He’s the musical enigma who returned from the shadows with this year’s brilliant debut solo album. Just don’t call him a rock star.
Daniel Johns does what he likes, when he likes, and if people don’t think he should be writing airline jingles between churning out ear-pleasing tunes that defy his past, he doesn’t give a shit. “I don’t know if it sounds arrogant, but I look at my career more like a painter than a musician. And if someone commissions me to write a piece, I’m like, ‘OK, sure, why not?’” says the sliver of a man who was once a Silverchair rock-boy, his voice high and husky. “Every time you get an opportunity to do something you wouldn’t normally do, just do it. Pretty much anything someone asks me to do that I haven’t tried before, I’m going to say yes. So if Qantas [Johns wrote and arranged the music for the airline’s 2012 brand advertisement] wants to give me money to pen a song, why wouldn’t I do it? I don’t really give a fuck what people are going to say about it.” Such an attitude furthers why his widely-acclaimed frst solo album, Talk, was eight years in the making. “Actually the whole duration of writing Talk and the idea of being a solo artist [ Johns called time on Silverchair in 2011] is a protest against being a rock star. I mean, I love rock stars – I just don’t want to be one.” Fame, he unsurprisingly offers, is a concept simply labelled “bullshit”. “I’m far more happy with the idea of being a successful artist, doing work with artistic merit, than I am being a celebrity. The fame thing gets in the way of what I’m trying to do, in the way of life.” Avoiding the paps and general palaver that comes with recognition is one of the reasons the 36-year-old still lives in Newcastle. Johns bought his coastal house north of Sydney aged 20, with Silverchair money, and it remains the place he’s drawn to. “It’s a shame I love Australia so much,” he chuckles. “I’ve entertained the idea of living overseas before, and tried it, but what happens is I get there, I last three weeks and I miss the Australian air, the beach, the sky. And then I’m on a plane back home again.” It’s at home that he’s inspired to write, “constantly”, and “noodle around” on synthesisers. While early career tracks were dirty-distortion anthems crafted on guitar (“because it was the only instrument I even vaguely knew how to play”), Johns has become a piano convert in later life, thanks to what he calls a severe case of musical ADD. It’s a shift obvious on Talk, the album devoid of crunching chords in favour of ‘Purple Rain’-prince efforts, alongside pared-back collaborations with The Presets’ Julian Hamilton, a man whom Johns penned Silverchair’s 2007 hit ‘Straight Lines’. “That’s one of the only tracks in my career when I can say we got to the end of it, looked at each other, did a high fve, and said, ‘Well, if that’s not a hit then I don’t know how to write one.’ It sounded like a classic song, straight away, and it wasn’t by design, it just happened. I was just so happy and so privileged to be in the room. And for some reason I was really proud of the lyric, too. I normally hate writing lyrics.” While the orchestral swooning of ‘Straight Lines’ was a mild departure for Silverchair, this solo effort is an even greater leap for Johns – genre lines blurred with rock replaced by R&B and beyond. So, did he struggle with management types stating concern that such sounds strayed too far from his brand? “I don’t know or care what my brand is. To me it’s all music, it’s a bunch of notes stuck together,” he says. “It would be a pity to be interested in different things and not explore them all.” While he openly outs his disdain for touring, stage appearances will inform future plans, because, in the age of Spotify, selling albums, or even tracks, simply won’t pay the bills. “I just want to be a recording artist, but it’s hard to make a living doing that, just recording and making music. Of all the careers you could have as a writer, writing music is not the best choice. Not any more, anyway,” he bemoans. “I’ll always make albums, I’m a purist like that, but it’s obvious that people’s attention spans have gotten shorter. That makes for a nice challenge, artistically, though, because you have to make sure that if someone comes in part way through a track and only listens to 15 seconds, then every 15 seconds has to be fucking genius.” Fucking genius – yeah, that’s our Mr Johns. n