The Rescue Rooms archives: 2017

SKINNY LIVING - Warm Up Show, Live In Red Room

  • Saturday 1st July 2017
  • Supported by: Joe Sheldon

2017 skinny living press

“I’ve definitely lived. If we sound much older than we are it’s because we have done the rounds, but just in different fields of life” – Ryan Johnston, Skinny Living.

A couple of years ago, when Ryan Johnston was still struggling in the latest of many day jobs, the boss took the Skinny Living singer to one side and told him to focus on his work instead of this “music nonsense” and to “stop thinking he was going to be the next Eric Clapton!”

“I thought, “I don’t want to be the next Eric Clapton,” the young Northern Irishman remembers. “I don’t even play guitar! I left the job and things started to happen for us. If it looks like it happened very quickly, that’s because we’ve put everything into this.”

Today, neither the Belfast-born singer nor the West Yorkshire-based band he fronts have had much time for glancing backwards. They’ve sold out venues across the country, landed a plum support slot with Jake Bugg at Leeds Arena (after a search for local talent) played festivals from The Secret Garden Party to the legendary Isle Of Wight and now landed a contract with RCA Victor, the label synonymous with David Bowie. In recent months, they’ve toured in the Philippines (where the locals had taken photos of the band from the internet and made them into huge posters), worked with some of the UK’s top producers and songwriters and are about to play to 65,000 Justin Bieber fans when they support the US star in Hyde Park.

However, their story isn’t one of rags to riches so much as one of grinding poverty, troubling situations and relentless hard graft. It’s also one of synchronicity, chance meetings, and unflinching belief that their glorious acoustic soul - with its echoes of Bill Withers, the Isley Brothers and Paolo Nutini – will out. As it is doing, with a timeless, gentle beauty and lyrical wisdom far beyond the band’s years.

The exquisite and ever-so-slightly haunted vocal in the midst of it all belongs to Front man, born in Belfast to a Catholic mother from the Republican area and a Protestant father from the other side of town. Their polar opposite backgrounds meant a family move to Bangor, Ryan said “this definitely affected who I am, and maybe made me think more, about things than I otherwise would have.”

At a young age, Ryan was singing along to the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, but was so shy about it that even his own father didn’t hear him until he was 21. When Ryan was 16, his father refused to fund him any longer, the idea being that it would toughen him up. It did, and gave him the work ethic he brings to Skinny Living, although leaving the family home at 19 brought financial hardship, dead end jobs and a drift down the wrong path.

An uncomfortable incident involving the latter (of which more later) led him to seek a way out in the form of a job in Wakefield, which had gone before he arrived. However, when Ryan got up to sing at the local open mic night, he was seen by Will Booth, the (then) 17-year old guitarist, with whom he founded Skinny Living.

“When he got up to sing Bill Withers’ Just The Two Of Us everyone stopped,” Will - a regular visitor to the open mic, with his guitar - remembers.

“It was such a weird experience, because you never hear a voice like his anywhere, never mind with no instruments, in a pub.” It was Ryan’s first ever visit to the open mic.

Before that, he’d had always made up melodies in his head and sung a capella, then suddenly the combination of voice and guitar meant they could write songs and dream bigger. They were still a duo when they had the first of their musical adventures reminiscent of the Beatles in Hamburg – a trip to Holland, going over on the ferry, playing gigs, sleeping on people’s floors, putting the whole thing on social media. “To us it felt massive, but it wasn’t as big as we made out to everyone else. Suddenly everyone was, ‘Wow they’ve been to Holland.’”

Word reached locally-based guitarist Danny Hepworth, who was earning a small fortune playing in wedding bands but finding it soul-destroying playing the same Oasis song for the 356th time. He saw the video and as soon as he saw Will and Ryan play together thought, “I really want to be in this band”. The all-singing Skinny Living line-up was completed when Rhys Anderton got up with them at the open mic to play a cajon (percussion box – he’s since switched to a drum kit) and things started to click. A likable chap originally from Crewe, Anderton vividly remembers the feeling after they first visited a studio (in 2013, to record the lilting Storybook, which generated more interest via the web) – because he found himself literally dancing in the street with ecstasy. “We went in as mates but came out a band,” he grins, recreating his dance steps amid much rehearsal room hilarity. “I said to them, ‘Don’t you feel as if you’re walking through cornfields?” However, any feeling of gliding on air was counterbalanced by financial realities, reflected in the choice of moniker (“living skinny” their interpretation for living on almost nothing).

Will juggled playing and rehearsing with work at his father’s carpet company, but Ryan’s 250 job applications produced just two interviews. He packed tomatoes for 12 hours a day and at another point worked for an “astonishingly corrupt” windows company whose young employee told them to shove their job when he called to say an elderly customer did not want or need the Windows recently sold to her by a previous employee as she was terminally ill, they asked him to tell a cancer sufferer that she wouldn’t miss the money spent on windows because in six months she’d be dead. At a particularly low/broke point, he was caught working while claiming benefits, being subjected to a curfew and electronic tag which meant that playing gigs past 6pm would have led to “vanloads of policemen, waiting to arrest me.” It’s all great, character building stuff, though, and such experiences have seeped into the songs that – after two or three years self-managed gigs (including two more Dutch jaunts) and building a sizable following both live and on social media – got them noticed. Fans whipped round to finance a recording session in the legendary Abbey Road studio sessions. There was even an approving tweet for one song, 'Cast A Stone' from Mike Oldfield, as managers and record labels came calling.

The three songs on the band’s first proper release, the ‘3’ EP in 2016, reflected the real life experiences of a band who sound older and wiser than their years. Only I, Better Way Of Thinking and Control – tackled a troubling situation, anxiety and addiction, respectively.

New single Why – which Ryan describes as “a really heartfelt ballad about a time in my personal life” has been given a more contemporary sheen by in demand producer/electronic artist LostBoy, who was able to recapture the “special feeling” of the band’s initial demo but make the song sound huge and modern. Another potential single, Fade, was co-written with and produced by Ivor Novello/Brit Award winner Steve Robson, whose lengthy track record of pop hits stretches from Cher to Busted to Westlife to One Direction to Olly Murs and Ed Sheeran.

“Working with him was just a really great experience,” Ryan says. “We started messing about on the piano, and we created a really soulful song with a powerful chorus, really big sounding. Then we went back into the control room and I started chanting the chorus, but down an octave, more like a rapper might do it. Steve heard this and said, 'Mate you’ve got to do it like that!' He recorded it that way and flipped the arrangement on its head. It made sense instantly. By the time we’d finished, it felt like something really different, really fantastic.” Skinny Living have certainly come a long way from their roots, and this is only the beginning.

“We once stood outside Radio 1 waving a banner,” chuckles Ryan. “We were just desperate to be heard. Nowadays we don’t care. We just want to make great music.” And they are, but his old boss shouldn’t feel too bad about being a disastrous Nostradamus. At time of saying, there’s still only one Eric Clapton.