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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with Fairewell and review of debut album Poor, Poor Grendel

Johnny White is solely responsible for the beatific sounds of Fairewell. In this interview he explains how he's influenced by a combination of heavy metal and the magic of being a young child.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Fairewell by Jacqueline Valencia
Fairewell by Jacqueline Valencia.

The debut album from Fairewell starts with the beauteous tones of Grendel, after which the album is named. It’s the soporific sounds of a thousand voices, electronic rustlings gradually underpinning the sampled loops as the whole comes to life before abruptly cutting to the jangly indie pop of Others Of Us. This is a record where seemingly random influences rub shoulders and dance along together in the Faraway World of Fairewell… a fairytale land full of half recognised tunes to lull you towards a beautiful haven. But I’ll let Johnny himself explain what lies behind the dreamy sounds of his first long player.

Fairewell window
Fairewell is Johnny White – where does the quaint sounding name come from? 
I like the word a lot. It’s a reference to the song Farewell, Farewell by Fairport Convention and also I suppose to the song Farewell by Boris. Putting the ‘i’ in it makes it a really long word which I like for some reason or another. 

Fairewell illustration by Laura Ellen Anderson
Fairewell illustration by Laura Ellen Anderson.

Who is the Grendel character after which the album is named? Can you tell us plebs a bit more about him and why you were attracted to him?
Grendel is the monster from the poem Beowulf. I don’t mind admitting, in fact I take great pleasure in stating, that I only really became aware of him because of the cartoon of it that came out a few years ago (the one with Ray Winstone in it). There was something about the way he screamed that made me feel an affinity with him which is hard to explain. I don’t make a huge amount of noise or anything so I’m not sure why the screaming was such a big thing it just sounded really great. Anyhow after watching the film I read the poem and also the John Gardner novel Grendel, which is really amazing and I recommend if you like that sort of thing. It’s John Gardner’s Grendel which was really the thing that inspired the album name. Obviously Grendel is me in some way or another so the ‘poor, poor’ is slightly sarcastic, although I do genuinely like him a lot as a character feel this closeness with him. I don’t really know why, I could give you a different answer every hour on the hour for the next week. I suppose I’ve felt very alone at times, we all do of course, and Grendel is that side of me. Also it’s lamenting the fate of Grendel himself. 

Fairewell_COVER_Jo Coates
Speaking of which, who painted the album cover (featuring yourself as Grendel) and how did you hook up with the artist?
My friend and longtime collaborator Jo Coates did the painting. I just had a vague idea for this image and she brought it to life. I’m very happy with it, it even has my blue coat on!

Fairewell illustration by Calamus Ying Ying Chan
Fairewell illustration by Calamus Ying Ying Chan.

Why did you move down to London from Sheffield, and has it been everything you imagined it to be? 
Sheffield is a lovely place but I also hate it in a way. It’s hard to explain. People in Sheffield can be very smug, especially when it comes to moving to London. I think I was probably like that when I was younger. Obviously Sheffield can get rough but a lot of the city is really nice, I’m from and was born in and around the student bit, Broomhill, which is just lovely, really peaceful and green. Then you move to London and people from round there get funny about it. It’s ridiculous really. I went to the pub with some sheffield people in London last year and they were getting funny because I’d left my card behind the bar (which I’d done as there was a ten pound minimum). They played this part like they were simple god fearing northerners and I was an aristocratic playboy or something. It was just stupid really, it’s just an easy way of feeling a little bit superior to someone for no reason whatsoever – Sheffield seems to induce that inclination. The daftest thing was that I’d been borrowing money off of Wonga.com that morning. Anyhow London’s nice, I like it. I find it relaxing being in a huge place. 

fairewell johnny
Any recommendations for the best hidden places to hang out? You’ve got a bit of an obsession with supermarkets, but where else could we find you?
It’s not really an obsession with supermarkets, I just like them, I don’t see why I have to hate them. I was having a conversation with someone who said they were ‘soulless’. I just don’t see them like that. I like it that they’re the same every time and I like the feeling that I’ve got a clear objective when I’m in them. I like the lights in them. I wouldn’t really miss them if they were wiped out, I’d just go somewhere else. When I sing about supermarkets in the songs it’s also just a device to say ‘I am here, Fairewell exists in real life‘. I’m not saying ‘accept and venerate the mundanity of your existence’ because I don’t think any of it’s mundane, mundane implies I understand it all but half the time I don’t know what’s happening. Like the experience of shopping, I really have no idea what’s happening in my head when I’m shopping. Things are interesting to me. It’s better that way though isn’t it?  Other places you can find me include my flat, Big Red (on Holloway Road), other peoples flats, London’s fashionable east end, etc. I lived in Muswell Hill for a year and I became really attached to that area: I was more towards Wood Green. Wood Green is amazing, if I was ever feeling depressed I’d go down to the high street in Wood Green and feel better. 

Born Under a Bad Sign

Your music has a very dreamy and otherworldly feel not dissimilar to the current flurry of chillwave acts. What type of music inspires you? Do you mind being aligned with this genre, and what are your current favourite contemporary music acts?
I slightly mind, although I’m wary of making too much of a fuss about it that can have an effect like struggling in quicksand and ultimately it doesn’t really matter all that much. That said (!), I don’t think it’s similar to a lot of that stuff. I’ve only heard Washed Out once in my lifetime and that was only after people kept telling me it was similar, I’d never heard of them before. I’m not hugely fussed with most chillwave stuff I hear, although I’m not saying I hate it, I’m just genuinely unaware of it. In terms of musical influences I would say that metal has always been a big influence. Far, far more then anything on the indie spectrum, although I’m aware that that’s where MY music probably falls. That doesn’t seem weird to me, I think it’s better that way. It’s always better to channel one thing into another rather than just rehash something. Something like the Lurker Of Chalice album is a big influence for me. It’s hard to say really. Here’s a way of explaining it. Max Cavalera from Sepultura once said that he had a heavy guitar sound in his head and what he was doing with his music was trying to get to that sound. Well that’s what I’m doing, although with a different sound. I have this thing in my head that encompasses it all: Christmas Carols, Lurker, the score from Candyman, Fairport Convention, Simeon Ten Holt, Heart The Size of A Horse by Black Hearts Procession, all of that plus this imaginary music which I get a feeling about sometimes. When I was a kid I used to really like pushing a standard lamp with my foot because it would come back and I could repeat the action. Then I worked out how to loop things on Windows Sound Recorder, and I knew that there was something about repetition that I liked. So I have always had this kind of pseudo-minimalism in my head but minimalism with romantic harmony, similar to Simeon Ten Holt although more insistent and less pretty. That’s a big influence, trying to reach these points. The other thing is that music is often not the main influence for the music, which sounds odd, although if you just think of music as art then it seems normal. 

In terms of my favourite contemporary bands, I don’t know really. From recently I really liked the Actress album and I bought the Locrian album The Crystal World, which is intense. I am in official unofficial extra member of London (post)punk band Hygiene, so a lot of what I hear is punk although this doesn’t really influence my own stuff. In fact I wrote and recorded the Hygiene christmas single, which hopefully I’ll have to sell at my album launch. Anyhow I’m getting wildly off topic. In summation I don’t really mind about the Chillwave tag it just feels a bit like being told you have a strong accent from a region you’ve never really been to. Randall Dunn (Sunn O))) and Wolves In The Throne Room producer) said that Honey Street sounded like Dennis Wilson, which is possibly the coolest thing anyone’s ever said about my music! 

Fairewell tv
What inspires your lyrics and are there any key subjects that you keep returning to?
The lyrics always happen very quickly. I normally write and record them in one go in a daze/panic. Others Of Us was slightly different, I had that in my head for a long time. I’ve always felt like there was a version of myself that lives on trains and I activate that version when I go on the train. That’s what that’s about, but it’s maybe not a key theme. There aren’t a huge amount of lyrics on the album. Most of them deal with some kind of loneliness, not necessarily a really bad kind. I’ve spent so much time on my own walking through city centres, and that inspires lyrics. And this feeling of magic when I think about being a really young child. I feel like growing up was like coming out of a dream. I was born in the dream, and over the years I slowly woke up and I sometimes think I’ll go back to the dream after death. There’s this bit in Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree where they visit some land and it’s by the coast and one of them’s in a bed and the weather’s really hot or something… I don’t really remember the specifics but I have this really powerful feeling that there’s somewhere I can never go back to but that I’m so familiar with that it’s embedded in my senses. That feeling is probably the main inspiration for the songs. How badly am I explaining this on a scale of 9 to 10? 

Born Under a Bad Sign (free download)

Your first live gig is coming up… is that daunting and which bit are you most looking forward to?
Yes it’s daunting. To be perfectly honest I’m so nervous about it that I’d rather not talk about it in case I jinx it. I think it’ll be good though. I’m most looking forward to hearing the songs with an audience in the room. This will be a total first.

Poor, Poor Grendel is released by Sonic Cathedral on 5th December and the album launch party takes place on 6th December at The Shacklewell Arms.

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