30 days, 30 bands – #18 Nat Johnson

Photo by Andy Brown
Photo by Andy Brown

Officially, I heard from Nat Johnson when she was way over Monkey Swallows The Universe. Unofficially, I’ve heard of her just before that Last of The Summer festival I didn’t go to anyways. I remember an editor at Forge Media being a little obsessed with the ‘Sheffield Shanty’ track. I said that ‘Bloodline’ was better. And that’s why I got sacked from Forge Media.

Well, no, or maybe I was? Who cares? Anyways, a fellow reviewer recommended Roman Radio so I went to Record Collector and got myself a copy. Also a copy of whatever Monkey Swallows The Universe had recorded. I lost all of these, the Roman Radio to my dad, the MSTU to God knows who.

I got in touch by email with Nat  for a couple of songs for a free mix cd we were giving away back then. She sent me a Nat Johnson  song (‘Disco Volante’) and a Standard Fare track (‘Nuit avec une amie’).


Jump a few time hoops and it’s 2011. I weaseled my way into their rehearsal space to take some photos. I had a new camera I had no idea how to use, they needed a few photos. It was a silly affair, but it was fun. Just like when I noticed a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster and this happened:

NatJo, NatJo, NatJo poooooweeeerr!

It was a rehearsal for the Margot EP, a keeper for the ages. Something about that day was special. Sure, it could’ve been a solemn affair, get a few introspective photos, but where’s the damn fun in that?

We later had an interview at the Sheffield Tap, because why interview a band in any place that isn’t a pub? Stereotypical, I know, but the loosest tongues that sunk ships were the ones who went for liquid lunch. There’s this stereotype about folk and Americana rock bands that they can be a little dry, no, not dry, nesh, yeah, that’s the one, and that interviewing them comes off as boring.


This interview with Nat Johnson and the Figureheads was everything but boring. One of the funniest ones I’ve done and where the “where’s my mars bar?” tag in this post (and then some) comes from. I don’t think there was a single serious moment during the Margot rehearsals or the interview. And that was so refreshing. I thought of them as a big band, and I think I still do. The fact that they were so humble and approachable made them extracool in my books.

A gig at Waterstone’s happened on a cold February night. It was strange, packed, and pretty intimate. I don’t remember hearing much glockenspiel inside a bookstore before or since. Nat Johnson and the Figureheads was a great act, and the wheel of time kept turnin’, turnin’, turnin’ and we kept yearnin’, yearnin’, yearnin’ for more music.


And the music kept coming, but now only as Nat Johnson. The live band now consisted of Nat, Hannah Browne, Katherine Jackson, Oliver Allchin, Neil Piper and Chris Loftus. The music still had a sweet taste, but the aftertaste could be bitter, could be spicy, could be anything. Remember: you don’t need distortion to be loud, you don’t need to yell to channel anger.

Since it has been a long while since I’ve had chat with Nat Johnson, I got in touch. No Mars bars exchanged hands, though:

What’s new on the music front? Any plans for new EPs or albums?

I’ve been working on a commission this year for Off the Shelf Festival, part of the Brönte bicentenary celebrations. So I’ve written a triptych – a song for each Brönte sister, but they’re kinda woven together – and I’ll be performing that at Off the Shelf, Ilkley Literature Festival & Beverley Literature Festival this October. I’m also doing a limited CD release of the 3 songs too, so that will be out on 21st October, and it’ll be available digitally too. I’ll be letting people know more details about the CD release very soon!

Photo: Simon Dewhirst
Photo: Simon Dewhirst

Judy Beat and the Becketts – more plans or just what’s in our memories?

I’m afraid you would have to leap back into the past to enjoy more of that, sorry. (Editor’s note: Sam, Ziggy confirms this!)

Any plans on re-releases? Or upcoming gigs?

Other than the Brönte stuff, I’ve got a gig on the 27th of this month at the Lamplight Club in Sheffield alongside Alasdair Roberts & James Green, and I’m also planning some more shows for early next year. And I’m writing, but slowly, so I can’t tell you how long it will be ’til I have an album ready!

Can I preorder some of those cds? I’m a massive fan of the Brönte sisters (because of Monty Python, of all places!)

You will be able to but the deal is that I sell them at the events first and then I’ll put the remaining ones online.
Do you have any literary influences? I remember you said from the Margot sessions you based ‘Mick Kelly’ on a character from The Heart is a lonely hunter.
Yep, that’s right about Mick Kelly. There’s probably a few others if I thought about it for a while but I’m too sleepy right now! But that’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed writing about the Bröntes. I’d paraphrased one of Anne Bronte‘s lines on ‘Agnes Grey’ on the first Figureheads album. “Who would hang their hope on so frail a twig?“. ‘The Scottish Song’ has references to Macbeth too, hence the name. And the first MSTU album was named after something from Titus Groan, of course.
Mervyn Peake! I got the Titus trilogy for 2 quid at a “slightly damaged” book warehouse in Nottingham, ages ago.
Thank you very  much, Nat Johnson. Still going strong, still creating wonderful music.
Words: Sam J. Valdés López
PS: Did I mention the great cover of ‘Your Woman’?

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