University of Manchester graduate John Elliott is feeling the effects of life on the road when he peruses the coffee menu, hoping for the ‘world’s strongest coffee’ and settling for a flat white.
“Sorry you can tell I’ve been sat in a car for a long time with nothing but my own voice in my head,” he apologises as he tries to detail his music’s relation to literary heavyweight T. S. Eliot. “I’m still waking into the world.”
Touring for Elliott, otherwise known as The Little Unsaid, has become a big part of his routine since he packed in his day job as a primary school teacher last November and immersed himself into life as a musician.
“It seems to be the best way of getting music to people,” the Yorkshire-born musician told MM.
“At the level I’m at it’s a bit of an uncertain money maker. Some nights you’ll have a really good night, like this tour we just did we had some amazing nights.
“You go from that to playing to seven people in a bar, which is really weird. It’s fine, and you just have to take it as it comes I think.
“It’s best to almost tour as much as you can and then the good cancels out the bad hopefully.”
The 28-year-old driving force behind The Little Unsaid, a project which sometimes consists of nine people and sometimes of just Elliott, has a fairly typical genesis story.
He began playing solo six years ago, recording in his bedroom and creating electronic inspired folk sounds with a loops pedal.
Elliott was in Manchester for one afternoon only, passing through from Yorkshire after staging the last gig of his UK tour, to play drums in the city’s A Carefully Planned Festival for a friend in Dear Pariah.
About to disembark in Holland then proceed to pester the people of Germany and Luxembourg with our music for 2 weeks pic.twitter.com/sa6VAo1U5K
— The Little Unsaid (@TheLittleUnsaid) October 26, 2015
However, this visit was far from Elliott’s first time in the area, having studied theatre and film at the University of Manchester and undertaken some of his toughest gigs at The Comedy Store.
“It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was really good training because you’d play in the bar downstairs in between the comedy acts,” he said.
“So you’d get all these people going there to have a laugh and get pretty drunk and there’s a lot of hen parties and stag dos.
“They’d go and be entertained by comedians and then come down into the bar and you’d be there just playing folk tunes. Often you’d get some serious abuse from people.
“I finished a song once and there was a guy standing right in front of me, holding a pint to his chest, and he was just staring at me the whole way through the song.
“Nobody was paying attention, there was no applause. I finished the song and he just shouted into my face, ‘play something I can understand!’ That was one of my favourites.
“I think I asked him what that would be and he said ‘Oasis’ so I played the one Oasis song I knew.
“I think I saved myself from getting hit. It was pretty much you were like a human jukebox and people would shout at me – ‘What you don’t know any Take That? What’s wrong with you?’”
— Marcus (@naked_ape) October 13, 2015
His stint in Manchester bars has left him well prepared for life as an artist – in fact, he sometimes misses the kinds of reactive audiences that they brought with them.
“When you go to a new town or somewhere you haven’t played before it’s just so hit and miss.
“You kind of rely on getting a little bit of energy back from the audience if you’re not getting that it’s quite hard work sometimes.
“You just want to create an atmosphere where somebody’s going to heckle or throw some abuse at you or throw something at the stage! You want something back, you know? Even if it’s negative, just like let’s get a bit of a dialogue going here.”
It’s perhaps understandable why the pint drinker in The Comedy Store didn’t quite understand Elliott’s music in his semi-inebriated state.
This latest album, Fisher King, draws upon some fairly highbrow literary references.
“The music on the most recent album is inspired by literature more than anything. The title came from Eliot, The Waste Land,” he said.
“There are quite a lot of lyrical references to different parts of The Waste Land in there. I kind of got into my head this loose theme of an all consuming desire that people have. Whether it’s for somebody else or for something in life or the desire to destroy
“I found a lot of that in The Waste Land and a few other books, like Lolita and one by Nick Cave that I read last year called The Death of Bunny Munro.”
Despite his protestations that he ‘isn’t a poet’, there is an undeniable poeticism to Elliott’s lyrics (‘These four walls are my killers/and my keepers/truth be told’).
— The Music Rag (@TheMusicRag) October 5, 2015
This wordsmithery combined with a voice that manages to fill even the biggest of rooms, culminates in an artist that demands attention.
As hard as it is to believe when confronted with the figure of Elliott, small of build with Cobain length hair and piercing blue eyes, his musical career didn’t begin with the same amount of gravitas that Fisher King might lead listeners to believe.
“I was in sweaty teenage bands playing grungy rock music and Foo Fighters covers,” he said.
“At the time you think ‘this is the best fun’, but it’s also amazing training.
“You’re playing in front of people. Friends would come. It would always get a little bit messy, people would jump around. I was in a band called Seven Acres where our singer Jack would really enjoy leaping into the crowd and it felt so rock and roll.”
— The Little Unsaid (@TheLittleUnsaid) September 14, 2015
Now he’s, somewhat reluctantly, ‘another guy with an acoustic guitar’, trying to shake off the feeling that his is a niche that’s long been filled.
But with Glastonbury appearances under his belt and a European tour well underway, it seems like things are coming together for this self-made musician – does he agree?
“It’s good, it’s fun. I can’t complain,” he said.
A typically Northern response, if ever there was one.
Image courtesy of Jessica Thomas, with thanks.