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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Zoe Johnston

1 July 07 interview: Michael Simon
photos: John Hollins

Zoe Johnston spent over a decade in electronica with the likes of Above and Beyond, Bent and Delerium. We found out what she's up to now...

Zoe Johnston is a Nottingham lass cut from a different cloth. Having spent over a decade in electronica with the likes of Above and Beyond, Bent and Delerium. When Rollo Armstrong, founding member of Faithless and older brother to Dido, came across Swollen on Bent’s Programmed to Love, Zoe was recruited for the band and spent eighteen months playing to the vast crowds of the global festival circuit. In contrast, last year she released her balladic first solo album, Happenstances, which had been in the works for over ten years. Featuring the original version of Faithless’ Crazy English Summer the album was received to critical acclaim.

Do you still spend time in Nottingham?
I moved back to Nottingham after the Faithless tour ended in 2002 and have been here ever since, so I actually spend quite a lot of time here now. It's a bit different to the old days, though. Now I see the city centre in daylight, whereas before I mostly saw it at night journeying to different bars and clubs. Having seen a few countries I find myself missing travelling a lot of the time. It feels great to escape the familiar. Nottingham is very, very familiar to me - sometimes that can be a good thing and sometimes it can be a bit frustrating.

What's keeping you busy at the moment?
Well, it's actually my son Milo, who is now fifteen months and has recently started walking. I do a lot of lifting objects above hip height and have created a kind of waist-high tide mark of stuff around every room. The first six shelves on the CD rack in our house are completely empty now. He likes to open the cases and throw out the contents, chatting away to himself the whole time. So mostly at the moment my attention is on him, although I am also working away on a new album and am about to start writing for two other separate artists. One is Sleepthief (aka Justin Elswick), a lovely guy whose debut album is doing incredibly well over in the US, and the other is Joel Edwards, who writes independently but who is probably best known as one half of Deepest Blue. I'm also about to finish writing a book I've been working on after taking a long break from it to care for Milo full-time. So there's quite a bit happening, although nothing can compare to the joys of creating clutter tide-marks around your own house.

There’s a pretty big jump between your solo material and the electronica that you've worked with for a lot of your career. How do the two come together?
I don't think they do come together really, other than sharing the common thread of having my voice somewhere within the overall sound. My solo material existed before I worked with anybody else - many of the songs on my album Happenstances were written a long time ago and I continue to write for me regardless of who else I might be working with at the time. When I write my own songs, I pick up a guitar and that's usually how it starts. When I write for other people, they come to me with a tune and I create something to fit with that music.

How do you think that those acts have changed your own sound?
In terms of my voice and the things I write about, I don't think they've affected those things. I've always written about whatever is affecting me at any given time and if ever I was to sing somebody else's words they would have to be multi-layered, very genuine lyrics that I could really relate to.

I don't really feel comfortable singing somebody else's story, so I very rarely consider doing it. But in terms of production and overall sound I've had a very varied and interesting time taking in other people's ideas, and I'm sure they've influenced me in some way. The feel of my next album is very different to the present one - there are some great beats and bass-lines on the songs I'm working on now. We're all a big blur of influences and personal touches, aren't we? How we get to be exactly who we are is one of the loveliest mysteries in life, I think.

Happenstances tends to be described as a very personal album. Can you get that same intimacy from electronica?
Yes, if that happens to be what gets you. For me, whatever is genuinely done, without any try-hard factor about it, is always worth a listen. Sometimes a piece of music becomes synonymous with memorable events and people in life and when that happens the genre becomes irrelevant. If a song touches you deeply, it will always leave its mark on you. People say things in different ways, and for me it was right to keep the 'Happenstances' songs true to their scruffy, home-recorded, original selves. I like the fact that all over that album there are shuffles and crackles and all kinds of quiet noises in the background, like socks being left on the landing or windows being left open. To me it is an album that has been lived in. I like it just the way it is.

You've been involved in a lot of different projects, what do you feel closest to?
At the moment I feel closest to my new music, because it's fresh and it applies to me right now. It can be very therapeutic getting into headphone land. I like the feeling of being able to take the songs in any direction I want to, depending on what I need to say. I have some great memories of working with other people though. Paul Heaton (Beautiful South) made me laugh a lot and is an incredibly quirky person, which is always a quality that pulls me in. The Faithless crew were wonderful, too, both to work and travel with, and I feel very privileged to have had my time with them.

What was it like touring with a band like Faithless?
It's hard to sum it up in just a few words! It was great fun, very personally challenging, magical, exhausting at times, occasionally quite daunting, full of hysterical laughter, dotted with missing friends back home. It was so many different things but then it did span an eighteen month period in my life, which is quite a long time in which to be in close proximity to a few people you happen to be working with. It was easy to be with them, though. They are such genuine, interesting people who are all very grounded and modest about what they do. So it was a pleasure to be part of that touring musical family, a real pleasure. It was also quite a bizarre experience, especially initially, because you're straight in there with thousands of people screaming for more - there was no gradual build up or time to adjust.

Does your music have a particular attitude to life?
That's a hard question. I guess it must have my attitude to life, seeing as I do my own writing. I suppose maybe there's a kind of comfortable resignation in there in connection to all things sad or difficult in life. I have always felt that my life knows what it is doing, that it has my future in mind as well as the now and that there must be something valuable you can take even from the most torturous or heart-breaking of events. I lost my father this year and I've done a lot of thinking about the overall point of living as well as the impact of death recently. For me considering the future alongside the present time gives me hope, and sometimes that is such a crucial speck of light at the end of a very long, black tunnel, especially on the days when grief settles in. So I think hope in desperate times is a big theme in me, even if I occasionally struggle to keep hold of that hope, and I imagine my music reflects some of that on the whole.

Where do you prefer to perform?
Often I've found it a lot easier to sing to many thousands of people than to a couple of hundred. It can be quite intimidating singing close up to people sometimes, but then I suppose the success of each gig also depends on your mood, the mood of the crowd, what kind of day you've had, whether you happen to be feeling a bit fragile or more robust, and so on. So I have enjoyed performing at the big arenas and outdoor festivals - there's something very grand and spectacular about those kinds of events, and it's a great feeling to watch so many people reacting in such a positive way to the things you're singing about. Having said that, once I played a teeny weeny gig in London in a 35 person capacity venue, which turned out to be quite magical in its intimacy. Some people were sitting cross-legged on the floor, others were even standing behind me on the little platform that was a stage, and everybody was so quiet - it was a real pin-drop atmosphere which felt quite ghostly to me. I liked that gig. I remember Maxi Jazz brought his eighty year old mum along and she'd only just flown in from Jamaica! Now that's what I call loyalty to the cause!

Do you have any personal favourite performances?
There was a classic one somewhere in Spain with Faithless where the stage was so minute that Mandy (the other singer) and I had to crouch behind an amp next to the drummer when we were 'off-stage', getting chronic knee ache before it was time to stand up and sing again in view of the crowd. We were properly breathless in hysterics I seem to remember, which made it very hard to perform without looking like you'd just been crying your eyes out about something.

Glastonbury in 2002 was quite surreal because it felt so scarily 'local'. It was a very different feeling going out on stage there knowing your old teachers and the like might be pointing at the telly back in Beeston or Cotgrave. That was a complete change from playing around the world knowing that half the time nobody knew or cared who you were or where you were from. There was a great gig we did in Belgium where a stadium full of people leaping up and down actually caused an earthquake which officially made it onto the richter scale! Probably my all-time favourite, though, has to be an incredible Faithless gig we did at a festival in Belgium. We played to 90,000 people with the sun going down and that evening will stay in my mind forever.

What are your plans for the future?
Well, it looks as if I'll be working with Above & Beyond again in 2008. They're putting together a new album and they've asked me to be part of it, so that'll boost my strange fictional image of some glo-stick-wearing Trance Queen a little more. They're lovely guys and most importantly they're very patient with me while I'm sifting through their music saying what I can and can't write over. I want to release my second album, too, and maybe tour with it when the time is right. I'd also like to get my book out and lower the tide mark again in the house so it won't look as weird as it does right now.

Can we look forwards to more solo material?
Yes, definitely. The new stuff sounds very different to the old - it's fatter all round and I think it's even more raw. And my next album will be very themed, too, whereas 'Happenstances' goes all over the place; I suppose that was inevitable because the writing on there spans so many years. The new songs are very much about the start and finish points of life, because both of these things have impacted on me heavily over the last year. With just eleven months in between, I gave birth to my son and I lost my father - both of these events have changed me forever. There are a lot of big feelings in those songs. I'm hoping they'll bring some comfort to people who might have experienced the same things, or to anybody else out there who has a huge heart that aches sometimes. There are many dots of hope and celebration scattered around in there, too, so I think it will end up having an oddly uplifting quality to it as well as being quite reflective. We'll see! You never can tell until it's all done and then it suddenly takes on a life of its own. It leaves home, you miss it for a while and then you're onto something new.

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