‘johnsmith is a whatever being.’ It’s a statement scrawled on the mysterious artist’s website, Soundcloud and Facebook pages, and it’s become shorthand for the enigmatic cabaret creature’s description of their (non-)identity.
“Since I was born I couldn’t stop changing shape,” they tell me over the phone. “I was always in flux, so I called myself ‘whatever being’ – I found the name in a book. I’m always evolving, so maybe soon I might start settling in one form and then the way I describe myself will have to evolve too.”
This exciting, unstable attitude towards whatever form they find themselves in is reflected most strikingly in johnsmith’s stunningly strange live performances. When they first emerge, you might think you recognise what you see – a man, a woman, or an amazingly bespangled rave angel, perhaps – but by the end, you won’t be so sure. johnsmith has changed before your eyes, and it’s hard to comprehend but unspeakably thrilling.
johnsmith combines drag sensibilities with electronic sound geekery, by thoroughly misusing Ableton to slow down, quicken or otherwise twist iconic pop tracks into a new form. The music is ‘glitched’ almost beyond recognition, creating a sound that’s related to vaporwave and witch house or, as johnsmith describes it, ‘glitchyoke’.
By diffracting, melting and renewing music we’ve heard hundreds of times already, they transform the original artist’s message, telling new tales with a story that’s already well-trodden. So far, Madonna’s What It Feels Like for a Girl, No Doubt’s Don’t Speak and Blondie’s Heart of Glass have had the glitchyoke treatment.
Somewhere johnsmith have found space and a supportive community to practice their sometimes provocative art is at Thorny, a wildly popular Bristol night that provides a much-needed DIY platform in the city. The events are a hybrid of gig, cabaret show and club night, and embrace artists from music and DJs to live art, spoken word and drag. Two years ago Thorny was the first place johnsmith began experimenting with live vocals with the help of a backing track from another exciting Bristol artist, Many Monika.
johnsmith explain that they couldn’t have embarked on the journey towards making their own ‘music’ (at the moment, sounds from their heart, breath and voice arranged into sludgy, rhythmic chunks) if it wasn’t for spaces like these: “Thorny never asks you to define yourself and it allows you to be whatever,” they say.
At the heart of johnsmith’s music and performances is the idea of never taking anything at face value – chopping, glitching and mixing familiar sounds to find something new. So what would they like their audiences to walk away thinking about? “Transformation,” they suggest.
See johnsmith at Thorny with KosmoSuna and more at Cube Microplex, Friday, June 16, 7.30pm – late. More information and tickets available at headfirstbristol.co.uk