The UK’s own John Jenkins is set to release yet another beautifully compelling album of originals this August, the wonderfully contemplative If You Can’t Forgive You Can’t Love.
With song-writing second to none and a clear lifetime of musicianship enhancing each track, it was a pleasure to chat with John once again, to find out more about the project, the band, and how things have been going over the past two years. Here’s the conversation in full.
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Hi John – what a pleasure to catch up, and to mark the release of a stunning new album no less. When did the process for this album first begin, and what does it represent for you?
Thank you, Rebecca you are exceedingly kind. My last album got such amazing reviews that it gave me the confidence to continue writing songs that I felt told a story and that included characters that I hope some people could relate to.
Funnily enough when I am writing lyrics, I always picture my characters in an American town, bar, coffee house, highway. It kind of frees my imagination up a bit more plus place names in America can be cool. My song The Last Train from Baltimore just would not be the same if I had called it The Last Train from Grimsby or Macclesfield.
I was fortunate to get an “Arts Council Grant” from the UK which made it possible to plan the Album, record it and set up a tour.
The songs, in the main, were written last year in “lockdown”. I wrote a lot of songs in 2020 so it was quite nice to have a headache selecting the ones I wanted to record.
My last album was quite intimately quiet and laid-back so for this album I thought I would take it up a notch and get a mixture of tracks that showed off different aspects of my Song-writing.
With saying all that it could have been so different as my first intention was to record an out and out hillbilly album using a hillbilly group, I came across from Sunderland here in the UK. I wrote a bag full of old-style Country songs as if I were writing for “Kitty Wells” or “Loretta Lynn”. Unfortunately, the Lockdown meant that they were unable to travel and so I went to plan B and these songs.
How would you describe the connection between the album title and the various stories within?
Love and Forgiveness can be enormously powerful emotions to go through – it did not seem as obvious to me that there was a thread that ran through the songs at first. I tend to write a song as a standalone piece of work and try and avoid similar stories, but themes can often be repeated unconsciously. I mean how many songs are written about love without sounding the same.
Where did this title come from, what first inspired you to consider the phrase and then to delve so deeply into its implications?
As most songwriters will say, we all carry notebooks around with us or bits of paper most of the time so that when we hear something in conversation or read in a book or hear in films, something that triggers something within us we make a note of it and file it away maybe to use.
Occasionally when I am writing a song, I will dip into my Songwriting notebook and something I may have noted down (with some tweaking) could end up being a better line or phrase than the one I had myself originally. Sometimes what you made a note of is so obvious you kick yourself for not thinking of it first.
When I wrote the song Is that What they Say? I think had this phrase in my notes, but I have no idea of the source unfortunately. It could be anyone from Anais Nin to Isabelle Allende to Frank O’Connor, authors I have trouble reading without noting down every other line lol.
I put that line in the Middle 8 of that song, and it just felt like that phrase just covered the spectrum of most of the songs.
It is one of my favourite bits on the album as well. Initially the album started out as if it were going to be called Desert Hearts, but because people zone in on the title song rather than the body of work it was not that hard to choose this phrase for the album title instead.
This comes under your solo name, is this a different band this time around, session musicians or a group likely to go with you to the stage?
I do have a band (John Jenkins and the James Street Band) but because of lockdown we have been unable to get together to play or rehearse. The songs Desert Hearts and When the Morning Comes being the exceptions as they are band recordings and were started just before lockdown.
Jon Lawton my co-producer and the Engineer is a genius. Like all my solo albums so far, he plays Guitar, Bass, Programs the drums and makes the coffee. For this album, because I did not want it as intimate as my last album (in the main), I decided we would record a basic vocal, bass, acoustic guitars, drum programming if needed. I then thought hard about additional instrumentation and backing vocals to add a lot of colours to the basic tracks.
Amy Chalmers is my go-to person for Strings/Violin. Everyone else I asked depending upon the song. I am lucky to be friends with the amazing “Robert Vincent” who won the 2021 AMAUK “Artist of the year” and “Album of the year” so I asked him to do some backing singing on a couple of songs. I normally do my own harmonies, but I do like having a good layer of backing singing/vocals depending on the song (see Desert Hearts)
Which song on this project is your personal favourite, and why?
Desert Hearts. I imagine when I presented it to the band, they must have thought I was off my head. A couple of friends/songwriters would comment that some of my songs only had 3 chords. I would say that 3 chords are enough if the song is as good as it can be. For Desert Hearts I was thinking in “Cinemascope” when I was writing it. I visualised all the parts, all the ups and downs, the narrative flow, the instrumentation I would like. I started it before lockdown which meant that when lockdown kicked in, I had some time to consider some of its instrumentation and arrangement.
In Liverpool three of the best current Americana/Folk duos are “Two Black Sheep” “The Folk Doctors” and “Limerance”. All three are on that track as well as two amazing Singer-Songwriters – Thom Morecroft and Stuart Todd (Shadow Captain). Add Tony Peers on Trumpet and you get the idea how epic I wanted it to sound.
Again, Amy’s strings were pivotal in the overall feel of the song. I want to record an album of songs at some point that are like Desert Hearts in which they do not conform to verse/chorus/verse/chorus/middle 8/chorus traditional format. I am a big fan of Bruce Springsteen’s early albums and Love Forever Changes album as well which have non-traditional song structures, lots and strings and horns. Bruce’s Western Stars album was a template as well.
A Stranger To Your Heart makes for one of the best album introductions ever, in my opinion. Did you write this with the intro in mind, or did it build up in this way and simply make sense as an opener once you had the full collection?
Wow – that is about the nicest compliment I have ever had – thank you. I did not write it as an opening track. I always had Desert Hearts in my mind as an opener but then I thought it be a better song to finish the album off with. Not everyone will understand Desert Hearts due to its length and arrangement, so I did not want people to put off on first listen.
A Stranger to your heart evolved in the recording. I wrote it thinking it would be an intimate song throughout and laid back but once we tried it with the drums coming in on the chorus it opened a lot of doors for overdubs and backing vocals/violin and so on to make it a bigger sounding song.
I was particularly proud of writing this song. My partner Lynn decided to paint our bedroom, so we moved into our guest bedroom, and it felt like I was on my holidays with the new surroundings. I read a lot of Songwriting tip books like Pat Patterson and do a lot of Songwriting exercises. Chris Difford from Squeeze once told me to try and use uncommon words in my songs and I always remember that tip. I had my thesaurus out when writing A Stranger to your heart and some of the words sound quite poetic because I was looking for uncommon words. I played it to a Nashville Songwriters Association advocate for feedback and they told me to use more “common words”. It just goes to show that everyone can have a different opinion on Songwriting tips and techniques.
What made you decide to weave in a Townes Van Zandt cover?
For various unfathomable reasons I was late to some of my favourite singer songwriters that I listen to now, Songwriters such as Guy Clark, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nanci Griffiths, Iris DeMent, John Prine, Lori McKenna, and the late great “Townes Van Zandt”.
At an Americana Music Association Seminar a few years back, I had the nervous task of playing a song of mine before a 4 Songwriting panel that consisted of Chris Difford, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Mary Gauthier, and Sam Baker. The idea was to get feedback on the song – Fortunately, I got a positive review but one thing I remembered was “Sam Baker” telling me that the song I played reminded him of “Townes Van Zandt”.
With curiosity I bought a box set CD of 4 albums and (no exaggeration) I now have 40 CDs of his with many being compilations and duplicating songs. Kathleen was one of my first “Townes” song loves.
There is an annual Italian festival that pays homage to him and because of covid they were unable to have the 2020 Festival so now have about twenty 15-minute episodes on YouTube called “The Road to Townes Van Zandt” where everyone covers a “Townes” song.
I felt like I needed to be part of that family and wondered which song I would cover. Because of “Amy Chalmers” (who does my strings for me) was booked to do some string sessions I thought I’d go out on a limb and do Kathleen with the full string arrangement that he had but add my own take on the backing track. It is now part of my set now and I just love singing it. It is a wonderful song and so mysterious in its meaning, people have different ideas what it is about. I just hope I did it justice.
What does the album format mean to you in this age of vastly available indie singles and EPs?
I am old school and quite ancient so for me personally I play albums from start to finish. I have thousands of Vinyl, still get a buzz going into record shops and coming across things for my collection. I was in New York last year (January 2020) and bought a ton of country albums because they were so cheap. It can be an expensive hobby though and my credit card takes a beating from time to time.
I think the young kids are missing out on this aspect of music. Buying singles/albums on release day was such an important part of my life and other people I know. Nowadays people can record a toilet flushing on their phone, upload the mp3 and release it as a piece of art. It’s so easy to put music out these days that it can be quite difficult to hear the music that you really should do.
There is a double edge sword to this though, as it also gives new artists a platform to be heard, which was not always the case years ago so that’s a bonus.
Has your creative purpose or reach changed at all because of the past year and half of standstill and global difficulty, and if so – in what ways?
Yes, as I said I could not do much with my band and a session I wanted to do (the Hillbilly one) could not happen, but you learn to adjust and if one thing that can be said to be a positive in this covid era it is “livestreaming”.
It’s great seeing live concerts in your front room especially from places around the world. I did a Nashville Bluebird Café open mic at the beginning of the year. Never thought I would do that in a million years plus I have played various folk club livestreams around the UK from my own home. It does not beat being at a concert physically but its an additional treat.
Where do you recommend is the best setting for people to enjoy this album in full?
I would say wherever people feel most comfortable with the least distraction and maybe with headphones on.
The nuances of say Desert Hearts can be fully enjoyed with headphones. Sounds like I am full of myself but the people who played on that song were amazing and added bits to my song that I would love if they were on someone else’s record.
You have had another birthday recently I believe – did you do anything special to celebrate?
Thank you. Yes, I love travelling either around the UK or the world but because of “Covid Flight restrictions “etc me and Lynn went to the east coast of England to a traditional seaside place called “Cromer”. It has a Victorian pier and still has a theatre on it (I believe it is the last one in the UK). The Weather was glorious, so we were incredibly lucky. We also visited another seaside place called “Sheringham”.
I kind of collect postcards of old seaside places in the UK so it was nice to finally get to see “Cromer” and this part of England is quite new to me.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I would like personally to thank you for such kind words about the album – it is really nice when people take time to listen to the words as well as the music and follow the narratives. I just hope it gets heard by a lot more people and here’s to the next one next year x.
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