An Interview with Johnny Labelle
In anticipation of XVIII’s inclusion in the “Album Night” series I conducted an interview with Athens, Greece based singer/songwriter and producer Johnny Labelle. Links to Johnny’s music can be found at the end of the interview.
Did the album come out as you envisioned or did it evolve into something different once the recording began?
At first, I created demo versions of the songs with a specific vision in mind. However, after collaborating with a producer, the tracks underwent significant changes that required me to let go of my original plan and embrace a new approach. Despite the end result being different from my initial concept, I am very satisfied with the outcome.
Which track most fulfilled your expectations when it made the transition from written song to recorded song?
I would say "AK" fulfilled my expectations the most because we have managed to capture the atmospheric quality I had envisioned from the start, which was no easy feat. The songs "In The Sun" and "Visceral" also remained true to their original demo arrangements, but with "AK", we focused on elevating the sound by carefully selecting the right instruments and production elements and our attention was solely directed towards elevating the sound through the precise choice of instruments and production elements.
What instrument(s) did you play on the album?
Aside from signing, I played keyboards and synths and contributed to around half of the arrangements and programming. The producer Vasilis Dokakis was in charge of the majority of the other instrumental parts.
How long did it take to record the album?
As I mentioned earlier, the album was recorded in two phases. The initial demo phase took me roughly 2-3 months and involved writing most of the lyrics and establishing the basic arrangements. The second phase took place in the studio and spanned an additional 2 months, with intermittent pauses due to COVID-19 restrictions. This second phase brought the album to completion. All told, the album took roughly 4-5 months to record from start to finish.
Do you enjoy the recording process or do you find that it lacks the excitement of performing live?
I think that both have their unique appeals and I find joy in both aspects of the musical process.
What does the album title "XVIII" refer to?
The origin of the album's title goes back to a period when a friend of mine and I had dreams where the number 18 appeared. These experiences became a secret symbol of our synchronicity. During the album's creation, I became interested in exploring symbols and dreams, and discovered the Waite-Smith version of "The Moon" tarot card, which features the number 18. The card's depiction of a crayfish emerging from water struck me as a metaphor for the unconscious creatures that reside within our psyches, and the struggle to bring them into the light and confront them. I believe that this encounter and confrontation with our shadow selves is a crucial aspect of the creative process. Therefore, the album's title kind of represents this inner confrontation and journey towards self-liberation.
For you, which song contains the most emotion? Did it, or any of the songs, leave you feeling vulnerable either because of the lyrics or your vocal performance?
"Doppelgänger" proved to be the most challenging due to its lyrics. The process of refining them was a journey that uncovered new depth to the song, but also exposed some vulnerable parts. Despite multiple recording attempts, the emotional intensity in the vocals remained, something that in the beginning felt somewhat overwhelming but ultimately, I embraced as an aspect of the song.
Which do you think is the stronger album side? (Side A is tracks 1-4/ Side B is tracks 5-9)
I see both Side A and Side B as integral parts of the same story, and therefore cannot choose one over the other. While Side B may have a more consistent tone, both sides are equally important in shaping the overall narrative.
The one cover song on the album is "The Dolphins" by Fred Neil. What made you want to cover that song in particular?
It’s not easy to put my feelings for it into words, but I can say that despite its bleak, at first appearance, lyrics it’s a song makes me think of the inherent goodness and beauty that can be found within the deep and dark waters of being. It is the deep connection I feel with the song along with the fact that it somehow embodies all the different themes of the album all at once that made me want to cover it and put it in the album.
In the song "AK" you have one line that says "I'm afraid of Americans". Can you elaborate on that within the context of the song? Also, is the line about 'action park' referring to the "Action Park" water park that used to exist in New Jersey, USA?
The line "I'm afraid of Americans" is a reference to David Bowie’s same titled song that, in my opinion, addresses the complex and rapidly changing nature of society, and the sense of disorientation and unease that can be experienced in it. The reference to "Action Park" is meant to evoke the idea of a frenzied and chaotic environment, symbolising the fast-paced and unpredictable nature of life. The song's fragmented narrative is intended to reflect these feelings of uncertainty and insecurity, painting a picture of a world that at times can be overwhelming.
How did the album cover come to be? It seems like a perfect representation of the mood of the album?
Prior to beginning work on the album, I had been following Sasha Streshna's artwork for some time. Her painting series, "Dark Age," proved to be a significant inspiration for the album, and I even imagined using one of the paintings as the album cover. Following the completion of the album, Sasha and I discussed the possibility of utilizing various paintings from the series for the cover. However, we eventually came to a mutual decision that it would be more fitting for a new painting to be created specifically for the album cover. And so, that's what we did. It was particularly fascinating because she returned to the "Dark Age" series after six years.
Your voice is so deep and rich. Do you have a favorite microphone that you find captures it best? Or any special recording technique?
I own a Blue 'Bluebird' microphone. Although it is often criticised for not handling deeper voices well, I’ve had this mic for many years and have honed my technique with it. During the album production, we experimented with several high-end ribbon mics, but none of them seemed to work. In the end, we used a classic Rode NT-1 in conjunction with my Bluebird.
Your lyrics are quite good despite english not being your first language. Do you find the lyrics require more attention than the music because of this?
As a non-native English speaker, it's understandable to give extra attention to the lyrics to ensure their grammar and vocabulary are accurate. However, I think that this added effort can also bring about a unique perspective and creativity. That being said, I wouldn't say that more attention to lyrics than the music because of this; both elements are important in creating a well-rounded song.
The songs on this album really do a great job of establishing a mood. Do you think you would enjoy scoring a film, or at least writing one song for a film?
Yeah, I'd love to do that!
Here are some general questions:
Why do you make music?
To me, creating music is a continuation of childhood playfulness. It's a form of self-expression and creativity. Just like how playing was a way to explore and have fun, making music is a way for me to express myself and bring ideas to life. It's a source of joy, challenge, and fulfilment.
Who are some of the primary artists that have inspired or influenced you?
Music has always been an important part of my life and the diverse range of genres and styles I've explored in the years has greatly shaped not only my musical preferences and influences but also my whole being. Instead of attributing my inspiration to any particular artist, I would say that my love of music has driven me to continuously discover new and exciting sounds, and it's this ongoing journey that has been the driving force behind my musical influences.
What is your songwriting process? Do you have one consistent method or does your approach vary?
Usually lyrics and music develop together simultaneously. I don’t really have a set method or plan, but rather let creativity unfold organically. This approach can vary from song to song as each has its own unique inspiration and journey.
You have another album, May Your Dreams Come True, set to be released in March 2023. This will be your third album. Do you find that it is getting easier for you to write/record the albums as you go along or does each one present its own unique set of challenges? What part of the album creation do you find the most difficult?
I think that as time goes by, the creative process of making an album can become both easier and more challenging at the same time. With experience, certain aspects of the process may come more naturally and with greater ease, but new challenges may also arise as continuously pushing the boundaries and trying new things. Each new album presents its own unique set of difficulties to overcome, and with each new challenge comes the opportunity to improve and refine one's skills, leading to a more seamless and efficient creative process.
Do you feel that the Athens music scene is improving and getting increased international recognition? If not, what would you like to see change that would help improve its presence?
I think that over the years, Athens has experienced a remarkable artistic growth in its music scene. Despite facing challenges such as an economic recession, the small industry, almost zero public funding, and the need for the community to support itself perforce, Athenians are driven by a passionate love for music and self-expression. The city is brimming with talented musicians and exceptional music, and it is really moving to see that their efforts are increasingly being recognised both nationally and internationally.
If you could only do one of these for the rest of your life which would it be: song writing, recording or performing live?
I think I'd choose songwriting because, like I've said earlier, it brings back a sense of joy, challenge and fulfilment that reminds me of childhood playfulness. I do recognise the unique experience that live performance offers, such as the immediate audience engagement and real-time experiences and the excitement of studio time that recording offers. However it is songwriting that provides the deepest level of personal fulfilment for me.
Where can people find your music online and where can they follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for your time! I wish you continued success in your career and the best of luck with your upcoming album release!
Thank you for this interview and for the opportunity to be a part of the series!