By James Blake
An air of anticipation fills the charming basement venue at the Queen of Hoxton in East London. Soaring strings silence the audience as Jono McCleery takes to the stage to launch his new album There Is. The crowd have already been soothed by Jess Bryant and treated to a rare bluesy-acoustic set from fellow singer songwriter Jamie Woon. Before excitement levels had reached this climatic peak, I caught up with Jono to discuss how the album was put together and what the future holds for the London based artist.
This is your album launch and your first headline slot you’ve done in London. How are you feeling and what have to done to prepare for tonight?
I’m really excited. We’ve got Jess Bryant band and Jamie Woon supporting and they’re both musicians that I love so I’m really looking forward to playing. I’ll also be performing with a full strings section for the first time so that we can recreate the tracks as closely as possible to make them sound like they do on the record.
How did get to work with Ninja Tune and start producing There Is?
I got signed to Ninja Tune because they heard a remix that Fybe had done of one of my tracks and loved it and suggested that we should collaborate for an album. Once we got going I wanted to add strings and my live band to the album so it became quite ambitious but we eventually got to a stage where we felt ready to release it and tour with it as much as possible.
While you were working with Fybe (Greg) and Matt Kelly did you ever struggle to fit everything you wanted in some of the tracks? Was there anything you had to compromise with?
We all had a really big creative impact on the album. I’d have little ideas that I’d send to Greg who would add beats to them, we’d send them onto Matt to arrange the strings on the tracks. All the time we’d try to put our own different perspective on things without each other’s input then we came together and added the live band to create the set of tracks we ended up with.
How have you found translating There Is from studio to the live setting?
That’s probably been the hardest part of all really. Greg did certain things with my guitar that have been tricky to replicate, it’s taken nearly a year to learn how to play the songs the way they sound on the album. It took a long time but I’m really grateful for it because it meant I’ve had to become a better musician to be able to perform the tracks well enough.
The album seems like a natural progression from your previous work. Was the writing process intense or did you let a body of work build that you were happy with before heading to the studio?
Well most of it was written for the album so it was quite an intense thing, it took a couple of years to do but I really wanted to be inspired and motivated to put together new work rather than relying on old material.
There’s a lot of that sort of thing going on at the moment like James Blake and Jamie Woon, whose supporting you tonight. Were you conscious to put your own stamp on the electronic singer songwriter brand as it were?
Well I didn’t go out aiming to add to that scene. When we started making the album those guys hadn’t released their stuff and we thought we were onto something a little bit different but it’s ended up being in part of this new genre which has annoyed me a bit to be honest!
Then again, I’m really happy that we’ve got loads live instrumentation on there which does set it apart form a lot of that stuff.
What is it about this genre that you think works so well and has found itself slipping into the mainstream recently?
I think it’s the intimacy. There’s a lot of intimate electronic music out there that suits the moods, and the atmospheres of a normal singer songwriter just possibly adds something that you can’t achieve with a guitar, harmonica or piano.
You’ve managed to combine so many influences into the album. Vocally you go from Bill Withers to Jeff Buckly to Gil Scott Heron while Nick Drake is heavily referenced by your guitar playing. Did you have any trouble combining all these styles into the album?
No not at all. I’ve been listening to those guys’ work for such a long time know that it just seems to come naturally to me. I listened to a lot of soul music when I was young so there’s always been that aspect to my voice but it took me a while to be able to merge other influences. I’m sure there was a time when I sound like just one of them, like Nick Drake for example. Now though I’ve got to an age where it’s become a lot more natural for me to do. I’m really pleased when people can pick out all these different inspirations.
You supported one of these influences in Gil Scott Heron. How was it and did he pass on any words of wisdom?
No! I would have loved him to but we only really got to say hi to each other because he was so busy. I’ve kept in contact with his agents since and hopefully I’ll be heading over to America in 2012 to do some shows because of it. It was a lifetime ambition to support him and I was really lucky to do so. I’ve always concentrated on the next step rather than the big over all goal, so it wasn’t something that I ever actually envisaged doing. It was an incredible achievement but it also came as a big surprise.
So what is the next step after tonight’s album launch?
We’re booking a tour in France for around 15 dates, they’re receiving the album really well over there so I’m looking forward to that. Also, we’re getting some good radio play in America at the moment so I’d love to get out there and play some shows. I’ve never been to America but we’re getting a really good reception over there so I can’t wait to see to how our live shows go down over there.
Jono McCleery’s There Is is out now and he plays London’s 100 Club on November 30th.