There’s nowhere nicer to be on a cold winter’s evening than in one of Sheffield’s excellent back-street pubs. As I walked into the Cobden View recently, to meet up with the charming and talented Nat Johnson I think to my self; Life is good.
The last time we met was well over a year ago when she was headlining the Last of the Summer Festival, an all day event at the (then) Carling Academy and Steve Lamacq had just chosen her for his single of the week.
“We’d even made our own ‘Save 6 Music’ t-shirts It’ll be such a shame if it shuts down, as it cost so little, especially when you compare it with a certain Radio 1 DJ’s salary.”
‘I’d just released ‘Dirty Rotten Soul’, although I didn’t really know where I was going at that point. It was recorded, along with some other tracks, in rural Norfolk with Owen Turner at the Sickroom studio. I continued recording up to January of last year, mainly with Alan Smyth at 2Fly here in Sheffield. I always let Alan or Owen call all the shots, because they know what I like. It was actually Alan’s idea to record a cover of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, and it’s turned out to be my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. When the album was finished someone at Damaged Goods heard it, and they wanted to release it so we signed with them. They’ve been around since the 80’s, starting out as a punk label, and they released the first Manic Street Preachers single. At the time we were signed up we thought we’d better come up with a name. We’d been talking about it for a very very long time, but could never think of anything that wasn’t ridiculous. In the end we gave ourselves a week and came up with Nat Johnson and the Figureheads. It doesn’t have any meaning, although the boys quite like being ‘figureheads’.
The boys she refers to are three musicians familiar to anyone with any knowledge of the local scene. The new band is Kevin Gor on guitar, co-founder of Monkey Swallows the Universe, Chris Loftus, on bass and formerly of Fury of the Headteachers and Neil Piper on drums who was once with Champion Kickboxer.
‘I would like to recruit a keyboard player too, because there are some songs we can’t do live unless we have one. On the album it’s either me or Kevin. We’re on our third single now, although it’s the second with Damaged Goods, and we’re still touring to promote the album. I’m pleased with the way it sounds, even thought, five months later, looking back, I might now have done a few bits differently, but I do like it still.’
As part of her album promotion, she recently played a live session on Tom Robinson’s 6Music show.
‘For some reason I thought it was all going to be pre-recorded. If I’d known we were going to go out live I’d have been terrified. When we arrived they just told us to set up, and that we’d be going out at 7:15! When I listened back to it though, it sounded really good. Tom is a really lovely guy, and we’d even made our own ‘Save 6 Music t-shirts’, which you can see us wearing on our Myspace page. It’ll be such a shame if it shuts down, as it cost so little, especially when you compare it with a certain Radio 1 DJ’s salary.’
I was interested as to how she now viewed herself, as for a time she seemed to be existing somewhere in between being a solo artist and having a band.
‘I prefer being in a band to being on my own. It’s just not fun sitting on your own in a dressing room. I’m glad I did some solo shows, and I still do it occasionally, but I don’t really feel comfortable on stage on my own. It’s much more fun with someone else.’
Talk of her new band inevitably led us to discuss the demise of her former band Monkey Swallows the Universe. I asked her how she viewed those times and what was different about her new band.
‘Some of it was brilliant, especially the last year, so I’ll always miss it, but really it’s impossible to go back there. We were really proud of the last album we did, and even thought the instruments in Monkey Swallows the Universe made us more interesting and made us stand out; it became quite difficult working out songs, when we were limited to just those instruments. Now we’re a bit more flexible and I feel it’s easier to shape the songs into what I want them to sound like.
Our previous single, ‘Wonderful Emergency’ was actually the last song I wrote for them, but I just couldn’t make it work back then because there was really only one sound we could make. With this new band it sounds the way I wanted it to. It was a shame, but I couldn’t carry on doing things which sounded exactly the same. Maybe there was somewhere else to go, but I just couldn’t see it. Also there was the added pressure of not having any real management, which would have made a massive difference. It was all down to me and it got too much. Nobody offered, I didn’t know how to go about getting anyone and the record label did nothing. It’s much easier now we have help, and I can just get on with writing the songs.’
We ended our chat with some thoughts on how she sees her future. ‘I’m always working on new songs, so at some point I’d like to record them, but they’re not ready yet. We would love to do some festivals in the summer too. We did several with Monkey Swallows the Universe, and they were brilliant, even though I did get so sick of camping.’
Nat Johnson and the Figureheads album, ‘Roman Radio’, was released last October. The latest single ‘Wasted/Padre Volante’ is out now. After playing the Leadmill in April, they’ll be playing the Camden Crawl and The Globe in Glossop in May.