In and Out of the Blues
An interview with Jon Amor
Words: Vincent Abbate
(Author’s note: Exactly one year ago tomorrow, on November 28th 2018, British musician Jon Amor released the brilliant and eclectic Colour In The Sky – an essential album that is perhaps his finest collection of songs to date. In the interview we conducted a few weeks later, Jon provided deep insight into his songwriting. He also opened up about the personal challenges he was facing while making the record. But a bout of procrastination and the unforeseen circumstances of a tumultuous winter caused me to shelve the article. Colour In The Sky deserves better than that! And perhaps some of you missed it. So today, with my apologies to Jon, I give you our interview.)
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Since this blog and its companion book series are called Who Is Blues, I’ll pose the dreaded question: Is Jon Amor blues?
Sure he is. As guitarist and singer, he’s been in some of the best blues bands to come out of Great Britain during the past three decades. Amor is a founding member of The Hoax, who enjoyed a run of critically acclaimed albums in the 1990s and whose raw, edgy sound was last heard in 2014 on their full-length B.B. King tribute Recession Blues. He also tours off-and-on with a pair of blues “supergroup” projects, DVL and The Boom Band. Moreover, with two excellent (and highly recommended) releases from his own Jon Amor Blues Group between 2011 and 2012, he demonstrated – like few others have – that electric blues can be rooted in decades-old traditions without carrying the stench of mothballs.
By constrast, on his occasional solo releases he works comfortably both alongside and well outside the blues genre. Those records are where this talented gent tests the limits of his songwriting muscle. As a lifelong devotee of the blues, Amor bemoans the lack of well-rounded artists on today’s scene, and rightfully so. “Too often, lyric and melody are treated as if they are just filling time between guitar solos,” he observes in the Q&A that follows.
On Colour In The Sky, his current solo release, Amor is doing anything but filling time. Lyric and melody are at the heart of the album’s dozen tunes. The blues is writ large on “Red Telephone” and shows up in the fine print of many other tracks. Yet with the help of producer Stephen Evans and a skilled cast of studio players, Amor expertly explores everything from lounge jazz to 1960s psychedelia to vividly painted, Tom Waitsian soundscapes.
It’s an album with clever musical and lyrical details woven into its fabric. Thus, its twelve songs just keep on giving; it took me until a few days ago to catch the reference to Shelley “The Machine” Levene, Jack Lemmon’s character in the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross, that pops up in the southern-flavored “When The Weather Turns Cold.”
Before exploring the music of Colour In The Sky, I asked Jon Amor if his life had changed in any significant ways since our last meeting several years prior.
Jon Amor: My life has changed considerably over the last five years, but pretty massively over the last year. I held my hands up to my alcohol addiction in March 2018 and since then – although it’s been a rough ride at times – I have a much more positive, healthy perspective on life. I am now over ten months sober and feeling better than ever. My structure of life has changed immeasurably and I just want to make the most of each day.
I think generally speaking – as I move through my late forties – I have a much more calm way of approaching life. I’ve realized there are some things in life not worth stressing about, and positivity is the way forward towards trying to be happy in life. I try to surround myself with good souls, open myself up to new experiences, and be less concerned with reaching a level of exposure that is generally considered “successful.” Success to me is being able to live comfortably and achieving some level of contentment in life from writing and performing music.
Who Is Blues: How has your music developed during that time?
Jon Amor: Musically, over the last few years I’ve broadened my horizons considerably. I’ve worked with a host of different musicians in a variety of styles, and have become much more used to working outside of what I would normally have considered my comfort zone, which has improved me as a musician and a performer. I’m much more likely now to say “yes” to a challenge that in the past I would have run a mile from.
WIB: You’ve been involved in a lot of blues-based projects and also released solo albums throughout your career. When you do a solo album – like Colour In The Sky – is it because you don’t want to be tied stylistically to the blues format?
Jon Amor: I guess I will always be considered a “blues guitar player” in a lot of quarters, mainly thanks to my history with The Hoax and other projects, and I’m very happy to be thought of as such. I still love playing blues, particularly with DVL where I can assume the role of guitar-playing sideman and marvel at the way Guy Forsyth can hold a crowd at the front of the stage. It’s such an enjoyable, low-pressure gig. However, I do consider myself a songwriter, and not one confined to genres. So when I get the chance to record my own music, I’m never concerned about ticking the blues boxes – I just want to allow my songs to inhabit whichever world they belong in.
My music tastes are eclectic, and I guess the influences that you take in will eventually come out in some form. A criticism that has been leveled at me over the years is that it’s hard to “pigeonhole” my music, but I’m fine with that. I like surprising people with my music, and I like pushing myself, taking risks and making bold strokes. I want to be anything but predictable, and I would truly rather someone hated my music than be completely indifferent to it. I can’t think of a worse review than “Yeah, it’s all right…”
Music, like all art, should provoke strong emotions.
WIB: Colour In The Sky kicks off with the inspirational “Faith Reborn.” I recall you posting on social media not long ago that you were dealing with some personal issues. I assume this song arose from that. If you are open to discussing: What issues were you dealing with, what have you learned, where do you stand right now?
Jon Amor: So yes – I was battling alcohol addiction, which slowly tightened its grip on me over the course of a few years, coming to a head in the spring of last year when I eventually became very ill and held my hands up to it. Alcoholism is such a complex issue and so hard for people to understand if they have no experience of it, that it really needs a whole interview dedicated to the subject! In my own case, I have struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life (and still do) and my way of escaping it was through alcohol.
Eventually, I began to rely on it to get me through all kinds of situations, and I normalized it. It took over my life, and got to the point where my mind and body just couldn’t take it anymore; I lost all motivation, all my energy. I stopped eating properly, became malnourished and dehydrated, began collapsing at home because my blood pressure was just falling through the floor every time I got to my feet, and I was heading for an early grave.
The worst thing about that was the brutal truth that – in my darkest hours – I didn’t really care. I had given up. It was only with the help of my family and friends and the action of my doctor that I managed to get into hospital, where I went through horrific alcohol withdrawal (I don’t wish that on my worst enemies!) and a supervised detox program to get me back to reasonable health. The last ten months have been about rebuilding my mind and body and rediscovering the “old me.”
As I said earlier, I now have much more positive energy and motivation, and enjoy a healthy life. In some ways I’m unrecognizable! When you go through an experience like that, it does of course change your perspective on life, and if you are lucky enough as I was to come out of the other side, you really do count your blessings. I now work occasionally for an organization that helps sufferers of addiction, and meeting some of those people who are in such a desperate place, with very little support, has made me feel extremely lucky. It was the worst period in my life, I let a lot of people down and I lost a few people along the way, and while I will always carry the guilt and shame that this entails, the place in life where I now stand is full of optimism and positivity.
WIB: So “Faith Reborn” celebrates having gone through all that and survived?
Jon Amor: What you may find surprising is that I actually wrote “Faith Reborn” – and indeed the whole of Colour In The Sky – while I was still drinking. I think even though I was in a pretty dark, self-destructive and negative place, there must have been some kind of spark buried deep inside that longed for a different way of life, and “Faith Reborn” is the best example of that spark trying to ignite and come to the surface.
Of course, when I did sober up and restart work on the album, my new perspective gave new life to the mixes, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with my producer Stephen Evans, who of course had waited patiently for me to get my shit together and was totally in tune with the positive nature of the songs.
WIB: Musically, “Faith Reborn” recalls the neo-psychedelia of the 1980s – bands like Soft Boys or Echo & The Bunnymen. Are you into that stuff?
Jon Amor: That’s a really interesting observation! I have to say no – those bands have never really been on my radar. I guess what I had in mind when writing “Faith Reborn” was a kind of George Harrison, late sixties Beatles vibe. As producer, Steve Evans always brings a different musical palette to the table, though, as his background is quite different to mine, and it creates a great sonic mix.
WIB: “Red Telephone” was the first song and video you launched from the album. Dave Doherty, who’s played with you in DVL and the Jon Amor Blues Group, filmed and edited the video. Was your deadpan performance Dave’s idea?
Jon Amor: The “Red Telephone” video was largely my concept. I had an idea of this character I wanted to portray – dressed smartly but slightly geekily, with a bit of an odd vibe about him. Dave was great to work with on the video and he had some great ideas for shots. It was his idea to film the shots in the park which look great … it was a really fun couple of days shooting it. What I love about it is how essentially quirky and British it is – a bit of Monty Python, a bit of Elvis Costello – and hopefully not what people might expect. I wasn’t afraid of looking a bit silly. I just wanted to make ANYTHING that was NOT me miming with my guitar desperately trying to look cool.
WIB: “Elephant” and “Drunk On Your Love” are two of the most harmonically sophisticated songs I’ve ever heard from you. “Sentinals” and “February Tree” are downright beautiful.
Jon Amor: Thank you very much. I’m very proud of all the songs on the album, but if I had to pick a favorite I think it would be “Drunk On Your Love.” The performances of all the musicians involved are tremendous on that track, and Steve’s production ideas really make the most of them.
WIB: Did you always want to write a song in 5/4?
Jon Amor: Haha! Well, not really. I actually came up with that opening guitar riff about nine years ago, when I was visiting my girlfriend at the time in Canada. I was just noodling around on an acoustic while we were waiting to go out, and I liked the kind of tricksy, trippy nature of it, then I just kept it for years, not using it. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it an unusual time signature. It just came out that way. But I do love a 3/4 waltz, and I love the way the 5/4 verse opens out into the 3/4 chorus.
I cannot stress enough how much Steve Evans contributed to the atmosphere of the album, both as producer and co-writer. “Elephant” is the best example. I came into the studio with just the opening riff and the first two verses. I didn’t have any kind of chorus and was a bit lost as to where to take it. Steve came up with the notion of taking it to a completely different place, and we spent a day working on that middle section, exchanging ideas and trying things out. The result is one of my favorite passages of music that I’ve ever recorded.
WIB: You’ll want to kill me for this, but on “Elephant,” your voice kind of reminds me of Robbie.
Jon Amor: Robbie Williams? I’m fine with that!
WIB: “San Bernadino” is another terrific cut. I’ll show my ignorance by saying I don’t know if it’s an original or a cover. It’s sort of Kurt Weill-Tom Waitsian and rather a departure for you. Assuming it’s an original … what the heck inspired it and where do all the German references come in?
Jon Amor: It’s an original. I took about two months to write the lyrics! It is probably the most inaccessible on the album, lyrically, and I’m reluctant to explain exactly what it’s about, but it’s inspired by a tour I did some years ago across Europe which was highly memorable, involving all sorts of characters and events. I know the words seem strange and obscure, but I can assure you each line means something to me! So the German references are all places I visited and San Bernardino is actually the town in Switzerland which I kept seeing signposts to but never actually went to!
WIB: What was the easiest and what was the most challenging song to write and record for Colour In the Sky?
Jon Amor: “Red Telephone” was definitely the easiest and quickest to come together. It’s a simple, classic arrangement and a simple lyrical concept. I had bought an old-fashioned telephone on eBay just because I love the look of them and wanted one in my home. Then I suddenly found myself singing the hook-line as I pottered about the house. Songs like that are a pleasure to work on because you never really have any doubts about them – they’re very simple and established in terms of form, and also highly accessible and fun.
WIB: And the hardest to write?
Jon Amor: That was “Happiest All-Time Low.” For a good long while, that track wasn’t going to be included on the album. We recorded it live in the studio initially, just me, Clive Deamer on drums and Bob Fridzema on Hammond, and recording it was such a difficult experience for me I just wanted to forget all about it. I kept screwing up the chords, forgetting the arrangement and messing up lyrics, while Clive and Bob were playing such great takes. I was still drinking at the time, and on reflection, I think I could actually have used a few drinks that day – I had stayed sober because I knew I was going to be playing the track live, and consequently I was quite tense.
Anyway, we left it alone for a few months, and then Steve had a listen to it and thought it had great potential. So we re-recorded the vocal and got a proper jazz guitar player in called Andrew ‘Murph’ Murphy, who played some lovely stuff, and all of a sudden it sounded wonderful. I always knew it was a string song, but it took a long time to convince me that it belonged on the album. I’m very pleased we included it.
WIB: To finish up, what’s your general take as to where the British blues scene is today as compared to, say, 10 or 20 years ago?
Jon Amor: That’s quite difficult for me to answer, because I honestly feel a little disconnected from the British Blues scene at the moment. I don’t really play the festivals and I’m not touring the circuit like I used to, and as I’ve talked about, my music spans all kinds of genres. From what I can gather, it feels like musically it has transformed into the British BLUES-ROCK scene and seems to be dominated by a kind of post-Bonamassa, modern guitar-based format. There don’t seem to be many acts going out there playing blues in its pure form. But I’m certainly not the guy to start complaining about that, given how much I have strayed from the blues path over the years!
Going back twenty years or so, when I was with The Hoax and also then with my own band, we used to come under fire from the folks we called “The Blues Police” – the protectors of authentic blues. But I’m not even sure they exist anymore, because people have become so used to hearing rockier forms of the genre and it seems to be what audiences genuinely prefer to hear at the moment.
I just wish I heard more SONGS. Too often, lyric and melody are treated as if they are just filling time between guitar solos. There are exceptions, of course, and there are some very fine guitar players out there who make me feel quite inadequate on the instrument, but I have to say I do find it all a bit formulaic.
It’s also a little bit sad that the scene doesn’t seem to attract audiences under the age of 45. Again, going back twenty years – perhaps a little more – it was a relatively popular genre for people in their thirties and I recall playing to younger crowds on a more regular basis. That’s not to undervalue the audiences of today of course. It just makes me a little concerned about who will be going to blues gigs in 15 or 20 years time.
WIB: And what’s next for you?
Jon Amor: Well, first and foremost I’ll be doing my best to promote Colour In The Sky, both with solo shows and shows with a band. Hopefully I’ll be touring those songs a lot. I’m also still involved with The Boom Band, which is a side-project involving lots of guys from the British scene, and we’re currently working on a second album which is great fun. Other than that, we’ll have to see!
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(Sincere thanks to Jon Amor for the interview and, indeed, for his patience in waiting for me to post it. Colour In The Sky has my highest recommendation, as does the achingly beautiful song and video below.)