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John Wizards

Serendipity Calling

Jan 06, 2014 John Wizards
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If you have yet to hear the captivating sound of the Cape Town natives John Wizards’ eclectic self-titled debut, then you’re missing out on one of the most unique and uplifting records of the year. Creating a boundless sense of joy certainly seems to have been the intention of bandleader, producer, and songwriting lynchpin of the group, John Witherssomething he felt on an almost instinctual level. “You try to recreate a feeling when you’re writing, and often what personally moves me is something joyous or euphoric,” he says. “I knew when I stumbled on something I really liked, because I’d listen to it over and over again and I’d still get a great feeling from it.”

When Under the Radar catches up with Withers on the eve of his first European tour, he’s the epitome of calm. “I’ve just had a roast lunch and now I’m relaxing at my parents’ house,” he says. “That’s the way it should be on a Sunday.” His chill demeanor belies the difficulties that preparing for the tour have presented: from a race to find missing passports and get travel visas organized, to the formation of a full touring band and the musical rearrangement of most of the songs from his albumwhich he originally recorded alone with just a laptop, a guitar, and some “very understanding neighbors”for a live setting.

It’s the culmination of a year-long journey that began back in 2012, after a chance meeting with his future musical partner, Rwandan vocalist Emmanuel Nzaramba. “When we met he was working [as a security guard] outside a coffee shop,” remembers Withers. “He’d just come to South Africa from Rwanda to become a musician. He saw I had a guitar on my back, so we got talking about music and then just started working together.” It was this moment of serendipity and the friendship that grew from it that gave Withers the impetus to complete the collection of unfinished songs that would form the album. “I’d been working on some stuff and then he came along at the final stages and helped me finish.”

Withers and Nzaramba had musical chemistry almost instantly. “Emmanuel has a huge catalog of songs in his head. I’d be working on a track, invite him over, play him the song a few times and then we’d workshop it from there…the way we work is ideal.”

Buoyed by the progress they’d made together, Withers posted a rough cut of the album to SoundCloud, which led them to signing with pioneering U.K. label Planet Mu. “I posted all the songs up in a very rough mix, just one long track, and somehow Mike Paradinas [head of the label] heard it and got hold of us through Facebook.” That signing garnered them attention, and slowly, as more people heard the album, their career began to gain traction. By the time the album was finally released, however, Withers was back at his day job creating music for ads. “It seems like such a long time ago now since I finished recording. Back then I had a real sense of anticipation, but I started thinking less and less about it…so when it started getting reviewed, I’d almost forgotten about it.”

With his work being warmly received by critics and with a newfound international fanbase, Withers seems happy that the album has managed to connect so readily with people. “It’s been amazing, but it’s strange, because while it was well-received in the U.K. and U.S. it hasn’t filtered through yet in South Africa.” Does he have any explanation as to why this is? “The people who’ve heard it have really liked it, but I guess our music is fairly divergent from the scene here. It’s all a bit more imported, with a heavy emphasis on looking overseas for new music,” he explains.

While their music may be a harder sell at home (“I wouldn’t say there’s anything that sounds like us”), the musical influence of their homeland is more prevalent than ever among Western bands, with hugely popular groups such as Vampire Weekend and indie stalwarts Dirty Projectors all incorporating African rhythms into their sound to great acclaim. But Withers embraces this. “I think that that kind of appropriation is fine as long as it’s done respectfully. There’s a tradition of exploitative attitudes towards African music, but as long as the artist making it is actually engaging and not just using it as a gimmick then it has great potential.”

In what has been a rapidly transformative period in his lifethat has seen Withers go from unknown bedroom musician to bona-fide and much lauded recording artistwe ask if he can pinpoint his most memorable highlight from the last 12 months? Withers takes a philosophical approach. “For me it was when we wrote the last song on the album, ‘Friend.’ Emmanuel quickly came up with the vocal, and then I didn’t sleep for almost two nights working on it. As soon as it was done I left my flat, bought myself a box of Frosties, and took a road trip down the West Coast [of South Africa]. I needed to get out of Cape Town for a while and that was a very special full stop to the experience. It was a really great feeling.”


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