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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Nat Johnson

Nat Johnson should need no introduction.

And if she does, you need to stop what you’re doing, watch this performance of her 2014 single Dog immediately, and you’ll soon know what I mean. Many may fondly remember Nat from her mid-2000s days fronting acoustic indie band Monkey Swallows the Universe, before she went solo. A guitarist-chanteuse who’s by turns dreamy and down-to-earth, she’s easily one of Sheffield’s – nay, the north’s – leading acoustic lights right now. We caught up with Nat about what Sheffield means to her.

How would you describe your work?
Self-help! I try to capture my moods, study and understand them, and then make them useful through music, useful initially just for me but hopefully to other people now and again too. Lately I’ve been thinking of my songs as a row of little apothecary bottles; some contain the antidote to a problem, some a bitter secret, others seawater. Maybe one bottle has one of those snakes that pop out, I love those. Them’s my songs.

Live, I have a beautiful band of multi-instrumentalists behind me who play fiddle, flute, horn, accordion, banjo and lapsteel, and we love to sing harmonies. Everything must have a real reason to be played though, and I tend to keep the music pretty sparse – the sentiment always comes first and I’d always rather it was understated than overstated.

In simple generic terms, it’s a little bit country, a little bit folk, a little bit indie.

What inspires you?
Lyrically, I write a lot about overcoming problems and dealing with anxiety, finding better ways to live and be happy. So I suppose I’m inspired by problems, but I’m equally inspired by all the things that give me strength when those problems arise; nature and solitude, big skies, kindness. Musically, I’m inspired by anyone who can take me somewhere else in the way a good novelist does. An unexpected chord change that disorients you, a distant bell in the mix that opens up a whole vista; wanting to achieve those kinds of effects on a listener, even once, keeps me trying new things.

What’s your workspace like?
I’m lucky enough to have big windows and a wonderful view with lots of sky that I can gaze at when I’m writing. I love big spaces. I can feel my brain taking a deep breath. I’m really conscious that my environment has a lot to do with how my songs come out; a song will take a completely different direction if I write in a small dark room.

When I rehearse with the band – as long as it’s just the four of us without drums or bass – we don’t have much to plug in so we just go to Oliver and Katherine’s house and set up in their front room. They make a pot of tea and plate up some biscuits; it’s all very civilised.

What do you love about Sheffield?
The creative heart of it. It’s the sort of place where every idea has a chance. I also love walking in Sheffield and how an adventure amongst nature is never far away – Sheffield’s parks are one of the best things about the city and I’ve still got lots of them left to explore. We have good cafes too. And I’ve been here fourteen years now but only recently realised how fond I’ve become of the Sheffield accent.

What would you do to improve the city?
Add more boats. I like boats. Swap the trams for boats.

And more characterful pubs. I grew up in Nottingham and though I don’t have much of a soft spot for it since leaving, it does have some fantastic pubs, built into caves and with canals running through them and the like. Sheffield has some great pubs, don’t get me wrong, but I’d like to see something completely different.

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