Track eight of Jon Allen’s third album Deep River, the dirty funk blues ‘Get What’s Mine’ is introduced with this telling lyric, ‘Well I crawled, when I should have been running / And I’ve been way too long, biding my time / I don’t care if it ain’t too becoming / Come hell or high water, I’m gonna get what’s mine’. It’s an apt statement for a songwriter who has made clear strides towards success across three albums but remains fuelled with the aspirations and ambitions of an artist embarking on their first. For someone who is reported to have claimed he only became a front-man because everyone else was too embarrassed, the Winchester-born graduate of Liverpool’s Institute of Performing Arts continues to enhance his reputation as an erudite lyricist, traditional songwriter and fine vocalist from the Nick Drake and Ray Davies schools.
Folk Radio UK caught up with Jon shortly after Deep River’s launch gig at the Half Moon in Putney, a night Allen confirms was very successful, ‘..it was sold out and great that the audience was so appreciative. It’s not always easy for people when you are playing a lot of new songs that have not been heard before but the crowd seemed to really respond to the new material. It also felt really good to be able to call upon three albums worth of material to make a set list (although quite agonizing when you are trying to create exactly the right set).’ Having got another milestone under his belt, Jon also confirms that the night was filmed, ‘I’m pretty proud of how that show panned out. It would be wonderful if it turned out to be an example of the band playing an intimate gig just before we got a whole lot me recognition.’
It used to be that second and third albums were fraught with difficulties, whether it was fear the muse would be lost or pressure from labels to deliver a chart hit before the advance ran out. Having made it past the dangerous follow-up, thanks in part to having Going Home from 2008 debut Dead Man’s Suit chosen for a national advertising campaign, Allen’s take is more relaxed; ‘I think the third album has been less stressful to make than the second. I was very pleased that I still had something to say and that the inspiration hadn’t dried up.’ It’s a sign of a true artist when they can’t see that what they do for a living might be of interest to those who haven’t followed the same path. Allen’s response to a question about Deep River’s origins suggests this is a man with a simple and unassuming credo, ‘I guess it’s in my blood and I don’t know what else to do with my life.’
FRUK: Studying at LIPA must have been fun. Did Jon sit next to anyone we’d know in class?
Jon Allen: Sandy Thom (I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker) was in the year below me. Mike Crossy (well respected producer of The Arctic Monkeys, amongst others) was in my year but LIPA have not been the star maker (so far) that the Brit School has.
FRUK: Did you bump into Macca in the dinner queue?
JA: Not in the dinner queue although he did set the menu when I was there (veg only). I did do a one to one song-writing thing with him where each person would get 20 minutes with the great man. That was pretty terrifying, although he is a past-master at coming across like a normal guy and putting you at your ease. I played him some of the songs that would eventually end up on my first album. He was very encouraging. It was lovely to get the nod of approval from someone that I have admired for so long.
FRUK: Do you think songwriting can be taught?
JA: Yes. I think most things can but I think just like with sports there are certain people who are blessed by genes. Song writing in some ways is creative problem solving but you can always train yourself to get better at it.
Jon’s influences are many and varied, though it’s possible to pin a few names to his mood board. ‘What I grew up listening to very much influenced me. (It was) basically mum and dads record collection!’ Whilst this is hardly unusual, our review noted that the album sounds very ‘English’, an umbrella term for anything resembling the early 70’s period when folk and rock spent a lot of time in each other’s bedrooms. When asked for his musical touchstones, Jon mentions the classics, ‘..The Beatles, Stones, Van Morrison..’ but clearly believes that the boundaries are wider, ‘..Motown too. I am English, but pop music is essentially an American art form so no-one who makes it can really say they are not influenced by American music at all. I think some of the folk songs on the album are more obviously English though.’ With that in mind, we delve further into the making of the album.
FRUK: Tell me about the inspirations behind Deep River. When & why did the journey begin?
JA: The songs for Deep River were pretty much all written in 2013. When I got back off tour I began focusing more intensely on the melodies and ideas I had built up on the Dictaphone on my phone whilst I’d been touring. In 2013 I started a relationship and in the same year we broke up, so many of the song are informed by the experience of love and the highs and lows that come with it.
FRUK: The album is beautifully produced. It sounds like the classic songwriter output of the early 70s, warm but modern too. Was that a conscious aspiration?
JA: I love that period in music so I tend to gravitate toward that sound both consciously and unconsciously. With Deep River I did a lot of the preproduction myself. I recorded quite a lot of things with my set up at home then I took what I had to my producer Tristan’s studio and we built on them.
FRUK: Your songs sound as if they land in the mix fully formed. How do you write?
JA: I have a feeling that makes me want to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano or write something down on a piece of paper. Sometimes a melody just arrives in my head. These are all starting points that can lead into a finished song.
FRUK: There’s substantial space reserved for the beat on Deep River (Get What’s Mine and Fire In My Heart). Do you still drum?
JA: Yeah, I played the drums on this album. Maybe you have exposed my little indulgences on this record, but there is nothing more fun than playing the drums!
FRUK: Lyric or melody first?
Jon Allen: The majority of the time I would say that melody and groove comes first with my songs although that’s not always the case. Sometimes I might get a lyrical idea for a song first or a song titled that I then build around.
FRUK: Which song arrived first?
JA: When I was on tour with my band in Holland early in 2013 there was a piano in the dressing room. That’s where I found the melody and the verse section that would later become part of ‘Loving Arms’.
FRUK: I imagine All The Money’s Gone rips live. What prompted that song?
JA: It’s kind of my Sympathy For The Devil, only this time the devil is a banker. The lyrics can also be interpreted as a twisted love story as well.
FRUK: Lady Of The Water has a very Zeppelin vibe. Are you a fan?
JA: For sure. Zep’s energy is irresistible. I also love the fact that they were not just a heavy band and could turn it down to considerable effect.
FRUK: Do you like what Plant has done recently – it seems the folk element was always there?
JA: I really like what he is doing now. Also I think he has done well to get away from the thrusting sex god ‘lemon squeezing’ image of Zeppelin and recast himself and his music in a way more befitting a man of his age instead of trying to fall back on past glories.
FRUK: The album includes two rare examples of songwriting, the positive/happy song; Hummingbird Blues & Fire In My Heart. Am I right?
JA: I would say that Hummingbird Blues is a rare example of a happy blues, yes, but Fire In My Heart is a sad song masquerading as a happy one; the lyrics are actually quite depressing.
FRUK: They risk breaking the ‘bedsit and broke’ stereotype of the young songwriter. Are you worried you’ll lose your street cred?
JA: Long gone man! I think the key to writing a good song is having honesty in it. There is joy and pain in the world, why not in my songs? As long as I it doesn’t feel false either way I’m happy (or sad). Fire.. is about loving someone who doesn’t love you, but the tune bounces along pleasantly. I quite like the way a song can express two emotions at once like that.
FRUK: Falling Back sounds like perfect single material. Have any more been considered?
JA: Funny you should mention that. Maybe you should be a plugger because Falling Back has been picked as the next single. I try to stay out of the decision making process when it comes to picking singles but it feels to me like there is a nice collection of songs on this album to pick from this time.
Jon has toured or shared the stage with some notable musicians, Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler among them. That sort of experience and two album’s worth of gigs should, you imagine, be enough to have honed his craft in preparation for the upcoming tour, but he remains suitably humble about his performing abilities, content to enthuse about the band that will accompany him. Asked how he would persuade someone to buy a ticket, Jon replies; ‘Well I’m very cheap to come see at the moment; I really know how to sell don’t I?! It would be very immodest for me to go on about how great I am but I have no such reservations when talking about my world-class band, fantastic Hammond-organ player Rich Milner and superb guitarist Simon Johnson’, before adding ‘we’ll stretch out a bit as a band live but you won’t be hearing any twelve-minute guitar solos. I promise we will keep them down to no more than ten!’ The tour takes Jon across the UK, starting in Shrewsbury in mid-October and ending in Milton Keynes in January. He’s playing some classic venues; King Tuts, Colston Hall, The Cluny in Newcastle. The full details are available on his website. Is he excited? ‘Yes but the heavy medication is helping.’ Who said songwriters aren’t funny?
Deep River deserves to be heard. It’s a glorious hybrid of folk, blues and rock that conjures up the heady days of the early 70s but sounds contemporary too. It’s an album that doubles as a Summer sing-along and a deeper piece with layers of meaning running through tracks like Lady Of The Water and Keep Moving On, an album that makes you glad to be alive. As Jon sings in Hummingbird Blues, ‘The Hummingbird’s singing his song / Don’t give a damn who can hear it / My heart is singing along / If I’m not in heaven now, I swear I must be near it.’
Pretty close, Jon, pretty close.
Interview by: Paul Woodgate
Night and Day
Deep River is released 7th July 2014 via Monologue Records.
We’ll have more from Jon Allen very soon, read our album review here.