You’ve all heard her voice. She appears on a laundry list of songs but the majority of her work is with Above & Beyond. She has been working with them for years, and has worked on a several albums. Heck, she was just working with them on a single titled “Always.” I connected with her a few months ago and we have been emailing each other back and forth regarding an interview. Well, just as “Always” was being released, we completed the interview and I can’t tell you how excited I am to share her story with you. Not only is she an incredible songwriter, she has the voice of an angel, and just happens to sing on some of the best most memorable tracks that Above & Beyond have produced over the years. This interview is special for me. It is my pleasure to introduce you to Zoë Johnston.
You have worked with a lot of artists over the years, but due to my obsession with electronic dance music, your work with Above & Beyond reigns supreme. How did you first get connected with Jono, Tony and Paavo?
My cousin Roland sent me a text one day out of the blue saying his close school friend Jono Grant was in a band and my name had come up during a meeting about which singers and writers they might like to work with. Tony had got quite attached to a song I did with Faithless called “Crazy English Summer” and was really happy when the natural link through Jono and Roland came up. So T, J and P sent me a CD of some songs they were working on and I chose one I liked and wrote “No One on Earth” over it.
You appeared on a few tracks during Group Therapy 250 Live from the Gorge Amphitheatre. Tell me more about those tracks, specifically “My Own Hymn.”
Well songs like “Peace Of Mind” and “We’re All We Need” have obviously been out and about in the world for a while now, but “My Own Hymn” has only just come out so it was great hearing it in the context of such a huge and exciting show. It’s a song of self-empowerment and self-compassion really. You don’t have to embody someone else’s narrative, especially if it’s causing harm to your sense of worth or happiness. If someone else has crushed you with cruel words or controlled you to a point where all boundaries are blurred then the only way to climb out of that pain is to look for what is sacred within you and do all that you can to honour it. You can rewrite the script and internalise a new message, and remind yourself that you’re really a very beautiful person worthy of being cherished.
Do you get the chance to travel with Above & Beyond a lot?
A&B are DJing all around the world on a pretty constant basis and there’s not much of a call for a live element to the shows in general. In the earlier days I used to fly out and join them for the odd event (singing live) which was always great fun, but at the moment any travelling I do with them revolves around the acoustic projects we’ve done. Last year with Acoustic II we travelled in 4 different countries and had the most amazing experiences. I’ll always look back on that tour with gratitude and very deep affection.
Any chance we will see another solo project from you in the near future?
It’s the thing I’m focusing on the most at the moment! There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes and I’m really proud of the music I’ve been writing. I don’t want to stamp firm deadlines on anything at the moment but I would say I’m getting very close to having a body of songs I would feel happy to send out into the world.
Speaking of Above & Beyond, you worked with them on “We’re All We Need.” That song was nominated for a Grammy in 2016. You actually got the chance to attend the Grammy Awards. What was that experience like being there and having your work nominated? Sadly, you didn’t win, but I am sure it was a cool experience!
Hehe, it was! And quite a surreal one, too. It was really nice that the song was acknowledged in that way, and it was lovely to be presented with an opportunity to just stop and reflect on how far things have come for us all in terms of the music now reaching such a wide audience. It’s probably an unexpected answer but the main thing I enjoyed about the Grammy nomination was the fact that so many of my old friends got in touch to congratulate me and just make me feel really loved. Friends from school days, relatives I hadn’t spoken to in a while, people from college and old jobs I had… The love totally overwhelmed me. I got into so many great conversations with them about how their lives had been going and caught up on a lot of missed years. I kept thinking that I probably wouldn’t have had contact ever again with some of them were it not for them reaching out to me over that nomination. A couple of friends sent me copies of drawings I’d given them over twenty years ago! I was so touched to realise that all this time they’d kept them safe. It was a magical and crazy old trip down memory lane, all thanks to being Grammy nominated!
You are originally from Nottingham, England. Do you still spend a lot of time in the UK?
Yes. I live in the UK. I love travelling but I really love coming home.
You went on tour with Faithless a few years ago. What was that experience like? I am curious, does a tour with Faithless differ from a tour with Above & Beyond, or are they all pretty much the same?
Well the tour I did with Faithless was roughly eighteen months long and covered dozens of countries, so it was a very different kind of commitment to going away for a few weeks at a time (as with Acoustic II last year). I have been so incredibly fortunate in that I’ve always toured with musicians who happen to be genuinely fantastic people on top of being talented, and they are people I’ve felt totally at ease with. Therefore it’s always felt like a shared adventure which nobody is taking for granted. It’s felt like creating music with close family or best friends. For me the key to a successful show always comes back to the connections between musicians.
What is your songwriting process like? Do you sit down with a pen and paper and write, or do songs just come to you?
It depends. I have quite extreme synesthesia so often if I’m writing to a piece of music somebody else has given me I will see shapes or images, or very particular colours, and that immediately influences the mood or narrative of what I’m about to write. It’s as if the song is already there, already existing, and I am just a person who says it out loud so that others can also hear and see it. When I’m writing the music myself I mostly find chords on the guitar or piano which summon up images or kind of give voice to a feeling I have, and then the words tend to follow on.
Do you ever get nervous while on stage?
Of course, sometimes. I think it would be a bit weird if I didn’t. I suppose nerves represent caring about making a good job of things. They work in unpredictable ways though, don’t they. There have been times I’ve been really on edge singing to 3 people but totally at home singing to 70,000. It’s all a bit random.
Anyone that lists to dance music knows who Armin van Buuren is. Now, the first song you did with Above & Beyond, “No One on Earth,” actually was voted Tune Of The Year on A State Of Trace, Armin’s radio show. That is awesome! What does that mean to you, as an artist, to have your work, especially your early work with Above & Beyond, voted on such a popular radio show?
Again, it’s a nice acknowledgement of the work you’ve created, and of course it’s good to know people are enjoying and connecting with the music. I appreciate the thumbs up. I do think though that if you focus too much on votes and awards and that kind of thing it can have a very negative effect on the truthfulness in your creativity. I don’t think it’s healthy in general to be looking to others for approval and signs of acceptance. You’re always going to be caught in a fickle and ever-changing flurry of confusing messages that way. So for me I’ll give a little wave to show my genuine gratitude for the compliment, then get back to focusing on my own opinion of whatever it is I happen to be working on.
Tell me more about your acoustic work. Nothing beats a good authentic acoustic performance!
I love it. There’s nothing like hearing a full orchestra behind you while you’re singing about things which really matter to you, to strangers you feel somehow are each intimately known to you. That’s the kind of atmosphere those gigs created last year. And being so magically in unison with so many incredible musicians who are all beaming out good vibes. That’s my kind of Heaven.
What’s next for Zoë Johnston?
Music, music, music. It’s making me very happy working on these songs I’m putting together for my next solo project. I’ve recently been in producer role recording live drums and bass (brilliant fun and very liberating) and am in the process of arranging similar sessions to get strings and brass recorded too. I’m also working on some illustrations and pieces of writing which I’d like to link with the music. I’m really having fun with it all at the moment and I’m excited to see where it all leads.
Thank you so much for doing this. I love your voice and it was fun learning more about you. In all of the interviews I do, I always give the artist the last word. Go.
Thanks for being in touch. Last word. Hmm. I love words. A child asked me the other day what my favourite word was, and the first thing I could think of was “kerfuffle.” I’m not sure how worldly and well-travelled that word is but it’s certainly been around a while in Britain. I also quite like “haberdashery.” So there you go, you can have two.
Photo Credit: Paavo Siljamäki