Jesus Of Cool talks Johnny Cash, The Beatles and his time as a bona fide pop star
Johnny Cash came to London to play Wembley in ’81. I had this idea for a song, had the first verse, and I stayed up all night thinking, ‘Oh, I can play this for him.’ I drank I don’t know how much, but a lot. I became convinced I was Johnny. It sounded good after a few bottles of wine. The next thing I knew I was waking up to Carlene talking on the phone, saying, “Yeah, we’re looking forward to seeing you, Nick’s written this great song. He stayed up all night and he really wants to play it you.” I opened my eyes to a hideous hangover. I definitely didn’t feel like Johnny Cash! I tried to get Carlene to ring them back and to say I’d been taken ill but there was no putting them off, they were on their way to the soundcheck. I went into the garden to do some digging and get some air and suddenly this shadow came over me. It was John: “Carlene says you got this song.” So I went into the house, the sitting room was full of people, his band and nannies, June, backing singers. They’d all come in from the tourbus which was parked outside. I scrabbled around for this terrible scrawl I’d written, and instead of the sonorous voice of the night before, out and came this weedy little voice [laughs].
So what happened next? Eventually I finished and there was this silence in the room, and John, who was sitting there surrounded by his court, said, “Play it again.” It was even worse the second time. When it finished I never wanted to hear this thing ever again, but before he went, John said, “Don’t worry about it, you’re onto something.” Every time I saw afterwards he’d ask, “How’s ‘The Beast’?” I thought he was taking the piss but he meant it. Then the last time he played London, at the Albert Hall, he got me up to play with him. I didn’t want to. I’m a JC fan and if I was in the audience and saw me get onstage I’d want me off. John thought it was hilarious. Afterwards I went home and picked up the guitar and the other verses just clicked. I sent it off to him, didn’t hear anything, then my step-daughter rang me up saying, “Grandpaw cain’t stop playing that song you wrote.” The next thing, it came out on American Recordings.
It came out on your The Impossible Bird album, too. Things had really picked up for you by then…
I’d realised I had to make things work on an acoustic guitar, make my records sound like demos and sell the songs. I was looking to start that earlier on, with Party Of One, and, though it’s not for the faint-hearted, with Pinker And Prouder Than Previous – though I couldn’t get people to understand and I lacked confidence. Working with John Hiatt and Ry on [Hiatt’s] Bring The Family was a turning point, which led onto us forming Little Village. I’d also had an end to an unhappy love affair, which helped me write heartfelt songs that gave the record some bottom and maturity.
You also had a bit of a windfall, didn’t you? It coincided with me unexpectedly getting an enormous amount of money when Curtis Stigers covered “What’s So Funny…” on The Bodyguard soundtrack. It was a perfect storm, me coming up with good songs and an original sound, plus the injection of cash – ’cos I was pretty much on my uppers – to enable me to tour the record in the US, where I knew my audience was. I knew I’d lose some of my fanbase but I got a new audience with Impossible Bird, more women. Some of the rockers dropped away, it was too wet for them, and the women don’t like the old stuff, it’s too clattery. I have a more recent crowd in their thirties, which has a lot to do with me touring with Wilco. At home, people think of me as a cross between Shakin’ Stevens and a one-hit wonder like Nik Kershaw. It’s my own fault. I can play a fancy place in London. But in the sticks? Forget it.
These days you’re back with a full band…
Yes, but it’s the same aesthetic, we play quiet – glorified acoustic – but having the band means it swings and has a little more jump in it… that old thing about it’s not just the rock, it’s the roll. I have always liked groove.
Looking back, how would you sum up what you’ve achieved? I have never been one for dividing things into genres; shit music is shit music and a good song is a good song. I like to think of my stuff as ‘fly’, or ‘saucy’. They’ll do fine.
The May 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring our cover story on Buckingham Nicks. Elsewhere in the issue, there’s interviews with Elastica, Mac DeMarco, John Lydon and Mike Love. We take a trip to Morocco – North African destination of The Beatles, Stones, Hendrix and more – and look back at the life of Laura Nyro. Our free CD collects great new tracks from Father John Misty, Mark Lanegan Band, Fairport Convention, Thundercat and more. The issue also features Wire on their best recorded work. Plus Future Islands, Lemon Twigs, Sleaford Mods, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, T.Rex, Cosey Fanni Tutti and more, plus 131 reviews
Uncut: the past, present and future of great music.