From teen grunge sensations to orchestral rock to baroque pop, Daniel Johns was never scared to reinvent himself. Even so, there is a core thread uniting his work – a raw and unfiltered emotional honesty. A direct line can be drawn from his best spill-your-guts ‘90s tunes, including “Israel’s Son” and “Ana’s Song” through later Silverchair classics such as “The Greatest View” and “Straight Lines” into new tracks like “Too Many” and “Preach.” All talk of dark days with a distinctly searing quality.
Daniel Johns was silent for many years after Silverchair dissolved. During those long, silent years there was speculation about what Daniel was doing. The enigmatic singer/songwriter removed himself from radar. Rumors were rife. In 2015, he has reemerged with his long-awaited album “TALK.” This captivating solo album tells that story in a brand new way. Gone are the big guitars and roaring rock vocals. In their place, urban beats and aching falsetto croons. Dollops of lush R&B are laced with cruisy electro flavors and some dark glitchy bedroom production touches to create a stylish take on modern soul. To borrow a line from “TALK” lyrical cornerstone, “Preach,” Daniel may “find it hard to breathe the truth,” but he’s never been afraid to sing it.
The eclectic mix of sounds and styles on this new album reflect the array of collaborators he brought on board. Lorde and Broods producer/co-writer Joel Little brings his breezy grooves to key tracks like “Cool On Fire,” “Warm Hands” and the first song to be lifted off the album, “Aerial Love.” Melbourne underground duo Damn Moroda and influential writer/producer Louis School helped create tracks like “Goin’ On 16,” “We Are Golden,” “Too Many” and the epic “New York,” while Presets mainman (and co-writer of “Straight Lines”) Julian Hamilton helped pen two of the album’s most immediate moments – “By Your Side” and “Dissolve.”
However, it is songs created with local hip hop icons Styalz and M-Phazes that push the envelope farthest. Deep grooves such as “Imagination,” “Chained” and “Faithless” find Daniel stepping into “futuristic R&B” territory. Throw in a few quieter moments like “Sleepwalker” and “Good Luck” and you’re left with a sprawling, but still densely packed, body of work. It’s highly musical and often highly confessional Aptly enough, the first songs to be lifted from “Talk” already provoked mountains of online chatter. For every music lover excited to hear radically different work by Daniel there are a couple of others trolling him for not endlessly churning out the same sounds since his mid-teens. ‘TALK’ serves as a comprehensive introduction to the new musical landscapes Daniel Johns has spent the past several years exploring as a solo artist.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Daniel Johns to discuss his musical influences, the process of bringing his solo debut, “TALK,” to life, his evolution as an artist and what the future may hold for him.
Going all the way back to the beginning, I was curious to know what are some of your first memories of music?
That is a good question. I think some of the first memories that really stand out to me are sitting in the back of my family’s car while going for a drive and hearing Queen’s greatest hits. I also remember hearing Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” and Deep Purple and Rush for the first time when my dad played it for me. That really started me off as being a huge music fan.
That is very cool to hear. How did having success at such a young age turn your world upside down. What was that time period like for you?
It felt like a bit of a whirlwind to me. We started out as a garage band, quite literally, playing in a garage from about 12 to 14 years old. We entered some competition, never thinking it would go anywhere, and we won it. A few months later, we were in the studio recording our first EP. Someone in America played it and we got shipped over to America! [laughs] We spent a lot of our time over there playing to really big crowds and doing lots of radio interviews. We were just stupid little kids, so we didn’t know what the hell was going on! We were just kind of going with the flow! [laughs]
It has been 20 years since you burst onto the music scene with Silverchair’s “Frogstomp.” So many people love and have fond memories of that album. How do you feel about that album 20 years after its release?
That period of time feels almost like a different life to me. I am still really proud of what we did when we were kids. I think we were 14 or 15 when we did that record. It feels like a lifetime ago! I really can’t relate to that kind of music anymore but if I hear it, someone plays it or says it means something to them from a certain point in their life, it still makes me feel pretty good!
Silverchair carried on for many years and released several great albums. However, it came to a point where you went your separate ways. What can you tell us about the circumstances leading to heading out on your own?
I felt like Silverchair had run its natural course. I felt like I had pushed the band as far as I could take it. I really started to delve into a more experimental, electronic thing with the band and it wasn’t really what I had in my head. The sound wasn’t coming out right. At that point, I just decided I needed to venture out on my own. I had something really clear in my head and it didn’t involve being in a band, so I had to make the decision based more on that than anything else.
Going solo after years in a band can be a scary move to make. Did you have any reservations about making that move?
Not really. I felt like I gave myself and Silverchair a chance to take the sound we had created further but it wasn’t happening. I have always tried to get the music I hear in my head down on tape. That was the first time in our career where what I had in my head wasn’t translating properly. So, no, I didn’t have any reservations. I just had to take the plunge and make the sound happen.
What went into capturing the sound you were hearing in your head and ultimately lead to “TALK,” your first solo album?
There was lots of experimenting. Most of the songs were written on instruments that I hadn’t written on before. I was playing around with lots of old drum machines, synthesizers and pedals I had collected over the years. Once I felt I had wrapped my head around how to get a certain sound, then I started calling producers that I liked and inviting them to my house to help me get it to the point where it needed to be.
What were you listening to or being inspired by during the creative process of making this album? Was there anything in particular that helped light your creative fire?
When I was writing it, it started almost as an homage to ‘90s R&B and stuff. I was almost half joking and half really liking it. As it came out, my natural tendency was to go slightly darker. It started to have this R&B vibe to it. When I started playing the ideas I had to different producers who were coming to the house, they started playing me some music I hadn’t heard, bands like The Weeknd, James Blake and Frank Ocean. Before I knew it, I kind of felt like the stuff I was writing had a place.
You spent a lot of time crafting this album. How much music did you write during the process and when did you know it was finished?
I had about 200 ideas for the record. I believe I put together a collection of tracks I thought might work as a record and sent it to my management. At that point, they were like, “You have to stop writing. You’ve got it.” [laughs] I took their cue on that because I would have continued writing forever and I was more than happy to not release anything as I was enjoying being an artist and creating stuff. So, it was my management who stuck a flagpole in it and said it was time to stop writing and start finishing off the ideas.
Was it difficult to whittle down 200 ideas to what you wanted to include on an album? What was it about these songs you loved that brought them to this record?
It was a difficult process because there were two different sides to the record that I really liked. I had some really dark stuff, Aphex Twin inspired, noisy, electronic, instrumental stuff. Then I had the more R&B thing, which ended up being the majority of the background of the record. I guess it was because it was the first thing I have released under my name that it made a lot more sense to me to use the songs I had my voice on rather than me tinkering around on electronic gear! [laughs]
Did you have goals or expectations for this album from a creative standpoint?
Yeah, I wanted to devoid of many rock and roll elements that people expected from me. I definitely wanted it to be quite hi-fi but still really intimate, which is why I chose to record the majority of it in my lounge room.
You worked with producer Joel Little (Lorde, The Broods) on quite a few tracks, “Aerial Love,” “Too Many” and “Warm Hands.” How did you two first connect and what was that experience like?
I loved the collaboration. The relationship with Joe started through my publisher, who was also his publisher. He suggested we do some writing together just before Lorde blew up. I got in before that, otherwise, I probably couldn’t afford him! [laughs] It was a really good experience. He is such a creative producer and we have a really similar love of R&B and minimalistic production. We were referencing everything from Brian Eno to Jungle to The Weekend and even Usher and shit! [laughs]
What can you tell us about your songwriting process for “TALK” and how it compares and contrasts to what you have done in the past?
It was really different. From about 1999, with the exception of the first few records, I have predominately written alone. I am usually, at night, by the piano or the guitar. I sat there and wrote the song, mapping it out, making sure the lyrics were there and had the arrangement in my head. Then I would take it to the band and everyone learned their parts before going into the recording studio. The red light would go on and you would try and get the perfect take. With “Talk,” it was kind of being produced as it was being written. I would start with a kick drum or a drumbeat or a chord progression and then we would build it section by section. It was a new way to write for me, rather than just sitting down and writing a song like a singer/songwriter would. It was almost like building a house or something, bit by bit.
What is the biggest lesson you took away from exploring this new chapter in your life?
That is a good question. I think something I will take away from it forever is learning to trust your instincts and going with the first idea. When I was writing by myself, there was a lot of thinking, overthinking and overanalyzing things. It is possible that I got rid of stuff that was really good. With this record, it was generally the first idea that came to my mind that I would take and were kept. I guess trusting my instincts was the biggest lesson I took away from this experience.
Where do you see yourself headed musically in the future? Any clear direction at this point?
No clear direction at this point. I think the objective would be to keep evolving and to keep getting better and never get too comfortable with a genre. I don’t like the idea of repeating myself ever. Having said that, with “Talk,” it was the first time I dipped my foot into this electronic thing, so I guess I would like to take it further and get better with the next record. I want to try and make something a little more epic in scope if it’s possible! [laughs]
The music industry changed tremendously since you first came up in Silverchair. What excites you most about music today and what are the biggest obstacles you face as an artist?
I don’t know what the obstacles are. To me, the way that the industry is at the moment really doesn’t effect me in any way. I really don’t even know how people are getting music. It isn’t high on my priority list to even fathom it. The thing that is exciting to me that it seems to be really possible to delve into any genre and be able to do it on a really high level without having to spend $10 million on a studio each day. I guess that is what excites me, being able to record an album like “Talk” in your living room. That is something I have kind of dreamt of since I was a kid.
Looking back on your career, you have come a long way. What is your biggest evolutionary milestones as an artist?
I think when I was writing “Diorama,” that was a moment for me. It felt like the first record where my ability was starting to sync up with my ambition. I still really like the sentiment of someone’s ambition being greater than their ability, I really love that term. I feel that now I have enough skills that if I put my mind to something, I can generally make it happen.
I know you played “TALK” live recently at the Sydney Opera House. How did that experience affect you and did that sway you to possibly take the show on the road?
Yeah, it did. The shows at the Opera House were a big moment for me as well. When I was writing “Talk,” the whole time I was telling my management and everyone working on the record that I was never going to tour or play it live. I kind of wanted to go into my “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Pet Sounds” era where I just stay in the studio for the next 10 years! [laughs] After having played the songs live for those shows, it made me realize that with technology these days you can almost do anything. So, yes, it did inspire me and I am anticipating playing more shows.
Thank you so much for your time today, Daniel. “TALK” is a solid album and I can’t wait to see where your journey takes you in the future!
No problem, man! Thanks a lot. Take care.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.