Every once in a while a press release pops up in the Joyzine inbox for a track that seems to have been tailor-made for my personal tastes. More often than not the anticipation this builds is quickly followed by a sharp pang of disappointment, so when a new track, out on a fledgling South London indie label and apparantly inspired by one of my favourite authors appeared, I approached with the caution of someone bitten one time too many. Imagine my relief then when the pleasingly folkish twang of Johnny F K‘s ‘The Well’, out today on Unfocused Love Records, poured itself from my speakers.
Written shortly after finishing Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, the track explores similar themes of vulnerability, absence and love using an improvisatory method to compose the lyrics that allows them to follow their own path around the bright guitars and restrained keys.
Given the strong literary link, we invited Johnny to choose the next title for our irregular reading list, The Joyzine Book Club (check out the previous entry from Leeds art-punks Mush here), and he was kind enough to oblige.
Firstly, thank you asking me to do this! There are so many literary influences throughout this track and EP, but one of the most prominent is Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (Vintage, 1994). Newly unemployed, the novel’s protagonist Toru discovers an old dried up well off an alleyway behind his house while searching for his cat. Later, he begins spending large amounts of time sat at the bottom of this dark well in a meditative, at times hallucinatory state, and having cross-dimensional experiences while he searches for his wife, Kumiko. While mesmerised by this image I wrote the opening lines to ‘The Well’: ‘Down there in the darkness / the division was gone between me and the air that I breathe’.
I wrote the EP around a year after losing my dad unexpectedly, and in the last four years I’d lost two of my friends unexpectedly. Therefore, I’d had some counselling for grief before losing my dad, but it was a huge shock. I began to read a lot on grief and when I returned to university after that summer studying English Literature and Music, I wrote most of my assignments on grief/loss in some way for the next two years which I think was how I processed it, alongside counselling. It was difficult to do at the time but long term it helped me to make sense of it and find some meaning in the experience.
‘The Well’ was the first track I wrote for the EP, and I was totally enchanted by the novel at the time. Murakami crafts a kind of labyrinth throughout the text which reads like a long, hypnotic and mysterious prose poem. After writing the lines I mentioned, I began to improvise the rest of the lyrics and recording this process on my phone, refining them as I went but also leaving parts in unedited which gave a sense of vulnerability I think. I was listening a lot to Kurt Vile’s Bottle It In (2018) album at the time and I think there’s a kind of hypnotic element to a lot of the tracks on that album which corresponded with the hypnotic feeling of the Murakami novel. Vile’s playfulness as well was really influential in those improvised sessions and I think that further helped bring some vulnerability into the track, as I wasn’t being too self-conscious. Simultaneously, the playfulness contributes to a pushing and pulling dynamic in the lyrics which I think is really integral to the song. Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse (2011) had this great hypnotic and magical feel to it as well, particularly ‘Riding For The Feeling’. I had just discovered Bill Callahan and would imagine him as this cowboy skeleton who rides his horse across worlds, bridging the living and dead, bringing insights and stories across.
Murakami’s image of Toru sat at the bottom of the dried up well evoked a meditative, hollowed out, dark space for me and allowed me to open out into what I now interpret as an exploration of vulnerability, openness, absence, grief and love throughout the track and the EP. The speaker in the song addresses anxiety in the lines: ‘without you I’m just down there every day… don’t leave me alone’, so there is a fearfulness associated with this dark well, and the vulnerability of being down there, hallucinating bones, apparitions. Simultaneously though, being down in this hollowed out, silent space is part of carving out noise, of making ‘space for love’. The vulnerability here is integral to openness and connection. It is going down to that space which allows for joy. I think the song is made up of the tension or the struggle between those elements I associated with Murakami’s well. The image gave me a focal point to bring these themes into the music in a way which worked and felt right, and deal with grief in the broadest sense of the word. The EP deals with former friendships, relationships, and in some ways I think London itself.
In general, I think reading and listening to music is a huge part of how I engage with and understand the world and my relation to it, and interpret and explore my emotional life. I definitely view reading as a creative act itself and part of the creative process. Alongside the Murakami novel, there were so many amazing authors and books which inspired this EP including: Alex Houen’s Ring Cycle (Eyewear Publishing, 2018) – there is an incredible poem called ‘The Identification’ where he depicts the self as this spectral thing which is as much outside us and in others as it is in our own bodies), Agnes Lehóczky’s Swimming Pool (Shearsman Books, 2017), Zoë Skoulding’s The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2013) and Remains of a Future City (Seren, 2008), and Alex Dimitrov’s Together and By Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), all of which I thoroughly recommend.
Johnny F K’s new single ‘The Well’ is due for release on 19th February as a digital download via Unfocused Love Records – get yours here. It will be followed by an EP of the same name on 26th March.
Introduction by Paul Maps
Photograph by Nancy Gorman Pictures