For their third album, John Elliott, the founder of alt-folk band The Little Unsaid tapped deep into the darker side of the human experience, and his own battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The resulting album, Imagined Hymns & Chaingang Mantras was released earlier this year to across-the-board critical acclaim.
‘I did an album a few years ago with a friend of mine,’ he explains, ‘that was made in the thick of that time when a lot of personal things were going on with someone very close to me to do with mental health issues.
‘You got a feel of being on the precipice, of seeing someone go that far and how fragile life is. I made an album in that time that was very dark and quite scattered.
‘When I emerged from all that and I started writing again, I felt that with a bit of distance you can shed some light into the dark patches and it seemed to be more of a useful way to deal with it rather than to dwell on the darkness which is so often my tendency.
‘It’s about finding these little shreds of hope in these difficult things that many of us to have face in life.
To get out and actually connect with a whole room full of people through playing live is a hugely healthy thing to doJohn Elliott
‘It’s a very life-affirming thing to go through any sort of grief, obviously it’s difficult to lose someone close to you, but it’s a reminder of how precious every moment is, really.’
So is music a form of catharsis for John?
‘Yeah, performing in particular is a very healing kind of experience and it’s mainly through the idea of connecting with people. I’m definitely a more introverted person who would be inclined to just sit and fester in a dark room if it was left to me, to get out and actually connect with a whole room full of people is a hugely healthy thing to do, especially of you’re in a dark place.’
The act was originally just a vehicle for John’s music, but now plays as a four-piece band.
‘It’s changed over the years. It started out as a solo project but I gave it that name so it could morph and change and different people could be involved. Even outside of music, working with different writers or filmmakers – I wanted it to be a broader thing, but now after touring for a long time, meeting and collaborating with so many people, we’ve got a very solid line-up, and it’s been this four-piece for about two years now.’
And this was the first Little Unsaid project where the others had a creative input.
‘We were touring together before this album, but it was a case that the band would learn all the parts. Imagined Hymns was the first album where they’ve arranged their own parts. We made the most of it, we toured for about a year and slept on all of these floors together, and touring Europe, and you get this bond – it’s nice to capture that bond in a recording.’
But did he find it difficult to give up total control?
‘It was awful,’ he laughs. ‘It was awful at first, but it’s a better album for it. It’s a myth I think I’ve harboured that you need to keep everything close to your chest and do things yourself.
‘You can recreate the things you hear in your own head more accurately, but that’s not necessarily better than what someone else could come up with. The band are amazing, they’re such a great set of musicians, and they’re very intuitive to what the songs are trying to say emotionally and all that.
‘It was a real learning curve for me – but a healthy one.’
Earlier this year, the band received a Steve Reid InNOVAtion Award, named for the legendary drummer, for boundary-pushing new music creators. As a result the band have been mentored by the likes of experimental music-maker Four Tet and Gilles Peterson throughout their 2017 tours.
‘It meant quite a lot to with the award, purely because who Steve Reid was. I learned drums before I learned guitar, and a lot of those jazz records he’s on, I was listening to without even knowing who he was.
‘And later in his career he did a lot of collabroative stuff with Four Tet - I’m really into electronic music too. It’s not necessarily a world we completely belong in - we’re not really jazz, and a lot of the Steve Reid awardees are jazz players – I think this is the first time they’ve gone for someone who’s more of a general songwriter. They’re taking a bit of a gamble on us, so it meant an awful lot in that respect.
‘It’s been really useful being able to tap into their experience and knowledge.’
And capitalising on a relatively quiet summer John has already begun work on the next album, and the songs have been flowing.
‘I’ve had a bit of time this year. We’re normally in and out of fields at festivals all summer, but this year we only had Glastonbury, and a few gigs so I had a bit of time, and I need that space to get into the right headspace.
‘Hopefully we’ll have a new album ready to go next year.’
The Railway, Winchester
Friday, September 29