One lucky bonus of being the PR man for Bad Elephant Music is getting to delve further into people behind the music and getting to know who they really are. In the first of an occasional series, I have been speaking to Jon Hunt, the man behind the musical persona of jh.
We released the jh anthology ‘Morning Sun’ earlier this year and it has been well received by critics and listeners alike (see above). In a bid to get into the mind of the man behind the music, I interviewed Jon about many topics, please read on to hear what he had to say…..
First a little history……
jh is the nom de guerre of Jon Hunt, he writes, arranges, performs and mixes all his material himself, with the exception of some of the drums.
It is impossible to describe jh’s music in a nutshell, as the only ethos he has is to make exactly the music he wants with no regard to commercial thought. This makes him extremely difficult to market, but more importantly his integrity remains intact. His albums hearken back to the spirit of the ‘album’ as being an artform in itself, jh’s music is eclectic, honest, and quintessentially English. His recordings are startlingly honest pieces of work that reveal more and more on each listen.
There have been three previous albums, all of which have been self-released, 2008’s ‘Truth and Bullshit’, 2011’s ‘Wanderlust’ and 2013’s ‘So Much Promise’.
2015 has seen jh link up with the eclectic record label Bad Elephant Music to release a fourteen track compilation of his most iconic tracks to date.
Now onto the interview itself…..
Progradar – Jon, what started you on your musical journey, who or what made you want to be a musician?
jh – My dad is a piano player, so I suppose it was in my blood, I grew up around music. I suppose I always had a good ‘ear’, there was always some sort of a keyboard around the house.
Progradar – What were your earliest musical memories and influences?
jh – One of my earliest memories was spending hours at a piano at my parent’s friends’ house and just coming up with stuff and feeling like I was being taken away into a different world. I also remember listening to my parents’ vinyl collection, and losing myself in that, too.
Quite lot of classical music actually, along with easy listening. Neil Sedaka’s ‘Greatest Hits’ was played a lot. Everyone thinks of him as the guy who did ‘Oh Carol’ and ‘Amarillo’, but his more mature stuff in the seventies was actually amazing song-writing, the arrangements and melodies. I’d go so far to say some of that stuff was an influence (not that’d you’d be able to tell!).
The first records I bought were ‘So Lonely’ by The Police, and ‘The Eton Rifles’ by The Jam on 7″ vinyl. Then my next door neighbour taped me ‘Tubular Bells’ and it all went downhill from there haha! (JOKE!)
Progradar – Your first solo albums were all written, recorded and produced pretty much as a one man project, what helps and hindrances did that cause?
jh – The good thing is, if you have a strong and/or ambitious idea of what you want, you don’t have to argue with anyone to get ‘permission’! However the downside for me is that the majority of work creating an album isn’t particularly creative. Just to record and mix the thing involves so much messing about with software, levels, labelling, saving each tiny setting and programs crashing that can be infuriating.
The bits of making a record I really enjoy are when I start layering instrumentation – For instance adding bass, guitar, or harmonies to the original idea, and you hear the song come alive – that’s a real buzz. And of course having the finished product. But apart from that, it can do your head in having to cut stuff up, crossfade, add compression or reverb, if using a drummer then getting all that right and then sorting out mixing the kit, etc.
And I’m a luddite – I like to try and keep things as simple as possible, not polish them too much, I’d rather have a dodgy take with emotion in rather than a perfect clinical performance, so it’s not that I use a ridiculous amount of needless gear and effects – the complete opposite. It’s just all the boring fiddly stuff you HAVE to do, which has nothing to do with why you made the song, what you love about the song.
Progradar – As a solo artist do you like the freedom that writing and recording your own music gives you?
jh – Yes I really, really do.
Progradar – You have been described as a lyrical wordsmith, where do you get the inspiration for your songs and do you sit down and physically make yourself write them or do you carry a notebook around in which you can put idea as they come to mind and flesh them out later?
jh – I usually start with the lyrics. Or at least lyrics with a melody. I have to be in the right mood but when they are flowing they come very naturally. It can sometimes take months, though. I think lyrics (in music that has them) are extremely important and I take them very seriously.
Through talking to people, I honestly think the majority of music listeners aren’t THAT bothered. But I am! On some more recent songs I have just put long streams of thought down on a laptop, then come back to them and viciously edited and moulded them to something that sounds good, but still has its meaning. I suppose it’s like poetry really.
I did that with the title track ‘So Much Promise’ which basically is all about the mental illness that alcohol can cause some people. The problem I have now is that I’ve covered all the topics that I’m obsessed with/bothered by, sometimes more than once. I need to find some new bugbears!
Progradar – Is it easier to write the more pop inspired tunes than the more complex progressive feeling tracks?
jh – To be honest I’d say they are the same. If anything, more progressive stuff can be easier, as you can just come up with something, and build and build, it’s a great experience. Some of my best stuff has been written that way, such as ‘Making Tea Is Freedom’, and parts of the ‘London Road’ suite.
Progradar – Where did ‘Making Tea is Freedom’ come from, it seems so different to a lot of the other music that you write and record?
jh – I think it’s different to some of my stuff, but not all of it. I’ve always loved progressive rock, well, at least progressive rock that has soul and emotion. I just wanted to have a song which was like a journey, you know. As I say, quite a bit of it was sort of made up on-the-spot, and some of my best stuff comes like that, I think.
When you have something immediately and get it down, it’s obviously more true to the original emotion. That song was also kind of a statement of intent – on the first album. I remember at the time a friend said to me “Why don’t you just do a CD of your songs, and a separate CD of all your Prog sh*t”!!
That was completely missing the point – most of my favourite albums are highly varied in styles, and I pay a lot of attention to the sequencing of tracks, so the actual album is a sort of journey in itself – including the ‘Morning Sun’ compilation.
Progradar – Do you bounce your ideas off anyone before you actually finish writing an album?
jh – No, I never do. Only when mixes are nearly finished I’ll ask a couple of people that I respect for an opinion but this would only be in terms of ‘do you think the mix is alright?’ or ‘Are the vocals too quiet/loud?’, something like that.
Progradar – If someone doesn’t like your music do you take it to heart or just accept that different people have differing opinions and move on?
jh – No, I don’t take it to heart. I’m quite funny in the respect that I can put on one of my favourite albums, and if I’m with someone who I know dislikes the band , I can completely understand WHY they hate it as it’s playing! We all have different tastes.
I can completely understand why some people could find my music highly annoying, for example! (Of course, it goes without saying I completely understand why people would really love it, too haha). It’s all horses for courses, really. I’m overwhelmed and proud that ‘Morning Sun’ has had such good reviews, though.
Progradar – I believe you have known David Elliott at BEM for quite a long time, how did the tie up with Bad Elephant come about and how much of a culture shock was working with a label on ‘Morning Sun’ compared to your previous releases?
jh – I’ve known David since I released ‘Truth & Bullshit’ – he loved it and was a huge supporter. David and I talked before my second album ‘Wanderlust’ came out. This may even have been just before the first B.E.M. release, I’m not sure. But I was almost ready to release it, and had gigs, videos, promos planned etc.
‘So Much Promise’ I was in a bit of a dark place at the time, and actually recorded and released it really quickly, without really notifying anyone. Always a good way to market an album! Anyway, I wanted to make a compilation to round off those albums – I see them like a trilogy, really. I mentioned it to David one day over a murghi masala, and he said he’d be delighted to release it.
The real culture shock was having someone with a business head promoting jh material for the first time. I’ve never had a ‘business head’. People actually hearing (and hopefully enjoying) my music has been a revelation really. And of course folk like your good self who obviously ‘get’ the music spreading the word (before you were officially made PR man) – it’s a really nice feeling.
Progradar – Who inspires you musically and generally in this day and age?
jh – Anyone who doesn’t compromise when they make music, a lot of which I probably haven’t heard. This certainly applies to most of my label-mates, I think. Artists who love music so much they ‘have’ to make it, really. I don’t listen to as much new music as I’d like to to be honest.
I have to mention Steven Wilson – I’ve been listening to his music and seeing him play for over twenty years now. The fact that his latest album is to my mind the most complete album he’s done is amazing really, the quality of his work over the years, he seems to be getting even better. Now he’s having the success he deserves I keep waiting for the material to become pedestrian or ‘sell out’ or something but it never does – it’s actually getting better!
I think it’s amazing that an album as conceptually ambitious and stylistically varied as ‘Hand. Cannot. Erase.’ made the top 15 British charts or whatever it was. Hopefully it will give people confidence to make more ambitious albums, and introduce that kind of thing to people who may not have heard it.
What inspires me generally? I suppose the same things as always, hope, anticipation – the unknown in life, what can be out there if we bother to look for it, travel, opportunities, love… sorry I’m sounding like a hippy now!
Progradar – Do you think it is harder starting out as a musician in the digital age compared to the days of vinyl and single releases? What advice would you give to a fledgling musician that you would have appreciated hearing when you first started out?
jh – When I was making ‘Truth & Bullshit’ I actually had a Wilson quote pinned on the wall saying something like “Thinking about things like how to get signed, genres and what people want are irrelevant. If you want to start a band with 3 bassists go for it, you want to make a twenty-minute song? Go for it. You have a lot more chance of being successful if you do what you genuinely love.” I can’t really add to that.
I’ve known some artists who copy styles, or second guess what the next thing in fashion is, or are obsessed with the fashion/looks end of the ‘industry’. It’s bullshit. If you make the most honest record you possibly can then you can’t lose. If you’re putting loads of thought into what people will want/what people will say then you’re either not that good, or you’re making music for the wrong reasons. It’s dishonest, people will see through it and it won’t have any kind of longevity.
Progradar – Do you think that the charts are relevant in today’s world of mp3’s and file sharing and do you actually take any notice? What are your thoughts on file sharing, illegal or otherwise? I couldn’t honestly tell you if the charts are relevant or not.
jh – I couldn’t honestly tell you if the charts are relevant or not, Hmm – I’ve just contradicted what I said previously! Generally I really don’t know anything about them anymore. I have a feeling they’re mostly full of ‘product’ rather than music. File sharing is a hard one. Personally I want as many people to hear my music as possible. I’d like to think that if they got it for free and liked it then they’d buy a physical copy.
I put quite a bit of thought in to the artwork and concepts etc, and I consider all that PART of the album to a certain extent. No matter how talented an artist is, unless they have a huge major record deal, then you really don’t make a living from this. All the musicians I’ve known (some signed to quite well-known labels) have to do other things to pay the bills.
Progradar – You describe yourself as ‘quintessentially English’ what exactly does that mean?
jh – Firstly, I’m one of the minority of people who sings in an English accent (the default is American). Secondly, I do like the atmospheric ‘pedal-tone’ chords (which is keeping the bass the same and moving the chords over it) which can be very emotional and atmospheric. Tony Banks ofGenesis and Pete Townshend use this style a lot, so I think that’s associated with English bands. I also think my lyrics are steeped in Englishness, whether it be mentioning our Cities, describing our overcast weather or banging on about our fucked-up ‘very English’ human condition haha!
Progradar – Do you prefer recording music or playing it live?
jh – Or playing with friends. Ask me to play covers for two hours in a pub for money and I’ll be as confident and as slick you like… it’s a job. Albeit a job that I wouldn’t describe as ‘being a musician’, but that’s a topic for another time. Playing my own stuff in front of people, well, I have a lot emotionally invested in it, and I WANT it to be good, I do panic sometimes when things go wrong.
I’m getting better, though. If the gig is right, then yes, it’s a lot of fun and rewarding. Otherwise, I hate all the waiting around (though some musicians love this aspect of it). I hate the bullshit fawning with other bands/artists. I hate promoters who think it’s fine to charge your fans £5 each to watch you play 25 minutes on a crammed bill, make a fortune on the bar take, and not give you a token drink let alone any money.
The few gigs I do, I refuse to play those venues anymore. The best thing you can do is put on your own evening, at a venue you like, with a sound-man you trust, do your own publicity. If you make it into an ‘event’ with like-minded support acts etc, then people don’t mind paying/buying a ticket for the evening. At the Wanderlust launch, I did two sets, had projections, showed the videos in the break, and everyone got a raffle ticket and before the last song I picked 3 and they got the new album.
That’s a nice thing to do, more of an event/an evening. I would love to do a few more gigs, but as I am (and have never been) a ‘hustler’ or ‘business head’, then I’ll just do things now and again, if they seem right, and if it’s likely that people can enjoy themselves and the performance can be good.
Progradar – Name 3 albums that you think everyone should own (not including your own)?
jh – Oh blimey! The first is a complete cliché, but I’m sorry – The BlueBeatles ‘1967-1970′ album for obvious reasons. So much has been said, obviously, but to me that’s where popular music starts, and also where progressive rock starts actually thinking about side 2 of ‘Abbey Road’.
Secondly I’m going to go for ‘The Last Broadcast’ by Doves. This came out in 2002, and is such an immense record – Great song-writing, varied styles, they actually describe themselves as ‘Modern Prog’ which I would agree with. Basically all the songs have interesting instrumentation, twists and turns, deep and honest lyrics and some beautiful, moving moments – it’s the complete package as far as I’m concerned. The fact that this emotional indie album actually got to Number 1 and the guys in the band look like they’ve just turned up at your door to fix your plumbing – restored my faith in good music at the time.
Thirdly I’m going to have to say everyone should own ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ by Genesis even if they hate it. Simply because whenever I mention the ‘G’ word, most people think of Phil Collins doing that walk on the video of that cheesy song. It’s not their fault – they went huge during their really commercial era, it’s just a shame that people connect the name of the band simply to that and don’t realise there’s a vault of amazing music, especially from the seventies. The Lamb is my favourite by them and one of my all-time favourite albums. I could easily have chosen three others, by the way.
Progradar – What does the future hold for jh, is there a new album in the offing, where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
jh – There will definitely be a new jh album by the end of 2016, hopefully a lot, lot sooner. Over half of it is written albeit in skeletal form and with places to improvise. I have a lot of ‘life’ stuff going on this year that I need to sort, but I always come back to writing and recording songs… it’s like my therapy. 5 years time is a scary question. I’ve always been obsessed with the passing of time, it keeps speeding up – I’ll just TRY and focus on the present, I think…
Progradar – And, finally, is there anything else you’d like to add?
jh – This is my first ever interview! So many thanks for interviewing me, and for all your support, Martin.
A really in depth interview with an interesting man, all of jh’s back catalogue will be available soon with extra goodies from the Bad Elephant Music sales site.