Jon Allenhas a voice you don’t forget. Just ask Jools Holland, who demanded Jon appearon “Later…” after hearing him on the radio. Or Duffy, who heard his version of“Mercy” and called him in to the studio – only to find that he wasn’t the blacksoulman she had imagined. Or the millions of viewers of “Homeland” transfixedby his track “Joanna”. Or the BBC producers repeatedly A-listing his songs. Orfans Guy Chambers, or Mark Knopfler, or Jo Whiley, all of whom have beenentranced by his trademark mix of catchy tunes and folk- and Sixties-inflectedcountry blues.
Jon’svoice comes from the south, but not the south any of the above expected. He wasborn in 1977 in Winchester, and “had a strange combination of influences as Igrew up”. In Totnes, in Devon, he sang in the choir at a school run by monks(“I wasn’t happy there. I’d only gone because this monk came into the bookshopmy parents ran”). But his musical awakening came when he went to thealternative school Sands. “When I went to see the school Led Zeppelin wasblasting out from a balcony. You didn’t have to go to lessons so I spent a lotof time bunking off in the music room. I began as a drummer, but I had plentyof time to sit on the piano and guitar.” It helped that he’s a naturalmusician: “I remember taking up the guitar with a friend and us both trying toLearn I Wanna Be Like You from Disney’s The Jungle Book. I think that was the first and last song myfriend learned but I never looked back.
Then, asa youngster, he stole Rod Stewart’s voice. Literally. “I stole a ‘Best of’ RodStewart and the Faces from Woolworths. It was £6.99. I’ve felt guilty eversince so I’ve just decided to send Rod a cheque.” In fact, Jon’s voice is moreAmerican soul than Rod the mod. “My voice is a voice of the past, hopefully ina good way, I try to stay untarnished by modern vocal mannerisms, the strangewailing noises I hear on the radio. I’m trying to express some truthfulness,”says Jon. “People ask me if I smoke 40 a day and drink whisky but I don’t smokeand I’ve got my drinking under control,” he laughs.
It took awhile for him to realise he had such a vocal gift. After school, he did a musictech course in Torquay, where he played in a Beatles tribute band (“I startedas John Lennon and moved to Paul McCartney”), then followed the Beatlesconnection to Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, co-founded by McCartney.But: “I reacted against the musical virtuosity of many people there. I managedto stay rough and ready. For me it’s more about being able to get somethingartistic out rather than being the best technical musician.” The moment he’dfinished the course he left for London and made his first album “with a bunchof people who did it on the basis that they’d get paid if anything happened”.
Andsomething did happen. The producer knew someone was looking for a NickDrake-type song for a Land Rover Freelander TV and movie advert, put Jon’s“Going Home” forward, and it got chosen. The song got heard all over the world,racked up 20,000 downloads, and found a champion in Jo Whiley on Radio 1.Meanwhile, “Uncut” described the album, “Dead Man’s Suit” (2009), as“exemplary”, and evocative of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, and Nick Drake, while “Q”called it “breathtaking”. Radio 2, Magic, and Absolute A-listed the track ‘InYour Light’ and ‘Down by the River’ got significant airplay too.
It was“In Your Light”, taken from Jon’s 2009 debut album Dead Man’s Suit that landed Jon a coveted spot on “Later… withJools Holland”. Introducing Jon, Holland described how he heard him on theradio and had to Shazam the track with his mobile to find out who the singerwas before insisting he was booked for the show. “It was one of the mostamazing voices I’ve heard this year,” he explained.
Radio 2had also picked up on “Mercy”, Jon’s collaboration with the band Third Degreethat really shows off his soul-vocal chops. “Duffy heard it on her tour bus andcontacted my manager. I ended up in Sting’s studio in north London doing asession with her. She was stunned. I walked in and she thought I’d be black.”
Jon’ssecond album, “Sweet Defeat” (2011), continued Jon’s rise, spawning the Radio 2A-listed hit track “Joanna” – the song that also made it onto the soundtrack ofthe global TV smash “Homeland”. It also landed Jon a featured slot on the BBC’sGlastonbury TV coverage. “It was Beyoncé then me! I like to think that shesupported me,” he says. He continued landing big-name fans, including GuyChambers, Mark Knopfler (who offered to play guitar for him), and Bob Harris,for whom he did a session; and toured extensively, both solo and with his band,appearing with Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, Damien Rice, and becoming a TV star inthe Netherlands, prompting Jon to sarcastically remark, “In a year or two Icould be a judge on the Dutch “The Voice”.
His newalbum, “Deep River”, contains some of his best work. To Jon, it’s simple. “Ijust try to write music that moves me. I’m trying to express some truthfulness.There’s no gimmicks, no beeps and whistles.” On it he channels everyone fromDylan to Shakespeare, via Al Green, JJ Cale and John Martyn, and even managesto write a romantic song about bankers (“I know there’s not a lot of sympathyfor bankers, but you can get off on retribution, and it’s dangerous”).
He says:“I feel a bit like I’m an outsider, now. I’m very inspired by music that feelslike it comes from one of the main tributaries of blues, or jazz, or that kindof heritage. But it’s OK because there’s no such thing as a scene any more. Youcan jump out of the ground looking like 1959, 1979, 1989...”
And thesubject matter? “It was what was coming out of me at the time. Ends ofrelationships, trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing with my life. Ifeel like there’s a spiritual side to the record – the title track is like aNegro spiritual, about trying to let nature guide me.”