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Toby Johnson shares new stadium-folk driven EP ‘Chaos’

“Life’s weird isn’t it, life’s weird,” Toby Johnson quips. With brand new EP ‘Chaos’ released to the world, Toby reflects on a busy but chaotic year. “We’ve only just come out of a pretty tough time; it’s nice to be back out in the real world again. I’ve just moved into a new place so I’m at my temporary set-up of a studio and stuff, but it’s a bit of a mess actually. I’ve been sanding wood down and staining it, that’s all I’m doing towards the new year – adding new bits to the studio.” An “RAF boy” from birth, Toby has found stability in his home in Lincolnshire. “My Dad was in the Royal Air Force so we moved around a lot. I was actually born in Scotland. But yeah, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Scotland. [Laughs]” 

Although his roots may be spread, his musical roots remain firmly in place with latest EP ‘Chaos’. Four tracks in total, ‘Chaos’ finds Toby at the peak of his songwriting powers, with singles ‘California’ and ‘Plot Twist’ driving the EP into the airwaves. The former saw Toby drive through the English countryside in the music video, whilst singing the track. As California is known as ‘The Golden State,’ it was fitting that the video gave the feeling of freedom, spontaneous adventure and summer vibes. Working with Big Fat Creative on the video, Toby recalls, “we were looking for ages trying to find this car and then they reached out to one of their friends who had this very old Ford.” This Ford Calypso became the feature of the production, with its rich orange exterior and convertible roof. A pair of red dice dangle from the rearview mirror and a carefree, relaxed Toby in the driving seat, making ‘California’ perfect road trip soundtrack material. 

“Basically the idea was [that] the lads now had this car, and this camera mount and they set it up on the bonnet,” Toby says. “Then we shot up and down this countryside – throughout the countryside. We found this one location that was perfect, it was a good stretch of road that we drove up and down on. We realised at about five o’clock of course that rush hour hits and cars start zipping up and down. This was all barely over a single lane road. It was so narrow and on one of the shots you can actually see me basically fall down a pothole because I just had to get over so far to the other side of the road; it was just a bit sketchy. Just outside of London, I don’t know why we didn’t think about it – we didn’t think about how dodgy that was going to be. But all came out quite nicely, those shots from the bonnet just look so cool, so cinematic.” Written during lockdown, ‘California’ finds itself amongst the post-lockdown releases that drives that element of freedom which we’ve all yearned for. “We wrote that in I’d say early Jan [so] we’re still in quite a serious lockdown situation here. We went into a writing session, it was over Zoom with Jonathan Quarmby and Leo Stannard and we wrote it in, funnily enough, my girlfriend’s dining room. So I was staying with her for a while, for quite a long time. We went in to write a summer song and [we] went in and I was like, ‘let’s not address summer, let’s not talk about summer, let’s just write a song that’s got a summer feel,’ and before we knew it we had this, ‘ocean blue by the high rise, could you be my California,’ and all this sort of stuff. I was like, ‘ah, we didn’t quite get the memo’ but I quite like it. So the track actually sounded very dancey when we first did it. Leo is this sort of dance writer, he writes for a lot of dancey artists. We said like, ‘ah, maybe it could be a dance song’ and actually, it sounded great as a dance tune but I’m glad it didn’t because it sounds way better as it does.” 

Recalling the feeling when writing the track, Toby describes, “I was in a pretty good headspace. I was the happiest I had been in a while and that’s where the happy, sort of summer song came from really. I’ve lived in the middle of nowhere for such a long time and it’s nice to sort of settle back into this almost countryside-city lifestyle, which is Lincolnshire, which is Lincoln. It’s like a small town, but of course ‘California’ was also about getting back out into the real world after a tough time. The thing is that there’s going to be a lot of these post-lockdown songs and how we all want to be free again. I think it’s a good thing isn’t it, it’s only a good thing.” The single’s dance feeling derives from a banjo loop, giving the track a party atmosphere. “That’s a weird addition from Jon. I think when I first heard I didn’t really know what I thought, but I can’t imagine that I didn’t like it – I definitely liked it. As soon as I heard it I definitely liked it. But it’s that sort of Wild West. Part of the song is about my love for Hollywood movies and stuff like that. You’ve got these classic cliché road trip aesthetics and I think it’s quite cool to have almost different genres coming through. You’ve got the romance, you’ve got the drama involved and then you’ve got that Wild West feel. It almost throws you off in the track but at the same time it fits in perfectly. But that banjo was such a good addition and again Jon just knows what to throw in there and it always works. It’s really annoying, he always knows the right answers.” With ‘California’ firmly rooting the EP, other tracks ‘Lost’, ‘Plot Twist’ and ‘Chaos’ launch Toby’s evolved stadium-folk sound, a notable change from the previous EP ‘Things I Should Have Said’, out in 2020. “I think it’s the biggest production wise EP that we’ve done, we wanted to go for this, we called it stadium-folk – it just sounds way bigger. It sounds like something that can fill a room, I think the likes of ‘Chaos’, [it’s] by far my favourite song on the EP, and it’s one of my favourite songs that I’ve written. It’s just got this huge explosion into the chorus and I’m just really excited to get that out. Of course, coupled with the music video, I think it’s really going to go down well. Fingers crossed.” The music video for ‘Chaos’ dropped the same day as the EP, adding an extra insight into the visual chemistry between the track and Toby’s words. Speaking about the track, he tells me, “the song is about the butterfly effect, the chaos theory and about how these little things can affect the future. I’ve always struggled in the past, a lot of people have, with mental health and the song is basically about the tough times. The verses are very slow and mellow and then this big chorus hits you. It’s that sort of journey of the ups and downs of life for a lot of people.” 

Toby Johnson

The video for the track sees Toby in a dark room with a small amount of light, performing with his guitar. “We were at this warehouse the other day shooting a music video for ‘Chaos’ and it was just so much more relaxing having to not have that stress of you know, the plague that was going around. We’ve always had these sort of live performance shoots and they’re usually quite bright, quite light and you know, I think this one is a lot more dark and subdued and that’s what I requested. We had this meeting with the boys, Big Fat Creative, they’re a great little production team. They’ve done ‘California’ and the ‘Wildlands’ video with me and I sort of said to them, ‘let’s do something a bit more dark,’ because the demo that I originally wrote was quite dark and then the song became quite upbeat.” Other single ‘Plot Twist’ continues this darker theme, delving into relationship troubles which Toby tells me aren’t based on real life. “We’ve all had relationship struggles and I think it’s the easiest thing for me to write about. Of course I’m now in a lovely relationship with my girlfriend Tasmine. When I’m writing all these sad love songs, she’s like, ‘what? Is everyone ok?’ and it’s not about that, I’m just referencing the horrible things that we’ve all felt because it’s just easier. ‘Plot Twist’ is sort of basically about the love we’ve all experienced, well you know, the majority of us but I’m sure a lot of us have experienced. It’s the love that feels so great, it’s all perfect, the song is about this guy who writes a love story. It’s his own love story and it’s turned into a film. I think the plot twist is kind of a cliffhanger as well in this song – no-one really knows what happens.” 

‘Lost’ is a personal cut, striking an honest balance between the darker ‘Chaos’ and more upbeat ‘California’. “I feel like you’ve got your ‘California’, you’ve got your ‘Chaos’ and you’ve got the ‘Plot Twist,’ and then you’ve always got that last song that’s always a bit of the underdog. But again it’s one of my favourites. I wanted to sneak that one in there and see what people thought. ‘Lost’ has got this emotional side, when I feel like I’m in an awful mood or if I’m having a bad time or a bad day, I can write way better. I can write these sorts of songs way better. When I recorded the song I kept breaking up – I kept crying every time I sang it. It’s just about the sort of struggles and I think, ‘war broke out beyond my doorstep’, it sounds like I’ve had this agoraphobia but I didn’t. It’s just a metaphor for the world, just life outside – beyond the confines of the room.” With the EP now stepping out into the world, ‘Chaos’ is an honest insight into the mind of Toby during the best of times and the worst of times; a personal journey that the listener can experience and relate to. “It’s always very personal isn’t it – it’s a personal one. It’s just music isn’t it. I like to get it out there and I do like to be honest, sometimes I’m too honest. I’ve written stuff in the past that has got me in trouble because it’s so obviously about something that I shouldn’t be singing about. Maybe I will go all in on the album – tell every single person I’ve had a problem with in the past that I’ve had a problem with them. Then actually title it their name and then see how long I can survive for. [Laughs]” 

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