Jonnie Common on his Drawn to Light project

Jonnie Common's been so busy lately he wrote a song about it – we catch up with him at Glasgow's Hug & Pint to talk about his recent appearance on the Beeb and making music out of museums

Preview by Andrew Gordon | 10 Nov 2017
  • Jonnie Common

What does a museum sound like? That’s the question that’s been on Jonnie Common’s mind as of late. The songwriter and splendidly moustachioed musical tinkerer has been tasked with composing a piece of music to mark the 150th birthday of The McManus, Dundee’s historic gallery and museum. Both he and visual artist Duncan Marquiss were invited to 'respond' to the museum and its collection as part of a public celebration called Drawn to Light, which in Common’s case means translating the essence of the building and its contents into sound. It’s an odd remit, but if anyone can make inanimate objects sing, it’s Common.

In 2016 Common released Kitchen Sync, an album inspired by utensils and appliances found in his kitchen. The thud of the oven door supplies a kick drum, pot lids resonate like tiny gongs and wine glasses whistle in harmony. Tracks are themed around specific pieces of equipment and express something of their 'personalities.' Keep Refrigerated, for instance, is a chilly ambient track in which a fridge’s electrical hum doubles as a meditative drone.

Common hopes to do something similar for The McManus by using the building as an instrument in its own right. Incidentally, The McManus does house a bunch of musical instruments, though most are too precious to touch. "Some of the stuff could totally crumble as soon as you tried to tune it," Common explains. Even the ones that can still be played may only be used under strict supervision. "They have a piano that's like 300-years-old and they’re in the process of getting each key recorded," he says. "That apparently is a two-year process just because of the risk involved to the actual piece. Everything is super red taped-up."

Common has applied to ring a single silver bell, but whether he’ll be the one who gets to ring it is still up in the air. "It’s one of the few instruments they actually have on public display and I just thought, yeah, what's ringing that once really gonna do to it, is it really going to harm it?"

It’s understandable, then, that he’s more interested in the sounds of the building itself. "The most exciting thing is I've been doing impulse responses in the actual gallery," he says. "You put a speaker at one end of the room, put mics at the other, and then you pump out a sweep that goes through all frequencies and the mics record that. Then you subtract the original recording from it, squash it down, and you can then use it as a reverb." What he ends up with is like a sonic profile of the space which he can then attach to any piece of audio in order to subtly modify how it sounds, almost as if each room had its own accent.

And if giving new meaning to the term 'chamber pop' wasn’t enough, Common also recently made his national television debut appearance on the BBC Two broadcast Missing Episode. Written by Edinburgh-born poet Ross Sutherland, it centres around a 1997 episode of Eastenders which aired the same night he was involved in a car crash as a teenager. In the programme Sutherland paces around the living room of his family home, retracing his steps from that fateful night before abruptly breaking the fourth wall. "20 years ago obviously my mate Jonnie wasn’t making music in my airing cupboard," he says as he sidles up to Common, who’s holed up in the tiny space with a pair of headphones and a MIDI keyboard."

"I'm in it for like ten seconds!" says Common. "I thought I was in it way more because I couldn't tell what the camera was looking at, so I was pretty self-conscious the whole time." Common provides the soundtrack for almost the full half-hour, a performance that involved a great deal of coordination. "It was something else, man. I think I was probably the most nervous person on the crew," he admits.

"The director was really calm, Ross was absolutely nailing it, but there were things where you'd have a perfect take and then in the last few minutes something would go wrong and it was just like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe we can't use any of that.'" The piece was filmed as a single continuous shot, so every minor slip up meant starting from the beginning. "We did 20 [takes] the week of filming but we had technical problems right up until pretty much the second last day, so I think they had way less than 20 to choose from."

To top it all off, Common’s also been working on his new album. He dropped a teaser last month in the form of single Restless, an ode to work-related exhaustion that includes the line 'The weekends mean less when you work for yourself'. Needless to say, he’s feeling a bit strung out. "The last couple of months have been insane," he admits, though the song itself is warm and humorous, tapping into the same positivity that characterises all his music.

"I think it's reluctantly upbeat. Well, not reluctantly, like almost accidentally upbeat. I can't seem to make very dark music even if talking about dark stuff. It's like maybe I don't understand minor keys or something and everything just comes out a little bit major-y." Common hopes to release the record early next year and we're stoked to hear it – though not before he’s had a well deserved break.

Jonnie Common will perform live at the Light Night celebrations; Drawn to Light, The McManus Gallery, Dundee, 25 Nov