Johnny Jewel on soundtracks, influences and playing live

Ahead of embarking on his first solo tour, synth-pop powerhouse Johnny Jewel talks to us about his musical influences, his talent for film composition and the sonic and visual assault we can expect from his new live show

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 09 Nov 2023
  • Johnny Jewel

It’s only around 11am Pacific Time when I call Johnny Jewel at his home near Joshua Tree in the Californian desert, but he’s been up working for hours. “I get up at 6am and I go to bed around 1am,” he says. “I’m always up very, very early. It's really bright here, so just naturally your circadian rhythms sync to the Sun.”

In a week’s time, these rhythms will be interrupted a bit when he hits the road in Europe on his first solo tour, which ends in Glasgow on 17 November. Jewel is no stranger to live performance, of course, having toured for years with his various bands like Glass Candy, Desire and Chromatics, but he’s had a slight oversight when putting together his solo set. “I did a show in Hollywood at the Cemetery, I did a show at the Southbank in London for Christine and the Queens’ Meltdown festival and a show at the Munch Museum in Oslo, and at all three shows – and I hadn't anticipated this – people wanted an encore and I had nothing. So I’m designing an encore right now, so I should have something interesting if the option presents itself.”

I explain his cue in Glasgow will be the ritualistic chanting of “one more tune”.

“OK, great. It's probably going to be three. Is that all right?” he asks.

That will do nicely, I tell him. 

As you might glean from Jewel’s gruelling sleep pattern, he’s a workaholic. He’s put out ten solo records and soundtracks since 2015, and that’s before I start counting his output with Glass Candy, Desire and Chromatics, and his myriad other side projects and production work. He reckons this obsession with music started when he was a skater kid living in Houston, Texas. “I think my love of music really began with discovering the recording process,” he says. “I was a teenager, around 14, and I was painting a lot and listening to music, and then I decided to start trying to record field recordings and sound collages and things like that. Once I started recording, I was totally bit with the bug.”

This switch from painting to music was partly practical. “I really liked to make big paintings,” Jewel recalls. “And I was noticing my bedroom just getting smaller and smaller as the walls were closing in on me from painting pictures every day. So I really liked the idea that music was compact and invisible.” But there was also something transformative about this new medium he’d discovered. “For me, personally, music felt to be a more genuine self-expression than visual media. And from that point, I just became obsessed with all types of sound experiments, pop music, punk music, and trying to learn how to play every instrument.”

There was never an ambition to be a pop star, though. “​​I never thought anybody would listen to what I was doing,” he says. For a big chunk of his early career, they didn’t. “In the beginning, there were people in the underground who appreciated what I was trying to do, but I never imagined it would be like it’s become,” says Jewel. “As a job, music is a pretty brutal choice, you know? I wouldn't choose it as a job, it's a passion.”

He’s certainly escaped this anonymity now. After all, The Weeknd personally asked Jewel to remix Blinding Lights, the most streamed song on Spotify ever. Partly responsible for Jewel’s breakout into the mainstream has been the influence of his soundtrack work, particularly his involvement with Nicolas Winding Refn on Bronson and the cult getaway flick Drive, although his soundtrack for Ryan Gosling’s unfairly maligned Lost River remains his richest soundtrack to date. 

Jewel puts his success as a film composer down to his visual approach to sound. “I'm not a trained musician," he explains. "I can't read or write music. Everything for me was visual. I always had this taste for negative space, the same way an abstract painter would have.” For him, Mark Rothko is as much an influence on his music as John Cage or Karlheinz Stockhausen. “There's a Chapel in downtown Houston with eight giant Rothkos. I went there on a high school field trip around the same time that I began recording music, and it had a major impact on me conceptually.” 

For him, asking why he was drawn to film composition is like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. “I don't know if it's my natural interest, or it's the films I was exposed to, or the experimental music I was exposed to, but my music really seems to resonate with directors; the music that I make just really sticks to the picture in a way that I can’t exactly explain, but it just works.”

Jewel’s latest OST is for Dutch drama Holly. It follows a soft-spoken 15-year-old who’s bullied at school, but her relationship with her classmates changes after she displays some clairvoyant ability, which makes the film sound like Final Destination meets Carrie. Jewel’s music for Holly is a spine-tingling mix of dark synth with softer sounds like bells, chimes and sweet piano keys; it’s probably the closest thing he’s made to a traditional score. Jewel's approach to Holly, like all of his work, was based on instinct. “I was very much reacting to the film. Immediately after I watched the version of the film I was given, I went straight to the piano and wrote the main motif within the first 30 minutes.” 

He explains that he was inspired by the music from horrors and thrillers of the 1970s while writing – think the films of Dario Argento, Brian DePalma and John Carpenter. “I like those films from the 70s where there's a character theme that unfolds and morphs,” says Jewel. “I very much was inspired by the eeriness of Suspiria and the oppressiveness of John Carpenter's slow crawl, and the sort of percussive bounciness of Tangerine Dream.”

Those attending Jewel’s Glasgow gig should expect an audiovisual aspect too. “Everyone's takeaway from the show so far has been, ‘we don't know what to call this,'” Jewel has a go at describing it, though, calling it a strange hybrid of “film, film score, and beat-driven improvisation”. The show takes the form of two different montages made up of films and television shows he’s worked on, like Lost River, Drive and Twin Peaks: The Return. It's not like I'm recreating these scenes verbatim, though,” says Jewel. “It's more of a kaleidoscope of moments. So you’ll sort of be hit with nostalgia if you've seen the film, but the music is against the scene in a way that you haven't seen. So it creates a new experience, while also being familiar.”

The music itself will sound a little different also. “The set is being put together live,” says Jewel. “So these songs you’ve heard a bunch of times are being deconstructed or are morphing out of another piece of music, and that’s exciting as a listener. It's basically a sonic and visual assault for an hour. The visuals range from being really ethereal, atmospheric and pretty to being extremely violent and gory. It just goes back and forth like that. It's a rollercoaster.”

Holly (OST) is out now via Italians Do It Better; Johnny Jewel plays The Hug and Pint, Glasgow, 17 Nov