Dublin pop songwriter Ivan St John, formerly Pinky, has been quietly plying his trade over the last number of years. Despite performing shows and touring with artists of the ilk of Camera Obscura, Richard Swift, Of Montreal, Rodriguez, Bowerbirds, and The Walkmen, he has avoided screechy hyperbole, choosing instead to get on with the work at hand. No scenester ligging, no grandiose claims to next big thing titles. Ivan St John has simply been playing and writing and recording and playing and writing and recording. Having grown up in St Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, Ivan has been cocooned in music since he was eight, inspired by the juxtaposition of listening to Paul Simon and Queen on the way to school and then singing Allegri’s Miserere in the evening. Fast forward 12 years and Ivan St John prepares to release his debut LP, Up To Snuff.
“Every song I’ve ever written has been plotted out obsessively before recording, I have to visualise every element, every little touch. I think I’d find it impossible to hand over control of production to another person. If you listen to someone like Bjork, or Shiina Ringo, Os Mutantes, Gong, or even Bowie you see their use of unconventional techniques and instrumentation serving the songs perfectly. There is a world of sound out there. Why restrict yourself? Plus, to paraphrase John Lennon ‘I'm a f***ing musician, give me a tuba and I’ll get you something out of it’,” so says St John.
There mightn’t be any tubas on his debut album Up to Snuff, but a wurlitzer, ukulele, glockenspiel and a colossal closing chorus of kazoos on “A Pressing Question” all make an appearance. “I play with two musicians who would be enviable to any contemporary act. Rhythm and bass is integral to the sound of the record,” he says. “With Liam [Marley] and Ray [Murphy] I know the backbone will be rock solid. It’s a fantastic creative catalyst.”
Ivan plays the role of musical comforter on the album’s opening track and lead single – “There You Stand”. “I hate to be the one that has to break this news to you,” he sings. “But you’ll get over it one day.” Up To Snuff is full of such comforts, heartbreaks, tenderness, and humour, narrated by Ivan’s warm, resonant voice. Some songs knowingly reveal his love of 60s pop, but they are always layered with more contemporary ideas. "I wear my influences on my sleeve, and people will either get that or they won’t, but this record sounds like nothing else out there.”
Ivan is very much of the bedroom producer generation, recording songs on dodgy tape decks since he was knee - high. And in the bedroom is very much where his debut album was conceived. Nonetheless, to finish the job he took the plunge and headed to a ‘real’ studio. And where better than Steve Albini’s celebrated Chicago hangout Electrical Audio. “Making the album in Electrical Audio was going to be a vastly different experience. You definitely get a sense of it being the studio of a guy who understands exactly what he wants from it and the gear at our disposal was unbelievable.”
Rob Bochnik, one of the Electrical Audio founders, manned the controls on Up to Snuff, “I'd say to Rob, ‘Do you reckon he’d have this or that?’ He’d wander off and return a while later with what I asked for, plus a bunch of alternatives. It was unreal. The studio is connected to Steve's house and we could pan out in his living room. He had a billiards table and the biggest VHS collection you've ever seen.”
The cover art was created by Frank O’Sullivan, a Limerick based artist. “When I saw it, I just fell in love. It was a perfect summation of the dominant theme of the album. Life can be bitter, but it’s fun to dress it up in a catchy melody. I hope there's a depth there for people, that they can identify with the songs, see past the poppy exterior and hopefully see something of themselves, or people they know, in the characters.”
Up To Snuff releases on Nestegg Records today November 12. Ivan St John play The Stables, Mullingar on Thursday November 18 at 9pm.
For more information call The Stables on (044 ) 9340251.