Noah Francis Johnson has just released his debut album ‘Life & Times’ and it has been received spectacularly well - getting 5 stars, and 10/10 from, what feels like, all the major newspapers and magazines in The UK. This is absolutely no surprise to us. We thought the record was brilliant. That alone would be fuel enough for excitement about interviewing him. Noah has lived an absolutely extraordinary life. From hard times in South-Wales where he had to use his more than his head to get by, to performing in working mans clubs, to where he is now.
I am sitting in my sitting room in London, the sun is shining for the fist time in, seemingly, years. After waiting for a few minutes, Noah calls me on my phone and apologises repeatedly for being (very slightly) late for the interview. From the very first moment there was a feeling of ease and good honour. Here is how our conversation went.
*He gives me what he describes as a “real scoop” at one point in the interview, and I have to say, it is a corker!
I’m well. I’m really really really well. Very happy right now.
BS - God its nice to have a positive reaction like that.
I’m in Los Angeles right now, on the way to the studio to continue work on the new record. I’m working with a guy…Do you remember Five Star?
BS - Rings a Bell (a faint one, I have to admit).
Noah - At one point they were selling more records than Michael Jackson
BS - [I laugh, while starting to 1. Wish I had heard of them, and 2. feel a little bit silly].
Noah - Yea, they sold about 1.8 million record. It should ring a bell! Anyway, they made a record called System Addict. I’m working with the guy who produced that record, and I’m off to his house now.
Yea, well I’ve been writing for my whole life, so I’m sitting on a lot of songs. I’ve sort of figured out my frequency in terms of putting my music down now, so I’m just getting to the task of recording all the songs that I have.
It has been amazing. I didn’t write an album full of singles, I just wrote something that I wanted people to judge me one, and that told people who I am, and what I am about.
BS - We really enjoyed the album. It has a great vibe, and a lot of feeling.
Thanks you so so much. I really appreciate that, and I’m glad you say that. It’s all about home - Wales, early life and that kind of thing. The songs are like children. I’ve just sent them off to school, and I’m seeing how they get on!
Great question! The moment was actually in my accountant’s office. I am not 18 years old anymore, and I know how all this works, so I was pleased to sign the deal with Universal. They are going to help with distribution and marketing.
I am releasing first in Spain. I have got an amazing connection with the people of Spain, and with the country. They have responded so well to the music. It’s one of those things where if someone loves you, you will love them back. I’ve even arranged it so that my music in Spain is under a separate label to the rest of the world - which is lovely. They are going to get the record first, as they have looked after me so well.
Yes, I was. It feels like the world doesn’t want you to be that honest. Like when you ask how someone is - usually people just want to to say ‘fine’ and get on with it. It the same in music. Anyway, I didn’t go with any formula, and if that means the some people don’t want to listen that’s ok, but I have just been completely open. As you know, one of the hardest things to do in life is to be honest, and that is what I tried to do here.
You’d be listening to me! [Lots of laughing].
BS - THAT’S honest!
Noah - Probably too honest! My kid is into Pharrell at the moment, so that’s playing a lot. I love Damien Rice, Adelle, Marvin Gaye…
BS - Sure! I’ve got a feeling it’s just one album on your iPod - and its not Adelle!
Noah - Maybe!
I know, how good is that! Everything that happens to me comes around by chance, or a blessing. I knew a guitarist who was friends with the bass player in Metallica, Robert.
BS - Yea yea, that guy that does the crab walk, right?
Noah - That’s him. Unfortunate branding, but yea! A great guy. Softly spoken, and kind. We met up in San Francisco. I am in my hotel room with him and I am singing live over some backing tracks he sent me. I’m singing hardcore, to show him that I can sing rock, too. This guy is in one of the biggest bans in the world, and when I finished he turned to me and said “Maaaan, you can sing!”. THAT was a moment. Amazing. It means that when I go into a label and come face to face with the exec’s I have an extra confidence in what I’m doing. I’ve been told by some greats - Elton John, Metallica that I’m ok, so there is a level of acceptance there.
Yea, I do get that! It is a weird one, isn’t it!? People never expect me to make the music I do. They expect me to eat a squirrels head, or something like that.
BS - You’d have Ozzie for breakfast.
Noah - I think in America its a bit more normal to look this way. Look at The Rock, Steve Austin, Stallone…
BS - Sure, but they don’t play emotional music…
Noah - I suppose they don’t. You got me on that one. I was just saying that people are used to people that size, but I guess… [a pause]
BS - They’re more used to seeing those guys beating the crap out of other people.
Noah - [laughing] yea!
BS - If the music career goes tits-up then you always have a backup!
Noah - Good point. Thanks. Actually, as we are speaking, I am driving past a shop called ‘The Fight Shop!’ it’s full of weights and punch bags.
BS - They’ve seen you and they are rubbing their hands together. Dollar signs in their eyes.
I grew up in Tiger Bay, South Wales. It was hardcore. I moved around on estates. It was like moving to different cell blocks. There was a bit of fighting. The great thing about being my size is that people tend to avoid getting into trouble with you. You don’t pick on the harder guy!
BS - Were you the guy doing the beating up?
Noah - Haha! No! I was left alone, though - so I could concentrate on making music. I boxed a little bit. My dad sent us all to boxing classes so that we could look after ourselves. The music was always there. My dad played in bands, and so I was surrounded by it. I was in love with my father. If he had been a fisherman I would have been a fisherman, but he sang, so I did too. I also liked the life of a musician! They always seemed to be having a great time.
This childhood hugely affected my outlook. My father died recently, which is tough, but I didn’t cry. As I kept telling everyone else, he always told me how much he loved life. Everyday he had a ball. He took nothing for granted, and so I try to live the same way.
BS - I’m sorry to hear that, but it sounds like you’ve managed to take an amazing perspective from it.
I’m going to give you a *scoop* here. At my last show a guy called Jean-Michel Bernard came. He is a very well respected French composer, and he was the musical director for Ray Charles. My fathers favourite artist of all time was Ray Charles, so I have a real love for him, too. Anyway, he played with me on stage that night and then called me the next day. He asked me if I would finish and record Ray Charles’ unrecorded last album that they had been working on together before Ray died.
BS - Wow.
Noah - He wants me to sing the whole album. He said I reminded him of Ray, and so it would feel right. It will be my record when it comes out, but dedicated to Ray. I want to dedicate money to charity through the sales of it, and do right by Ray.
BS - That is a huge honour, and an unbelievable opportunity.
[lots of laughing] It was great! It was a naive time for me - in a great way. When you’re naive you do silly things. For whatever reason, I just did it - so I could get a shocking picture. It was a time when I could go against the ‘rules’ and do something a bit out there! It was commuter time, too, so there were all of the business people going to work, and there I was doing my work. Kind of.
After thanking Noah, and agreeing to have an arm wrestle next time he is in town (not really, we actually agreed on a soda [not a joke]), we ring off. What a lovely guy.