Photo: Lucia De Giovanni (www.luciadegiovanni.com)
There’s been a lot of buzz about Beautiful Empty, the new record by John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light, since its release in January. I attended the release party at Casselman’s in Denver, and wrote about it here and here. Since then, JC& BFL have continued to play and promote the record, and will be playing at the Walnut Room in Denver Saturday night, March 13–a show that’s expected to sell out. (More info on that show below.)
I recently caught up with John Common and had a conversation about how the record is doing. What follows is a transcript of that interview. I love this conversation, because I think as John shares some of the creative processes that birthed this record, we really get a glimpse of the uncommon artist inside, and the creative passions that drive him. As a musical artist myself, I was inspired, and I think you will be, too. It’s partly edited for unncessary content, but I tried to keep it as true to the heart of the conversation as possible.
OOMPH: How is the new record doing since it was released? What kind of a response are you getting from it?
JOHN: Oh, man, people are really loving it. We purposely released it in January only in Denver–we’ll start promoting it nationally this summer, and that stuff is all being planned right now–but so many of our Colorado fans and friends wanted the record that it just felt increasingly unfair not to release it locally. And what we’re hearing from people is that they put the record in, and the more they listen to it, the more they want to listen to it—which is exactly what I was hoping for. I think they’re hearing it as an entire record, rather than a bunch of single, unrelated songs. I think it’s the kind of record that unfolds the more you listen to it.
OOMPH: It seems to me like after the kind of stuff you’ve released in the past that doing a more acoustic, downtempo-style record to some might seem like a little bit of a risk. What was the inspiration behind going with a more downtempo style as opposed to your previous stuff?
JOHN: You know, when I started thinking about this record, and I started thinking about the songs, it came at a point in time in my life when I was less and less interested with being in a “rock band.” I’ve spent my whole life onstage, standing in front of a tube amp playing electric guitar–my whole musical career I’ve been that guy. And honestly, it just started being less interesting to me. And the songs I was writing were lining up with a different kind of a sound as well.
Every time I make a record, I kind of see it as a chance to take new chances, and explore a different side of my art, you know? And so I started playing around with this idea–and it sounds really simple on the surface, but it kind of had a lot of consequences–what if I made a rule for this record that the record would have no electric guitar, not one single second of electric guitar? Which seems like, “big deal.” But when you’re doing the kind of music that I’ve done, it opens the entire game up. Because it was like, “Okay, if you’re not going to have electric guitar”–all of a sudden there’s all of this sonic space that had opened up. And when I combined it with some of the songs that I was writing, like “Turnaround”, “Walter Whitman”, and “Wide Open World”, all of a sudden, when I removed electric guitar from the palatte, I immediately started thinking about orchestral sounds–layered, lush string sounds and organ sounds. And that actually connected to how I put my current band together, because…I didn’t want to just do the same things I used to on the electric guitar on the acoustic guitar, you know what I mean? I just saw it as an opportunity to grow as a writer and a singer, and almost kind of as a producer and arranger. So I started hearing string sound and key sounds and organ sounds, and all these other sounds that ended up on the record. And then it was like, “Well…I don’t know how to play cello.” [laughter]
And another big piece of it was …for my whole life I’ve been wanting to find a female singer who I could work with. Technically I guess you could say “backing vocalist”, but I saw it as certainly more than…background vocals. All of this stuff came togther…I’m bored with electric guitar, I’m interested in orchestral sounds, I met Jess and we started singing together, and then these songs that I started writing–it just kind of all happened at the right time. And, to [use] a painting analogy, once you have really amazing colors on your palatte, you don’t have to work as hard. And to not speak metaphorically, once you have a great band, and if you’re really happy with the songs you’ve written and you’re proud of them, you just have to get everybody in the same room and then let the natural courses sort of happen. And that’s what we did.
OOMPH: And you know, it kind of sounds like that–it sounds like an evolution, both on the record, and when I saw you play. It seems like that you can just tell what you described is a genuine article, that it just kind of happened. it doesn’t seem contrived–it seems like it emerged. That’s what it sounds like to me. Does that sound like a reasonable description?
JOHN: Yeah, absolutely. It was very organic, but it was also very thoughtful…everything you hear on the record was chosen. It wasn’t like a bunch of happy accidents, but the organic part was getting really good people together in a room who are every one of them artists, and then trusting their talent.
OOMPH: Right. That might be a better way of putting it–a collaboration.
JOHN: Yeah, a collaboration within a framework, if that makes any sense. I sort of defined the framework, like “this is not a rock band.” I think we get incredibly intense–I think we rock every bit as hard as any rock band, personally–but I don’t think we do it with the same vernacular. And every song–we try to be very true to the songs, And every song serves as kind of a blueprint. And when you’re working up a song and getting a sense of, what are its strengths, and what points in the song are we supposed to let it breathe versus press down, and when you do that, especially when you’re doing it with good people and it’s not your first record, you know when to let the song be the bandleader.
[It’s] really a fascinating process for me, because I view my role as like I’m kind of two people. First I’m a songwriter, and I think my job as a songwriter is to make a song–the phrase I use in my own head is “situation-proof”. Meaning like, I think if a song is good enough, you can play it on an out-of-tune guitar and you can destroy people’s hearts and minds with it. A good-enough song doesn’t require an orchestra–it can be played solo and be really effective–but also I think a good song can blossom under the right production. And so I think my job as a songwriter is to try my hardest to just make the best songs that I can make…just well-written songs. And once that’s done, there’s a different person, which is I’m a member of the band. My job is to sing, and play guitar, keyboard, piano, and sort of follow the lead of that song, let the song tell me what it needs.
OOMPH: What you’re describing to me, I think I’ve experienced at different times, where you’ve got musicians that you can turn them loose with the parameters and then you trust the results, and the results end up being beautiful, and something more than you could have created on your own…more than the sum of its parts.
JOHN: Yeah, and it happens all the time, and I think the way you’ve said it is exactly right; it’s that my job is to create a framework, first and foremost by with the song, but also by choosing the band members that I’ve chosen, by providing a super-high level of…”This is the vibe we’re going for here”, as a band, but also at the song level…and once you’ve drawn out sort of a blueprint and you give them the song, the next job is to shut up and let the organic process take over, you know, let the talent of those people shine through. And you’re right, it happens all the time…things come out, and I’m like, “I could never have conceived of that, you know? I never could have guessed how cool that would have been.”
OOMPH: Hey, what about the name of the band? Who came up with Blinding Flashes of Light, and what does it mean?
JOHN: Yeah, that was my idea. It’s referring to a couple of things. One is the type of people who I play with…well, they’re just great. They’re artists and great musicians and great singers, they’re just very, very good at what they do. And good doesn’t just mean technically good, they’re also just deep, deeply musical. And I wanted a band name that–I didn’t want it to be, you know, “John Common and the Sidemen.” [laughter]…I don’t have a bunch of “also-rans” who I play music with. They’re very important. But also, the idea behind the band name is like–this is going to sound really weird–but when music really works, when you put it in a CD [player] when you’re driving, and the song really affects you–or maybe you go to a show, and it’s just that ineffable thing that’s happening–“Blinding Flashes of Light” is just sort of another way of saying, We’re not just trying to make bar rock here. We’re not trying to be background music; we’re trying to make fundamentally gorgeous moments.
OOMPH: On a personal level, John–what are you currently listening to? Who is speaking to you most these days?
JOHN: Oh, man, that’s a great question. I…I love songwriters, and I love really good songs. And the way I listen to things is I have a core group of albums and artists who I listen to over and over again over the years, like a heavy rotation list. And I ‘ve got another list where they might not make my lifetime desert-island list, but I’m listening to their music because they’re inspiring me in the moment. Some people on the first list could be Tom Waits, Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Hoagy Carmichael, even some of the old classic songwriters from the 30’s and 40’s like Rogers and Hart, Leonard Cohen, Steve Earle…and there’s a handful of 50’s/60’s jazz artists [like] Thelonious Monk…every one of those artists are like textbooks that I keep going back to for inspiration and knowledge. And then some artists on the second list lately…oh, you know it’s interesting, but I’m gonna name these, and they’re not going to be super hip and current, ’cause I consciously purposely, I don’t like to listen to “flavor of the month”. I really actively avoid–like I don’t even want to know what’s popular. And that might be a bad idea, [laughter]…but the reason is I don’t want to be chasing what’s timely. I’d rather take a bigger a risk and try to do something that’s timeless…
So list 2…Willie Nelson’s Stardust [laughter]. I’ve been listening to this guy out of Europe, a piano player called Tord Gustavsen, amazing; Bonobo…great beats; Kings of Convenience’s last record [Declaration of Dependence]; and just the other day I realized I haven’t listened to The Grateful Dead in for-EVER [laughter], so I went and actually re-bought–because I lost ’em a long time ago–I re-bought a couple of Grateful Dead records. I grabbed a copy of American Beauty, and the record that has “Uncle John’s Band” on it [Workingman’s Dead].
And finally, these next few helped crystallize some of my thinking about Beautiful Empty: the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss record [Raising Sand]…it’s that male female vocal thing…but also the production value. It’s all those really organic, luscious, surreal sounds. I loved how on that record it sounded like amazingly good musicians playing…and it sounded like they were choosing not to overplay. And I wanted that on our record; I wanted it to sound like really good, tasteful musicians saying, “Mmm, I’d rather not play here, but I will play here.” And the last record I’d put on list 2 that helped me…with Beautiful Empty was a record by Sufjan Stevens that he put out years ago called Illinoise. It’s got lots of orchestral sounds, and arrangements, and that’s something I’ve been working on for years…as a producer, arranger and writer I’ve been working on understanding how to make–even if I did the rock band format–how to arrange or sculpt sounds so that it feels like you’re sitting in an orchestral hall and there are movements of sound, rather than, you know–drunk guy on bass, drunk guy on guitar…[laughter]…I’m not describing it very well, but that was one of the central themes for me in Beautiful Empty…I wanted to explore how to create emotional moments with that kind of orchestral approach.
OOMPH: Okay, last question: What are your plans for the coming year? You did mention something about a little bit more national promotion of your record, but do you have any definite plans for 2010 that you want to mention?
JOHN: Well, I can’t really talk about ’em too much right now, but I will say that we’re looking to…we think there’s something special in this record, and we want more people to hear it. So I kinda got a team coming together to help figure out the best way to do that. But it’ll involve all the normal stuff of getting out of town and playing shows, and hopefully connecting with some people in radio and some music writers in other towns and stuff like that.
John Common & Blinding Flashes of Light will be playing Saturday, March 13 at the Walnut Room, 3131 Walnut Street in Denver. Tickets are $9.00 advance, $12.00 day of show (if any are left), plus a $2.00 service charge. Tickets can be purchased online from the Walnut Room website. Doors at 7:30 PM; show at 8:00. This concert is expected to sell out, so get your tix early if you want to go. And even if you don’t live in Denver, you can purchase Beautiful Empty as a download from Amazon.com using the link below, or go to John Common’s website to buy a hard copy on CD.
“Turnaround” by John Common & BFL
Download Beautiful Empty on Amazon.com
Download “Beautiful Empty” from