Singer Ryan Johnston’s roots might lie in Belfast but he has found his musical niche in West Yorkshire.
Johnston had moved to England at the age of 19 to pursue his dreams and was working with a producer when he was persuaded to attend an open mic night in at The Admiral Duncan in Wakefield. “I got up and sang a capella,” Johnston recalls. “Two other guys Rhys [Anderton] and Will [Booth] were there. Will came up and asked would I mind if he played guitar for me and I said ‘That would be great’ because I couldn’t accompany myself with an instrument, and things started to roll from there. We met Danny [Hepworth], the left-handed guitarist, through the same process and jammed in there every night and ended up putting on our own open mic nights in there.”
Johnston and Booth began writing together and in 2013 they recorded their first song, Storybook, at Blueprint Studios in Manchester. They took Anderton and Hepworth along to help. “Will took a photo and it was us four in the car driving along and when we looked at it the four faces just looked like a band. Then by the time we finished recording together we were all on a high and we were like ‘Let’s make this band’ and everyone was keen and interested.”
Last year Skinny Living released an EP called 3 on their own label; they also gained their first taste of playing on a bigger stage when selected to support Jake Bugg at the First Direct Arena. “When we all got on stage it was so calm, we all felt really comfortable, which is strange because in a lot of other gigs we’ve felt more anxious before we got on stage,” Johnston says. “It felt like the bigger stage was more comfortable because you could move around. When we walked out in the crowd there was all these people screaming at us, so I think it was just that moment of everyone being really excited and us feeling welcome on the stage and them wanting to hear us play. It set the bar for us and we’ve been chasing that buzz ever since.”
After attracting interest from record labels, the band signed to RCA, who sent them to work with top producers such as Jake Gosling, Mark Ralph and Steve Robson. Johnston says he’s “learned so much” from the experience. “I’ve learned a lot about melodies, how you tell a story in music.
“In the early days [song writing] was very natural, it just came off the top of our heads, the lyrics just fell out almost as we were playing – and lyrics are really important for me. I feel like we really hit the nail on the head with Storybook and Let Me In, but when we were continually trying to write more songs I felt like it sort of dried up for a while.
When I wrote the song I was just remembering this time that my sister came to me one night and told me that everything I was doing with my life was basically insane, I was overindulging in things I shouldn’t have been, and almost on a destructive path.Ryan Johnston
“We’d written a few songs that we didn’t realise were as good as they were and it was almost by complete accident that it happened. Then at the end of this writing process with other writers like Steve Robson and Jake Gosling and helping us evolve it made me aware of the things that we had done right in previous songs, but it was by fluke that we did it the first time, whereas now we’re starting to learn what the tricks are, I suppose, and what you’re meant to do within a song, what picture you’re meant to paint for people when they’re hearing the words and what feeling you’re meant to give to people when you’re playing those chords.”
Recent single Why was inspired by Johnston’s gratitude to his sister for her honesty with him while he was suffering depression. She also appears in its video. “Going into the writing session I had this overbearing feeling about the colour red then all of a sudden all this emotion and story started coming out about this time in my life when I was in a really dark place,” the singer says. “At the time of writing it I didn’t realise that depression probably was the place that I was in.
“When I wrote the song I was just remembering this time that my sister came to me one night and told me that everything I was doing with my life was basically insane, I was overindulging in things I shouldn’t have been, and almost on a destructive path. I didn’t realise at the time that I was doing it to get away from things that I wasn’t dealing with, things that had upset me in my past. What she said to me that night was quite stirring and we sort of fell out on that evening. That’s why in the song it says ‘I’d mistaken the truth for a lie’, because she was telling the truth and I didn’t agree with her. I was like ‘I could stop this in a second, I don’t agree with what you’re saying’, but over a period of time it played on my mind and made me aware of what I was doing. It didn’t happen straight away but it gradually became something that I wasn’t interested in doing any more because I could see the damage that was being caused.”
This autumn Skinny Living embark on a UK headline tour that includes shows in Wakefield and Johnston’s home city, Belfast. “They’re always the lively ones,” Johnston says, adding that he hopes the band will release another single to coincide. “We all feel as a band really happy with what we’re putting out, it comes from a true place for us and it’s music that we’re passionate about people hearing,” he says.
Skinny Living play at Unity Works, Wakefield on November 2. www.skinnylivinguk.com