Later this week, Liverpool-based John Joseph Brill – born Henry Brill – will celebrate the launch of his new EP, Pieces, by playing a sold-out show at the Islington in London. It should be a triumphant occasion, but the background to the Pieces EP is less celebratory. Brill wrote the songs during a troubled period in his personal life, which included coping with a serious illness, so it’s perhaps no surprise there’s a tender, introspective melancholy running through his lyrics reminiscent of The National. Yet, just like The National’s Matt Berninger, Brill’s baritone voice often manages to evoke a warmer sentiment. I spoke to him shortly before the EP’s launch night.
You’ve already done a few interviews on the back of the EP coming out, are you enjoying them?
It’s been an interesting month or so, a really nice month. I didn’t expect the reaction it has all got, it’s been really lovely, so any opportunity to talk about it is always welcome.
You have had some good reviews – Muscle and Bone was recently picked up by Q Magazine’s ‘Five Songs to Hear This Week’ feature. Did you expect such a positive reaction?
I did to a certain extent. I’m really proud of the record, but you put something out in the world not knowing how people are going to react to it. I’m kind of the opinion that it doesn’t really matter what people think of it as long as you like it and you’re certain it’s the best thing you could be doing, but it’s nice people reacted so positively.
You were in a London-based band, Burning Beard, so how come you moved to Liverpool?
The main factor was my girlfriend moved up there to do her PhD. After a year of going up and back constantly, I sort of grew to really love it there. It’s a wonderful city, there is so much going on. People seem to be encouraged to have new ideas and be creative and that whole spirit seems to be encouraged by the community. It was interesting as I needed to find a band, and I moved up pretty much blind with no mates, what was amazing was it took about three months to have the full band sorted out. Everyone is so engaged with playing and being creative.
Did the solo venture coincide with the split from the band? What came first?
It sort of dovetailed. I was starting to write some material that I found myself holding back from the band, and I don’t know if that was instinctive – a sense that the band wasn’t going to be going on much longer – or if the songs just weren’t right for the band … I guess the writing for the John Joseph Brill project really started after I left Burning Beard, but there was a small crossover period.
Who is in the band?
I’ve known them for about four months. Joe, our guitar player, was the first guy I got involved. His best mate is the bass player – a guy called Adam, and Carl is the drummer. We basically didn’t have a drummer. We’d booked a rehearsal with no drummer and then scrambled around to find someone to do it, at the last minute we got this guy on a recommendation who turned up to the rehearsal. The moment he sat down at the kit, we thought, ‘Well, this will work’. It’s been great ever since. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed playing with people this much before.
Do you play on the records?
I play guitar and bass on a lot of the record and I write everything on guitar … Often I write the lyrics first, these rambling notepads full of bollocks, then I try to cut out all the crap and keep the good stuff.
Do you prefer playing in Liverpool or London?
Our first Liverpool gig is in March. It’s weird, I’ve been living there six months and I’ve never played a gig there, so I can’t really honestly answer.
Muscle and Bone and Pieces are both very personal songs – did you write them about a specific person or situation?
Pieces is about a specific person. It’s about an old friend who basically went from being an incredibly idealistic and interesting person to, sort of, I don’t know … chucking all that away in order to advance a career and make money. So it’s about how sad I found that, I suppose. Muscle and Bone is particularly personal as I wrote it at a time when I was quite ill and also going through all manner of large upheavals in my personal life. It was a kind of a low point, an examination of the fact that I am only human.
I read somewhere you had multiple sclerosis (MS). That must be what you’re referring to when you say you were ill?
You’re the first person to ask me this … I mentioned it on a tiny press release long before I had a record deal and only sent it to a few blogs. My thinking was I only wanted to talk about it with people who had done their research.
How has it affected you?
It’s a shitty disease, but I’m very cautious to highlight the fact that while I do have MS I have relapse-remitting MS, which means what it sounds like: it comes and goes. I’m not as badly affected by it as a lot of people are … I’m very keen to never take advantage of it to peddle my wares as it were. I don’t want to be the MS guy. I’m a songwriter very much separately from the illness and it doesn’t affect me day-to-day. I’m on really good medication, I have for the most part a pretty normal life, fingers crossed.
So it doesn’t necessarily inform your songwriting?
Not any more. It did at the time of diagnosis. At the time of diagnosis I couldn’t walk for two months and obviously, to be 25 and bed bound and not have the full use of your legs, it was all quite a shock having been fairly fit and healthy my entire life. It doesn’t inform my writing in as much as I don’t see the point in letting it be a major facet of my life, if that makes sense. Lots of people deal with it in different ways, but for me you can either be John Joseph Brill, that guy with MS, or you can be John Joseph Brill the songwriter who happens to have MS. It’s an after thought for me except when I have an attack, but those are becoming fewer, thankfully … It’s a serious illness that affects many people, within the context of people who have the disease, I’m quite lucky as, for the most part, I get to live a normal life. I never want to be perceived as taking advantage of it when there are people who suffer from it a lot worse than I do.
There’s a line in Muscle and Bone – ‘My body and brain won’t agree’ – that I presumed must have been about having MS
That is about telling my body what to do and it not listening to me. When I was having that very first attack when I got diagnosed, I couldn’t walk, not because I couldn’t move my legs but because I literally couldn’t tell them where to go. So if I stood up and started walking I might try and step forward with my right foot and it would go off to the left and I would trip over. It was sort of like being really pissed all the time, but completely in my right mind, so I couldn’t walk for swaying and bumping into things and falling over. I ended up having to walk with a cane for two months.
Thanks for taking your time to discuss it, but let’s get back to talking about music. You mentioned in a previous interview A Kind Of Blue by Miles Davis was one of your favourite albums, but what would you listen to after? What would you play next to get you out of a Miles Davis mood?
Well, that’s my morning record. I listen to A Kind Of Blue to make coffee and read the paper, I think that’s my ideal morning, so I suppose what you want is a good afternoon record a get your day going. It’s weird one, because A Kind Of Blue is so powerful and relaxing at the same time, which is a very rare trick … I think I’m going to go with a Tom Waits record, let’s go with Mule Variations. It’s brilliant. The first track is called Big In Japan, it’s so intense and full on … No, I take it back! … I want to change my answer! We’re playing my favourite game here, just talking about records. There’s a record by an artist called Songs: Ohia and the album is called the Magnolia Electric Co. I would say it’s easily one of the greatest records ever made, one of the great unheard records. He’s a guy called Jason Molina and he was signed to Secretly Canadian and released a load of incredible records under the name Songs: Ohia. This is the one real full-band record he made, the one proper rock record. He made it with Steve Albini and it’s absolutely wonderful. Lyrically he’s the best; I take more from him lyrically than anyone else. Muscle and Bone is structurally, musically and lyrically inspired by that record. He tragically died a couple of years ago, but that record is outstanding, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Are you touring the EP at the moment?
We’re doing a couple of select shows now, so we’re doing London on Wednesday [25 February], which we can officially say has sold out, and we’re doing Bath a couple of days later and then we’re off on tour in March with BC Camplight, who is also fantastic, I’ve been caning his record. Then in May, we’re probably going to do another single off the record – we’re going to put Golden Kids out with a video. We’ll do a full, headline tour in support of that. We’ve got Wood Festival lined up and we’re waiting to announce a few others.
Do you have any album plans?
Not yet. I think with a project like this, I’m in no rush. I’m writing constantly and there’s a couple of albums’ worth of material, but it still feels like really early days, especially as I’ve just got the band together. I’m really looking forward to getting them involved in a broader context in terms of writing and arranging. We’re still getting used to playing together and I’m really keen for the next EP to be a band EP, with the four of us working together, and playing it live. As proud as I am with the Pieces EP, I got lots of guest musicians to come in and play on it; it would be nice to do a record that was, you know, ‘my guys’. It’s definitely another EP, if not two EPs away before it’s time for an album. I think it would be a mistake to rush it. Were just getting out there and finding out who our fans are, so hopefully we can build that base and then eventually get to a point where it’s, ‘Right, it’s album time, here’s a document of where we’ve got to’. I think that’s the best thing an album can be.
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Interview by Craig Scott and Portraits by Rachel Lipsitz.
Rachel has her own website here: http://www.littletrousers.com/