In the space that lockdown created, newfamiliar found the time to dig deep, discovering who they are and where they want to be.
“The truth always makes sense, doesn’t it?” laughs Ryan Johnston from his Wakefield studio across a pristine video call. He’s joined by band members Danny Hepworth and Will Booth. Until early last year the trio formed three quarters of rousing and soulful group Skinny Living, but their transition involves much more than just the name. “It’s weird, because it was almost like for the fans it was a name change. For us it’s a chance to really, truly be ourselves,” continues Johnston. “Musically, it definitely feels like a completely new chapter. For the first time we’re feeling like the productions are representing who we are, and that’s such an important thing.”
Johnston grew up just outside of Belfast in a house that was always filled with soul and blues music. His dad was an avid record collector. “I regrettably destroyed loads of his records,” he confesses. “I had a house party when I was sixteen and someone spilled beer over his record collection and he’s still seething with me.”
As he grew older, his taste began to diversify and he found interest and influence in everything from Gil Scott-Heron to Paolo Nutini. Music was always his passion, but he couldn’t find an outlet in his hometown. “Where I grew up it wasn’t really the done thing for a guy to go about singing,” Johnston explains. “You’d get the piss taken out of you. So the only time I would have ever sang is if I was drunk at a party.”
On moving to Yorkshire he set about finding a way to fulfill his dreams of making music, working with producers and songwriters, searching for an in. One of the producers he was writing with suggested that he put a band together, and took him to a local open mic night. It was there that Johnston met Booth. “It was just like… magic!” he laughs.
Booth’s journey into music started from a young age, singing in choirs as a kid and playing in different bands as a teenager. He began writing his own songs, playing open mic nights and just trying to test the waters. On seeing Johnston for the first time he recalls, “He just sang on stage on his own. But it was quite a weird moment because everyone did really stop and they were like, fuck, he sounds like James Morrisson but without the husk.”
The two began playing together. “We met up and started playing and writing straight away and it just went from there,” says Booth. “It was unspoken.” Booth also met Hepworth on the local open mic circuit and brought the three together.
“Ryan showed up and was immediately talking about the road rage that he’d just got, and I was like, I like this guy,” Hepworth laughs. “Within about five minutes we were talking about the new world order and his opinions on that, and then that was it.”
Hepworth grew up in Wakefield, getting into music around the age of ten after seeing a video of Busted. “I thought, ‘they’re the coolest people in the entire world, I need to be like them’. So I asked my mum for a guitar which she bought me from Argos for £20,” he smiles. “Then I realised that I played it upside down, so we spent a long time trying to find a left handed guitar.”
He cut his teeth playing rock and blues, scraping by in school so he could get into music college where he began to make plans for his own project, taking a gap year to get things started. However, said project never saw the light of day. At Hepworth’s third open mic night he met Booth.
As Skinny Living they released a handful of singles, EPs and live recordings, garnering a fervent fan base with their visceral and affirming live performances. But their enthusiasm was at times misplaced. “We were really adamant about being independent with what we were doing and it was really successful to a point,” says Johnston. “But then it felt like as soon as we let go of that independent thing, it was just a whirlwind of trusting people that have great experience within the industry, so much that you end up losing trust in your own decisions. It just started taking us away from the core of what we were trying to do.”
The move to newfamiliar marks a shift in their sound, their creative process, and a new confidence to follow their own convictions. Originally the new project was due to launch in spring of 2020, but the world had other ideas. With a fresh batch of songs written on a retreat in the Scottish Highlands, they had plans to record in Nashville and LA, all of which were cancelled. “Which was devastating,” cries Johnston.
However, the enforced time out gave them the space to really work through how they wanted the new music to land. “Not playing gigs has just been amazing, because if you’re out on tour and the crowd’s wanting everything to be a bit more hyped up when the song doesn’t deserve to be hyped up, it ends up bleeding into the recording process,” Johnston continues. “I think that’s why this new EP sounds so much more mature than anything we’ve released before.”
Not only has the lack of live helped with their writing process, but also with how they are seeing new music reach their fans.”It plays into our hands. We can actually make songs that you don’t need to put your fist in the air and jump up and down to,” explains Hepworth.
Instead of flying to LA, the group drove to Castleford over the summer when lockdown allowed, working with producer Rich Cooper on the most productive recording sessions they’d ever experienced. “I think part of that was because we’d not done anything in ages and part of it was we’d not played live, so we didn’t have to think about how it was gonna come across,” says Hepworth, as Johnston continues, “I don’t think we’re the easiest to work with in a studio environment for a producer. We like to completely disconnect. Rich just got that in an instant and it was such a breath of fresh air.”
The Textures EP has the feeling of a band who have found their footing. It’s equally confident and understated, a collection of beautiful and poignant tracks that tell their stories with delicate emotionality. Opener “How Can I?” mixes fragile melodies with intimate production. Johnston’s vocal is warm and rich, at times movingly powerful, but never overbearing. “Natural Disaster” gives him the platform to exercise his range whilst “Antidote” highlights his lyrical ability to lull with tenderness then strike with painfully bare sentiment. Standout single “Here For You” is a heavy and hopeful moment that drives home the EP’s humanity.
The track also marked the first time Johnston had worked with Cooper. “I had one writing session one morning with Rich, and my wife had just had a miscarrage a few days before, and I had to go and collect her from the hospital,” he explains. “It was just a heartbreaking time and when I got to the session, I came with this idea and it just rolled out.”
For Booth, Hepworth and Johnston newfamiliar is more than a name change, it’s a chance to find the path that’s right for them, and to work with their creative fulfilment at heart. And while the pandemic may have given them the space to realise that, it’s just unfortunate that the phrase ‘new normal’ arrived in tow.
“That was like a kick in the teeth,” laughs Johnston.