Interview: John Allen

Posted: February 16, 2015 in Small Talk

John Allen is a German folk singer, who just released his second album Sophomore at the end of 2014. Read Hard already reviewed that here if you missed it:

He has recently shared the stage with Frank Turner, Lucero and Chuck Ragan, too, among others.

I had a Skype chat with John about the new album, his tour with Frank Turner in 2013  and his worst New Year’s Eve memory.


DB: Your new album Sophomore just came out at the end of last year. How do you think it turned out and how does it differ from your first album (Sounds of Soul and Sin)?

JA: Well, you know, I think it turned out pretty well, but I think I am supposed to say that. I really hate my album (laughs).

DB: Yeah, maybe that could be an alternative approach for the promo, to say you hate the album!

JA: Don’t buy it, it’s shit…no, seriously, I really do think that it turned out great. We had only five days in the studio to record it, and I recorded it with a couple of great musicians, but I had never met them before. So, we only met in the studio on the Monday morning and got started straight away, and we got finished by the Friday afternoon. Because I couldn’t afford any more studio time, so, you know, to make an album in such a short space of time with musicians you have never spoken to before…I think, considering this, it turned out remarkably well. I mean, it’s edgy; I wanted it to be edgy and raw and stuff. I’m pretty happy with it. And it’s also the first time I did a full band recording, ever! The first album, that came out two years ago, was basically only me on acoustic guitar and vocals, or on piano and vocals…so much, much more reduced in the sound, much darker in a way. Huge difference between the two!

DB: I noticed that you are going on tour next month with a full band, right?

JA: Absolutely, yeah. It’s the first time. I’m pretty excited about that.

DB: Is that going to be an ongoing thing now, or is it just for this tour?

JA: Well, the ways it is planned is that it’s only for this tour, but, you know, if it’s a success, I would love it to be a regular thing, because I believe that it’s much more interesting for the people, right? If you are on stage for two hours with just an acoustic guitar, you either have to be an extremely good guitar player, which I am not, or at some point, it’s going to get maybe boring for the people. But with a band, there are much more dynamics in it and you can go into many more styles, and I find that challenging for myself, because, you know, I cannot do what I want on stage now without fucking it up for the band; at the same time, I can give my songs a new sound, a new angle to them. And I kind of like that.
DB: So, how has the album been received so far?

JA: It got absolutely great reviews. From the UK, I’ve had a couple of reviews and they were both stunning. You know, it’s beyond belief, really. I get emails saying check out these reviews that just came out on the album, and then I’m reading it and I cannot even believe that they are talking about my music. I’m serious. It’s absolutely stunning. In Germany, it’s also been pretty good. I’ve had a review in the Rolling Stone magazine, which is completely unbelievable! Tom Petty on the cover and my review inside. It’s mind-blowing, really. Germany hasn’t been quite so ecstatic about the album, as England has, but still, pretty, pretty good. I would say an average of around 7 out of 10. I’m very happy with that.

DB: So, would you say that your main fanbase is still in Germany?

JA: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I’ve never really toured the UK. I played a couple of shows in England in Autumn 2013. I played London, Manchester; I played two shows in Lancaster. And I’ve toured Germany up and downwards, basically everywhere. I toured Germany with Frank Turner, so that obviously exposed many, many people to my music, so I’m doing pretty ok in Germany. I’m hitting the UK in October this year for two weeks, so lets see how that goes!

DB: Do you know who you are touring with yet?

JA: I’m touring with a friend of mine, Joe McCorriston. He’s from Lancaster, or that sort of area. We got to know each other about two years and have kept in touch. We’ve always wanted to do something together. So, he’s coming over to do his first shows in Germany in May. And we’re going to do the same tour in England in October.
DB: So, how was it that you got into playing folk music? And when was it that you started?

JA: I have basically played music all my life. I received piano lessons, classical piano lessons, when I was 6, and, at some point, I realised that you cannot carry a piano to a campfire, so I needed something else. So, I bought a guitar when I was 18, 19 maybe, and I just basically started strumming chords and learning it, and ever since then, I have wanted to express my own ideas and my own values. So I started writing songs when I was 20-23, and if you learn to play the acoustic guitar, folk music is basically the way into it. So, I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and to old blues kind of stuff. Then, friends of mine introduced me to The Gaslight Anthem, to a couple of acoustic videos of The Gaslight Anthem, and through them, I got into punk rock. I like to think that my music is somewhere in between the two extremes; between classic folk music and some of these former punk rock stars having gone acoustic.

DB: You toured with Frank Turner in 2013. How did you get involved with him?

JA: He played a show in Hamburg in May 2013, and I had tickets to the show because I’m a huge fan. A friend of mine said, “we have been queuing here for so long because we want to get to the front row; why don’t you bring your guitar and play for the queue while we are waiting?” To shorten the time. So, I did. I brought my guitar and I started to play to a couple of friends, and it started to rain and we are playing under this tin roof and it is very loud. So, I can only play songs where I strum hard. And at one point, I am running out of my own songs and I start covering and I play “Mr. Jones” by the Counting Crows. What I did not know was that that is one of Frank’s favourite songs, apparently. Usually, when I’m singing I have my eyes closed. So, I’m playing and my eyes are closed, and I open them and I stare at like 15 mobile phone cameras. Wow, how did that happen? What’s going on here? And I turn my head to the right and there’s Frank there with his harmonica and he just started to play along to me singing. And that was brilliant. He’s one of my heroes and all of a sudden, he’s standing next to me playing. So, after the show when he came out to sign autographs, to sell some merch, I walked up to him just to say thank you, because it did mean the world to me, and he said “cool, yeah, no worries, we should do something together, send me an email!” So, I emailed him the next day and after a couple of weeks, his booking office, or touring manager got back to me saying that Frank wants you on the tour and here are dates, just confirm what you can play. So, there I was, on the bill with Frank and Lucero.

DB: With Lucero, too! That’s a great story, how you met.

JA: Yeah, it’s almost surreal to me these days, but because I have told the story so often that it’s almost unreal, that I’m not the guy from the story. I’ve developed almost a third person perspective on the story.

DB: Also, regarding Frank Turner…he contributed some vocals to a song on your album Sophomore, called “Home; did he write the song with you or did he just contribute the vocals? How did it work?

JA: I wrote the song, and when he came back to tour Germany early last year, we met for a drink and I downright asked him, “would you care to sing on my album?” He was like “yeah, sure, whatever you want; I cannot make it to the studio, but record a rough cut and send it over; send me the lyrics and I will sing whatever you want me to sing!” We recorded acoustic guitar and vocals and drums and then sent it over to Frank, and he got back to us within a day or two and came up with those backing vocals.

DB: Great. It really works on the song, too.

JA: Yeah, people tell me that the song does have a Frank Turner kinda vibe in it. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I know it does work on the song.

DB: Do you have any plans to record anything else with him, or is it just a one-off?

JA: I think it is just a one-off to be fair, because he has done so much for me and I don’t want to ring his doorbell every time I need something. I think it’s a great thing, because, as I said he is one of my heroes and this is one thing that no-one can ever take away from me, the fact that he is on one of my albums, but if people get used to this, it is gonna be problematic in developing your own musical identity. Because, if in two or three years, if I am still ‘the guy who played with Frank Turner’, or ‘the guy whom Frank recorded a song with’, then I have made a couple of mistakes and a couple of bad choices. I feel a certain amount of distance is necessary over time in order for people to recognise you as an artist in your own right. ‘The guy who is being pulled into the limelight by Frank Turner’, I don’t wanna be that one…I’m super grateful for everything he has done, and I’ve told him a million times how I feel, but at one point, enough is just enough, right?

DB: So, are your lyrics written from a personal point of view?

JA: Yeah, I guess. Most of them, in a way. It’s hard to say. They are not all autobiographical; it’s not always 100% me, but there’s always a big part of me somewhere in the lyrics. I like to make up stories in a way; I like to make up stories that I can relate to and that people can relate to, but it’s not always 100% me. I don’t have to be in love to write a love song; I don’t have to be lovesick to write a very, very sad song, but whenever I write something there is always a part of me that goes into the song.

DB: I wanted to ask you about one particular lyric actually. There is a song (“Rock ‘n’ roll Romeos”), with ‘stuck between stations’ as a line in the lyrics; was it influenced by the Hold Steady song of the same name?

JA: Absolutely, yeah! I love “Stuck Between Stations”, by The Hold Steady. It’s probably my favourite song of theirs. I think the whole album, Boys and Girls in America, is a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece. I love the song “Stuck Between Stations” and I always kinda wanted to use that image; I mean, you can call it stealing if you want, but I think it’s such a great image. Yeah, I used it for “Rock ‘n’ roll Romeos”, because it resembled what I was feeling at the time when I was writing it: this not knowing where you belong. It’s like, you wanna go somewhere, but you are always kinda stuck between, because you never get to the point where you feel home, where you feel satisfied, and I love that. And I couldn’t find a better way to put it into a couple of words, so I just used theirs.

DB: It is the perfect phrasing, isn’t it?

JA: Absolutely. Actually congratulations, because you’re the very first one to spot this.

DB: Ha. I just spotted it the other day, and though, I wonder if…?

JA: Absolutely, yeah. I have to be honest about that, because, Bob Dylan once said “songwriters are like sponges”; you take up everything you know and hear, and sometimes you absorb it into your own music. I feel like that is what I am doing….you just take it and turn it into part of what is yours.

DB: And the last quesion is inspired by your song “New year’s Eve”, the first song on your new record. What is your worst New Year’s eve memory, considering the anti- New Years sentiment of the song?

JA: (laughs) Ok…usually, when I play it live, I say that my last three New Year’s Eves are in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the three worst New Year’s Eves of all time. So…ok, here’s my favourite, worst New Year’s Eve memory ever. So, it was many years ago, 5/6 years ago, I don’t know. So, I just split up from my girlfriend at the time, or she split up from me, I don’t remember, a couple of days prior to New year’s Eve. And I was invited to a mate’s party, but the party turned out to be not his party, but his girlfriend’s party and it was an Abba/ Mamma Mia themed party. And everyone had dressed up in kinda crappy Abba costumes and everyone was trying to sing to some Abba songs. And I wasn’t in the mood at all. I was glad my mate was there, but when I arrived, he was already dead drunk, basically spending his New Year’s Eve over the toilet bowl. And I was sitting on the sofa, missing my girlfriend at the time, and got drunk on my own, basically (laughs). At some point, I think about 9pm, I tried to ring her up, ringing her mobile around 21 times, but she didn’t answer. And then at 11.30pm, I was fed up and got a taxi and went to bed. I woke up the next morning with a huge, huge hangover! And hangovers are cool if you have a good party the night before, but if the party was shit…not totally worth it. I think that is one of the fondest, worst New Year’s Eves I can remember….if we are talking about lyrics that are personal, that song (“New Year’s Eve”) is 100% true!

Check John out here:


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