John Myrtle’s debut album Myrtle Soup is a cherished, understated piece of work. Released through Sad Club Records, the album is preceded by his 2019 EP, Here Comes John Myrtle, and features three previously released singles in ‘Get Her Off My Mind’, ‘How Can You Tell If You Love Her’, and ‘Spider on the Wall’. It is an album sonically and thematically well-versed in the 60s pop tradition, but also filled to the brim with intensely individual songs – flavours of Syd Barrett, Ray Davies, and Emitt Rhodes frequently simmer to the surface, but no man other than John Myrtle could have cooked up this record of warmth and wit.
Speaking of cooking, simmering, and flavours, Myrtle himself has likened the process of recording Myrtle Soup to making an actual bowl of soup, which makes perfect sense considering its homely, soothing charm. He says of the album:
‘I found myself making a lot of soup this past year, often just as something to keep me going when I was recording. In a way I wanted to soundtrack the euphoria of my soup coming to life on the hob and the flavours it brought to my world.’
Myrtle Soup’s sonic intimacy is perhaps its most appealing asset; recorded from Myrtle’s bedroom on a tape recorder, the album has been crafted with great care and tenderness. Myrtle plays every instrument, adds every ingredient, and has produced an album of great range, delicacy, and craftsmanship. And it tastes damn good.
Opening with single ‘Get Her Off My Mind’, the album launches into a series of seamless pop songs, all with perfect groove and feeling. Meandering yet concise, sweetly melancholic, contemplative but not morose, sensitive and precise. The opening track epitomises the album’s ultimate brilliance; it hooks you in seemingly without effort, with a genuine sense of warmth and open friendliness. ‘Believe me, I have tried / But I can’t get her off my mind’, Myrtle confides with the listener, establishing an album-long intimacy right from the get go. And although this opener is essentially about suffering under ‘love[’s …] curse’, we don’t mind feeling the heartache – it has a mop-top Beatles innocence which is so sincere. It generates a comfort and brightness which becomes increasingly irresistible. We believe you, John.
The album is full of such high-points, and despite being restricted to the bedroom, achieves an impressive sonic range. The listener is made to feel like a part of the band, a part of Myrtle’s mind, even an ingredient in the food he is cooking. The bubble sound effects in ‘On the Hob’ and ‘Soup’s Up’ submerge us beneath the bubbling concoction itself. It is an immersive album on so many levels in this way. The narrative shifts are acrobatic, with exercises in self-reflection flicking between the first and second person, to the crafty eyes of a spider on the wall, who has ‘seen you scream and crawl’. Myrtle freshly reinvents introspective writing with humour and innovation, and we can’t wait to see where he takes it next.
I was lucky enough to speak to John about the process of making ‘Myrtle Soup’, how the last few years have been for him as a musician and writer, and what’s next for him.
I think I heard your song ‘Cyril the Slug’ first, and I loved it for its humour. My first question to you would be where that comedic approach to songwriting comes from? Is there a conscious comedic influence, or is it something that’s seeped in?
J: Yeah, maybe like classic British comedy. But what I would say is that it was never my intention to try and be funny. There’s a lot of comedy songs, especially now by comedians, which are like, you know, with a fucking ukulele. And it’s so, so bad. So the idea was always to make a quirky song with a character and an identity within itself. Cause I wanted to do like a character song, right? And any humour… it just needed to make me laugh. What I’m trying to say is that if I tried really hard to be funny it would just come across as really off.
That definitely comes across in your songs — they have that really effortless humour about them which reminds me of that self-awareness in late-60s era Kinks stuff, from Village Green or Arthur.
Yeah I’m a big Kinks fan, so i was probably trying to rip something off, always do.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about your musical influences, such as McCartney’s solo music, the Kinks, and Emitt Rhodes. I’m particularly fascinated by that approach to recording music, and obviously you record your own stuff yourself in that isolated DIY bedroom style. How did that develop for you musically? Is it something you’ve always done?
I mean, I always played in bands in school, and it was always the thing that I wanted to do. Back then it was more like a Stone Roses rip off. Around that time, we were going into studios, but as kids. So you’d go to a generic Pro Tools studio, and I think I just thought that was how it was done. I did actually have a Zoom R8 8-track, and I was messing around with that. But I never thought I could make an album with it, which looking back seems so dumb, because as I got older, you realise that so many people, especially now with the internet being the prominent force in music, people make albums on anything, even on fucking iPhones! So it kind of got me thinking more, and I thought I may as well try tape. I didn’t even know you could use tape — I thought the done thing to do was to go into digitally-focused studios. And it’s good for my kind of music, I think, because it’s all acoustic guitars. If you’re going for a big sound, then a studio’s probably a good thing. But not for me.
I love that the sound of the tape is an added texture in your songs, which interacts with what’s going on. It’s great when the tape hiss is audible, and it really is a perfect medium to work with for your music.
Yeah, I think too clean for me would be, like, McFly territory [laughs]. And that was always the problem before. If I went to the studio and these love songs would just sound so… not what I wanted them to sound like.
That’s another really interesting point, about how production can transform the material. You can take songs to a studio and be unhappy with the product, and then do them in your own way and have a totally different outcome.
For this whole project, if you want to call it that, it has to be done at home on tape, because a lot of people see nods to sixties music, which I think is right to do. But I think it’s about taking that, and putting it in a bedroom, and making it its own DIY thing. And it’s like a whole concept, really. I think if I brought some of them to a studio they’d just be straight up copies. You know what I’m trying to say?
Absolutely. I want to talk more about your record. Firstly it has such a great cohesion to it; the presence of sincere, sad, delicate songs, in between playful, funny, ironic ones, and the interludes and instrumental songs. The way it’s sequenced works so well, with sincerity alongside humour and each complimenting the other. One of my favourite moments on the album is the ending of ‘Get Her Off My Mind’!
Oh, the little jam at the end?
Yeah! Because you expect it to end sooner, but it goes through this added section, only about twenty seconds long, but it’s so good.
I’m so glad you like that bit! Because I thought that was the best thing I ever recorded.
It got me thinking a lot about your approach to recording on the album generally, because it sounds like the work of a really tight band. If you’re doing all that yourself, there must be a lot of thought and construction going into it, and yet it sounds like a spontaneous performance. How do you recreate that feeling of playing with a band but in a solo context?
I always wanted to do a band, so the solo thing came after moving to London and not finding people after a year of being there. I’m not necessarily good socially, so I just thought ‘I’m gonna have to do this myself’. To answer your question more specifically, I use a metronome. So as long as I play to that then I’m okay. But you need to suspend your disbelief when you’re listening to something like that. Especially if it’s a bedroom creation. I know ‘bedroom pop’ is thrown around a lot but I think if I’m talking from the school of Emitt Rhodes, who we both like, it’s almost like a magic trick, where it sounds like a band but it’s not. It’s like an illusion. So I always had that in mind when recording. I mean, I’m a really bad drummer, as far as drummers go. I could probably do a few fills on a drum kit, but with the help of a metronome I can be the best drummer in the world if I’ve got a day of takes [laughs].
I feel like it’s something that nobody talks about with tape, like how do you stay in time? There’s no click built into the tape machine, so you have to record a metronome track, which takes up valuable space.
I think those limitations do give you a process, you know? I recently got Logic, and it is good, but it’s like ‘I can do anything’. So if you’re disorganised, it hasn’t really given you a structure to begin with.
The album Myrtle Soup is out now, Here’s John Myrtle EP came out in 2019, and some singles before that, all through Sad Club Records (which some friends of our are also on, in Rosehip Teahouse). What has that journey been like for you? From writing and recording the music to releasing it, and especially over the last year where you’ve been confined to the home. I guess lockdown hasn’t been such a bad thing for you?
It has and it hasn’t. In terms of recording over the last year, it’s nice to do things at your home and then go out into the world and do other things. So then you can allow yourself to subconsciously mull over what you’ve just done. But if you’re in it all the time, it’s pretty strenuous on your head. But I got through it I think.
Was the album finished over lockdown, or had you finished it before?
To be honest, a lot of those songs are just as old as the EP, even. But it was more like curation, and I think it felt right to release some of them. I wrote several for the album over lockdown, but others were there before and it just felt right to have them. It was the right time, it fit the mood, I don’t know. It’s strange. Like ‘Ballad of the Rain’ was written before lockdown even was a thing, but it’s about someone stuck looking outside a window, and then a few months later it’s like ‘oh shit, that’s what I’m doing’. I thought it was right to put it on that album.
It definitely has the sense of being a work that has been born authentically. There’s a timeless quality to them, they feel like melodies you half know.
I’m still going as a songwriter — even the EP has been me getting to grips with my own voice, my influences. In this album, a couple of times I wear my influences on the sleeve but what I always wanted to do is be as sincere as possible, bring my own character to it. I think both of these things, I always see them as kind of a scrap book of my ideas mainly, my journey through music [laughs].
Speaking of which, are there any plans for record two yet?
I’m writing now. I’m starting to write, but it’s where I’m going to go with it. It’s early days… we’ll have to see what happens.
That’s exciting. I’m also curious about how you play (played) live. Do you have a band? Or did you have a band?
I do. I’ve got a full band really, and thinking about getting a keys player. I do the acoustic, I’ve got a lead guitar player, I’ve got a bass player. Davey, Boy Azooga man, is going to drum for a couple of shows. He’s a great drummer, which is why I’ve wanted to pinch him. I also have Heledd from Adwaith drumming for me, and we’ve had a few rehearsals and it’s been great. So I’m getting all the Welsh people to drum now, it’s a prerequisite, you have to be Welsh to drum for me.
How did that connection develop, with Heledd and Davey?
With Heledd, I went to my friend’s gig, and she was drumming for another band. And I spoke to her afterwards and said, you know, ‘you’re great, we should play’. And she only lives down the road from me so it kind of makes sense. But before I asked her, my current drummer left to do his own band called Folly Group, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. Like a post-punk band, doing all the festivals, so he was out of there. So I thought ‘fuck, I need a drummer’. This was before I met Heledd, and I didn’t know any drummers apart from Davey, so I thought ‘right I’m going to ask him’. But now it’s awkward because I have a drummer in Cardiff, but I also have one who lives down the road!
John Myrtle’s debut album Myrtle Soup is released on Sad Club Records.
He plays Mood Swings at YES Manchester with Bamily, Nancy + The Short Causeway on 28 August.