Elliott Johnson is a Norwich based, all round creative and the central figure behind the outfit, Cutout Joconde. With a blend of stripped back acoustic melodies, spoken word passages, and fusions of post punk rock, the group released their debut EP, Compost Mentis late last month. I had the opportunity to talk to Elliott about the EP, lockdown and their plans for the future.
While lockdown became a place for many to perfect their banana bread or begin writing that novel they’d always been putting off, for Elliot it was an opportunity to bring to life a number of songs they had written in their late teenage years. After recording the single ‘Flypaper’, Elliot explained, “I worked through a couple more songs that I’d written when I was about 17-18, ‘Patron Saint’, ‘For the Lowlifes in My Life’, that I had to get out of the way before I could start writing new stuff…I felt like they were sitting on my back.”
Listening to Compost Mentis, there is a move away from the post punk origins of Cutout Joconde’s earlier work. Talking about the musical influences that went into the EP, Elliot said, “I knew that Compost Mentis’ title track was going to have some sort of baroque pop thing going on. That lush 60s chamber pop sound with a little bit of, not necessarily folk, but a lot of orchestration and a lot of acoustic feel to it.”
“This wasn’t my intention at all but I ended up taking in some jazz influences as well. That was more me discovering I could programme jazz sounds on my computer basically! Then we ended up getting a saxophonist, Scarlet Bishop, who’s very talented too.”
It may come as a surprise to hear that Compost Mentis is an entirely home recorded project. “It was pretty much all recorded from either my uni house or my bedroom at my parents house. When it says in the line notes that it’s recorded at bronze hexagon studios that’s an in-joke about the golden triangle!
“I was learning to use Logic as I recorded it, which was the most professional recording software I’d ever used up to that point. I was like a kid at Christmas with these toys thinking “omg it’s so powerful!” So, I tried to push the boat out to see how everything worked. It’s a combination of that and I think Joss is very skilled at mixing and mastering, he really made the record pop.”
The project hosts a number of UEA students contributing spoken word passages. Elliot spoke on how it was like to work with them. “With Meg especially, because Meg wrote the passage for ‘Devil’s Ivy’, I think she originally wrote that for a partner a couple of years ago and she sent it to me and I said ‘Oh I can make some music with this’. This was way before I even knew what Compost Mentis was going to be…Me and Meg are quite simpatico, our brains work quite similarly so it was really fun to work with Meg and the poem is so beautiful.
“Biff Pearson provided some spoken word interludes between the songs. With that I gave them a couple of questions as prompts and recorded some sections. Our bassist contributed some words on ‘Prayer for Winter’ because I had trouble filling in gaps between verses. And then with the other lines on ‘Prayer for Winter’, I just messaged as many people as possible because I wanted as big a chorus of voices as I could. I think there’s a good nine or ten people on that track.”
Even before listening to the project, the central theme of nature stands out through the artwork and titles. Elliot spoke about how the theme for this originated from walking in the garden with their dog. “It sort of germinated with the first lockdown before Cutout Joconde was even a thing…when spring was happening and the weather was really nice for months on end while we were all stuck indoors. I’m really lucky because my parents had just got a dog and we have quite a lot of wild space behind our house. I think it was the first time I ever had the time and space to pay attention to spring happening in slow motion, so every day I would notice new plants appearing and I tried to learn the names of all the plants around me.
“I think that connection with nature and the fact that I was also reading a lot of nature writing by people like Tom Cox, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deacon sort of percolated through. I think I’ve always been quite obsessed with nature and greenery so it was quite natural that I ended up making some music about it.”
Nature is at the core of Elliot’s project and this can be seen with how the EP is raising money for the charity Rewilding Britain. Elliot explained that “Rewilding Britain is a charity that advocates and also rewilds areas of Britain as the name suggests! I know they’ve done quite a lot of work in the West Country and Scotland. I found them because I was doing some research in charities that protected the right to roam in Britain.”
“I discovered Guy Shrubsole who wrote the book ‘Who Owns England?’ and he’s also one of the chief executives I think of Rewilding Britain…The things they do like reintroducing beavers and plans to reintroduce lynxes and wolves in certain parts of this island…managing woodlands and places where there are deer. It’s stuff like that and I think it was just really appropriate to the theme of the EP as well as being something I cared about. I like a bit of symmetry in what I do!”
Before we finished the interview, I managed to ask Elliot about plans for the future with Cutout Joconde. A vinyl release and the prospect of performing live were certainly on Elliot’s mind. “So with the vinyl… we’re still finalising the artwork and the packaging but Mikala who designed the EP cover who’s super talented…is working on that right now and Joss has done a vinyl master. It’ll probably be quite a long process to make sure it sounds good so I’m going to very cautiously say late October for that.
“I’m trying to get a live band together at the moment but I’m also extremely busy. I really want to perform this EP live, I’m so desperate to do it live. At the moment we have a very rough line up. I don’t want to reveal too much as it’s very subject to change. Hopefully before the end of the year we would have played the EP live, with hopefully lots of people on stage.”
As the interview came to a close, Elliot finished by saying how much of a brilliant place Norwich was to merge with other creatives. “Honestly for me it’s all about bringing people together to work on stuff and that’s why I enjoy being in Norwich so much because everyone knows everyone. Everyone around the arts uni and UEA or just generally across the city, there’s so many creative people and I get a real buzz out of bringing people together, so Cutout Joconde was really just a reason for me to get out more when I think about it!”
Cutout Joconde’s debut EP, Compost Mentis is available to stream “on all good streaming platforms” and for purchase on Bandcamp where donations are available to Rewilding Britain.