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Baker's Dozen

Thirsty For Song: James Johnston Of Gallon Drunk's Favourite LPs
Julian Marszalek , November 16th, 2016 09:31

As well as being the lynchpin of suited rock howlers Gallon Drunk, James Johnston has played with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and PJ Harvey - but we're not going to hold the fact that he's picked both of them for his Baker's Dozen against him. Portrait by Steve Gullick.

As James Johnston is quick to point out, it's not all glamour touring as part of PJ Harvey's band. Speaking to tQ over the phone from Manchester, the Gallon Drunk frontman and now solo artist - more of which later - has just completed an overnight journey from Glasgow and things are left wanting to a desperate degree.

"We got to the hotel and there's no running water. It's all a bit disappointing!" he laughs. "I'm staring longingly at this bath and I had to have a wash by boiling up a bottle of complementary water and dropping it in the sink."

James Johnston is a busy man. In addition to fronting Gallon Drunk, the band he formed in 1990, Johnston has also contributed his formidable musical talents to a wide range of artists including Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Faust, Barry Adamson and Lydia Lunch. Not only did he contribute to the recording of PJ Harvey's The Hope Six Demolition Project, he's also - alongside Gallon Drunk compatriot Terry Edwards - a member of her current touring band. And somehow, amongst a timetable seemingly blocked out for months, Johnston is about to release his debut solo album, The Starless Room.

Driven by romantic balladry, lush string arrangements and the vocal accompaniment of a choir, The Starless Room is unlike anything that Johnston has been involved with before. It's a startlingly gorgeous collection of songs that flies in the face of the frequently feral output with Gallon Drunk for which he's best known. Yearning, love and redemption are all present and correct and once the initial shock of what's going on has subsided, the album reels you in and comforts you with all the warmth of a soft blanket in the bleak midwinter. Yet that said, it remains recognisably the work of James Johnston.

So why a solo album now?

"We'd done a couple of Gallon Drunk records in quick succession and I really, really liked the last one (The Soul Of The Hour) and with the prospect of trying to surpass it, producer Johann Scheerer and I thought, let's go somewhere different instead," says Johnston of the solo album's origins.

"It opened doors in that suddenly we could do whatever we wanted to try something fresh and different. I was writing stuff at home and bouncing ideas off of him via email and all the songs that seemed to have the most emotional impact were the more melodic ones. I've not really pushed that side of me before and it was a real challenge but it soon became obvious that that was the way to go."

But if the direction of Johnston's solo material soon became apparent, selecting 13 of his favourite albums by solo artists for The Baker's Dozen proved to be more of a challenge.

"It was absolutely torturous picking these albums! But at least the fact that it's solo albums helped me narrow it down to about a million rather than 10 million!" he says laughing again.

And then there was the business of determining and justifying the criteria he was going to use.

"It was a case of, 'what is a solo album?' Is it someone going solo or an established solo artist? In the end, I went for the stuff that really made an impact on my life, that brought back certain memories or stuff that meant so much. And in the context of my solo record, that means current stuff right back to things that I loved as a teenager so that made making these choices a bit easier."

And reading through these choices – all chosen in the bunk of a tour bus or a few minutes snatched alone – the impact these records have made on James Johnston soon becomes evident…

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