ZoŽ Johnston

ZoŽ Johnston

Musical Discoveries: What can you tell us about your musical background prior to Sleepthief?

ZoŽ Johnston: I was raised in Nottingham, England. I'm from quite a big family and most of us were musical growing up. I used to annoy my cousin a lot by nagging her to play the piano while I sang. We used to do our own probably hideously cheesy versions of the theme tunes of our favourite TV programmes and sometimes prepare little performances for events that our parents were part of. Another of my cousins taught me how to play guitar when I was about fifteen and I started writing then.

Around this time my friends started to tell me that when I sang it made them want to cry. I wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or a terrible thing at the time but I was affected by it. I think those comments made me realise that my singing voice could tell of deep and dark things that my speaking voice could not. I have always felt understood by music. I never 'got into it'. To me it is as central and crucial to life as having a home. I've made many recordings of my own but about ten years ago I first became involved other people's projects.

I worked with house act Neon Heights and put out an album with them. Then I appeared on the debut album of the quirky sample-masters Bent' and the huge success of that meant that my voice ended up going around the globe on different TV soundtracks, compilations etc. Then Rollo Armstrong--Dido's brother and one of the founding members of the multi-platinum selling dance act Faithless--was asked to re-mix one of those songs and was surprised to learn that I was alive, as he had believed that I was an old 1930s sample from a scrappy bit of vinyl. So he asked me to be the guest vocalist on the Faithless album Outrospective. I ended up going on an international tour with Faithless for eighteen months singing for up to 90,000 people at a time.

I also worked with Paul Heaton of the massively successful The Beautiful South and trance act Above and Beyond who are all lovely guys. I'm finishing my second solo album at the moment.

How do you think your participation in the album will influence your career, fans and future?

I have no idea. I haven't really thought about it in that way, being friends with Justin the way I am. To me my participation in this album was more about cementing that friendship further, enjoying Justin's creative journey and getting to know some of the other great people Justin had invited to sing or write with him.

ZoŽ Johnston and Coury Palermo

All of those things have brought me so much in the way of peacefulness. I really hope people feel that in the songs. I am hoping this album will put the spotlight right on Justin because he's not only a dedicated and imaginative musician, he's also a powerful magnet for other artists. He is always seeking out people to join with him in creating good vibes, through music and through friendship. He has a very welcoming and appreciative attitude which makes you want to do only your very best for him.

How did you get involved with this Sleepthief album?

I received an email from Justin in early 2007, telling me how much he loved my music and just generally wishing me well with everything. It was such a warm, sincere mail and it really touched me. I wrote back to him and then we started mailing each other quite frequently, sharing thoughts and life stories, discussing music and where we were both at with our respective projects.

At some point during one of these mails Justin asked me if I would consider singing on his next album when the time came and I immediately told him I would. Then eventually the time came, I found myself on a plane to Utah and it all went from there.

What were your responsibilites on this recording?

  ZoŽ Johnston

I wrote the words and the vocal melody on "A Kind Of Magic." Justin sent me the track and was very free and open about how the whole thing turned out. There was something quite child-like about the bounciness of the original track he sent me, so I wrote something which to me has a kind of old-fashioned naivety to it.

It's a celebratory song, which felt right for where my brain was at around that time. With "Reason Why," Justin gave Coury and I a brief. He asked us to take his theme for the song and write to fit with that. He had written a very intimate tune, a very bare tune with church organ chords, and he had some really beautiful and very personal ideas about the story in there.

When it came to recording, Coury led the way on things. He is an excellent singer and very spontaneous with his writing, whereas I am much more a go-into-a-cupboard-to-think kind of person. So I followed his lead when we started the session and got into the flow of it through his immediacy. Once it had all built up a bit I wrote my verse and then we had a great time working on the harmonies. I've never worked with anybody as proficient and passionate as Coury about harmonies so - loving the endless possibilities in all that stuff - for me that was a great experience.

What was it like making the tracks?

The whole atmosphere was very relaxed in the studio, and we got into a few long fits of laughter every now and again, which always helps. Israel is a fantastic person to work with - easy-going, positive, challenging in very productive ways. In between sessions we would walk in the mountains or relax at Justin's house, so the entire experience was very therapeutic really.

What do you think contributes to the immense popularity of Sleepthief's music?

I think there's something very comforting about Justin's music. It's very pure and sincere in its mood and message. It can be quite meditational so it makes for a very soothing listening experience. I think everyone needs a bit of that at points throughout the day! It makes for a varied listen having different singers contributing to the music, too. I know that Justin has a bit of a penchant for the 80s and I personally like the fact that this has influenced a lot of the music on both his albums. It always makes me smile.

What can you tell us about your live performances in other projects or forthcoming with Sleepthief?

I am awaiting Justin's instruction with regards Sleepthief gigs! He has been talking about them so I imagine it won't be long before a plan emerges. I've done quite a bit of live stuff with other bands but I would love to get a band out touring my solo stuff, so that's my plan for the coming months.

I just came back from Beirut after playing to about 6,000 people with Above and Beyond. Just before that I was in LA for a single day, singing at a festival out there. That was a long weekend of films and food on trays, jumping off one plane and back on another in the blink of an eye. It was an adventure.

What else piques your interest and occupies your time?

  ZoŽ Johnston

I love painting and used to make my living through doing very detailed, realist portraits in oils and acrylics. I am getting back into this after taking a long break from it. I've got a portrait to paint for a friend at the moment and am looking forward to getting stuck into that.

I also write a lot and am putting together the last few pages of a book of fiction I've written. Aside from those things I spend a lot of time with my three year old son Milo, who is currently very into painting, cutting, sticking, drawing, ripping, smudging, you name it. He wakes me up every morning with a request for my help in something artistic.

This morning he was on a mission to create "a tissue paper fish tank with real water all over it and fish with googly eyes". And he won't tolerate that famous old Grown-Up line "in a minute." I like his spirit.

What do you make of the internet?

It's a very complicated question. I think the networking aspect of sites is great on the whole. It's wonderful that somebody can contact you direct if they have an invitation or query for you, or some other bit of useful information.

I'm not really a big fan of FaceBook because I don't like the avalanche of random people that comes with it. It doesn't feel intimate the way it should do. I accept that more with MySpace because that feels like a forum for fans and it works well for what it is.

I think it's great that music can be shared and recommended with ease, although I don't think this is enough to popularise it or guarantee it's success. No matter how useful a tool something like MySpace is in terms of making music and related info available to people, I think you still need many plans outside of it in order to make the music travel and grow.

And digital distribution?

In many ways I think the fact that digital distribution is over-shadowing the physical is a real shame. I don't like seeing 3/4 of a music shop filled with iPods, Nintendos, x-box games and controls now that the racks of music have shrunk and been moved to the back.

There is something so magical about rushing home to play a CD through your favourite speakers, thumbing through the little booklet full of drawings and lyrics, feeling like the experience is an intimate, meaningful one. I don't feel as close to music when it comes via the internet.

Kirsty Hawkshaw and ZoŽ Johnston

Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers?

Thanks for reading this. I hope you are doing well and getting busy making tissue paper tanks and fish with googly eyes. Lots of love.

More ZoŽ Johnston:
Sleepthief Labyrinthine Heart (2009)

interview, review and HTML © R. W. Elliot 2009
images © Kistry Hawkshaw 2009
last updated 31 August 2009

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