Daniel Johns
Daniel Johns

“There was no sitting at a desk and saying, ‘Let’s call these people, let’s do it like this’. They were a lot of happy accidents. There were also no collaborations that didn’t work.”

Daniel Johns did an amazing performance at Sydney’s VIVID Festival last Saturday (and had a kip on his front verandah afterwards). He chats with ADAM NORRIS about his debut solo album, Talk.

The building across the street from EMI Music’s Sydney headquarters is a thoughtful sight. You can see straight through the smashed windows and broken boards to the dilapidated interior; graffiti arcs across cracked walls, garbage litters the floor.

It’s in stark contrast to the polished, comfortable interview room in which Daniel Johns sits, and it’s difficult not to juxtapose this image with the artist himself. Though his past work is hardly the stuff of indiscriminate damage, his return to the music scene finds a songwriter far distinct from his former path. He is revitalised, if resigned to the reality that some people are going to resent his debut solo album, Talk, no matter how it sounds.

“I feel like this record was always going to be divisive, but that’s just what happens,” Johns says. “Especially in my career. Some people like it, some people fucking hate me. I feel like everything that I feel or have felt is somehow represented over the catalogue of my career. Especially on Talk, and that’s part of the reason I called it that. There’s a bunch of shit that I’ve never, ever talked to anyone about. It took me two years to even write a lyric, even when the music was there. I was just using distorted voices; I couldn’t write to save myself. I didn’t know how to open the floodgates, and I didn’t know what might come out. I was kind of scared of that. But as soon as I started entertaining the idea, I thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to be a singer, I probably should say something’.”

He chuckles and looks down. There is quite a media myth surrounding Johns – for evidence, you need look no further than the overblown frenzy that followed his recent tumble outside a Sydney bar – but in person he is an engaged, softly spoken man. He listens closely to questions and does not second-guess his replies.

“They’re quite universal topics. If I feel something from the music that’s quite dark, I can tap into my reserves from when I was 19 years old. I can still feel those times. If it needs to be optimistic, I have a good relationship with my girlfriend I can tap into, or my family. It’s like a little dress-up box of emotions you can open up when you need it. And so it all dribbled out.”

Anticipation for what exactly the former Silverchair frontman has been working on these past eight years has been reaching fever pitch, and although he acknowledges the expectation, he seems largely unfazed. His goals are less aligned with astounding people with some unexpected new direction as they are needing to find new inspiration, to build a new voice – quite literally, in a sense. To that end he found disparate assistance from the likes of producers Joel Little, Louis Schoorl and Damn Moroda, and artists such as M-Phazes and Styalz Fuego.

“There was no sitting at a desk and saying, ‘Let’s call these people, let’s do it like this’,” says Johns. “They were a lot of happy accidents. There were also no collaborations that didn’t work. Every one turned out great in a different way, and then it’s up to me to bring it together, or make it sound like it wasn’t six million people all doing different things in the same room. I needed to be really quite strict about where things were going, because otherwise it could easily have just sounded like a fucking mess.

“The way that I’m singing isn’t considered in any way. It was more the freedom to not have to yell over cymbals and distortion, all of that stuff anymore. Also, because I did the bulk of the record in my living room, I felt really comfortable to gain the mic up, turn off everything electronic that was buzzing. The fridge had to go, the air filters. I just wanted to sing quite intimately, because I thought it would be nice for a solo record. It would almost be like telling secrets.”

The road from Silverchair to Talk has been a winding one to say the least, but the result is worth the wait. Johns’ lyrics are in fine form, and the music itself – though a giant, electronic stride from what most fans are accustomed to – clearly speaks of an artist pushing the limits of what he can achieve. Hearing him now in the flesh is likely to showcase exactly that.

“Live, I’d like to be quite strict. There’s the possibility of doing maybe one or two reworked Silverchair tracks, and maybe one or two Dissociatives tracks, but for Talk, I’d like it to sound like the record. Maybe with a bit more wildness, a few more effects, some craziness.

“I was really adamant on the record that stuff needed to be restrained. I didn’t want it to seem like, ‘Hey, listen to my new toy for 20 minutes’. So I’d like to stay true to the record, especially given it’s the first time I’ve played it, and the first time I’ve played with this palette. Part of my approach to this record was wanting all the emotion to be coming from me; to have the synth, the beats almost like setting a scene. Then it’s up to my voice to translate that.”