"From Ealing to East Hollywood" - An interview with Johnny Ashby
Amongst the current trend of singer songwriters, a plethora of artists are vying to have themselves heard on either side of the atlantic. Johnny Ashby is an upcoming artist who has made an impression on both. His journey begins with a familiar note. “I've always been interested in music - I made a guitar out of a tissue box and a few rubber bands as a kid”. He started with the piano and didn’t pick up an actual guitar, now his main solo instrument, until the age of 14.
But what makes his brand of songwriting different from the myriad of artists angling to be unique? “I think it's very easy these days to be compared to someone or something else” he admits, but he nevertheless manages to highlight his individuality: “I try to be different in my approach to writing lyrics and I've noticed that I seem to be quite ‘matter of fact’”. A certain narrative candour does indeed come across in lyrics such as: 'sure as hell miss all the things we did/those endless summer days we got to live/when life was long and had everything left to live/back in the days when I used to be a kid' (from the single 'Back in 1993').
Lyrics, however confrontational, always require something unique in the way of melody. Ashby manages this by combining his husky singing voice, unpretentious guitar rhythms, and infectious choruses. Could critics’ description of him as a ‘revival of the early 2000s’ be more of a hinderance than help? “I think I’ve managed to put my own stamp on it” he argues, “I guess my music's like a cross between Americana and Britpop”. He reveals, however, that his passion lies with the blues: “I love the simplicity of it because it doesn't need anything else.” He name-drops a few modern greats: Ryan Adams, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan, but ultimately, purism takes its hold: “I studied all the greats and went back in time as far back as Robert Johnson”.
Luckily for Ashby, life’s blues are limited: “I don't think there's a single day when I don't criticise my work” he says, recalling the familiar uncertainty and self-imposed perfection that haunts many in creative industries. However striking the balance between determination and not sounding "too perfect” have helped his music appear on hit US TV show Elementary, and in the top 20 of the iTunes singles chart - but he remains humble: “hearing one of my songs on the radio for the first time was probably my proudest achievements - that and winning a Battle Of The Bands many many years ago!”
What does he hope to do next? “I've just released the new single "Flowers In July”,” he says “and I'm working on the final touches for the next EP - I'm really happy with how it's turned out.” The perfectionist in him shows when he admits that an album’s worth of material now requires the gentle push of final inspiration before release. But he is never far from it: “I recorded my last few songs in LA at Producers Workshop, now 'Boulevard Recording', where Pink Floyd recorded The Wall! I still get goosebumps when I walk in to the live room.”
To Ashby, living the American way and being based in the US is more than just a means of employment. “Originally I intended to come to the US to play some shows along Route 66, the way the old cats used to do it- and I just kept coming back”. His pull towards the US, especially California comes from a love of both the faces and the places. Does he hope to stay stateside in the foreseeable future? “Absolutely - I love the whole American Dream thing - they have the mentality of ‘we'll give it a go, and if we fail, well at least we tried’." Unlike Bowie, another inspiration, he isn’t put off by their culture of vocal enthusiasm and blue sky thinking - “I'm only afraid of American tourists with the bum bags and the Kodak cameras!” Phaser will drink to that (and to his continued success).
"Flowers in July" is available on iTunes and to listen to below.