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John Witherspoon interview: “there’s something magic about the truth”

With his debut album due for release next week, we sit down for a lengthy chat with Liverpool songsmith, John Witherspoon.

“December 1. That’s when the album’s going to be released.”

This was on the second night that Liverpool singer-songwriter, John Witherspoon, had indeed become my flatmate in early October.

In the pissing rain on a Tuesday morning in late January 2019, I was the sole occupant in a cafe on Lark Lane. The only company, Jeff Tweedy‘s memoir as the tumbleweed rolled down the lane on a cold winter morning.

“Nice one on the Tweedy. Big Wilco fan?” said the polite young man from behind the counter as I paid for my coffee.

General chatter ensued (music, footy, life in Liverpool) and when Witherspoon introduced himself and told me he was a musician and working on an album, we exchanged emails with his mixes arriving in my inbox shortly thereafter.

The precision to the production of each song was something that I had not come across from any local artist. And still haven’t. Meticulously arranged and steadily dripping with Americana and folk influences, these songs were road ready and 18 months later, all of them appear on his debut, Showin’ Up, Startin’ Again.

Songs like My Mum, On You Go and Bus Stop are pure open-hearted reflections of the songwriter himself. An affable, gentle-hearted soul who possesses old world manners and a smile that lights up the room.

These songs contain a fragile tender beauty about them. Above all, they are very real.

It’s always difficult to write about your friend’s music. Particularly a close friend because, of course, they are firstly that with anything else a mere by-product.

It would be easy to judge this as bias between writer and musician, but as a person who tries their hand at the former, it would be disingenuous to the art form itself if one wasn’t true to it. Hopefully for readers who have delved throughout these pages, they can understand this.

As a friend, you feel a deep sense of privilege to see the inner-workings unfold first hand, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about paying your dues to the music itself and having witnessed how hard Witherspoon plies his trade every single night, you can’t help but think some form of success isn’t too far away.

But it’s 2020. We all know what’s happening and need no further reminders. What does the future hold for the arts? The individual in question is very much “showin’ up”. Sadly, like many of his artistic peers, there may be a case of “startin’ again” , whenever that may be.

In the lead-up to the release of Showin’ Up, Startin’ Again, both in lockdown for the second time and (like many others) climbing the walls, ruminating on the current junctures of this life, with the kettle boiled, Witherspoon and I sat down to discuss the songs that comprise Showin’ Up, Startin’ Again.

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Sun 13: Your work ethic is very regimented – two hours every night. Is that something that you’ve developed over lockdown or has that always been your process?

John Witherspoon: “It wasn’t my process until I wrote this batch of songs. It might have been what always what worked for me as a kid of 18/19, but I never implemented it – I was much more scatty as a kid. I never had a routine, like most kids that age. I only had spells of form, like I’d write three or four songs. I wish I’d been more into routine and discipline back then and discovered it as my only way to do it, because with these songs in 2018 I started doing that. But even more so in lockdown and I absolutely love it. I thrive on it, the repeating… it’s about repetition.

“It actually came from a podcast I listened to. I don’t know whether I talked to you about this. It’s an interview with Shane Black of all people, who directed Lethal Weapon. But he’s talking in this interview about momentum and making every day the same if you’re a writer. And I’ve heard other people talk like that. Nick Cave – he has an office space and gets in at nine o’clock and leaves at five or six…

“So the long-winded answer is no, it hasn’t always been the way but it’s definitely what works for me and unless I can do the same shit every day I won’t write anything. Whilst I’m still working shifts it’s always going to be a problem.”

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S13: I don’t whether it’s a subconscious thing because I know you’re a massive Dylan and Springsteen fan and I know that they would have that same work ethic. Do you think their work methods influenced you in any way?

JW: “I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve heard about with those two. I look at them as more just addictive workaholics who never thought about anything else. Like Dylan might hate to be told to write the same way every day and have structure. But I could be wrong, he could be an absolute creature of habit. I don’t know if it works for everybody, but it definitely works for me. I just think routine keeps you sane. Like the counter to it is the artist who waits to get that strong feeling, or whatever. Katie (NicholasWitherspoon‘s partner) is like that with her poetry.

“But, what I’ve found with routine, repetition and momentum is you still get that. You’ll get rewarded for all the structure. You start to hit form. So, like the better songs I wrote for the album, say My Mum, got to sixth or seventh in line and by that point it felt automatic. Where I sat down and wrote that one day, only because it was a product of momentum.”

S13: We’ve been listening to a lot of new music in this current lockdown. Richard Dawson, Baxter Dury, Kevin Morby. I see after listening to those records that you get itchy feet and you have to go and do half an hour.

JW: “Yeah, yeah.”

S13: Do new artists give you an extra incentive for your own work?

JW: “You’re probably right. I think it’s good old fashioned inspiration. I probably need to keep my finger on the pulse more and to stay current more. I adore Dylan and The Beatles and Paul Simon and a lot of other artists I’ve listened to thousands of times. But I’m probably not going to have that same reaction from Graceland anymore, or any Dylan album.

“Yeah… It must be something as well where… I listen to Kevin Morby and I think, ‘if they like him, maybe they’ll like me’, so that gives me that ‘anything you can do…’ feeling. Also they are just great records, so I’ve been enjoying it a lot.

“I remember an interview with Steven Gerrard, when someone asked him how much football he watched as a kid. He said he never really watched any game all the way through because he’d have to run out in the garden and kick the ball around. I think it pays as a musician to listen to something, get inspired and get stuck in. Straight away.”

S13: Talking about Anfield. You’ve had a couple of songs played during half-time by George Sephton That must have been special as you’ve been going to Anfield since you were a kid.

JW: “It was. It was always on the bucket list, 100 per cent. I don’t know… It’s like a confidence thing where… I can’t say I ever really tried because I probably used to think more negatively, and think, ‘how does one even go about that?’ And it was only at my girlfriend’s gig at Parr Street when she was chatting away to this fella called George and she didn’t have a clue or care about his massive fucking Anfield career, but I was obviously starstruck straightaway and probably came on too strong (laughs), telling him, ‘my dad’s gonna be made up, I can’t believe it.’ And he was like (George Sephton impersonation), ‘you need to get out more.’

“After that – and it was probably egged on by Katie because she’s great like that – he gave me his card and he’s all over Facebook, so I just messaged him and it was that easy. So that was a lesson for me where you just have to get stuck in and ask. Most people are lovely and George Sephton is absolutely lovely and such a fan of supporting music, so long may he continue once we’re allowed back to the ground.

“[Getting played] was amazing. The first one, Mr Low Down, I missed it as I wasn’t at the game, but my mate messaged me. Then they played My Dad and I was sat next to my dad. And I suppose those things… It’s surreal. I didn’t know what to do with myself, so I left my seat for some reason and went to the toilet and then just hovered at the top of the stairs listening to the tune and looking out. The steward was like, ‘you can’t stand there.'”

S13: (Laughs)

JW: “So I was just pissing about. And then it was over and you know, no one even said anything. I think my dad was made up, though.”

John Witherspoon (photo credit: Rob Mulder)

S13: Onto the album, these songs have been in the can for a while. How does it feel to get them out there collectively as an album?

JW: “Good. Despite everything and not being able to do a launch show, or whatever. It’s been too long. People say your first album takes your whole life then the second one takes six months. I’m definitely going to be that guy because I want this second one to follow closely after. Having an album out has been the goal since I was about 10, so that’s 23 years. It’s amazing that it’s taken so long to get my act together and actually have it out. At least it’s there.”

S13: There are a lot of acoustic-based artists around Liverpool, but having listened to you, I don’t think there’s anybody with the subtle locality you have. Are you aware of that, or is that something that comes naturally?

JW: “Yeah, I’m proud, but I hope I don’t come on too strong with it. When I was younger there was probably more of an accent going on. I don’t think it’s my voice that immediately someone goes ‘Liverpool’. If you mean more in terms of the sound, the influence…

S13: I would say the way that your voice sounds. Throwing a line out there like ‘taking the piss’… That’s not really coming from anywhere else.

JW: “Yeah, that’s important to me, actually. Sweetie Pie has a few lines like that, as well. The way people talk is important to me. I don’t know where that comes from, whether it’s the kind of books I like. I’m proud in a sense that I couldn’t give a toss if large sections of the world don’t know what ‘take the piss’ means. They are just going to have to find out… But yeah, I’m super proud of where I come from but like I said, also conscious that I’m not over-egging it.

“When I did that Blue Bird to the Blue Coat event, Bob Harris from Radio 2 said, ‘of all the artists, you’re the most Liverpool-sounding we’ve heard.’ I don’t know any other way to do it.”

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S13: It’s funny because I was listening to Mercury Rev today in the car and I know you’ve only started listening to them in the last week or so, but there’s a similarity there… It’s strange when you stumble across artists that you didn’t even know existed but then you draw the lines and make some odd correlation.

JW: “100 per cent. I’m loving it at the moment, I feel greedy for things I haven’t listened to before and I think you have to try and stay in that space. You’ve got to be a scholar. And stay humbled by it. Maybe that’s a better answer to your question before about getting the bit between the teeth after listening to something new. It’s humbling. Again, I wasn’t aware of a likeness to Mercury Rev, but I’ll take it.”

S13: Showin’ Up, Startin’ Again. What inspired the title?

JW: “It’s a lyric off the song Sad and Beautiful, which is ironically the misfire, I think. I shouldn’t say that, but it’s the one track where… It’s the first one we did in the studio and I think it took a bit of time for me and Alec (Brits – producer) to understand each other better, where we wanted the sound. I don’t hate it, but it’s one of my least favourites, but that section of lyrics on verse two are my favourite lyrics off the album…”

S13: I was just about to say, it’s probably my favourite song on the album.

JW: “Oh wow. Well, I’m fucking made up with that. If anyone likes it, I’ll take it all day long. I’m not that precious an artist. If it was to blow up then great, I’d perform it every night. But that verse, ‘You play along it breaks your heart/Until you own up begging for the end/But you only boldly go so far/Then look who’s showin’ up, startin’ again‘. I’m dead proud of that verse. I don’t know where I got the idea that it’s cool to pick a less obvious lyric from somewhere and make it the album title.

S13: Craig Finn does it.

JW: “Does he? There you go, it must be a tried and tested. My point is that maybe I want people to hear that bit and realise that it’s important to me, my strongest bit in terms of what it means. I feel like I’ve been thinking about jobs quite a lot and the lyrics to On You Go are a bit like that. Like toil, working a job you don’t want to work and having dreams of more.

“I was thinking about the person who inspired that song, who was talking about their job, how they hated it and hadn’t worked for a while. It was care work and they had to go back to it. So… you play along it breaks your heart, as in trying to keep a smile on your face until you end up begging for the end (when you quit), but then you only go so far before showin’ up and startin’ again.

“It can be heard as that negative and that depressing, that you have to go back to the job. But can be seen as a positive lyric, too. To me, it also means any time I’ve dropped the music ball and given up for a while. I always come back to the music and my dreams, you can ignore them for so long, but then look who’s showin’ up and startin’ again… It can feel embarrassing, humiliating like, ‘look who’s come back’. I don’t know if juxtaposition is the right word, I just feel like that verse has got layers to it, and because of that it was my favourite lyrical section.”

Showin' Up Startin Again

S13: Mr Low Down. I know you had the track listing set in stone for a while so that must of been pretty decisive as an opener.

JW: “Yeah. I don’t know why. I just really liked that song and still do. You just get those things in your head. It was only towards the finishing of the album I started messing with the tracklist and swapping things around. But yeah, Mr Low Down just felt like an opener, I open with it live and I feel really proud about that one.”

S13: I remember the first time of listening to the My Mum demo you sent me. The recording between you and your mum. I don’t know why but I couldn’t listen to that song for a long time…

JW: “I kind of tricked her, really. I was thinking about it and how cool it would be to have some kind of snippet. I don’t know why, but I was talking to her on the phone while I was working on my demos, and I had her on speaker phone and just hit record while we talked.

“I didn’t try and manipulate the conversation or anything. We just talked. I didn’t tell her I was working on a song about her. Once I got off the phone and listened to it then chopped it up randomly to what I thought maybe sounded intriguing or had that emotional weight. I’m delighted that it has a powerful affect on you because I didn’t think too much about it. But I really like it, as well. There’s some emotion in it, when she says, ‘you’re not worried about coming home, are you? Everything’s fine here.’ It was May 2018 when my mum and dad had decided to split up. My dad was still in the house.

(Pause)

“That was it. It didn’t get any sadder than that. I mean, I wrote a song for her and a song for him and it must have been because of what was going on at the time. Breaking up after being together for over 30 years. So that’s what was going on.”

S13: My Dad has a very homely feeling to it. I think it embodies that Liverpool community and closeness. As an outsider looking in, it’s a very family-orientated city, which gives it a whole community feeling. Is it kind of a homage to that?

JW: “I was just bashing away on the piano and singing the melody in the chorus and thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something with that straightaway.’ I wasn’t thinking about homage or anything other than him.

“I think a song about my mum, about both of them was on the to do list. I always had lines I’d scribbled down about my dad but never really got around to it. I just sang the chorus with the piano and it was enough to convince me that I had to write the song because the chorus worked. So I had my chorus then I backtracked from there.

“Lyrically, it’s the exact same formula as My Mum, being completely truthful and trying to tell a story. I thought, ‘what are some of my early memories?’ then thought, ‘that’s verse one’. And both of the songs start that way – earliest memories. Like having breakfast with my dad. The things he said. The exact same thing with My Mum. Childhood then you take it somewhere else in verse two. I didn’t realise that until now.”

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S13: They do work as a companion piece in a sense. You don’t hear that many artists writing about things so close to home in such a literal sense. Was that something you were thinking about?

JW: “I’ve only ever written lyrics. This sounds pretentious, but I don’t know how to make things up from scratch. So it’s just write about what you know, and I get off on the honesty of it because I know that’s what works for people and they know when they hear authenticity, I think. So be brave and be truthful and that’s where you’ll find the best stuff. That’s the only way I know how to do it. Be truthful and be specific. Try and get into the nitty-gritty.

“With My Mum, the lyrical section I’m most proud of is the second verse when I was talking about going to see her in a Sister Act musical and it… How I write that is I’m just scribbling on an A4 page. I’m not trying to make it a song or make it rhyme but there’s something important about the story like, ‘I’d like to get this in somehow’.

“We go and see her at the show and she’s singing at this show in a crowd of nuns and I found her face. I got emotional, like… I never thought that would happen going there that night. Obviously it was a trip and it was powerful and because I’d recognised her and she’s singing in a crowd and having a nice time. So I knew I wanted to get that in, so I’m just scribbling like a journal of a memory.

“Then what I love is just the whittling down process. Because I know the melody and I know how it’s going to sound, so the challenge is to take this A4 page and fit it into a catchy two or three lines. You’ve only got that space to get that story across. And you think you can’t do it, but you can.”

S13: Going back to the songwriting and there are songs that are open to interpretation…

JW: “Yeah, I don’t just want to be a guy writing about family and friends but…”

S13: Do you leave your songs for listeners to make up their own interpretations? I guess what I’m saying is, once your song is out there in the world you don’t have full ownership of it anymore.

JW: “I’m all for that because I know what it feels like as a music fan. When you’re in that space and think, ‘I don’t know what this is about but it’s meaningful’ and you don’t want that to change. You don’t want to go behind the curtain and read up because it’s important now.

“I don’t have any grand sweeping things to say about the world. I’m certainly not a political writer, but if you’re being specific and truthful and giving your story then I think that works the best for people. There’s something magic about the truth and relating to it. I didn’t make it up. It’s there and in that sense it should be relatable.”

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S13: Tell us about Bus Stop. It was one of the later tracks you recorded, right?

JW: “It was, yeah.”

S13: Good tune.

JW: “Thanks, man. It was one of the later recordings because most of it was done in 2018 and Bus Stop and Shining Man came in a little bit later.”

S13: Tell us about both of them.

JW: “It was the end of the batch. Songwriting seems to be about batches. You have a batch then there’s a lull and a worrying period where you’ve stopped writing. They were towards the end when I was feeling full of confidence. They happened really quickly.

Bus Stop was with the piano which I was starting to do more of. It’s dead simple, about wishing you had the guts to talk to someone, for example the pretty girl at the bus stop and again there’s some specific truth to that story. I’d see the same girl a lot and never actually talked and I’m quite old fashioned, so I beat myself up about those things when I was single, knowing that I wanted to meet someone the old fashioned way but not having the guts to go through with it half of the time. I used to write a lot of songs like that because I was single and lonely (laughs).

Shining Man, I remember the genesis of it. I was listening to a Noel Gallagher interview and they asked him about guitar tunings. He said he often tuned the B string down to an A. I quite liked that one. It was a good time for me when inspiration hit and I remember listening to that and I thought, ‘I’ll try that.’

“I think, at least initially, it had a bit of an Oasis thing to it, which I thought must of happened because of that interview. I wanted it to be proudly confident. All of Oasis‘ earlier stuff was about being proud and being happy. Say what you like about them, but they had optimistic lyrics. I was in a really good place at the time. So again, it’s hard to hold onto that mood and it’s great when you’re there. It’s about being completely alright with where you’re at.”

S13: Outlaw is the obvious closing track. Kind of what you were saying earlier about On You Go with your job. Outlaw has that vibe as well, but in more of a fatalistic approach…

JW: “That’s a good observation because there’s definitely job stuff in there. It was written about me and a group of people the same age I worked with. The place was falling apart and it was me looking around to these people and thinking, ‘playtime’s over, we’re not kids anymore and maybe it’s time we got real jobs.’

“But the thing with Outlaw is, it’s one of the few I’ve written thinking, ‘what is this about?’ Definitely a bit of self reflection and looking at several people in my life and it made me think of that thing, of who you attract, your level in life. Not to shit on anybody, but you’re going to attract similar people in life, you know what I mean? Maybe that’s where I was at. But yeah, it was definitely about the job, as well. And thinking it was time to grow up.”

S13: Speaking of growing, social media has become such a prominent thing with artists these days. People our age are thinking, ‘what the fuck?’ Where do you sit with it?

JW: (Pause) “The best way for me to look at it is that it’s a discipline that you need to implement regularly and I struggle with that. If you tell yourself you only need to post something once a day, then that’s not a lot to ask. You can’t sit and moan about that, it’s a necessity.

“I was in a good spell with it during lockdown. I wasn’t for a while because when I’m in writing mode I’m so in that mode that I don’t want to tarnish it. I can’t justify spending two hours on social media when the writing’s good. But right now it’s more important to me than writing new stuff because I just haven’t worked hard enough on that side of things.

“I don’t like doing it, but there needs to be a halfway ground to find peace with it. I have to realise how simple my problem is, which is not sharing what I do. So in your head you’re this guy who’s been at it for years and feel good about your songs but you need to put videos out there. And a way to do that is go ping! They are on Instagram.”

John Witherspoon (photo credit: Rob Mulder)

S13: I think that’s an age thing, because you see a lot of younger people being very bold and sharing their material but people in our age demographic are like, massively erring on the side of caution. You’ve just got to take the plunge though, right?

JW: “You’re right. I remember when selfies became a word. I thought, ‘this is fucking shameless,’ it’s becoming okay to post photos of yourself and it’s weird. But now it’s just everywhere, every day. It just is what it is. But you’re right, there’s something with us of a certain age group that just don’t want to be seen to be blowing your own trumpet. It is essentially that.

“I’d rather been seen as cool rather than bang on about myself, but again, the stupid thing is no one is going to know who you are if you don’t. And there’s fulfilling ways of doing it. During the first lockdown period I was really enjoying it because I was trying to be spur of the moment stream of consciousness, putting a couple of paragraphs together. I enjoy any kind of writing but I don’t do it enough, so it can have huge benefits.

“Once I’m doing it and the wheels are turning, it’s great. So social media, it’s what you make of it. It’s not shit. It only is when it’s abused because we’re all addicted to it.”

S13: There was a kernel of truth you said the other day and I’ll quote you on it. “If people didn’t look at their phone for a day or so they’d be shocked at how unimportant they really are.”

JW: (Laughs) “I wish I was an exception to that. But like I say, we’re all addicted. The kids have got it worse than us. I’d like to think of myself as this guy who’s not, but I’m hopelessly addicted. If I wasn’t a musician I’d have fucked it off, but it’s a necessity, so I need to up my game on it and embrace it and again it starts with routine.”

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S13: Going back to work ethic, you’re working on a second album, which is almost complete. Care to share some details about it?

JW: “Yeah, same producer, Alec at The Cabin. I was delighted with how the first album came out. I wanted to work with Alec for years, mainly because I’d seen him play as a drummer. I asked him to play drums on the album and he said ‘yes, but I’ll produce it for you as well’. So that’s how it happened.

“There are great players on the album, most of Alec‘s contacts, not mine. The best thing about it was Henry (Burnett) on keyboards and Scott (Poley) on pedal-steel and I never envisaged those days where it would be me in the studio sat off just watching. I thought I always wanted to be involved, but that was just amazing.

“The first album batch came to an end early 2019 and then I didn’t write another song for the whole year because I wasn’t putting the time aside. I know I said about my formula earlier, but I also know it’s hard when you’re living your life and working.

“So I wrote one in lockdown because that forced me into having so much time where I could give my days to it. Six hours a day writing. Three two hour sessions. Everything the same time, getting up, working, going for a run, working, tea, doing some more until nine then clock off and watch T.V. Structure and routine. The best thing about it is the down time. I used to beat myself up about doing other things, like going out with your mates and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be here, I should be writing, what a bullshitter I am’.

“Routine allows you to down tools and have downtime at the end of the night, which makes you feel great about it. You’ve had a good day. And even if you didn’t write well, you turned up and did the sessions. That’s all you have to do and eventually something will turn up because the alternative is insane to think of. ‘What, I’m never going to finish a song if I try it for six hours every day?’ That’s impossible.

“But yeah, second album is ready, we’re recording at the moment and I’m very excited about it. I want it to be out in 2021 because I don’t want to take as long as I did with the first one, which is all my life (laughs). I don’t want to wait another 23 years.”

Showin’ Up, Startin’ Again is out on Tuesday, December 1.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

5 replies on “John Witherspoon interview: “there’s something magic about the truth””

I heard John busking on Bold St opposite station Friday 2.15.
BRILLIANT ! Just played the cd.3 times. Stunning!
Eddie though I’m 81, hard of hearing with poor eye sight.
It gave me a boost of Hope. I even started dancing !
Thank God there is at least one very talented local guy with a soul
who has survived Covid. Sheer delight. Gud Luk to him.

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