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Jon Allen has a voice you don’t forget. Just ask Jools Holland, who demanded Jon appear on “Later…” after hearing him on the radio. Or Duffy, who heard his version of “Mercy” and called him in to the studio – only to find that he wasn’t the black soulman she had imagined. Or the millions of viewers of “Homeland” transfixed by his track “Joanna”. Or the BBC producers repeatedly A-listing his songs. Or fans Guy Chambers, or Mark Knopfler, or Jo Whiley, all of whom have been entranced by his trademark mix of catchy tunes and folk- and Sixties-inflected country blues.
Jon’s voice comes from the south, but not the south any of the above expected. He was born in 1977 in Winchester, and “had a strange combination of influences as I grew up”. In Totnes, in Devon, he sang in the choir at a school run by monks (“I wasn’t happy there. I’d only gone because this monk came into the bookshop my parents ran”). But his musical awakening came when he went to the alternative school Sands. “When I went to see the school Led Zeppelin was blasting out from a balcony. You didn’t have to go to lessons so I spent a lot of time bunking off in the music room. I began as a drummer, but I had plenty of time to sit on the piano and guitar.” It helped that he’s a natural musician: “I remember taking up the guitar with a friend and us both trying to Learn I Wanna Be Like You from Disney’s The Jungle Book. I think that was the first and last song my friend learned but I never looked back.
Then, as a youngster, he stole Rod Stewart’s voice. Literally. “I stole a ‘Best of’ Rod Stewart and the Faces from Woolworths. It was £6.99. I’ve felt guilty ever since so I’ve just decided to send Rod a cheque.” In fact, Jon’s voice is more American soul than Rod the mod. “My voice is a voice of the past, hopefully in a good way, I try to stay untarnished by modern vocal mannerisms, the strange wailing noises I hear on the radio. I’m trying to express some truthfulness,” says Jon. “People ask me if I smoke 40 a day and drink whisky but I don’t smoke and I’ve got my drinking under control,” he laughs.
It took a while for him to realise he had such a vocal gift. After school, he did a music tech course in Torquay, where he played in a Beatles tribute band (“I started as John Lennon and moved to Paul McCartney”), then followed the Beatles connection to Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, co-founded by McCartney. But: “I reacted against the musical virtuosity of many people there. I managed to stay rough and ready. For me it’s more about being able to get something artistic out rather than being the best technical musician.” The moment he’d finished the course he left for London and made his first album “with a bunch of people who did it on the basis that they’d get paid if anything happened”.
And something did happen. The producer knew someone was looking for a Nick Drake-type song for a Land Rover Freelander TV and movie advert, put Jon’s “Going Home” forward, and it got chosen. The song got heard all over the world, racked up 20,000 downloads, and found a champion in Jo Whiley on Radio 1. Meanwhile, “Uncut” described the album, “Dead Man’s Suit” (2009), as “exemplary”, and evocative of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Nick Drake, while “Q” called it “breathtaking”. Radio 2, Magic, and Absolute A-listed the track ‘In Your Light’ and ‘Down by the River’ got significant airplay too. It was “In Your Light”, taken from Jon’s 2009 debut album Dead Man’s Suit that landed Jon a coveted spot on “Later… with Jools Holland”. Introducing Jon, Holland described how he heard him on the radio and had to Shazam the track with his mobile to find out who the singer was before insisting he was booked for the show. “It was one of the most amazing voices I’ve heard this year,” he explained. Radio 2 had also picked up on “Mercy”, Jon’s collaboration with the band Third Degree that really shows off his soul-vocal chops. “Duffy heard it on her tour bus and contacted my manager. I ended up in Sting’s studio in north London doing a session with her. She was stunned. I walked in and she thought I’d be black.”
Jon’s second album, “Sweet Defeat” (2011), continued Jon’s rise, spawning the Radio 2 A-listed hit track “Joanna” – the song that also made it onto the soundtrack of the global TV smash “Homeland”. It also landed Jon a featured slot on the BBC’s Glastonbury TV coverage. “It was Beyoncé then me! I like to think that she supported me,” he says. He continued landing big-name fans, including Guy Chambers, Mark Knopfler (who offered to play guitar for him), and Bob Harris, for whom he did a session; and toured extensively, both solo and with his band, appearing with Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Damien Rice, and becoming a TV star in the Netherlands, prompting Jon to sarcastically remark, “In a year or two I could be a judge on the Dutch “The Voice”.
His new album, “Deep River”, contains some of his best work. To Jon, it’s simple. “I just try to write music that moves me. I’m trying to express some truthfulness. There’s no gimmicks, no beeps and whistles.” On it he channels everyone from Dylan to Shakespeare, via Al Green, JJ Cale and John Martyn, and even manages to write a romantic song about bankers (“I know there’s not a lot of sympathy for bankers, but you can get off on retribution, and it’s dangerous”).
He says: “I feel a bit like I’m an outsider, now. I’m very inspired by music that feels like it comes from one of the main tributaries of blues, or jazz, or that kind of heritage. But it’s OK because there’s no such thing as a scene any more. You can jump out of the ground looking like 1959, 1979, 1989…” And the subject matter? “It was what was coming out of me at the time. Ends of relationships, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life. I feel like there’s a spiritual side to the record – the title track is like a Negro spiritual, about trying to let nature guide me.”