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EP review: Faithful Johannes – Is Hopeful

Typically late to the party, I’ve only just gotten around to listening to this four-track EP from Durham City’s Faithful Johannes. Released back at the beginning of February through Win Big Records, with a sold out limited run of 8″ lathe cut vinyl, it follows 2019’s debut LP Thrills & Bills. Keen readers of the blog (humour me) will no doubt recognise the name from December, when I shared the excellent It’s OK to be Alone (This Christmas) – a belter of a tune born from bewilderment at the hysteria over whether we’d be able to sit down and eat dry turkey with each other at Christmas during a global pandemic. There’s a lot to be said for an artist that understands the power of a good festive song, and there’s no way I would’ve stumbled across the brilliant Is Hopeful without my interest being piqued by that one in particular.

Anyway, onto the EP: it’s superb. From the minimal, clean artwork through to the lo-fi electronic backing, everything is on point. The arrangements are not too dissimilar from something you’d find on a shit-hot Sega Megadrive game – albeit one with a soundtrack by Thom Yorke, Mike Skinner, and Jarvis Cocker – and there’s nothing bad about that. Sparse synths, some clean drums, and – on Different – an earworm of a bass lick are all that’s needed to conjure up a soundscape that perfectly fits Faithful Johannes’ expert, intricate, relaxed delivery.

On the subject of the delivery, one of the things I most admire here is the way that he plays with meter and rhyme. Often couplets are packed with jaw-dropping internal rhymes and lines that spill out and fall in unexpected places. Also, you’re never far from a line that either jumps out and puts a grin on your face or causes you to spit out your coffee. A clear highlight for me is Dust, with its heavily bit-crushed synths and weirdly affecting chorus of ‘I’ve a definite memory of floating to the ceiling as a child / and moving by willpower from room to room / unnoticed by the adults below / you might think that I’m lying, but believe me I’m not trying to‘. There’s a distinct unsettling vibe that hangs over the track, but right at the death when it risks sounding too bleak it’s undercut by a final line that acts kind of like a pin stuck into a bulging balloon.

And that’s the thing about Faithful Johannes. There’s a fine line between too little and too much, and lesser artists aren’t really able to see it. You know, it’s so easy to throw all that extraneous shit onto a track just because you can, but it takes a lot more skill to strip things right back and get every element absolutely nailed-on. The EP is an utter joy. Short, sharp, and life-affirming. I recommend.

A conversation with Faithful Johannes

• I’ve been listening through the EP a lot recently. Genuinely love it. I recommended it to my friend recently by saying it was like a Sega Megadrive game soundtrack made by Thom Yorke, Jarvis Cocker, and Mike Skinner. Now I don’t know much about spoken word stuff, or rap, so I was wondering how that description sits with you. How do you see yourself?

Hi Adam, thanks.  They’re four strong references, it sits just fine!  My friend Ross had a Megadrive and Mickey Mouse Castle of Illusions’ melodies still come easily to mind.  I used to call what I do barely rap, because I didn’t want to my skills to be judged as a rapper, but I then worried that that sounded like I was trying to distance myself from rap or say “don’t worry, it’s not really rap – you’re safe here non-rap fans”… so more recently I’ve gone for spoken word electro – but neither is very satisfying, I’m open to new suggestions.  I think maybe it’s somewhere between US indie rap, the Fall, Pulp and John Shuttleworth.

• You walk the line between sincerity and humour really well. Thinking about a song like Different, or the chorus of Mistaken – they seem to be loaded with meaning – but you have a great way of kinda deflating the tension with stuff that comes out of nowhere and makes you laugh as a listener. I don’t know… there’s something very British maybe about being afraid that God saw you lose Uncle Arthur’s gold ring. Of all the things to be afraid of. This is one of my trademark rambling non-questions, but I think I’m asking about how you ended up walking that line? Did it take a while to get there?

Hmmm, don’t know.  It definitely did take me a long time to get there.  My voice has come to me slowly, I had no confidence in my teens and was tentative in my twenties.  As much as there is a conscious aim, it is to express something honest that chimes with people or moves them, without it seeming put on or mawkish.  And part of being honest, or expressing your personality is putting plenty of self-deprecating humour in. Life is ridiculous. I am ridiculous.  Every day.

• How did you end up making music. I’m presuming you started out with spoken word?

Quite the opposite really, music came first.  My sister liked a boy who played guitar, she got a Stratocaster copy for her birthday, neglected it and I picked it up.  I’ve been in bands or musical projects of some kind since I was about 12, it has been a thread that’s run through my life and found me many valuable friends and kindred spirits.  In 2014, I’d been in a bit of lull for a couple of years, I’d moved from Sheffield to Durham, wasn’t playing live, was writing very little. Then I was mixing a track for my friend Jonny, and he suggested I put some words to it.  I did.  It sounded better spoken.  We became a duo called Outside Your House, expanding on the style off that first track.  I liked a lot of leftfield rap music, and was influenced by that, but what we were making ended up sounding nothing like them. Jonny was really positive and encouraging, which gave me confidence and helped me improve my writing.  We played shows around the North East of England quite a lot – hitting drums, playing kids’ keyboards. I used to take a stool to climb on because there weren’t always stages, I put my lyrics on big signs because the PAs weren’t always good, we sometimes did raffles mid-show, gave out presents at Christmas, tried to be memorable.  When we started Outside Your House, I borrowed the name Faithful Johannes from a Grimm fairy tale for myself as an insurance policy for when we broke up.  OYH went on indefinite hiatus on the night of our debut album launch in 2017 and I carried on solo as Faithful Johannes from there.  My writing and delivery has gradually become more fluent and detailed, and as Faithful Johannes I started to mix a cappella spoken word pieces into my sets, especially to open with and quieten the room.  I almost always play music gigs rather than spoken word / poetry nights.

• What are the main influences on the Faithful Johannes sound, but also on the way you approach writing?

The musicians who have the strongest influence on what I do are Owen Ashworth, who was Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and is now Advance Base, and rappers Open Mike Eagle and Serengeti.  All incredible, affecting storytellers, often hilarious, always direct and accessible. I did a couple of online workshops last year with Brooklyn-based rap genius MC Paul Barman, which have challenged me to write more often, daily if possible, and made me take the creative process more seriously.  It was like a switched flicked. My writing clicked into a fluency I’ve not felt before.

• How do you tend to write stuff? Specifically I was wondering whether the tracks develop hand in hand with the words, or whether you start out spoken word. The balance between the diction and flow with the melodic stuff is really strong…

I tend to start with a rough beat and some synth/piano chords, maybe a bassline, then I’ll start writing the lyrics to that, putting a few lines down at a time.  Although I always have a notebook handy, I tend to write lyrics on the computer – it’s easier that way to make revisions, revisions, revisions until you’ve written yourself to the end of it.  I try and write daily in a notebook, even if it’s only a couple of lines, these sometimes make their way into songs, but generally not.  So, the music and words normally get written together.  Occasionally, I’ll have a track finished, then completely ditch and replace the music, but leave the words virtually intact.

• How do you record? You play everything on the EP, right?

At home on Cubase.  Yes, I play everything on the EP.  I try to, not exactly give myself rules, but to stick to using a few relatively basic soft synths and plug ins that I like the sound of.  Sinnah and Helm and both excellent free soft synths I use a lot.  We got a free piano off a friend of a friend a couple of years back, which is starting to creep onto some of the recording (it’s on Fog on the EP), and is helping me when I’m stuck on where to go next on a tune.  I like to put found sounds, or field recordings in, or put something rough in to give a warmth to the track, not just relying on electronic instruments or sounds.  Mistaken on the EP is entirely made of samples of my voice, I’m really please with how the drums came out in particular on that one. 

• The 8″ version of Is Hopeful looked amazing. The artwork is really great too. One of the things that I really like about your stuff is that there are some really good covers. The Thrills & Bills one is really cool too. Anyway, are you thinking of releasing more stuff in this way in future?

Yeah, both those covers were by Oli Heffernan at Ack! Ack! Ack! Design, he’s fantastic and also an incredible, extremely prolific musician.  I’m not naturally a good delegator or collaborator, but have realised that I’m better off asking other people to do my artwork if I have enough time in the process.  Daniel Redhead, did my Feel Good Hit of the Summer cover last year which I’m really happy with.  My next album cover illustration is something special too.  I only did 10 copies of the EP on the 8” vinyl, but they sold out in less than an hour, which was a nice confirmation that people love records still, and definitely something I’d do again.  I did a short cassette run of the EP afterwards, there’s still about five of them left at Win Big Records.

• Finally, you mentioned that you were working on the second album at the moment. Is there anything else planned for this year?

I have a 12 track story album coming out in September, which will be on vinyl – I should get the test pressings today at some point!  There’s a couple of standalone singles out in the next couple of months. I’m working on two parallel new EPs with a producer doing all the music.  There’s a collaborative album I’m working on with a few people, that I’m a small cog in.  I put a Christmas single out every year…. So yep, loads of stuff on the way.

You can find Faithful Johannes on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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