I am, so I stay at home and I work.”
Still, it would not surprise me if Johns has been out all night drinking and rolled out of bed in the designer clothes he slept in, appearing only slightly dishevelled for our interview. In fact, I will bet this is exactly what has happened. If not, the way Johns downs four Asahi beers during our 90-minute interview suggests this will be the case tomorrow. The Newcastle working-class lad swims on below an exotic and artistic surface.
The strangest thing about him, really, is how tall he is. An image of the eternal boy lingers so strongly around him from the early Silverchair days it makes it hard to cope with the simplest of surprises: his height. It’s as if whoever Johns was has been and gone, and now, somehow, a man carrying his name has arrived here instead.
Having made the news for a low-level drink-driving charge in 2014 and a drunken late-night fall outside a Sydney cocktail bar earlier this year, Johns does not like to make too much of his wild side. “Lots of my friends party harder than I ever do and they don’t make headlines for it.”
After vaping dandyishly on an e-cigarette for a few months, the 36-year-old has surrendered again to chain smoking. Which is why Johns and I are sitting on a balcony outside his record company in Woolloomooloo, enjoying a Lego-like view of the rear end of Sydney’s Kings Cross: a car park, a freeway and fabulous blue skies. “From my home I like looking at the sky and the water,” he says. “It’s very relaxing for me. There’s something magical to it. It’s constantly shifting and moving.”
Johns has likewise remade himself this year as a 21st-century R&B loverman on his long-awaited debut solo album, Talk. It may prove to be his most remarkable transformation yet, abandoning rock’n’roll and guitars altogether for the electronically propelled and falsetto-dominated grooves of a so-called “future soul” genre that has seen Johns drawing comparison with overseas point-men Frank Ocean and James Blake, as well as local figures Chet Faker and Jarryd James and classic old-timers such as Prince.
It’s hard to imagine this seductive recording’s origins in Johns’ earlier primal scream electronic experiments, but the percolations are there, laying the textural groundwork for an inventive and sophisticated pop album that shifts gears smoothly beyond any psychic torments. And yet a clue to the dichotomy of sonic moods on the album comes when Johns admits, “I guess you could describe some of Talk as love letters to my demons”.
He nonetheless laments how “people don’t think I am for real if I am happy, but they always believe the dark stuff. It’s like if I am happy they think I must be putting it on.” It’s hard to agree with him. The problem isn’t people disbelieving his happiness, I tell him. The problem is regarding a work of joy with the same depth as a work of pain. “Yeah, I suppose that’s true,” he says as if he knew it anyway.
In a promotional interview for Talk, Johns spoke frankly of the concept behind director Lorin Askill’s video for his first solo single, “Aerial Love”. It featured him walking across sand dunes while a drone camera hovered above, the desert landscape sprouting lovers in a vision indebted to Antonioni’s ecstatic protest film set in the ’60s, Zabriskie Point. “The video is me on my own personal journey through a desert,” Johns says, “which I guess is a metaphor for loneliness and discovering a world of sexual beings and a world of uninhibited love. I thought it was quite beautiful.”
He continues on the theme. “I’ve always found lyrics quite difficult to write down. What do I want to communicate? Doing Silverchair records, sometimes it would be really hard for me just to gather the motivation to do lyrics. I don’t think I’ve ever written lyrics that could stand as pure poetry. I don’t even think I am really much of a writer. My message is in my melodies more than what I say. If it was acceptable to hum, that would be my preference.
“With Talk, the lyrics… I wanted to write them like you were talking to someone. Some are to my girl. Some are to my friends. Some are to my band. A lot of the songs… it might not be any one of those things, just a line here or there and it all combines. Really they’re about my relationship to myself, to my psyche and how it affects my relationships with other people and the world, under the guise of them being songs about a relationship.
“So a lot of it was trying to assess myself in a lot of different ways and make it feel like a relationship song. All this stuff I could never talk about, that I never communicated. I wanted the lyrics to be devoid of poetry, to be like I was telling someone a secret, like I was telling the world a secret.”
As one of the record’s key collaborators and co-producers, New Zealander Joel Little, best known for his work on Lorde’s Pure Heroine, liked to joke while they were working on spare and spacious sounding singles such as “Aerial Love” and “Cool on Fire”, “Daniel, you’re coming up with those baby-making sounds again.”
Johns puts the new sexual groove down to “listening to a lot of vintage Janet Jackson” while recording those songs. His confessed “muse” and girlfriend of almost three years, the designer and fashion blogger Estelita Huijer – who has previously listed herself online as “designer, loner, natural, stoner, super, crazy” – was another likely inspiration. After struggling to write or give voice to a fresh lyric of his own since the making of Young Modern, Johns says that after meeting Huijer, “I just felt like writing and singing again”.
Like many artists, Johns would have usually sung vowel sounds or nonsense, or had something much more specifically developed, in order to lay down a vocal guide track for each new song. “With Talk, every time I got up to the mic, I always tried to sing whatever words came out, then map out what my subconscious was telling me,” Johns says. “ ‘Good Luck’ is the first one I did like that, with just a guide vocal. It’s probably my favourite lyric. I’m willing myself and wishing myself good luck.”
A stunned Joel Little would later describe Johns as “super brave” and tell Triple J, “What you hear on ‘Aerial Love’ is the very first thing he sang when he went up to the mic. What he made up at the time.”
Reading a catalogue of interviews done to promote the album reveals consistent phrasing as well. How Johns spent years “going down the rabbit hole” before he found his way out again. How important the musical “palette” was, echoing Johns’ love of painting as a means of understanding how he uses sound. And how often the word “future” comes up in lyrics. Johns can certainly be described as a forward-moving creature throughout his career. “Success came so easily to Silverchair, I always felt this pressure to justify it,” he says. “I don’t know if the feeling ever left me. I think that was probably a good thing. I never let myself coast on being the 14-year-old who wrote ‘Tomorrow’, and I’m proud of that.”
Counter to this pushing energy is a sense Johns has been too much the chameleon, showing glimpses of greatness amid a blotting paper propensity to over-absorb his influences, be it obvious references such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, or, on Silverchair’s final, and somewhat frustrating, album, Young Modern, hints of Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel that crystallised most successfully with the hit single “Straight Lines”.
In short, a feeling persists that Johns – for all his output – remains a case of brilliance unfulfilled. His “Atlas” theme, utilising the services of conductor Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for the 2012 Qantas campaign, and his daring version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, solo at the piano with harp accompaniment for Triple J’s 40th anniversary Beat the Drum concert in January, were fuel to this same fire. Of the latter, Johns says, “I was trying to close the door on all the comparisons I used to get with Kurt Cobain when I was in Silverchair and kind of say goodbye to that part of my life”.
It’s this rock’n’roll history and the lingering subtlety of Talk that make it one of the most undervalued albums of 2015, a pop masterpiece few fully recognise. So much has been made of the album’s new electronic world it seems obvious to ask if Johns feels he has left the guitar behind altogether. The question makes him smile oddly. “I’ve got ideas for about 12 to 16 new songs, but I am not sure where I want to take them yet. I’m not sure I want to stay on the electronic trip. I might go analog again. Talk…,” and here an unusual exasperation enters his voice as Johns keeps smiling, “…it’s one album. I haven’t left the guitar behind.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 5, 2015 as "Silver tongue". Subscribe here.