Interview — Sion Hill

Honest Music, Honest Drinking

During a wild night with Irish singer Nathan D. Hollingsworth Johnston, we found out about the roots of his sexy sound and to which song he used to make out in high school. Get your Whiskey Sour ready and get ready to know Sion Hill!

27. November 2017 — MYP N° 21 »Ecstasy« — Interview & Text: Katharina Weiß, Photography: Steven Lüdtke

Can you recall the good ol’ days of Rock ‘n’ Roll? No? How about the good ol’ days of journalism? No? Join the club; Irish singer Nathan D. Hollingsworth Johnston, currently touring under the name Sion Hill, and I can’t either. Both born in 1994, we’re just too young. But we didn’t let a tiny detail like that stand in our way of spending a day living it up as they did back in those golden eras of popular culture. That included heaps of live guitar music, non-pretentious lyric improvisation, and a fair amount of whiskey—in short: Honest music and honest drinking!

Since you’re already reading this online, take a second to open Spotify or whatever streaming service you fancy and play Sion Hill’s recently released album Elephant. This interview will be a much better read with the proper soundtrack. Drinking a Whiskey Sour at the same time might not be such a bad idea either…

Elephant is a brilliant, spontaneous-sounding piece of solo-male pop with some 60’s elements and carefully used jazz skills—all wrapped in a handsome-but-never-too-slick dandy look. Johnston’s melodies have a very modern twist to them and there is not a single song in which his voice gets buried under autotune effects. It’s a very straightforward style which showcases the wide range of stories he is able to tell with his guitar (and sometimes on the piano, too!). The sexy, drum-driven intro song Nothing’s Wrong with Loving You might as well be called Nothing’s Wrong with Listening to Sion Hill; the ballad All I Need is You will make you want to call your ex; and when he brings up the song Storm, you’ll be dying to drink a very dirty Martini while doing very dirty things with James Bond. And that’s just the debut album. If you search the internet, you will find an even wider array of tracks, most of them filmed live in a bar or on some street. In a song called Go On And Get It For Me recorded in a barbershop in Dublin, his tongue is so swift, it almost sounds like rapping.

But the best thing about all of this: Nathan D. Hollingsworth Johnston is able to share these feelings without hours of technical constructions. When we meet him at The Ballery in Schöneberg, it takes barely five minutes for him to start jamming on his guitar with the venue’s host, Otto, accompanying him with some Cuban rhythms on the piano. The Ballery, at Nollendorfplatz, is a space for all the beautiful things in life. Directed by British producer & curator Simon Williams and Cuban art director Otto Oscar Hernandez, it’s program features talks, concerts, and exhibitions from a community of influential Berlin-based artists. Sometimes it is a speak-easy, sometimes there is someone playing Schubert and Chopin – and today it’s the place for a private concert by this hot new Irish act.

After a glass of wine and some more improvisation, Johnston and I finish up at The Ballery and move on to the intimate atmosphere of Reza, a smokers café with vintage interior and illustrious guests. What happened there felt less like conducting an interview and more like getting fashionably drunk with someone who has the wit and gall to fill a whole evening with hilarious anecdotes ranging from tales of Catholic all-boys high schools to touring with Pete Doherty. Get your Whiskey Sour ready and get ready to know Sion Hill!

Katharina:
What is the thing with you and elephants, why did you name your first album after them?

Nathan:
When I lived in Berlin, I often played on the streets under that bridge at Hackescher Markt. There was this homeless Polish guy who came up to listen to me every day. And obviously, he never had anything to give me, so he would give me cans of Carlsberg Elephant. You know that one? 12.5 percent, most disgusting beer you could ever drink. But such a nice gesture. I often wondered: What happened to this guy that he got left in this situation, and why does nobody care about him?
Elephant is about hope, about stepping just a little bit away from the mainstream and all this social media culture. We should become more concerned about what happens in our own life and with the people you meet every day. It sounds so preachy, but it is so true. Here in Berlin, there are many people from different cultures, races, generations, all living in this mixed up place. It’s very easy to get lost in a big city, to be left behind, and so many people lose faith when they don’t achieve what they thought they’d achieve. So they give up and get trapped. There are so many stories no one ever tells. Like the story of this homeless Polish guy who brought me cans of Carlsberg Elephant. He was trying his best, I respected that. But maybe it’s a ridiculous reason to name a record!

Katharina:
I think it’s a perfect reason. When did you write most of the songs for the album?

Nathan:
A while ago. The album was ready in 2015, but there was some trouble with my label and changes in management, and so it took me till August 2017 to release it.

Katharina:
The video for the song Beaches was filmed in New York—the same city where Dorothy Parker celebrated some exhilarating parties with her Vicious Circle in the 1920’s. It was a group of people from all classes and creative aspects who came together to get drunk during Prohibition. Which icons would you invite to your own vicious circle for the perfect party mixture?

There is no good party without some interesting girls. Amy Winehouse has to be there. Maybe I would invite Audrey Hepburn for some class. And Ellen DeGeneres. And wouldn’t it be fun to have Rihanna there as well?

Nathan:
Ok, let’s do the men first…

Katharina:
That’s what they all say. Because there are much more famous men…

Nathan:
No no, you do the men first, cause you gotta leave more room for the ladies! There is no good party without some interesting girls. Let’s start: You have to invite this depressed guy who is hilariously sarcastic and ironic. He is not too loud, but his presence is very strong. And he likes to drink. Ernest Hemingway could do the job. Big man there, drinking a whiskey, talking politics and shit. He was insane, he woke up sipping gin & tonics. I once drank in the bar where he used to hang out. More lads! Jimmy Hendrix and Eric Clapton for the style, and we could have a jam. All I can think about is a party where I would invite the Hollywood Vampires (editor’s note: a US-American rock project formed in 2015 by Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp and Joe Perry). Would be a dirty party. Now the ladies: Amy Winehouse has to be there. I listened to her a lot when I was younger, big influence. Maybe I would invite Audrey Hepburn for some class. And Ellen DeGeneres, I would make sure she brings up some Dory quotes. Now there is a picture on that wall in front of me…

Katharina:
Look at that. Halle Berry!

Nathan:
Yes, look at that! She can come. And wouldn’t it be fun to have Rihanna there as well? What a sick crew. That’s a fair collection now. But there are so many famous faces staring at you in this bar. Look over there, Al Pacino. His eyes, man, it’s like he looks right into your soul. So much talent everywhere. How could you ever choose? Even these days, there are so many young artists. In my opinion, music is one of the few things democracy worked very well for. Think about how cheap it is today to buy a guitar. And anybody can do music today and upload it to the internet. Or you can learn to play an instrument on the internet. I learned some music skills on YouTube as well.

Katharina:
But it’s not just all good for young artists today… What are the disadvantages of these changes in the music industry?

Nathan:
It’s much harder to filter out. In the earlier days, only the very talented people got through and of course, those who were manufactured by the record labels. Today everyone can get some attention, but people lose the overview. And of course, you don’t make any money with records anymore, so musicians rely on touring more than ever before… meaning; traveling more often, which can be difficult in holding down a regular job to pay the rent.

Katharina:
But you don’t have to hide when it comes to playing live. It was so much fun to see you jam with the guys at The Ballery.

Nathan:
To be honest, I never really wanted to be a solo artist, I love to work with bands. Being alone means you have a lot of control, but being in a band is always a more collaborative effort. For me as a musician, it’s so great to have other musicians interpret what you do. It’s hard to describe, but working with a band is a much more organic way to do it, than just working with session musicians and producers. You have people to share the journey with and you get to create the music you want to make, no one tells you how to do it.

Katharina:
If I would share a flat with you, what would be the worst thing about it?

Nathan:
I’ve had lots of flatmates. I get the toilet paper when it’s running out, I think I’m pretty ok. Depends on the bed though, right now I have a really loud bed. And there is a door to my flatmate’s room, we can hear every sound the other one makes. Sometimes he and his girlfriend wake up in the morning and they are chatting bullshit for two hours and then they are fucking for an hour. Like who the fuck gets up at 8 o’clock to have sex?

Katharina:
Damn that morning glory. Next drink?

Nathan:
Another Whiskey Sour, for sure.

Katharina:
Let’s talk about your songs in which you get vocal about more serious topics, going beyond sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Take Me Back is about money and war, for example.

Nathan:
It makes you feel bad to use those two terms in one breath, but that’s how the world is. It’s more about getting away from the city, away from the grind to make money, from huge TVs and mirrors.

Katharina:
For you, what are the biggest injustices in the world?

Nathan:
I am pretty bothered by the right-wing movements that are happening at the moment. In Ireland, everything is pretty much center-left or center-right. Coming to Germany, it was so interesting to see how wide the gap between both sides is here in comparison to Ireland. But then you have things like the G20. The way that protests happened just pissed me off. You have people cheering and filming burning cars with their iPhones in their brand new Nike Air Max. What’s the point in setting a Volkswagen on fire? Then the company is just getting to sell a new one then. The protesters want change but don’t provide an alternative to all the open questions our society has to ask. That’s not changing anything.

Katharina:
How grown up do you feel?

Nathan:
Not at all. I don’t know what I’m up to. I’m getting it wrong every day.

Katharina:
I sometimes have this feeling of, “oh god, just let me go back to mummy.” Do you get that too?

Nathan:
Not so much, but I’m lacking stability. And a place where everything is calm and you just sit on the couch and not have any worries for two weeks. I suppose that’s what holidays are for.

You can tell so much when you look for a long time into someone’s eyes, you can kinda tell if someone is a bad person. You can see if they hide things.

Katharina:
When you want to think about something beautiful, what do you think about?

Nathan:
Eyes. I tend to be really bad with eye contact because I get distracted very easily. But you can tell so much when you look for a long time into someone’s eyes, you can kinda tell if someone is a bad person. You can see if they hide things. If you can see someone’s true side, when you stare in long enough, I think that’s true beauty… also: Nature.

Katharina:
That one’s cheesy.

Nathan:
No, just think about it. Putting flowers in a room totally changes the room, imagine there here would be some flowers here.

Katharina:
What’s your favorite flower?

Nathan:
Haha, I have no idea about the names of flowers, but most of them look good. Orchids. Roses. Lilies are great, they smell good. A sunflower in the window of my grandmother’s kitchen. And her dog sitting under it, next to his bowl of water, gazing deeply at the press (editor’s note: Irish for cupboard) where he knows she hides his food. That’s beauty, a sense of comforting, a sense of feeling like home. You’re completely another self when you can feel at home somewhere and especially with somebody, looking into their eyes…

Katharina:
It must be important for someone who travels so much to find comfort with many people for short periods of time. Speaking of home, what made you come to Germany, to Berlin in the first place?

Nathan:
I came here by chance in 2015 because my label is based in Germany. But during that time I traveled and played a lot basically everywhere from Hamburg to Havana. But I remember one of the first crazy nights in Berlin, I was out with a friend and we got to a place called Damensalon. They have that drink called Basel Smash.

Katharina:
Sounds deadly.

Nathan:
It is! We could go there if you want.

Katharina:
Definitely…

Nathan:
Stop! No, no! Not good! I’m not happy. I have to sort my shit out. I’m going crazy every day. Every fucking day I want to stick to my plan, but instead, I go to my business appointments and go out with people to the pub afterwards. And then I stay in the pub for five hours. And then I can’t drive again and I’m stuck in someplace.

Katharina:
The hard life of a Rock ‘n’ Roller. Aaaaand here comes our next Whiskey Sour. Which songs are currently on top of your playlist?

Nathan:
Peter Frampton, a song called Do You Feel Like You Do.

It’s hard to be young in this world. If you always try to step up to something that you’re not, it can lead to huge lack of self-belief.

Katharina:
I read in many YouTube comments that you played at a lot of high schools.

Nathan:
Yes, in the U.K. That was weird and great at the same time. I gave talks about confidence and being a musician. It’s hard to be young in this world. I see it with my younger sister. She is coming home and looking at her Instagram watching all these beautiful women and she’s saying, “I will never look like that.” If you always try to step up to something that you’re not, it can lead to huge lack of self-belief and sadly in a lot of cases with young kids and teenagers it can lead to depression.

Katharina:
I’ve met some of these Influencer women, and I think it’s cool that they started their own business and are so independent as self-made-woman. But you don’t go to bars with them. You go to a smoothie bar where they will have a water with lime. To look like that, your lifestyle has to be so defined by fitness and food. And when I read the comments from 15-year-old girls, “I want to live like you” and so on. Then I just think: No. You should dance all night long and make out with other 15-year-old boys who have some baby fat left. And you should create memories, go crazy, and fucking live a big life.

Nathan:
Absolutely. That’s what I tried to talk to these kids about. How can you fulfill your dreams? How can you develop the confidence to ignore bullies and those who put you down and do what you really want to do? I played many songs for them, so they really opened up. I was very open about my story, and so I got them to talk back, that was great.

When we all come back and meet each other again, you come to think so much about each other’s lives and about the people you left behind.

Katharina:
Is there a person that particularly inspired many of your songs?

Nathan:
Yes, my mates from home, my school friends. It’s a pretty great group of lads, they are hilarious. By now everyone is just finishing university and moving abroad, changing cities and countries. When we all come back and meet each other again, you come to think so much about each other’s lives and about the people you left behind. You know this feeling of asking yourself: What are all the lads I hung around with when I was 15 doing right now?

Katharina:
What were you like when you were 15?

Nathan:
Playing guitar! Also, I remember: I was always normal sized, but with 13, everybody got tall and to me, that didn’t happen until much later. In Ireland, rugby is a pretty big sport. Rugby and Gaelic football. To do that you have to be of a somewhat decent size, so it was fucking hard for me, I always got absolutely destroyed.

Katharina:
So instead you played the guitar to get the girls… Did you go to a Catholic all-boys school near Dublin?

Nathan:
Mhmm…

Katharina:
Nothing to be ashamed of. I went to a Catholic all-girls school myself, in the southern Bavaria we have many of them.

Nathan:
Wow, how was that?

Katharina:
Pretty enjoyable. I can’t compare with mixed school obviously. But the boys from the state schools loved our parties—100 percent girls just waiting.

Nathan:
We had these so-called socials. The girls would all come to our school or we would come to their school. We were around 17, 18 years old. At these socials, we would drink beer and wine. And we would have a dance. Like boogie and some twerking. It was basically just an excuse to kiss on the dance floor. In Ireland, we call that shifting. Girls and lads, shifting on the dance floor, doing a slow number.

Katharina:
Do you remember a particular song you made out with girls too?

Nathan:
Yes, this one (starts singing): “Keep bleeding/Keep, keep bleeding love/You cut me open”.

Katharina:
That’s Leona Lewis, Bleeding Love!

Nathan:
Yeah that one, it was always that one. So cheesy.

Katharina:
That was the moment when the girls were ready. My one was Teenage Dream from Katy Perry…

Nathan:
Wow, that’s a fast song. Some aggressive kissing going on there. Eating the faces of each other, that’s what it was as well. Did you know that nightclubs in Ireland play the Irish anthem at the end? I hate it. When the anthem comes on, everybody has to leave. There is this place in Dublin called Coppers which is the last resort because it has a license to be open till 3 or 4 am. There are so many nurses and Irish policemen trying to get it on in the end of the night, it’s fucking weird.

So many people telling you so many great things. But then, you go back to your hotel room, and you’re on your own. And this awful feeling comes over you. Like a blanket of fear.

Katharina:
There is a strange fantasy going on in my mind right now… Speaking of romantic shenanigans, do you prefer to love or to be loved?

Nathan:
I prefer to love other people. Too much adoration and love, and I get fucked up. I can’t deal with it and I get annoyed. That’s hard as a performer, especially after a gig when everybody is coming up to take photos and give me compliments. So many people telling you so many great things. But then, you go back to your hotel room, and you’re on your own. And this awful feeling comes over you. Like a blanket of fear. You start questioning yourself. Am I good enough, do I deserve that adoration? Or am I a fraud?

Katharina:
After every success, I achieved I always thought: when is everybody finding out that I am not actually brilliant at anything. I feel that for creative people it’s especially hard to get the balance.

Nathan:
Of course many can’t handle it well. On the one hand, I love to be loved, everybody does. But I love to give love more than anything. That’s part of why I perform. I remember the second concert I was ever at: I saw Glen Hansard, it was The Frames playing. I had shivers down my spine and the hairs stood up on my arm for two hours after the concert. And all I could think about was: I have to give this feeling back to people. But also in a sexual sense, I love to give love to other people.

Katharina:
What’s the worst thing about being in a relationship with you?

Nathan:
I’m super moody. And I always get in fights with other lads on nights out.

Katharina:
Would you consider yourself old-fashioned?

Nathan:
We should have ordered an Old Fashioned instead of a Whiskey Sour, shouldn’t we? (Editor’s note: We later did.) I think I am old-fashioned. But what does that mean? Are you old-fashioned? You dress like it!

Katharina:
I know I am. And yes, I do wear a lot of vintage clothes even though I dress differently for every occasion. But it would have looked so awkward if I would have stood there next to you on the piano in a Berghain outfit. Which kinds of aesthetics do you like in fashion?

Nathan:
Maybe I am slightly old-fashioned… In my opinion, at the end of the day, a man looks best in a three-piece suit and a woman looks best in a dress.

The rest of the night was drowned in hilarious tales of pub fights, spontaneous singing sessions, and Jägermeister. If you want to learn more about the daily and nightly adventures of Nathan D. Hollingsworth Johnston (alias Sion Hill), you should follow him on Instagram and check out his YouTube channel.