TUESDAY 28 OCTOBER 2014
A week before the announcement for the winner of the Mercury Prize, nominee John Blackburn is busy tackling the stack of cardboard boxes that are littered throughout his flat in Southwark instead of enjoying the fruits of his labour which culminated in his second Mercury nomination of his ten-year career. 'It's not really a new place. I've been here for four months now and there's little progress made. I'd see the boxes and think, "Another day." And head out to the studio or head out early for rehearsals. Anywhere's better than my flat right now, but my family's coming in from Devon. They want to be as supportive as possible for the upcoming week and I can't let my Mum enter tidying mode because then it's just embarrassing for everyone.' He motions to the wall and reveals that the only finished part of his home is a collection of framed pictures hung up on the wall of his family. One photo in particular reveals how far back he has been exploring music: a four-year-old version of Blackburn barely visible underneath the piano with his hands on the pedals while his mother played. 'I was very big on collaboration since I was a kid, as you can see,' he adds with a smile when he gestures towards it.
John or 'Dio' (a nickname given by his family when he was a child) is often shy about his past and attempts to skirt around how highly praised he was as a child whenever the topic pops up. Unfortunately for him, his talent as a pianist at a younger age can be found in archived newspaper articles that stretch on throughout the years. It's a poorly hidden secret, yet it doesn't stop him from nearly denying it ever happened. Any attempt to talk about his years at Chets is only met with resistance and an insistence that the real topic of discussion are his four years at the Birmingham Conservatoire, where he formed the band Odessa Quartet with a few of his classmates. He outright refuses the notion that his avoidance of his younger years is political in nature, due to the recent scandal at the school. 'It's nothing like that. It was a great time in my life, but when you're given a certain tag and you don't want that tag, it's troublesome. I didn't like the notion that I was "gifted". I wanted credit for my hard work and the hours of practise I put into it. It fluffs your ego as a child, but then you start to feel resentful of it as you grow older, because it starts to feel as though no one's overly impressed by what you have to offer, even if requires a high level of skill. You're just expected to do it and do it well. I acted out a bit as a result.'
At the beginning stages of his band in 2004, they often travelled to the South Bank to busk, a setup that quickly garnered them attention with the unique instrument that Blackburn played himself. 'The hang drum was a bit of a gimmick,' he admits in a coy manner. 'It was a great gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. I discovered its sound on holiday when I was a teenager. I already knew how to play the drums, because they always encourage you to play as many instruments as you can handle without exhausting yourself, so it was a bit of an exploratory period for me. If we didn't have it as a lure for passers-by, I'm not sure I'd be doing this right now without being on the dole. That's what the label loved about us.' Three years and a record deal after the band's inception at Birmingham, they released their debut album Knee-Deep in the North Sea , which was met with praise and garnered the first Mercury Prize nomination of his career.
'It's different when you compare both of the nominations. First time it was the realisation that you've f---ing made it with your best mates from university and you're chuffed to bits to even be in the same room as some of the artists. "What am I doing here? How did I get here from Devon?" You're star struck and don't realise that you haven't written a speech until halfway through the performances. Has anyone in the band written a speech? You have no clue, so you're just honoured to be in the room with everyone while having mini heart palpitations moments before they name the winner. My sister [singer-songwriter Helen Blackburn] was with me and she couldn't contain herself at times, even had her eyes on [Guy] Garvey at one point in the evening. I should've asked her to write a speech on the fly for me. This second time? I feel a bit more properly prepared. I recognise some of the other nominees as my peers, which was a little harder to feel when I was heavily involved with jazz. No one knew who we were back in 2008 until after the show and even then the change seemed marginal in my day-to-day life. At this point, I've crashed several parties over the years and met a few good friends of mine at previous ceremonies that I practically had to beg to get into. I've probably lost the rights to several first-borns along the way. It's home. I'm cosy. I'm not even concerned about a speech. Although, that's something I should ask my Mum about after this interview. Maybe she'll write something nice for me.'
How did he go from a band environment to a solo career? It was a mixture of elements and the answer seems to change depending on which direction the wind blows, ranging from his own boredom to the inability to tour as heavily as he did with the band to the fact that he had already been toying with the idea not long after the debut album. He spends half an hour covering these topics, trying to discover the final answer out of the theories that have been dug up by himself and close friends. It's not until we've headed down a long, confusing path only to realise that we've been walking around in circles the entire time and have ended up back at the start does he discover the true and final answer to the question.
'There were these small, almost insignificant moments that snowballed into one giant reason. I want to claim that a part of it was the distance from my family, from previous relationships, from my mates, but that never became clear to me until I actually left the band. Everything was based on the feeling and vibe within the band. I could pretend this snowball didn't exist, because we were on tour at the time, but it was hard to ignore the future vision of the band when we were all openly stating that the hang drum had to go for the upcoming album. After those discussions, I'd think about it and have these moments of "That's me! That's f---ing me!" There was no explicit discussion that I had to go, but it was enough to make me realise that I went as far as I could with the band. Imagine how much I'd be kicking myself if this didn't pan out and I realised that I managed to give myself the boot in multiple ways? Only an idiot talks about making their main instrument obsolete for the next album.'
From his point of view, it was the gamble of the century to make and he had enough padding to help him from the fall if things were to go south. He told his bandmates during the tour that he wouldn't be there for recording of the next album and finished the tour with them, mutually parted ways, and spent the following six months hopping around London in various flats while he worked on his music, trying to cultivate a sound that felt like decades in the making. There was no manager or record deal that could be relied on when he finished, it was a jump back to the very start of his busking days when he was a student.
'Being on your own after seven years with a band, it becomes a weird cocktail of both confidence and insecurity. I'd constantly ring up my sister and probe with her questions. "Hel, is this alright? Are you sure this alright?" She's creating all this great music on her own while I was wrought with insecurities, ready to climb the wall at any second. Helen probably thought I was losing my mind at times multiple times during the making of the record, but was much too gracious to call me out. That was a side that I'd try to contain to the ones I kept closest. All the new people I started to surround myself with had no clue that I was so unsure during the making of the album. It felt right during the process, all of it felt natural and perfect, except there's that nagging voice where you're thinking: "Is this the best you can do? Is this you at your best?" And at the end when I finally finished it, I realised that I created something that I should have created years ago and knew the answer to the question. "Yeah, this is the best. This is the best in a long while."'
Does the thirty-one year old feel confident that this will be his year? 'I want it. I want a lot of things, but it doesn't mean I'll end up with it in the end. There are a lot of great albums this past year, ones that I'd even place above mine and they weren't even nominated. I'm happy with the nomination and accept the fact that if I were to win, I'd only please some very lucky gamblers and relieved bookies. Everyone else will be stunned and wondering if something went wrong with the voting. Honestly, it'll be Helen's year before it's ever mine and these days. That's the way I'd like it and she'd deserve the nod. You'll see next year that I won't have an identity beyond "Helen Blackburn's brother" when her album drops.'