CARPE diem is the message in Ethan Johns’ latest album, If Not Now Then When.
Johns, a Brit Award-winning producer who’s worked with the Kings of Leon and Crosby Stills and Nash, took time away from the mixing desk last year and focused on his other talent – songwriting.
And this week, Johns will be playing material from If Not Now When at the Lantern Theatre. The album is a philosophical collection of tracks that ponder and celebrate the nature of human existence.
“It’s about how our place in time is constantly changing and evolving. We live against the constant march of time and we come from nothing and go back to mostly nothing,” he says.
But this doesn’t bother Johns. “The silence will be beautiful,” he says. “It’s the only moment where you can experience pure peace. But it’s a positive thing.”
“The ultimate goal is ‘carpe diem’. To only look at the present moment is the absolute goal. There are only a few people who have mastered this, such as Buddhists and Hindus. It’s about looking and understanding that now is where it’s at.”
There is a certain peacefulness to Johns, as if he lives – or at least tries to live – by this philosophy. “You have to appreciate the ‘now’ but life is scary. The last line in Hello Sunshine on the album is about shattering doctrines that society has laid down. The point is to see through what we are told and question everything. I’m not talking about being suspicious - instead it’s about not doing something that you are told you should be doing.”
Johns’ father, Glyn, produced If Not Now Then When in LA. It was from his father – a renowned producer who worked with Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles, that Johns learned his craft as a producer and multi instrumentalist.
“My dad built a studio at the family property in Sussex, which we moved into when I was about nine or ten years old,” says Johns. “I became an apprentice and discovered recording and learnt how to engineer.”
But his songwriting developed long before his ability to produce and engineer records. “I was already a musician by the time I was starting out as an apprentice. I wrote my first song when I was 11 or 12 years old,” he says.
After leaving home at 16 Johns worked in several studios and gradually built a career as one of the country’s best producers, working with artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to The Vaccines.
But whether writing songs, playing an instrument or producing a record, it’s all part of the same creative process. “It’s coming from the same source of inspiration,” says Johns. “It’s a really natural process but when I’m producing I only work with people I want to work with. I have to enjoy what I’m doing, I don’t think you can work in the arts and have a factory mentality. I have to passionate about what I’m doing and personally invested in it,” he says.
His album is a mixture of new and older songs. “It’s a bit like writing a novel, making an album - you are thinking ‘where is the story?’ You’re always thinking along those terms and about the thread that’s running through the album.”
Johns will bring his live-for-the-moment material to the Lantern Theatre on Saturday. “We wanted to play in venues that were special,” says Johns. “My agent did a lot of research and found the Lantern Theatre. I think it’s really important to play in the right environment, it benefits the audience and makes the show a circular thing where you feed off each other.”