INTERVIEW

Cape Town jingle composer John Wizards discusses his experimental African pop debut

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Has the year’s most exciting record ever been from Cape Town before? I’d hazard a guess at no, but it’s certainly the case in 2013. The self-titled debut from John Wizards (out now on Planet Mu) is almost exclusively the solo work of South African musician John Withers, and has emerged entirely from leftfield to become one of the summer’s most talked-about releases.

With a fairly basic palette of guitars and synthesisers running through his laptop, Withers has managed to produce a fascinating sonic tour of some of Southern, Eastern and Central Africa’s most intriguing musical propositions in impressively cohesive fashion. Lead single ‘Lusaka by Night’ represents the record’s diverse approach in a microcosm; chirpy guitars, laid-back vocals and sparse, juddering percussion combine in a veritable carnival of tones that’s at once both disparate and engaging.

Withers works a day job in his native Cape Town, composing jingles for advertisements, and speaks to me from the office; South Africa’s working day isn’t quite over. Given that both his professional life and his leisure time both seem to be largely given over to musical endeavours, you’d assume it possible that the lines can often be blurred between the two.

“I think the main thing is that it’s helped me settle into being comfortable writing in a whole bunch of different styles,” he says. “I’ve always worked on my own music, but a lot of the time I wouldn’t end up finishing what I’d started. I think when you’re forced to take a more methodical approach to writing, because it’s your job and you therefore know that there has to be an end product, it kind of makes it easier to apply the same kind of work ethic to your own music.”

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Withers’ first real exposure to playing music came in a fairly straightforward fashion as a child, although he soon progressed towards experimentation. “My parents took me to piano lessons when I was younger,” he tells me. “That was probably my first real exposure to music, at around age seven. As I got into my teens, I started playing the guitar, and that was probably my main focus through those years. It wasn’t until recently that I started progressing towards electronics and things like that.”

Wither’s music also progressed with a helping hand from Emmanuel Nzaramba, the only other contributor to ‘John Wizards’. A Rwandan singer who performs in various languages on the record, Nzaramba only came to be involved with the finished product after a chance reunion with Withers. “He was working at a coffee shop that I used to visit pretty regularly,” Withers recalls. “He came to Cape Town in the first place because he wanted to try to make a career for himself in music. I walked in one day with my guitar on my back, and we got talking. We ended up playing together and we did a little bit of recording, but we lost touch after a while. About a year later, I moved house and he was living nearby, and we managed to finish some of the stuff we’d started.”

The partnership between Withers and Nzaramba has connotations that stretch beyond just music; the process of moving towards racial harmony remains a slow one in post-apartheid South Africa, and particularly in Cape Town, where such a biracial duo is far from commonplace in the music scene. “I guess it’s fairly rare,” says Withers. “It’s a little different to somewhere like Johannesburg, which is not that far away, but there’s definitely more racial integration there in general terms, and that’s spilled over into the music there. It’s definitely less common here in Cape Town, which, again, is probably just a reflection of the social situation, and the degree of integration here.”

Withers has travelled extensively across southern Africa since graduating with a degree in art history, and whilst these trips clearly informed his approach on his first album, he insists that the record also incorporates influences from elsewhere in the continent, as well as overseas. He says that it’s definitely “a very African album”, rather than a South African one. “Then, beyond that, you’ve got some Jamaican influence, and obviously Western pop music is a big part of it too. I guess Southern and Central Africa is the foundation musically – that’s what it leans towards the most – but there’s so much else in there.”

Much has already been made of the plethora of Western influences present on the album, and Withers confirms that they encompass both the obvious and the obscure. “I was just thinking the other day that one of the records I was really obsessed with when I was writing a lot of this stuff was ‘Ambivalence Avenue’, by this guy called Bibio,” he says. “It was really inspiring to hear a guy so comfortable with bringing in all these different styles and making something that sounded really natural and seamless – nothing sounds forced. I was listening to that a lot right before I started seriously writing towards an album, and it had a big impact on me. It was nice to hear something that disparate.

“Obviously it’s almost impossible not to be shaped by a lot of British and American bands, too. The Velvet Underground were a pretty big deal for me growing up. I really loved James Blake’s record as well; that’s another one I was listening to when I was just getting going on this album.”

Interestingly, Withers has also cited Vampire Weekend as a major influence on his music, the band that attracted both praise and derision when they incorporated African sounds on their self-titled debut in 2008. It’s fascinating to think that only five years down the line from being dismissed by some critics for their (admittedly self-satisfied) self-description as ‘upper west side Soweto’, they’re actually rubbing off on African artists themselves.

“It doesn’t really surprise me that people react a little bit warily,” says Withers, “or a little bit cautiously when Western bands bring in these influences that are markedly foreign, especially if there’s maybe a bit of a historical discrepancy in terms of where the band are coming from. There’s obviously certain power dynamics involved in coming from a rich Western country and appropriating foreign music for your own needs; I can see why people might think that amounts to fetishising it, or treating it flippantly. But I think people should be more open to that kind of thing – you can learn so much from it. If you can harness that kind of influence in a respectful manner, there’s a lot to be gained. It would be a shame if cynicism got in the way of that.”

Many of the album’s song titles make explicit reference to the names of some of the places that Withers has visited across the south of Africa in recent years (‘Lusaka By Night’, ‘Muizenberg’, ‘Lushoto’), and you wonder whether that’s down to direct sonic correlation with the towns involved, or merely a less concrete connection between the trips Withers took and the memories that the songs bring to mind.

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“It’s the latter,” he says. “I don’t think I really used instruments that were specific to certain regions – just because there’s a lot of different styles in there, it doesn’t actually mean that it’s all that diverse instrumentally. It’s kind of the standard setup of synthesisers and guitars, really. Plus, it’s not as if the lyrical motifs were taken from those areas. It was far more abstract than that, and I kind of just based the titles on the way that the sounds would evoke the feeling of the place, and certain memories from my time there.”

With tour dates across the West in the pipeline, including a slew of UK shows in October, the next challenge for Withers is to break down the record to make it suitable for live performance; he’s already put together a band of local musicians to accompany him on the road – that’s them in the photograph, with Withers and Nzaramba far right.

“It’s what I’ve mainly been focused on, since I finished the album,” he says. “It’s been a really interesting process. I think I went in with this really practical mindset, just thinking that we were going to be taking the songs and breaking them down and figuring out how best to arrange them, but it turned out that you can mix things up a lot more; at times I felt like I was rewriting this stuff when I was figuring out the live setup. It’s been tricky, because you might get halfway through an arrangement and realise that it’s not going to work, and all the time you’ve spent teaching people the parts might have been wasted – you’re back to the drawing board. It’s definitely a rewarding process, though.”

Withers is excited and mindful of the affects of touring, and the influence that this potentially steep learning curve could have on his future music. “We want to take things as far as possible,” he says. “It’ll be interesting, because I’ve never toured before, and I guess I’m going to need to know what that experience is like and how I respond to it before I’ll know if I really want to do this on a regular basis. The main reason I really want to travel is because I feel like I’m craving some kind of external influence; I really want to collaborate, and I want to move out of the solitary practice that music represents for me. I think the fact that we’re coming to the UK in October and playing in the US, too, means there might be a more pronounced Western influence in future – but I’m certainly not leaving Africa behind.”

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