The word most interviewers use to describe Nat Johnson is “charming”, which she is, but not in a twee way. As befits someone with System of a Down on her iPod, her show at the Luminaire on Saturday 18 April showcased her new louder sound as she went from solo indie-folk to full-band, rousing country-tinged rock (her most recent single ‘Dirty Rotten Soul’) and threw in a scintillating cover of the Apples In Stereo’s ‘Rainfall’ for good measure. On this evidence, the forthcoming album will be a must-hear.
Nat Johnson at Luminaire,18 April
She formed Monkey Swallows the Universe with Kevin Gori in 2003, expanded the band to a five-piece, secured a record deal, released two albums (The Bright Carvings on The Sheffield Phonographic Corporation and The Casket Letters on Loose), toured with the likes of Richard Hawley and the Long Blondes, achieved plenty of critical acclaim and then broke up the band, unexpectedly. “I began to feel that the instruments we had made us move in a certain direction which we couldn't get out of… suddenly I realised wanted to move away from the shy, twee, girl-with-guitar thing” she said.
After performing solo for a while she put together a band (with Kevin Gori again), promoted her own Last of the Summer Festival in 2008, and is now touring and working on songs for a new record. We spoke to Nat in April 2009.
SXP: Your musical career seemed to be following a natural trajectory - album released to good reviews, tours with Richard Hawley and the Long Blondes, festival appearances, a bigger label, second album with even better reviews, growing airplay - and then Monkey Swallows the Universe broke up. Why split at that point? And what were the high and low points of being in MTSU?
Nat: Yeah, it wasn’t an easy decision and it looks like a very bad decision when you put it like that. At the time though, I felt we were going to be stuck doing the same sort of thing, making the same sort of songs and I wanted to change whereas other people didn’t. We’d also never got away from the whole Belle and Sebastian label we were given right at the start on which I found really unjustified and stifling and I just felt like having another go at it all. The high points for me were the festivals in the summer of 2007, especially Green Man, and the last gigs we did in London and Sheffield, though they were bittersweet! The lows? Er, splitting up? Arguing with Loose over the Casket Letters’ tracklisting for about three months? I tend not to remember the lows so much, when I think about those days I think about how much I enjoyed playing the songs and how good it felt to know that people really enjoyed them. I’m really proud of everything we released.
SXP: Having asked that question, we have to confess to really liking the harder sound of the newer material like the ‘Dirty Rotten Soul’ single. Is that a conscious move away from the Radio 2-friendly direction that you seemed to be heading for with MTSU?
Nat: Yep, definitely. It’s a more conventional line up than MSTU but I find it more flexible when it comes to songwriting. You’ll still find us doing some quiet ones though -I haven’t suddenly decided to become some sort of rock monster! It’s still my songwriting and my voice so it’s never going to be a whole world away from what I’ve done in the past is it?
SXP: We know you’re a fan of Mclusky, have System of a Down on your iPod and included feedback and punk stompers in your live set at Last of the Summer. Does that indicate the sort of music you want to be making now?
Nat: Nah, I just like a bit of noise sometimes! I’m not capable of screaming and swearing my way through a set! We did a Violent Femmes cover at Last of the Summer which was great fun to play and lately we’ve been doing Rainfall by the Apples in Stereo in our set. I like doing the odd cover.
SXP: When MSTU broke up, you played solo for a while and then at Last of the Summer you debuted a band, including Kev and Rob from MSTU. Are they your “proper” band now and was being a solo artist just a short-term thing?
Nat: My band now is made up of Kev Gori from MSTU; Chris Loftus, formerly of Fury of the Headteachers; two drummers (not at the same time though!) Dave Attwood, who was in Rumpus and Ten Benson and Neil Piper who also drums for Champion Kickboxer. There’s about another 6 or 7 people who’ve played on the album though! I still do properly solo gigs now and again too.
SXP: Your first solo gigs were in the singer-songwriter mode and you made use of a loop pedal, which artists like David Thomas Broughton use. Did you pick it up from him or some other musician?
Nat: David actually recommended which pedal I bought! I don’t use it very often on stage any more but it comes in really handy when I’m writing songs at home.
SXP: Why did you organise your own indoor festival last summer and did you enjoy it? And will there be a repeat?
Nat: For a few reasons – I wanted to make a fuss of my first gig with a band, I wanted to put on other local and not so local bands and make a real fun day of it. There were a few issues on the day but overall I think most people enjoyed it. I certainly did! There is talk of doing it again this year, we’ll see…
SXP: You have a higher (national) profile as a result of the popularity of MTSU. Does living in Sheffield make it more difficult to promote yourself?
Nat: Seeing as I haven’t lived anywhere else since I started making music I can’t really answer that. Do you mean would it be easier to promote myself if I lived in London? I’m not about to move to London to give myself a better chance of success, I’m happy up north, ta. I don’t know how much of that ‘profile’ I’ve retained mind you, I’m pretty much starting all over again here!
SXP: Monkey Swallows the Universe isn’t the most profound name for a band, which might be why your album titles were very literary (referencing ‘Gormenghast’ and the letters used against Mary, Queen of Scots). Do you think names and titles really matter and, if so, are you thinking about the future album (or band)?
Nat: Names shouldn’t matter that much, no, and you can get used to anything can’t you? We’ve been trying to think of a name for the band for MONTHS, i.e. “Nat Johnson and the…” and the best we’ve come up with is Nat Johnson and the Lapdance Army. Don’t think that’s going to catch on, do you? The album’s working title is “Roman Radio” after my driving examiner. That was his REAL NAME.
SXP: I've just been reading Will Hodgkinson's book about songwriting, and was surprised when you played a brand new song that didn't have a title as all the songwriters in the book seemed to name songs first. I wondered if (a) you have any particular rules about songwriting, and (b) do you write songs and then give them names or is it ever the other way round?
Nat: I don't have any rules about songwriting but I tend to start with the chords or a bit of the music, then the melody and the words come last. I do get lyrics coming to me at random though when I'm not sat down with my guitar so I make notes of them and save them for later. I try a load of different melodies before I settle on the one I like best!
I don't think I've ever started with a song title, no, I think it's always the other way round. I struggle to come up with interesting song titles which is why several of mine in the past have had people's names instead, like Florence and Martin. It was a not terribly funny in-joke in MSTU that Florence and Martin were having a love affair so we'd sometimes put them together on the set list with a love heart between them.
It's tedious to always pick a couple of words out of the song and just stick them as the title but often it's all you can do! That's standard practice really! Thinking about the new album, there's a song on there called Agnes because a line in the song is lifted from a sentence in Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey - "who ever hung his hopes upon so frail a twig?"
SXP: We understand you’re recording material for a new album. How’s that going and when might we hear the results?
Nat: We started recording last July and have now finished it and it is currently being mastered. As for when you will hear it, I don’t know – we’ve yet to give it to anyone to see if they want to release it!
SXP: What’s next for you? And when will you be playing in London again? (sorry for being so London-centric!)
Nat: What’s next is getting the album back and looking at getting it out. In the meantime I’ve written some new songs and want to get recording again! I’m sure we’ll be back in London before long. We played at the Luminaire last Saturday and loved it. One of my favourite venues.
SXP: Finally, a question from our Sheffield correspondent. Has becoming a dad affected Kev Gori’s dress sense or were tank tops and Jack White style trousers always his thing?
Nat: Kev is very mysterious and you should never question him about anything.