With Tiny Ruins showing the way, we are perhaps in for a wave of new young Kiwi folk music exponents to come forward and enjoy some widespread popularity and genuine success. Self-described as a writer of lyric-poetry and indie-folk musician, newcomer Jack Landy has self-released an uncluttered and charming album of songs that while often plaintive and lament-laden are nonetheless succinct, vibrant and somehow uplifting. Not long back from a European OE that inspired many of the songs on this debut album, Jack talked with Richard Thorne about being lost and found.
There’s a lot to like about ‘Lost & Found’, a collection of songs that Richard Thompson might have been pleased with, presented with a voice and acoustic delivery that maintains a clear line to Bob Dylan, but also reminds in places of Paul Kelly and a dozen other folk music exponents.
The 13-track album is credited to Jack Landy, a pseudonym adopted by John Watson only after he started recording the album.
“Jack as in Jack Kerouac, a nod of the head to the beat poets because I really like their writing, and Landy is an anagram of Dylan, who is a big inspiration. I thought I’d like a pseudonym – because Bob Dylan did – and because I like the idea of it being separate to my personal life. I’m also kind of a journalist and writer and so I thought it would be the best thing really.”
The unveiled Dylan admiration extends to his playing acoustic guitar with a harmonica slung around his neck. It started back in 2007 when Watson spent six months studying in Denmark, on a student exchange at the Danish School of Journalism in Aarhus. He and his fellow international students listened to a lot of Dylan over red wine and late night conversations.
“Then back in NZ I started busking and I’d learnt heaps of Bob Dylan songs so I got a harmonica and a holder and started doing them. From there I started playing harmonica in my own songs.”
It was on that study trip that he wrote Lost In Copenhagen, which opens the album and provides an early indication of the quality of his gently metaphorical compositions. It’s a minute in before it progresses beyond two slowly picked notes plus voice and almost over before the lyrical twist is revealed.
Landy may be a figment, but his songs come with an innocent integrity and an oddly optimistic sadness. You sense the story’s real and sure enough it is. Watson’s class were staying in Copenhagen and he went for a long walk, at the end of which he had completely lost his way back to the hostel. After five hours walking about the now dark city he went into a bar and penned the lyrics. It’s one of his earliest songs.
With an admirable candour he says his songwriting began the day he broke up with his first girlfriend, at age 16.
“But then they really began when I met a girl in 2007 and had to leave her two months later to go and study in Denmark for six months. I had fallen in love with her but broke up with her because I thought that was the right thing to do. But then I got there and missed her terribly and that’s when I really started writing songs.”
Ten Million Songs came from that (‘I’d still write you ten million songs if it made you happy’) – and it obviously did the trick because they enjoyed five more years together.
“But when I really, really started writing songs, I suppose, was when I left at the beginning of 2010 to go travelling around Europe. I was just drifting around and that’s when I wrote the majority of songs on the album.”
A year out of university, Watson quit his TV job to tag along with his girlfriend when she headed to the Med seeking work on superyachts. Being pretty, he laughs ruefully, she got a job pretty much straight away, but he wasn’t to be so lucky.
“I walked the docks all across the south of France day after day, trying to find work and couldn’t. I was broke so started busking.”
The search for work took him round the Mediterranean, later spending time in Italy, Majorca, England and Morocco. Returning home to Auckland after two years spent drifting and busking around southern Europe, Watson thought he should record some of the songs he’d been writing, just for the hell of it. He settled on Depot Sound in Devonport – because of its cheap rates – and recorded with then studio manager, Mark Howden.
The result is ‘Lost & Found’, an engaging collection of folk tunes based around this now 27-year old’s acoustic guitar and harmonica – and the legacy of Bob Dylan.
“I always liked the idea that the music is a vehicle or medium to say what you want to say. The lyric or the sentiment is the most important thing and the chords are just a way to get it across to people. The emphasis for me is more on the sentiments, the allegories and the metaphors of what you’re trying to put across.”
He thinks of his music as indie-folk, and it proves a charmingly evocative blend of the music he likes, Irish and Celtic, classic troubadour folk, sea shanties and more.
“I didn’t plan to do an album. I had expected just to go in there for the weekend, but ended up taking eight months – and several thousand dollars. But once I got started on tracks I’d just hear a violin. Another song I heard a melody line for bagpipes! Lost In Copenhagen needed a cello, then it needed a whole violin section, then it needed a drum, then it needed a bass. I couldn’t let a song go until it was finished.
“It amazed me because I’d never heard violin compositions or melody lines in my head before, but all of a sudden I did.”
Watson/Landy himself played guitar, harmonica, banjo, ukulele and some drums (he studied piano until 16 when he picked up the guitar), while a friend added the violin and other instruments were sampled.
“They say that you never finish art, you abandon it, which was true. I could have been in there the rest of my life, but the sound engineer finally said, ‘That’s enough now’. I think I pushed Mark almost to the edge, but he liked my music and acquiesced a lot of the time.”
His unexpected album is self-released and on a tight budget, which makes the 28-page colour booklet enclosed even more remarkable and odd. He admits that even the printers baulked at it.
“I couldn’t help myself. I handwrote all the songs and they take a page each, and then I really wanted to include photos of all the little knick-knacks and bits of paper that I wrote on, and things I collected when I was travelling. I wanted it to be a legacy and I think it fits well with the Jack Landy thing and shows who I am.”
Well actually it doesn’t, because among all the photos used we deliberately get no clear image of the artist. He intends to give making a living as a musician a good crack, but says he doesn’t like the idea of being like a Michael Buble, with his cheesy smile splashed all across the CD cover.
“For me music is more of an art than a personal promotion and I like the idea of there being something mysterious around Jack Landy being the traveller. He isn’t really anybody, he’s a nobody, so his face isn’t important.”
As Gustave Flaubert is quoted on the album’s inner sleeve. ‘The man is nothing, his works are everything.’