Early last year, Ethan Johns got a special request from Paul McCartney. "I got a call saying, 'Would you like to go into the studio with Paul?'" recalls the English producer. "And of course I said, 'I would love to!'"
McCartney was in the process of auditioning producers for his 16th solo studio LP, due out this fall. He called Johns because he liked his work with Kings of Leon. "It was very low-key," says Johns (whose father is Beatles, Stones and Who producer Glyn Johns). "[The idea was,] 'Let's just go and hang out for a few days, play some music, have a bit of fun and see what we come up with.'"
McCartney and Johns hit it off immediately after meeting up at London's AIR Studios, where they cut a ballad called "Hosannah" to analog tape using vintage instruments. "The first day we had was remarkable," says Johns. "He walked in with this incredible song, we threw up a couple of microphones and within four hours, we had this great track. I think we did an edit between the first two takes. It had an incredible feel – a really evocative piece of music, a very interesting lyric, and the performance was great. Then we started to experiment with it, and I put a bunch of psychedelic strangeness on it. You have fun. 'Oh, try this! Do that!' It's just very inspiring to be around."
Johns was impressed by how open McCartney was to collaborating. "The first thing he said was, 'What do you feel like doing?'" Johns says. "I could have said, 'Let's spend the day making percussion loops with drum machines,' and he would have been, 'Great! Let's do that!' I don't think he ever said 'No,' which is kind of the mark of who he is as an artist, really. He's always up for trying something new."
They continued working together one-on-one at Abbey Road Studios, where McCartney laid down guitar, bass, drums and keyboard parts (again recording to tape); Johns contributed guitar, keys and drums. "It was revelatory for me, recording Paul in that space having listened to the sound of those Beatles records," says the producer. "He plugged in his bass, I put a microphone in front of it, walked upstairs into the control room, pushed the fader up, and [that sound] came out of the speakers immediately. I didn't have to do anything! It was a pretty major light bulb for me. People get so fixated on the equipment and the gear, and those things are important – but ultimately, the bass sound on Revolver is Paul. Paul could be playing anything and he will get that sound."
Johns and McCartney recorded a total of four new songs over the three to four weeks they spent in the studio. It remains to be seen how many of those songs will end up on the final album, which has no confirmed title or release date; over the past year-plus, McCartney has also cut potential tracks with producers including Mark Ronson, Adele hitmaker Paul Epworth and Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George Martin).
Since working with McCartney, Johns has continued to expand his impressive resume, producing Laura Marling's excellent album Once I Was an Eagle. He's also stepped in front of the microphone for a solo album of his own, If Not Now Then When? "I would make recordings with my friends, but we were just having fun," Johns says of how his solo career started. "It's pretty much all we do, anyway. We just sit around and play music and make recordings of it. But I found after a few sessions that there was something special about these ones."
After wrapping a short North American tour If Not Now Then When? earlier this month, Johns was off to meet his old friend Ryan Adams at Adams' Los Angeles studio. Johns has produced several of the singer-songwriter's albums, including 2000's Heartbreaker and 2001's Gold. This time around, they're switching roles, with Adams producing Johns' next project – a narrative-based concept LP. "I won't give you the story exactly, because we'd be here all day," Johns says with a laugh. "But it follows a pair of brothers that were born on a farm in England, one of whom is quite innocent and the other one is slightly more complex and a darker character. They end up coming out to America around the turn of the century, maybe a little bit before. And the story is of the younger brother trying to find the older brother, who's becoming more and more famous for his exploits as he travels across the country."
Adds Johns, "I'm loving writing it. It's quite a challenge, I have to say! But it's nearly there."