Something happened, something changed for JOHN JOSEPH BRILL on the day he took the decision to up sticks and relocate from west London to south Liverpool. This transition, a reverse of the usual journey, brought about a sea change in how he saw his life, his music and his future. The dark intensity of his lyrics, and the atmospheric throb of his simple three-piece band are picking up keen interest from all quarters, and he continues to make the right moves. Eighteen months since that original decision to move was made, we meet in a Lark Lane pub, on a rainy summer’s afternoon, as he takes a break from rehearsing for shows on the BBC Introducing stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals. The upwards trajectory of this most intriguing songwriter is the chief topic of our discussion, with asides into the interesting back story and the undeniable healthy future of a performer whom Liverpool has come to know as one of its own, one of us.
Bido Lito!: You’ve been in Liverpool for a while now. It seems like a strange move to make to come from London and settle yourself here, and right now there are a lot of people who see you as a Liverpool act. The city, and its scene, seem to have welcomed you and made you its own. How did the move north come about?
John Joseph Brill: Well, the genesis of this project was back in January 2013, and I was living in this incredible flat in Shepherd’s Bush. I’d split from this heavy rock band I was in at the time, and was sharing this flat with a couple of great bands. I went through a weird sort of transitional phase, because everyone else was in a great band, and I didn’t have a project to my name. It was kinda hard. Then I became really ill, for about three months, and kind of used the time I had to start writing and putting together some songs. That’s where songs like Pieces and Muscle And Bone came from, and that’s when that whole EP – the Pieces EP – started to occur. Then, in May of that year, my girlfriend moved here to do a PhD. I’d been spending time in Liverpool since I was young; I’d been coming up to visit my entire life. I’d always had a very strong connection with the city, and I’d always loved the place.
I found myself coming to visit my girlfriend, and each time it was for longer and longer. She’d go off to work, and I’d wander down to Bold Street, armed with books and books of lyrics, so that, even though I was technically living in London at the time, most of the EP was actually written in Bold Street Coffee. Then I started demoing the songs back in London and eventually, in January 2014, we found a studio in Kent to record the Pieces EP. So, there was a period of about a year where I’d split from a band, written a ton of songs, spent a whole lot of time in Liverpool, and recorded an EP. I’d never met any musicians here, I was kind of working in isolation, but it became such an inspirational place to work. It feels like musical creativity is woven into the fabric of the city, you can’t escape it.
BL!: How did you go from that point to releasing an EP?
JJB: The EP was picked up by a label called Killing Moon, but they didn’t want to put it out until January 2015. So that gave me six months or so to think about what I wanted to do, and my plan became to go to Liverpool and build a band around this project. So I moved here, found this wonderful flat, and started to embed myself in the scene up here. It just felt like such a natural place for me to work in. Within a week, I’d found the band, and they’re fantastic. We started rehearsing, and it just felt so… right. It made perfect sense. We did a couple of shows, and got a lot of great support from Dave Monks, who was brilliant, playing the songs all the time. From there 6Music came along, there were some more shows – including a sold-out gig at Studio 2, which was such an affirming experience. It kind of felt like I’d been accepted as a local act, like you said. There were local musicians and bloggers in the crowd, and they were really responding well to what we do here. It was liberating, I felt more free. It was totally different to working in London, where it’s all so competitive. Here it’s collaborative, and it’s great that people are so accepting. Liverpool is just such a better place to be, creatively, and it’s just so much more of a perfect home for me than London was.
BL!: The Pieces EP is quite heavy in parts, both musically and lyrically. There’s a certain brooding kind of intensity to what you write, almost an anger about it: it’s edgy in all the right places, intimidating, even. Creating that, and matching those lyrics with the moods created by the band, is clearly a part of the process that’s important to how you shape what you do.
JJB: Yeah, it’s weird, I tend to work alone when I’m writing, mainly just me and an acoustic. But I’ve gotta say, the atmospherics and the dynamics come from working with an absolutely brilliant band. Those guys are fantastic. They totally get exactly where I’m coming from and, from the moment I first played them the EP, they clocked exactly what I was going for and that’s a real big part of it all.
When I split from my last band, I knew I wanted to concentrate on writing, on lyrics. I wanted to study and learn exactly what makes a truly good writer. Not just songwriters, authors, poets… I like people who deal with literal lyrics. For me, something like Perfect Day by Lou Reed, which on the face of it is just a list, is a great example. It’s just, you know, things that happened today. But obviously, the whole thing’s a metaphor, and there’s this really dark undertone to it, which I find appealing. I’m obsessed – absolutely obsessed – with lyrics. And one line can start it for me. I start there, poke around looking for a melody with it, and it kind of grows from there. With the song Pieces, I was out in the pub with a mate of mine, and thinking about lots of stuff that had gone on – you know, everything in that song happened – and I just decided that I had to go home at that exact moment, it was something I had to do right then, otherwise I might never write again. So I went home and got it all down really quickly, and my poor mate had to sit there the whole time until I was finished, the poor bastard.
BL!: The voice helps, particularly with that song. It’s a rich, instinctive and really individual baritone sound you have. The depth and richness will always help deliver a great lyric.
JJB: Ha, yeah! It’s kind of the school of Reed and Leonard Cohen and when Bowie goes low – I love that. There’s so much character there. When I was in a rock band previously, I was all ‘up there’, totally different, but yeah, it’s all in the depth and the tone. I kind of think it’s almost a heavier sound than a guitar through 17 amplifiers can ever bring you. You can do so much more with it.
BL!: So, 2015. What’s it brought you? Where are you at with it all now, and what happens next, another EP?
JJB: Yeah, we’re recording another, and we’re in pre-production with that. Again, Killing Moon will be releasing that, and we’re in the midst of putting all that together. Looking further down the road, I’ve written quite a large body of songs since being here, a lot of which are about being here too. I’m really so happy to be based here in Liverpool to do all of this though, I really couldn’t imagine doing it anywhere else. It’s gonna be a really special time.