The Woods brings us rich folktronica and ethereal melodies all the way from the beautiful Scottish borders. In his latest release, ‘Conversations We Should Have Had’ the artist weaves a tapestry of textures, interspersed with ever-changing melodic nuggets and a simple, repeated lyric that is sure to resonate.
From meeting a sustainable designer on the train and being asked to produce the music for their London fashion week show, to the trials and tribulations of being an indie artist to the idea of letting go of the pursuit of perfection – this is an interview filled with wisdom and experience. Thank you to Johnny for opening up and letting us into their world as The Woods.
Ok, first up, you released a hell of a lot of music in 2020 and it looks like you’ve got no plans to slow down in 2021. Have you always been such a prolific artist?
It’s funny you say that as I’d planned to release a fair bit more ha! I’ve always had a lot of music bouncing around my head but it took me a while to get enough confidence to show it to the outside world. I used to feel like everything had to be ‘perfect’, though of course nothing ever is, and so I really struggled to release recordings. The more I studied tracks I love though I started to notice that so often it’s the cracks in a voice, the idiosyncrasies, that really draw you to a recording. Some of my favourite Nina Simone, Billie Holliday, or Thom Yorke recordings have clear ‘imperfections’ that send a shiver down my spine every time I hear them- like a sudden glimpse of the human soul. After I started to embrace this and see a recording as a snapshot in time I really started to enjoy the process. Where capturing the feeling in a moment is more important than any perceived perfection, it really freed me to record and release my music with much less inhibition. I suppose now I’m making up for a lost time!
How has your project developed over the past few years? (What would you say about where you are today with music, versus your first release?)
It’s only a few years since my first release but things have changed quite a bit. I play solo now by live looping multiple textures and instruments around my vocals, something that took a few years to get the hang of, but it’s really helped me communicate the sounds in my head.
Nowadays I produce all my music now too, which has been the most freeing and exhilarating skill to grow. After my first EP I realised I had a pretty clear idea of my own sound and decided if I wanted to be completely in control of this I’d have to learn how to produce it myself. I was really lucky to discover some great music production groups in ‘The Fearless Few’ and ‘CDR’. They have regular nights where producers bring music they’re working on and have it played in a club environment. I took a track to one of these nights and found it such an amazing vibe- seeing people’s faces react to a track of yours being pumped out of a serious club sound system is quite a buzz. They’ve become a community I feel really attached to, and last year they released an insanely good set of remixes of my EP Night Silk Threads. I suppose hanging out with people like this has made me think of the sonic landscapes in my music rather than just the singer/songwriter viewpoint, which is cool.
You mention that you live in beautiful Scotland. Are you aware of where you live having an impact on your music making?
Definitely. I’ve noticed I’m a bit of a sponge creatively and I’m affected quite deeply by my surroundings. Not that Cities or the Wilds are more or less creative environments, but that those pieces you cultivate in the different places seem to take a very different path. I find the layered existences in cities pretty fascinating, whereas the ethereal sounds of the sea and woods take you somewhere else completely.
If you’re not too sick of thinking about it – how did 2020 impact you?
It was a blessing and a curse for me. A lot of the things I love to do like playing live and mixing with different creative minds was taken away in 2020, though it’s been so inspiring seeing all the ways people have continued to create and stay connected. We moved from London to rural Scotland at the start of the year and had a wee girl, so it was a real challenge to re-frame our existence like that. But at the same time, inspiration came in abundance from these new situations, and we’ve been forced to look at our world through fresh eyes because of Covid. I don’t know how the future will look, but it feels like last year has helped make us more resilient. Silver linings etc, though god I can’t wait to play live again!
Are there any words of wisdom you’d give to your younger self, or are you a ‘what’s meant to be will be’ kinda guy?
I generally feel like things happen for a reason, so I’d probably leave my younger self to it. Having said that, if I bumped into him I might struggle not to tell him to ignore his doubts and get on with whatever feel’s right. It’s hard though, as I remember just how tough it was being so skint and how alluring it was to think of earning decent money to live without worry. So basically I wouldn’t be too hard on him, he did alright and I learned a lot from him!
What’s one of the best things about living in bonnie Scotland?
Scotland’s a pretty unique, beautiful, hardcore, and hilarious place. I lived in Australia for a while and the one thing about being away from home is it really makes you appreciate what you’ve left. The wilderness, the space, the music, the depth of history, the people, the stunning Cities, it’s all pretty brilliant. I might be slightly biased though!
I’m forever in awe of the ‘multi-instrumentalist’ – what do you play and how do you get your head around so many instruments?
I think this comes back to letting go of the pursuit of perfection again ha!
Since starting to live-loop and produce my music I’ve gathered various instruments and pieces of hardware, including inheriting my Grandpa’s accordion, which provides some breathy synth action(!), though I’ve only used it at gigs a couple of times! In some areas, I’ve had a pretty serious formal musical education and in some, I’ve picked things up and learned them by ear. I really like where these 2 approaches meet and it keeps things interesting. There are a few unusual instruments I’ve picked up over time that I’m still nowhere near good enough to play in public, but maybe some day (I make some pretty awful sounds at home!)!
It can feel a bit like a game of chess working out how the different pieces fit together. Sometimes it’s a challenge – for my last gig I had to write on part of my set list to ‘pick up the guitar!’. In rehearsal I kept getting to a moment in my set where I needed to play the guitar and found I wasn’t holding it anymore ha- It kept happening and I didn’t notice myself putting it down! Lots of air guitar moments!
Producing music for a London Fashion Week show is a pretty cool accolade. Can you tell us about that experience?
It’s one of the most intense musical experiences I’ve had- any live performance after it felt like a walk in the park! Timing’s everything with a fashion show, and I had to create music and perform live to accompany the models on the catwalk, which also meant adapting what you’re playing depending on how fast the models are walking- mental breakdown central ha!
It was such a mad set of circumstances that led to it and a real testimony to the unique character of Californian Eco/ Sustainable Designer Jeff Garner. A couple of years ago I got chatting to him randomly on a train from Scotland where he’d been invited by Historic Scotland to create a modern Mary Queen Of Scots inspired collection using various traditional Scottish materials. I’d been thinking of some modern re-workings of traditional Scottish Folk Songs for a wee while, and mentioned it to him. He liked the idea and after I sent him some demos (the benefit of producing your own music!) he invited me to create and perform the music for the whole show at London Fashion Week. It was as crazy as it sounds but gelled really well.
This year I did the same again but with a different ‘Down The Rabbit-hole’ inspiration in a really mad setting in Mayfair. The show made the front cover of The Times.
If the universe granted you your wildest dreams for 2021, what would one of them be?
Like a lot of people I’m in a real mindset of ‘just keep going’ this year, so to keep doing what I’m doing and for more and more people to experience it would be an absolute dream.
Independent artists all seem to acknowledge how intense managing your own project can be. Is there anything you do to stay zen or keep a cool head when/if things are feeling overwhelming?
Yeah, I find this side of things hard too- I think people would be surprised just how many different hats a modern independent musician has to wear to get by. I find getting out into the wilds really helps me- running, cycling, swimming. I’ve also found writing regular lists, brain dumps, helps me declutter. But yeah if anyone has any advice I’m all ears…
What’s a song or album you’ve had on repeat?
Ooh there’s some awesome music around just now. The one problem with streaming and mp3s is that I rarely listen to albums while I’m out and about, which is a shame. Having said that Agnes Obel is someone I actively seek out her albums Aventine and Citizen of Glass- such a feast for the ears. Wildfires by Sault is a sublime track I can’t stop listening to too. Mmmm.
What else can we expect from The Woods this year?
I’ve got a few more singles coming this year which I can’t wait for folk to hear, with an EP out in the Autumn- ‘We’re All A Bit Disturbed’. My next single is a re-working of a classic Etta James blues cover and I love it! I think it’s quite an interesting spin on the song, and the type of thing I do live quite often, so it’ll be cool to release it as a recording.
Later this year I’m also really excited to be potentially working with a couple of filmmakers on some music scores (Covid allowing!). I love the connection between sound and visuals so projects like this are a bit of a dream!
Before we go, is there anything you’d like to add?
Really appreciate anyone checking out my music. Interesting stuff coming too, so click a wee follow somewhere if you want to keep in touch. Thanks so much for the lovely Qs.
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