IT’S not uncommon for a musician to say that music-making is cathartic but for Nat Johnson, it’s more than that. On her latest record, I’m Across, I’m Ashore, her feelings actually evolved with the album.
“I felt different as I wrote each song – it was happening as I was writing it. In the past all our albums have been a collection of songs but the fact this was conceptual made it so much more satisfying to write.”
The album charts Johnson’s musical journey, from her time in critically-acclaimed Monkey Swallows the Universe to her work as a solo artist with backing band the Figureheads. And it’s been a journey that started here in Sheffield. “We were playing in the Lescar and Alan Smyth approached us and asked if we could record some stuff in the studio. He’s been wonderful ever since – a pal and a mentor. But that’s where it all started really. ”
Monkey Swallows the Universe went on to tour with Richard Hawley, the Long Blondes and Camera Obscura. But while there have been many peaks throughout Johnson’s musical career, there have also been dips. “I’ve often thought ‘what the hell am I doing this for?’ So in this album I’ve explored the feelings about making music.”
Johnson explains how the ambition to succeed in music could sometimes obscure what drove her to it in the first place, which has always been the creative process of song-writing. “In the album I’ve tried to remember why I’m doing this. It can be frustrating when you’re trying to make it and people tell you that you’re ‘going to be massive’ and you get fed up with not doing what people expect of you.“
Astronomy, the album opener, charts the experience of overcoming this pressure and just being really happy with one’s lot. “It’s about accepting that you can’t do what you want all the time. You pour your heart and soul into music but there are so many ups and downs. But you start to reach a really good place in life and realise what you do have and how lucky you are to have done what you have done.”
And as Sheffield features so prominently in Johnson’s musical journey, there are, of course, songs about the city on the album too, as she explains. “The Hairbell is one of the songs about Sheffield – it’s about the prospect of leaving Sheffield and how that, coupled with the journey of making the album, is like a voyage across the sea.”
But, like her musical career, Johnson says her relationship with Sheffield is inconsistent. “I have a fickle relationship with the city. One minute I think ‘have I experienced everything there is to experience here?’ but then I think about the view from Crookes and how pretty it is, and good the people are and I fall in love with it again.”
Johnson says that this album is the best she has ever done. “It was a case of working with the right people at the right time.” These people include 2 Fly producer Alan Smyth and Sheffield Phonographic Corporation founder Darren O’Connor, both of whom Johnson describes as instrumental in supporting Sheffield music. “It was also important that we released it on the SPC because that’s where we started. The album’s been a journey on so many levels.”
The album was funded by PledgeMusic, a website on which bands can tailor a fundraising campaign to help raise money through their fan base. Bands pledge the amount of money they think they can raise and make several unique offers to fans to help them raise that amount.
As part of their ‘pledge’ Nat Johnson and the Figureheads offered fans the chance to DJ at the album launch gig at City Hall, have a free drum lesson from Neil or even go home with a stack of books from Kevin’s own collection. The band also offered lyric sheets and signed albums.
It paid off – the album will be available to buy next week - but despite being finished, Johnson says: “I couldn’t ever stop writing songs.” So there is hope, perhaps.
In the meantime, Nat Johnson and the Figureheads will be playing at the Memorial Hall on Wednesday to mark the launch of their album on Tuesday.