In Conversation with Singer Song Writer John Mason
“It’s a little bit dangerous to think the key to success as an artist is to reach people on social media”
John Mason: a traveller, guitarist and storyteller, shares with us his journey travelling with his acoustic guitar and his thoughts on being a performer in the digital age.
How did you begin your journey into music? What is your musical background, have you always been a singer song writer playing a guitar?
I remember sitting with my auntie’s CD collection just old enough to be trusted to use the stereo on my own and I listened to Nat King Cole endlessly. Then it was an Elton John tape for Christmas when I was 11. When I began to skateboard, I fell victim to Ska Punk and Hip hop and then RAGTM. I was so into basketball that I never really thought of being a performer until I was about 18.
My Dad played and wrote which gave me a fascination with guitar. Once I had my own at about 14, I started to listen to Jimi, RHCP’s, early Green Day and loads of American artists. RAGTM did something to me like they do to a lot of people. So, I would merit them with getting me addicted to guitar music however I didn’t play in a band or even perform until I was 18/19.
If you want the honest true story, I know the moment the seed was planted to be a performer. In year 8 I was in a school in Tetbury and I’d fallen out with all the girls in my form. We had a music project to perform a song and my Dad put a backing track together for me which blended “Tubthumping” with “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and “Drugs Don’t Work”. A few of my friends picked up some random percussion instruments and one even played the kit. I played guitar and sang over the backing. Afterwards every girl came up and wanted to be friends again. Honestly, I’m a little hesitant to admit it but I think that’s where my idea of becoming a performer started. As a way for girls to see me. Most of my musical upbringing was in bands learning and collaborating with amazing musicians. In fact, for me it's vital. Music is always more colourful with other artist input.
How did you decide to focus on this particular genre?
It took me a long time to stop being limited by genres. I am, happily, genre free in my listening now and if I have to pick my biggest inspiration, first and foremost it’s Dave Matthews Band. I avoided it for about a decade to be honest. Many people told me to do my own stuff away from my bands and I don’t think I was actually ready until a few years ago. My voice needed to reach a certain level and my song writing too. I love folding genres together, so I hope it gets hard to place me in a genre after my next few records.
What artists are your main musical inspiration?
Ben Harper, Otis Redding, Ben Howard, Paul Simon, Incubus, Dave Matthews Band and almost everything 80’s. I’ve been digging into Calypso music too which you should try whilst your cooking, actually makes things taste better.
It notes on your website you have done a significant amount of travelling, does your environment have an effect on your writing? How much do you draw upon your travels for inspiration? This feels particularly significant in your song, “Coral for Coal.
I don’t really know where inspiration comes from, but I would say that my favourite songs, the best ones, all come from my own adventures and people I’ve met. What better way to find stories than to live them? I’ve travelled all my life and the three/four years prior to COVID were such an adventure I don’t think I could have avoided writing about it. It also helps me to remember as I have forgotten more stories than I’ve told.
Your work is described as a form of “storytelling”, do you consider yourself a storyteller? Do you think your genre in particular aids the act of storytelling?
One hundred percent to all of the above. Intimate guitar and vocals for a western ear is perfect for telling a story the listener can relate to.
What’s your writing process? And what inspires you to write?
The best ones arrive out of nowhere. The only process is making space for them to come. I would add that recently I’ve started to dissect my songs after I’ve initially written them. I’m paying more attention to simplicity at the moment, trying to refine the melodies and structure to maximise the impact of the song. I’ve got a lot to explore with song writing still which I’m really enjoying. Giving form to how you feel about something is liberating and highly addictive. You’ll spend every last penny making it happen and lose so many relationships to it.
The song “Coral for Coal” explores environmentalism – turning the earth into a product - do you consider yourself an environmentalist?
Compared to the people who are dedicating themselves to changing things for the better I wouldn’t say I am an environmentalist. I love this planet and it often cripples me when I see how badly we can treat each other, other cultures and the place we live. I really have to applaud so many people who take action to make a change and I honestly believe our mind set as a species is shifting for the better. If I can be a voice for that and act accordingly then I’m helping. Change is coming though it just takes lifetimes to happen.
I found out that you arrived in New York City with a guitar and “no smart phone”. There’s something very romantic about that image and it fits rather well with your music video “Love Letters” which revitalises the experience of sharing words on pen and paper. What is your relationship with technology? A lot of musicians rely on social media and technology to promote their artist brand. Can you shed any light on this topic?
I’m a little bit romantic, I have a strong urge to connect with everyone and that’s really hard to do via a screen. As a person my relationship with tech and socials is pretty sparse. It is an absolutely incredible tool for staying connected with people all over the world after you’ve met them. As with all tools it really is down to the intention of the users and the management of the platforms to decide how it’s used. If the intention is to bring people together its brilliant. If the intention is to divide people and bid for the user’s attention, then it is brilliantly devastating.
Online everyone is a brand now. For music or any business, I can see why that’s important. So, I treat it as a porthole. Having a space on socials is the easiest way for people to find you once they’ve heard a song or seen a gig. From there you can show them more of your music and a bit of who you are.
I think it’s a little bit dangerous to think the key to success as an artist is to reach people on social media. For a start you’re not just competing for an audience with other musicians, you’re competing against brand giants like Coca Cola and Starbucks on the advertising platforms and an incredible amount of click bait that has very little depth. The censorship is unsettling, and our attention spans are dwindling which is scary because I see it in myself too. Now I have a smart phone I have to make sure I leave it at home sometimes so I can actually take in the world around me.
As with anything it’s up to us how we use it and it has to be said that for the first time ever, independent artists can engage with their audience world-wide with complete control over what they put out.
Where did the name for your album come from?
My guitar is called Grace. Named in part after Jeff Buckley’s album. If you could only make one album in your life, I would hope you’d be satisfied with that one. I’m sure he wasn’t that satisfied though. Travelling was a lot to do with making peace with myself and It was only down to being able to play gigs that I afforded to get from country to country. It’s all down to Grace really, she looked after me. Funnily enough the album “Chasing My Grace” was recorded in Roundhead studio’s (NZ) on the exact same Neve mixing console that previously belonged to Bearsville studio at the time Jeff recorded the album “Grace”. An incredibly happy accident to have used the same desk as “Grace”.
Why should people listen to your music? What does it offer?
I ask myself this every day, especially when I’m doubting myself. I think people find what they need in music regardless of what the artist wants them to find. I would hope they find some connection and one that lasts past the first listen.
What’s your aim as an artist?
To be able to do my job. Might sound silly but the hardest part of being an artist is actually finding the gigs and the studio time. The biggest part of my work is convincing people to let me do it. It’s easy enough to find a typical pub gig and play for three hours for a wage. Invaluable to learning the craft in fact. Having a name big enough to have a tour manager and a crew is my aim. I’ve toured the world and played a lot of big venues but never with a solid team. A three-month USA tour where I just have to perform my heart out every night is the next goal post.
How do you value music’s interaction with other art forms?
Have you ever watched a movie with the music turned off? It loses so much emotion. Except for Paranormal activity that scared me sh**less!
What are your future plans? Have you got anything exciting in the pipeline?
I’m on to the final vocals for a project I’ve just recorded in a chalet in the French Alps. Running title is “John Mason and the Hot Tub Gypsies”. Amazing musicians from across France, including my bandmate from CAB Collective, Oscar on the drums. It’s a step up in song writing and it has let me write for a band again which I love. I have no idea how people will take it, but it was an incredible experience making this record and the hardest creative challenge to date. I’ve also got another album in the works, but we are going to wait and take it to the studio towards the end of the year. I expect it will be heavily acoustic focused again.
How do you envisage your future as an artist?
Much like I described earlier more doors are opening at the moment which is exciting. I envisage writing an album in the back of a tour bus about how tired I am of being on tour. That’s a future I welcome.
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