Daniel Johns’ road to success wasn’t without its pitfalls. There’s been fame and fans and hits. And haters, illness and marriage breakups. Johns’ band Silverchair rode the charts like few others in their homeland, and they always took a pile of criticism along the way. On a stage at the Livid Festival in Brisbane back in October 1996, Johns took a brickbat the old fashioned way. A disgruntled onlooker hurled a full beer can at his head. It connected, and the singer went down mid-song. A hush went over the crowd as the teenager gathered himself and rose to his feet. He pointed in the general direction of the culprit and shouted out an earnest “f–k you,” then went back to work with his band.
“That also happened a few times in America,” he recalls. “For me as an artist, I’ve always been quite diverse. A lot of people don’t really like what I do. And I’ve always thought to myself, ‘it’s not really my problem’. If I was a painter, people might write really bad reviews but because I’m up on stage they feel like it’s necessary to make some physical attack on you.”
Johns was always younger than everyone else on the bill, and success came early. Now he’s all grown up, but he can still say “f–k you” to the folks who try knock him down. More than eight years after the release of Silverchair’s fifth and final album Young Modern, Johns has created his first solo set, Talk, which is released Friday (May 22) via EMI. He’s heard a lot of “talk” over the years. If he studied at the school of hard knocks, he graduated with distinction. “I’m more than well versed in how cruel people can be. It really doesn’t bother me. If anything it motivates me because I’m not making this music for people who don’t like me or don’t like what I do. I make this music because I have to.”
Talk is the work of an artist who’s matured. Who’s seen the world and come home. His blonde locks are gone, his vocals are soulful, his lyrics are confessional. On “Preach” (co-written with Damn Moroda), Johns sings, “Now I dance to my own beat, I can only try, ’cause I fall at my own feet.” At this stage of his career, Johns has so many runs on the board, he was able to call on the some of the hottest producers in the region to work on the album. And they came to him. “I didn’t want to leave my loungeroom. I prefer to record my vocals in pajamas and be able to smoke. We don’t go out. It’s not like a massive social hub. I just like chilling at home with my girl and my dog. If I’m going to work, I’d prefer people fly to me,” he says with a laugh.
Johns’ home in Newcastle, north of Sydney has been busier than usual. On tracks “Imagination”, “Chained” and “Faithless,” Johns recruited the talents of hip hop producers Styalz and M-Phazes (who contributed cuts on Eminem’s Grammy-winning Marshall Mathers LP2. And Julian Hamilton, a founding member of the ARIA Award-winning electronic duo the Presets, helped pen “By Your Side” and “Dissolve” (Hamilton also co-wrote Silverchair’s 2007 song “Straight Lines”). Billboard can exclusively premiere “Dissolve” below.
After the end of Silverchair, Johns was “just sick of being the guy who had to be louder than the cymbals, and louder than the distortion, and like a rock ‘n’ roll lead singer. For the entire period after that, I sat in my living room and tinkered around with machinery. It was just a weird time because I had no idea what I was doing.” He dabbled with punk, noise, electronica. “I wasn’t singing anything, just using vocoders. I just wanted to be in front of a mic and sing really, really quietly, like most of my demos are. Because I never had the confidence to do it. You’d get into a studio with this big American producer and he’d say, ‘you’ve gotta project, be a rock ‘n’ roll singer’. I just wanted to be more introverted, which is more reflective of what the album is doing.” Of his new style, he explains “I’m just telling secrets.”
Johns, now 36, has been in and out of the spotlight since he was a kid. He and his former Silverchair bandmates Ben Gillies (drums) and Chris Joannou (bass) broke through in August 1994 with the grunge track “Tomorrow” when they were still studying at school in Newcastle. The song eventually spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Australian singles chart and 20 weeks in the top 10. Each of the band’s five albums peaked at No. 1 in Australia, and Silverchair won more ARIA Awards than any other artist in history (21). The group went on “indefinite hiatus” in May 2011, having sold more than six million career albums. Johns tells Billboard he has no desire to reunite the trio.
Right now, all his energies are on Talk, which was two years in the making. Without the input of producer Joel Little (Lorde, Broods), it “wouldn’t be half of what it is,” notes Johns. Little co-wrote and produced the singles “Cool On Fire” and “Aerial Love,” and contributed his production skills to the album track “Warm Hands”. “He knew I was going down a path that most people who were maybe Silverchair fans wouldn’t like, and Joel was one of the first guys to say, ‘dude this is the shit.’”
Johns connected with Little before the New Zealander helped turn Lorde into a big deal. “I got a demo of Lorde’s first EP and my publisher said, ‘do you want to work with this guy we’ve signed as a writer’. I thought, Joel has a serious palate. We became really tight friends, really quick. Before you knew it, Lorde was number one everywhere in the world and I was the luckiest guy because I snuck in before he was a million dollars a track.”
Johns admits there was a time post Silverchair when he figured he’d leave his recording career behind. He’d already endured health problems, and in 2007 split with his wife Natalie Imbruglia (who coincidentally is reigniting her solo career in 2015 after six years away). “Yeah, the first four years of the ‘hiatus’ was me contemplating if I ever wanted to release music again. I’ll always write music. I was experimenting in my living room and going to my mates’ house in the Tasmanian mountains and making art and doing stuff. I really had no intention of ever releasing music again until I stumbled across a sound that I thought maybe I should put my name to and release to the public.”
There’s no talk yet of a full-scale tour, though Johns will present his new album with a pair of shows next week (May 28 and 29) at the Sydney Opera House, as part of the annual Vivid Live festival. He muses that those dates are a “really enormous publicly accessible soundcheck.” Sure he’s nervous about the reception for his new music. But he’s heard all the talk, and he’s taken the hits. “I don’t think I’m a tough person mentally. I’m a tough person when it comes to defending my art. There’s nothing in the world I care about more than my music. If someone’s attacking that or trying to get in the way of that, I’m going to be a f–king soldier.”