I don’t mind you grinnin’ in my face,” sings Ethan Johns on “Morning Blues,” the second track off his new solo album. “I got a shuffle and a shake, a little noise to make.” In a number of collaborative forms, he’s put that proverbial noise to tape for years: producing and performing on inspired moments for a run of records so well-received they require little introduction. But now comes Johns’ moment on lead vocals, his own reel of tunes in tow, for a full-length set brought to fruition with the help of talented friends.
Aptly titled If Not Now Then When?, the LP found its own time to coalesce, to sprout in the spaces between the multi-instrumentalist’s other projects. First, though, a few seeds were planted: Upon playing a piece for regular collaborator Laura Marling, she encouraged Johns to share it with a live audience. “So I did and I survived it,” he says, recalling initial reluctance. Soon enough, more originals would debut onstage and be written in spare rooms during a tour with Ray LaMontagne, when the fuse was lit: “I just thought, ‘Well, wow, maybe these things don’t have to live on the shelf at my studio anymore. Maybe I can roll these out. Because it’s so much fun.’
Fun for Johns means keeping the creative spirit organic and open enough to trap an honest tune buzzing through a room — a feat he, drummer Jeremy Stacey, and engineer Dom Monks managed for a pair of early album tracks. From then on, more friends (Marling, Danny Thompson, Ryan Adams, Richard Causon, and others) would be gathered in rooms from London to Bath, England, to Johns’ own studio. Letting go of control and placing faith in the players — many of whom had entrusted his ears with their own work at times — was central to the sessions. “I’m asking them to trust me and so I then have to put myself in that position,” says Johns. “I have to look to the people I respect and admire in the room and go, ‘Okay guys, what do you think?’”
The result are 10 tracks that both thrive on the room’s raw energy and reveal the voice of a pensive songwriter ruminating on broader topics behind the scenes. From its intimate opening, “Hello Sunshine,” in which the lyrics bid a “cruel world” adieu, to pondering the human condition in “Eden,” If Not Now Then When? broaches a range of daunting questions from a wise, hard-won perspective. Meanwhile, full-band cuts like the fiddle-laced “Rally” and assertive strut of “Don’t Reach Too Far” draw on a long tradition of blues, rock and folk influences to rousing effect. There’s a pastoral side, as well, where “Red Rooster Blue” swings along to an upbeat, country thrum and “Willow” sets out on a thought-provoking ramble. At the center of the set are four minutes of repose called “The Turning,” in which “time has left us standing, caught like sculpture in a moment in the fading sun.”
For mixing the record, Johns didn’t need to look far for a pair of skilled hands he could have confidence in, as his father, legendary producer Glyn Johns, took the reins behind the board at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles. “It was a pretty awesome thing to share that experience with him, to just give him the record and have him present it,” he says. “I really left him alone to mix it the way he wanted to mix it. He’s the least hung up of anybody I’ve ever worked with — if it’s rocking, it’s rocking and it’s done.”
Of all the roles where Johns has woven a lauded mark in liner notes, If Not Now Then When? manages to knit a personal thread to the record’s cover sleeve as well. And somehow its final track, “The Long Way Round,” brings that winding path — from dusting off private songs in public through cutting them to vinyl at Abbey Road — into poignant focus: Bookended by the sound of a venue’s receptive audience caught by a stage mic, “There’s no sense to stopping now,” he sings, the meditative refrain coming to a close. “I may take the long way round.”