One of the joys of writing my book ‘Kevin Ayers, August 16th 2013, Deià’, is that a number of very interesting people have got in touch to tell me they’ve enjoyed reading it. Kevin’s voice and music have inspired many musicians over the years and continue to do so. I recently talked to Johan Asherton, a singer-songwriter-guitarist from Paris who has been a dedicated Kevin Ayers fan for over forty years, about his enduring admiration for “Our Kev”.
SJL: Johan, I’m delighted that you have taken such an interest in KevinAyers.org and my book. I once described you on this site as “Kevin Ayers in reverse” in the sense that you are French but always sing in English. Whereas Kevin was English but was well known for his ability to compose and sing in French, for example, ‘Jolie Madame’ and the French version of ‘May I?’ (‘Puis-Je?’). Why do you choose to write and sing songs in English rather than your native language, French?
JA: I sing (or try to) sing in English because it’s how I started, listening to all the UK/US pop/rockers. Also because I was always interested in the English language, always saw films in their original versions, etc… I started visiting the UK in 1972… I love the French language, really do, it’s really perfect for the French “chanson”, but I don’t think it ROCKS as nicely, you know? Although there are some great exceptions…
SJL: Nice one! So, Johan, please tell me about the first time you heard Kevin’s music…
JA: I got into Kevin’s music in 1973, by the time ‘Bananamour’ was released, listening to ‘Interview’ on the radio. I was immediately taken by the voice, and the general atmosphere, ambience of the sound. I bought the album, and just loved it! ‘Shouting in a Bucket Blues’ was an immediate favourite, which I started to try to play and sing when I was 17 or so. At the time, I couldn’t imagine finding myself playing it on stage – or at a private acoustic evening, for that matter!
SJL: I have heard you sing ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’, with a slight French accent…very nice indeed! Let’s talk about Kevin’s voice…
JA: I was especially taken by his voice, vocal range – in fact I discovered…that I had the same sort of baritone, only slightly less deep or profound.
SJL: Your “mature” voice is quite similar to his, I think.
JA: Vocally, I was a tenor for a long time, then my voice deepened “naturally” (tobacco may have something to do with it…) about 8 or 9 years ago…
SJL: It almost seems as if Kevin was born with that incredibly deep voice. Or maybe he started smoking very young! On a different track…What aspects of Kevin’s music have influenced your own songs?
JA: Many of his (earlier) songs are in the prog-rock style, which was never my cup of tea, but many others are in a straighter pop-rock area, definitely my own. Some of the artists who’d influenced (Kevin) had already influenced me, so to speak, like Syd Barrett or Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground.
SJL: Tell me about your experiences of Kevin as a live performer…
JA: I remember listening to a concert (Salle Wagram, Paris – circulating as a bootleg) on the radio, with a little silly song as an intro! I saw Kevin in Arles, 1975, trying to back Nico (from The Velvet Underground) on guitar for a couple of songs, but not very convincingly. And I saw him at Passage du Nord-Ouest, Paris, 1992. A great gig, very much like the London concert of the same year you can find on YouTube
JA: At the time we were label mates…
SJL: Wow! So which label was that?
JA: FNAC Music. They released (Kevin’s 1992 album) ‘Still Life With Guitar’ in France, and my own ‘The Night Forlorn’. I found myself in the studio recording an album with two of Kevin’s friends, John Greaves, (bassist) and the great late drummer Pip Pyle. That was in 1992/1993. In the early 2000s, there was a plan to record another album together. We had to submit some sort of idea of a budget to the record company I was with at the time. We wanted to invite guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson and, as a very special guest to perform vocal duties with me, none other than our Kev! But the record company’s financial situation was very unstable, to say the least, and the whole project was shelved…
SJL: I have heard Pip Pyle mentioned before, in relation to Gong. What a cool album that would have been for us fans of the baritone singer and the guitar virtuoso!
JA: Pip Pyle was a great drummer from the Canterbury Rock scene, and he and Kevin were featured on Lady June’s album, which Kevin produced.
SJL: Yes, Kevin always chose his collaborators very well, from the Soft Machine days onwards such as Mike Oldfield, Bridget St John, Archie Leggett, Ollie Halsall, etc. Apart from the unique voice and incredible taste in musical collaborators, what else do you admire about Kevin?
JA: I love his lyrics, and what I love above everything else in Kevin’s music is his sense of absolute elegance. He’s one of the truest dandies of rock, and there’s just a handful of them, I think.
SJL: I have seen video of Kevin talking about how he started with poetry readings back in the 1960s and found that people paid more attention if he strummed a few chords at the same time! So yes…a poet first and foremost…
JA: I dream of a KA lyric book… Maybe one day?
SJL: Yes, yes, yes to the KA lyric, guitar and piano music book. Publishers take note! Do you have a particular favourite Kevin Ayers song, or vocal performance? For instance we mentioned ‘Still Life With Guitar’, I particularly love his voice on ‘Something in Between’…
JA: Difficult for me to choose among so many great songs… I’d say ‘Yes I Do’ (from ‘Mananas’) for its delicacy, ‘Puis-Je’ for the charming accent and funny lyrics (the spoken section during the sax solo is something to be heard!), ‘Jolie Madame’ with the lovely Bridget, ‘Another Saturday Night’, ‘Day By Day’ and ‘Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes’ , ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’ (of course)… so many…!
SJL: Great choices, Johan. Mais oui… I catch his drift in ‘Puis-Je’, so to speak! You must regret that you never met Kevin in person or recorded with him. Surely the world would have been a better place for having an Ayers/Asherton duet?
JA: I had his address and phone number in Montolieu for years… but never could gather the courage to call him… I hope I can visit Montolieu sometime in the future. His music has been with me for 40 years or so… And I often play ‘Shouting In A Bucket Blues’ during my solo concerts.
SJL: So tell me about your new album, which was released in February 2015, the eponymous ‘Johan Asherton’s Diamonds’…
JA: Johan Asherton’s Diamonds is a new band I’ve put together from long-standing musician friends. It’s a return to my rock’n’roll roots after a number of more folk music based acoustic albums.
SJL: It’s an excellent album, Johan and I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing it for the record company. (There are currently three reviews in French, plus my review in English, on the PopTheBalloon website). There are also five sample tracks for people to listen to :
and here’s a link to the video of the song ‘Lonely Feeling’
SJL: Loneliness sounds rather good fun there… nice touch of irony, Johan! I noticed there’s also a bit of wry Kevin-style humour in the track ‘Life Of The Party’, I think he would have appreciated that one!
JA: Yes, with the lyrics to ‘Life Of The Party’ I was thinking of Kevin while writing this one, and ‘Ooh I Miss You’ as well. I would’ve loved for him to enjoy these songs, that’s for sure…
SJL: Did you have any sense with Kevin’s passing that you really wanted to get on and do and say the things that were most important to you?
JA: Oh yes! ‘Life Of The Party’ in fact is really about this. So many of my musical heroes have passed away over the last two years… Lou Reed and Kevin in the same year. People can say what they want about the Rolling Stones, when you see them still rockin’ in their 70s… What a great lesson…!
SJL: I know that you regularly play gigs in Paris, Rouen and Lille. Any plans to tour in England or further afield in France?
JA: We just want to play from time to time, at least for now. I played England just a few times, solo acoustic, London 12 Bar Club, and several places in Wales. These days, I keep thinking I’m doing this for the sheer pleasure of making music with my friends, to people who will listen.
SJL: Here’s a delightful “morceau” of recent live footage of Johan in Lille with Terry Brisack (guitar) and Pascal Favriou (keyboards).
SJL: Thank you so much for talking to me Johan, it’s always interesting to hear a musician’s insights.
JA: I’d like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate both you and Rick for the beautiful Kevin site you created, and for keeping his memory and legacy alive.
For more information about Johan Asherton and his music please visit:
Johan’s 2012 “sombre folk” album ‘The House of Many Doors’ is also a personal favourite of mine and highly recommended..
Johan Asherton’s Diamonds are on Facebook: