It’s not often I taken notice of a drummer. In general, drummers hang about with drummers, talking about cymbals and other stuff mere musicians don’t understand (probably like unintentionally slowing down, and wrist injuries. and that) but this particular drummer, let’s call him Carl, for the purposes this article, and the fact that that’s his name, gave me a cd of songs that he thought I ought to know about. That cd introduced me to what has become over the years, one of my favourite ever songs, Sheffield Shanty by Monkey Swallows the Universe.
The singer of Monkey Swallows the Universe is Nat Johnson. I didn’t to admit to Carl he had introduced me to a gem, so I went out and bought both of the albums, and kept a close eye on it main protagonist ever since, in her various guises. What remains entrancing about her music is its folky-quirky beauty, and the strength of its melodies and writing. So when we had the chance of an article, I jumped at the chance. If we can keep all this from Carl, then all the better.
Growing up, was music important in your house?
No one in my family was musical (though my little brother turned out to be pretty good on the guitar later on) and listening wasn’t a serious pastime in our house when I was young. All my dad’s records from when he was younger were in the attic; stuff like Kid Creole and Grandmaster Flash and I remember the cover of a Dire Straits album. My mum listened to Motown in the kitchen; Diana Ross, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson. When we went on long car journeys we listened to The Carpenters. We went on a family trip to see Michael Jackson on his Bad Tour in 1988 in Leeds.
I asked for a keyboard when I was about seven and got a little Casio – I wrote my first song on that. Also when I was seven, I started playing the violin at school; it was the only instrument offered for free tuition and all the kids were put through weird ability tests to decide which handful of pupils would be suitable for teaching. I was one of them. I kept it up til I was twelve, but it wasn’t the instrument for me. My dad had a neglected acoustic guitar in the attic too; down to the bottom two strings and then just the E string. I taught myself the bass line for Wipeout.
I watched Top of the Pops and spent my pocket money on 7” singles. When I got to my teens, I listened to Nirvana and the Manics and Cypress Hill with my friends. At 16 we were listening to the Beatles and Blur and I found Nina Simone and the Doors. At 17 I stumbled on John Peel’s show and the Delgados and Belle and Sebastian. I asked for a guitar for my 17th birthday and I taught myself to play.
So no, music wasn’t really that important to anyone else in my house, but it was crucial to me and I was supported by my family in seeking it out. It would be another few years though before I’d find the Pixies, and Offbeat at Sheffield Uni, and finally find what I’d been looking for.
You’ve always sung, though?
I’ve always enjoyed singing; but it used to be very quietly, to myself. I never dared sing in front of any grown ups when I was little. It was a hugely embarrassing thing to me. I was shy. If I did sing in front of friends, they didn’t seem to like it very much, though it’s probably because I could be bossy and was trying to instruct them to sing backing vocals to my Kylie Minogue. I joined a choir in secondary school but I was part of the crowd, I stayed quiet, just enjoying the arrangements and the harmonies. The music teacher didn’t like me much. I don’t think she liked anybody.
I had my first go at singing audibly when I joined a band in sixth form. I even took a couple of singing lessons to help my confidence. It was ok, but I was only allowed to sing lead on one song. It wasn’t my band. I enjoyed performing but I didn’t like being the ‘bit of fluff’ backing singer/extra guitarist.
It wasn’t until I met Kev (Gori) at uni and we formed Monkey Swallows the Universe that I really started singing. It took a while even then to believe that people liked it. I’ve always been – and continue to be – more proud of my songwriting than my singing though. Almost anyone can sing and I’m very happy that I can, but I work much harder at writing songs.
And what were your influences when you were starting out?
When I was 17 and teaching myself to play guitar, it was the Delgados and PJ Harvey I was mostly listening to and I think they were a definite influence on my early style. When I started writing again at uni, for MSTU, it was probably still those two, but then they’d been joined by the Pixies, Pavement, the Moldy Peaches, The Kinks, Bright Eyes, Weezer – all the hundreds of bands I’d been looking for and never found until then; then the Decemberists, the Apples in Stereo, Nick Drake, Neil Young, The Shins, The Strokes, Le Tigre, Bearsuit, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
And now? Who’s work do you always go back to?
Right now, it’s Connie Converse, Nick Drake, Joanna Newsom…people who create seemingly impossibly beautiful wonders that make you feel a little more understood and remind you to stop and look around.
I find it harder to discover new music these days. Gideon Coe on 6music is always a good place to start though, I often think we must have identical taste.
How would you describe your music to people who have never heard it?
It depends which project you mean. I’ve got a range of sounds in my portfolio; Monkey Swallows the Universe started out as quite a dark, acoustic folk thing, but we also had bouncy little pop songs and country numbers. The Figureheads had more of that too, but being a bit of an escape for me as well I was then able to make a bit more noise after being understated and frustrated for so long. Now I’m going back to what I started with, so it’s gone full circle but with a lot more experience and inspiration to guide me this time.
So how did you come to start Monkey Swallows the Universe?
Kev and I started MSTU when we were at uni. I’d found someone to help me find all that music I’d been searching for and we’d go to Offbeat at the uni and there was so much music to listen to, old and new. I knew there’d been something missing in my life til then and suddenly I found it all. That made me pick up my own guitar again and start writing for the first time since I was 17. I knew that had been missing too. I’d get drunk and say that we should form our own band. So we did.
We started playing at parties, opening for friends’ bands at pub gigs, the usual way to start out. Kev wore a hat in those days. We sat down on stage. Then Thee SPC (RIP) gave us a bit more of a leg up and we decided to recruit, expanding to a 5-piece with Andy (cello), Rob (drums) and Cate (violin). We went on tour with The Long Blondes, we started playing bigger venues, we put an album out and I started writing another. Things happened quite fast for us really and we never had anyone to tell us how to do things, or how not to do things. We were having some great times, playing at big festivals, going abroad, all kinds of parties. But we were also all trying to hold down jobs and constantly tour at the same time. It was exhausting, we never made more than enough to cover our costs, I was having disagreements with our label (Loose) and we’d end up getting ratty with each other, as anyone would. I was acting as manager and booking agent as well as being the songwriter and lead singer; I was knackered. In the end, I felt I needed to do something else – I didn’t feel happy, and MSTU was a happy band. You can’t keep that kind of band going with an unhappy frontperson. I’m fiercely proud of our two albums and everything we achieved.
After that finished, you did things solo and as part of the Figureheads?
I put a solo single out after MSTU split – Dirty Rotten Soul – and wrote an album. I recruited some friends to play on it and by the time it came out (on Damaged Goods in 2010) we’d become Nat Johnson & the Figureheads.
I write all the time; it’s just something I do. If I didn’t, I’d be miserable. When I try to ignore the need, I am denying a part of myself. It’s more about the writing and the recording for me than it ever has been about performing. I enjoy performing but I’ve never been confident with the old stage banter and a lot of people expect that. The reason I am on stage is to sing, not to talk. I’m not a stand up comedian (though I am VERY funny).
You’ve been performing as Nat, John & Son. Can you tell us about that?
Kev (guitar) moved to Cambridge over a year ago, just after we finished recording I’m Across, I’m Ashore. We were asked to play in Sheffield Cathedral for Tramlines last summer and Kev and Neil (drums) weren’t around, which meant there wasn’t much point in Chris (bass) playing either. So us girls in the band – me, Emma (Standard Fare, RIP) and Katherine – performed as a trio. We really enjoyed it, so we’ve done a couple more gigs like that recently. We named this trio version of the Figureheads ‘Nat, John & Son’. It’s nice to be able to play around with three-part harmonies.
You’ve played with some great people, What was that like? You toured with Richard Hawley, right?
When MSTU played with Richard Hawley, it was our first taste of a proper professional tour and in all honesty, we weren’t ready for it! I was in tears on the first night because the stage manager shouted at me for having too many names on the guest list (as per my prior instructions) and we were hurried on and off the stage like we weren’t supposed to be there. At Salford Lowry, poor Andy got his foot got caught in his lead and he knocked his cello over during our set. As we left the stage I heard a middle-aged man snigger ‘well that was interesting’ and I looked up and saw him kind of laughing at me. I glared at him and to this day wish I’d made a rude gesture. We were doing our best and were out of our depth. Richard, luckily, was lovely to us and it was a pleasure to see him doing his thing every night. I remember he said to me ‘You’re green now but you’ll not be green for long’.
Low are a favourite of mine so that one was a dream come true.
So tell us your plans for the Figureheads. Any album news?
We’re about to share a new song and some live footage from our Lantern Theatre gig in December., so keep an eye out for that. I’m working on a solo album this year though so no further Figureheads plans at the moment.
You had the lovely album I’m Across, I’m Ashore out just over a year ago. Is it because you have so many projects on the go at one time?
Are you calling me lazy?! I take my time, I get things right, I don’t just churn stuff out. As well as music I paint, draw, work and sometimes write, so I have plenty to keep my attention!
And your solo work? How’s that going?
It’s going great. I’m constantly writing at the moment and I’m enjoying that as much as I enjoyed writing I’m Across, I’m Ashore, which was a lot. I’m going back to the way I used to play guitar when I first started, as if I’m getting to know it all over again. I’m trying to slow down – in my life, and in my music – and I think this record will reflect that.
What process do you go through when you’re writing? Do you record everything at home, or go into a studio?
I write at home, I record in a studio. I keep a notebook. I pick up my guitar when it tells me to. I record snippets of melodies or chords onto my phone. I sometimes demo things on Garageband so that I can think more clearly about instrumentation, arrangements and structure. I used to use a tape recorder for this; I’ve got tons of tapes full of ten second bursts of songs that sometimes never were and sometimes became whole.
Any tips of new artists for us to look out for?
Public School Battalion. It’s Chris’ (from the Figureheads) new band. Chris was in Fury of the Headteachers at the same time that MSTU were around. There’s also Warren, from Urgent Talk and [Heart] Yeah! and James from Rotary Ten. All dead but not forgotten Sheffield bands.
Where can we see you in the next few months?
I’m hoping to do a few small solo sets so I can test out my new material – I’ll be supporting Neil McSweeney at his EP launch in May for one. Emma, Katherine and I are keen to do some more ‘Nat, John & Son’ gigs. I’m also collaborating with Emma and Rory McVicar in our ‘Without Feathers’ project. We’re touring end of April/early May – we’ll be at the Red House on Sunday 28 April supported by Public School Batallion.
Home. And I’m from Nottingham! I moved to Sheffield in 2000. It’s also somewhere I’ve written three songs about so far (Sheffield Shanty / The Scottish Song / The Harebell) so that should give you an idea of how much it means to me.
Thanks so much! You’re welcome!
I hate to admit it, but Carl was right. Nat Johnson in any of her guises makes beautiful, memorable and melodic music, and needs to be both better appreciated and cherished. I might have to start listening to drummers, and what they say. Could be worse, could have to listen to what they play.