The mysterious Conifer John released their self-titled debut album last Friday. We caught up with the man behind the project for a chat about the concept, the unusual writing and recording processes and to get his description of the sound of Conifer John.
Could you introduce Conifer John and tell us about the concept behind the name?
Conifer John is a man who, in a rich tradition that dates back to the Romans and the Greeks, turned into a tree. One of my favourite myths is of Philemon and Baucis, whom the gods reward for their hospitality by transforming them into trees so neither will have to outlive the other. Trees are at the same time symbolic of change – like the death of leaves in the autumn which fertilise the earth for new life to grow – and of eternality since they so often outlive us. They feature a lot in folklore as well which is very appealing when you’re thinking up a folky name! There's a lot of coniferous forestry where my family live, and John is a family name, so that adds to the myth and ancient-ness of Conifer John.
There's a restless wandering feel to the songs on Conifer John. Where was the album recorded?
Oak House, Heatherden, Parsonage Road, The Knoll, and Goulden Road. I’ve moved house a lot in the last few years so I have been wandering, and a lot of the songs are about moving on from things which may explain the restlessness. Generally, the songs were recorded in many different bedrooms with different dimensions and without acoustic treatment so there isn’t a strong sense of emplacement for any of the tracks. The drum-kit was recorded in Balquhidder Village Hall in the highlands (to the great upset of the local community and Chieftain McLaren of Clan McLaren).
The songs on the album are quite complex in structure, often changing shape and form in the blink of an eye. How did your writing process contribute to that?
I tend to come up with sections independently of each other and then fit them together like jigsaw pieces. Sometimes they snap together naturally, and sometimes I have to fashion a bridge that takes the music elegantly from one moment to the next. Some parts, like the middle section of Walden Pond, are improvised and I then justify that improvisation by building harmonic context around (in the case of Walden Pond) the sampled violin part after the fact.
Are the lyrics to the songs from your own real life experiences or observations of people around you - or does your inspiration come from other sources?
It comes from a lot of places, certainly my own experiences, but I find that most of my inspiration comes from nature. Most songs are about the same things (life, love, loss, all the usual songwriting staples), and mine are no different, but the ones that resonate surround their subjects in interesting imagery. For me, most of that imagery is from nature, that's what I instinctively reach for when I want to represent a feeling. Nature has always leant folk music a mythos and authenticity, but I'd like to branch out from that trope and find less familiar ways to write.
There's a lot of interesting sounds and samples on the record. Which are the most unusual and how did they come to find themselves on the record?
There’s a super processed sample of a violin on A Flower Called Asphodel which is responsible for the alternating drones and high pitched rhythmic buzzes going on in the verses. I was going to play piano in the music practice room in Oak House halls but someone was already in there playing violin, so not to waste a journey I recorded them through the door on my phone. When I got home I chopped up the audio and massaged the pitch a bit to get it to fit in with the chord progression. Another fun sound came from archival audio of someone stumbling and falling over, which became the percussion part in Seraph.
In our opinion the songs would lend themselves very well to video. Are there any plans to create films or animations to accompany the songs?
The album is 40 minutes long and it takes roughly 40 minutes to walk my dog at home. I have some footage that I hope to edit together into some music videos soon!
The album has been written over a three year period, one of the most tumultuous times in our modern history. Has what has been going on in the outside world impacted on the way these songs have grown - or have they developed in splendid isolation?
It was in isolation, although I don't know if it was splendid... It was a tumultuous time for me too, which is where most of the content of the songs came from. I can't say that current affairs made much of an imprint on the music, but nothing really works in isolation so I'm sure there are places where the tension and discomfort outside bled through into the music. I'm an optimistic person though, so I usually look for the nicer bits of the world to bring in rather than the nasty bits.
You played a show at Salford Sacred Trinity on Friday night. Are there plans for more events around the album's release?
Yes! The show at Sacred Trinity was quite special. The venue is so beautiful that we put together a bigger show and more fleshed-out arrangements to make use of it with a drum kit, clarinet, bass, guitar, and vocals. After that things will be a little more casual, with some smaller shows and new arrangements for different instruments (but the same leafy intimacy as always)!
Is the plan to continue to write and record under the Conifer John name - or is this a one-off project and you'll return with something new?
I've released music under my own name before (Campbell Brooks - Bandcamp), but this feels like the most substantial project I've released and I want to keep up the momentum with it. Any other music I make will probably end up under the Conifer John moniker. Conifer Johniker. The opportunities for wordplay are far richer for Conifer John than my name, why would I give that up!
If you had to describe Conifer John to someone who hadn't heard anything by you, how would you do it?
Dig, if you will, a picture: a cassette tape lies settled in the soft, mossy floor of a pine forest. A sprouting stem pushes up through one of the tape spools. A woodpigeon calls overhead, the sound absorbed into the soft silence. You pull the moss away and extricate the tape, taking care not to damage the shoot. A few steps away is a portable cassette player inexplicably in very similar condition to the tape. The machine is too integrated into the forest floor to be removed, but you can still open and close the door and operate the buttons. It still works. You slot in the cassette and press play, and as you sit on the springy ground picking earth out from underneath your fingernails, you hear the sound of Conifer John.
Or if you want an appraisal from my mum, it’s “quite spacey!”
Conifer John is on Facebook and the blog can be found here.
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