Tenderfoot on banjos, nature, and finding the right path

Tenderfoot John Vella

After a few detours from the road, John Vella reveals the trials he went through to arrive at Tenderfoot’s debut. But first, we chat banjos.

HAPPY: So to start things off lets answer the most the most important question, is the banjo under or overrated?

JOHN: Well, yes. Yes to both. I think it’s a great sound, and I particularly like hearing it out of it’s traditional context. It’s made it’s way onto a few pop records over the last few years, which is a good thing I think.

HAPPY: Cool. So what was the journey like leading to the decision to record Beginnings?

JOHN: It was somewhat of a hibernation really. I took a break from artist life around 2012. Looking back I think I was working too hard. So taking a break was what I needed. I didn’t quit or anything, quite the opposite really, but I definitely shifted focus away from being an artist for a while. It’s an interesting thing you know, sometimes if you stop pushing things start to fall into place, and I really feel that has been the case with this project. Joel and Torch have played with me for years, and this time round it felt much more communal, so we started a band, and recorded it like a band, and here we are. Paul Derricott on drums also deserves a mention, who invested a lot of his time into making this record with us.

HAPPY: I understand you had a hand in producing the EP, have you had experience doing this before?

JOHN: Yes. I’ve had an interest in production since I started making music, and I produce records for other people. On every record I’ve done I’ve had my hand in the production to some degree, and these days I’m lucky enough to get to do it for a living.

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HAPPY: Ryan Miller helped out with the production too, how was it working with him in that regard?

JOHN: Ryan is a really talented guy, who can pull these amazingly rich tones. His understanding of the classic analogue sound is something I really look up to, and something we wanted our record to have. It was important to us that we recorded the songs together, live in a room, with no click tracks. So Ryan took us to Jim Moginie from Midnight Oil’s studio to do lay down the live takes. A really relaxed vibe, and a Neve 1073 console. If you know what that is, well…it’s exciting. Like the one Dave Grohl raves about in his Sound City doco. From there it was over to me for a while at my studio to track the additional parts, then back to Ryan’s mixing suite at Hercules Street Studios where we mixed the tracks together. He’s got killer outboard gear, and again, has such an understanding of the sound we were searching for. So it was a great team effort.

HAPPY: There is a lot of imagery concerned with healing and nature, what’s the correlation between the two for you?

JOHN: That’s an interesting question because I’ve never really thought about either of those things being key to the record, but you’re right, they are there. I always try to write honest lyrics, and I’m a big believer in the subconscious process, I think that’s where the magic is. At the time of writing most of these tunes I was definitely broken to some extent, but I also had a positive outlook. When you’re a musician people tend to treat you like a hero and a bum at the same time.

It’s a pretty up and down experience emotionally. You’re living the dream to so many people, yet you have to deal with so much rejection. An unhealthy amount. Most of these songs were written at a time when I had decided to take a step back from this to get a wider view of who I am and what I want to be. I did a lot of travelling and opened my eyes to the world a bit more. So healing and nature were definitely parts of my life, and I’m really glad you took that from it.

HAPPY: We always write about makes us happy, so what makes you happy?

JOHN: That one’s easy, music makes me happy.