JONNY Hannah’s Songs For Darktown Lovers is the Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever of exhibitions.
His music-inspired Double A-sides show is split between two independent York businesses: Lotte Inch Gallery, at 14 Bootham, and gallery curator Lotte’s friends Dan Kentley and Dom White’s FortyFive Vinyl Café in Micklegate.
“Songs For Darktown Lovers roots itself in all things music, and of course, love,” says Lotte. “With Sinatra’s Songs For Swinging Lovers playing in the background, this exhibition is an alternative Valentine for the creatively minded.
“It’s also a love letter to ‘Darktown’, a fictional place that Jonny refers to when modern life becomes too much, a place with countless retreats, all revealed in his book Greetings From Darktown, published by Merrell Publishers in 2014.”
One-of-a-kind Scottish artist, designer, illustrator, lecturer and all-round creative spark Hannah has exhibited previously at Lotte’s gallery, and she contacted him last spring with a view to him doing a show for FortyFive.
“She told me about this vinyl café because I like to go to charity shops and buy old vinyl albums that I know will be awful but have striking covers, and then I create my own newly reinterpreted vinyl sleeves from that,” says culture-vulture Jonny, who attended the exhibition openings at FortyFive, where he span vintage discs and played an acoustic guitar set with fellow artist Jonathan Gibbs, and at Lotte’s gallery amid the aroma of morning-after coffee the next day.
“What’s been nice with this show is having the chance to do the more informal works for the café and the formal pieces, such as hand-painted wooden cut-outs, for the gallery.”
Happenstance led to the Darktown Lovers theme. “Originally, I was going to do the show before Christmas but time ran out, and then I thought Valentine’s Day would be a good setting,” says Jonny.
“So, the work is inspired by love songs and songs I love – as they’re not all love songs. Country rock; a bit of classical; some French chanson; rockabilly. The café exhibition has become this imagined playlist of vinyl that never will be, but I’ve made it as the perfect playlist in my head.”
Growing up in Dunfermline, before studying at Cowdenbeath College of Knowledge, Liverpool School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London, Jonny recalls how he would pick out album covers such as Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell.
“Everyone had that album in Dunfermline! Then, as I became older, and I like to think more sophisticated, I was drawn to those wonderful Blue Note jazz covers. I loved the 12-inch format; going to the record shop on Saturdays with your pocket money was so exciting,” he says.
“Then it became CDs, and now downloads, but it’s great that vinyl has made a comeback. My sons play music, but I’ve no idea what, because it’s all on headphones. In fact, they complain I play my music too loud, which is surely the wrong way round! But music should be a social thing, bringing you together to see a band or enjoy a DJ set.
“Music that matters to you is as important as buying clothes or a pair of shoes or the first time you saw a film like Kes. You remember the mood you were in when you first heard it.”
Since graduating in 1998, Jonny has worked both as a commercial designer and an illustrator and printmaker. He lives by the sea in Southampton, where he lectures in illustration at Southampton Solent University.
He boasts an impressive list of exhibitions, advertising projects and clients, such as Royal Mail, the New York Times, the Guardian and Conde Nast, and he has published a series of “undeniably Hannah-esque” books with Merrell Publishers, Mainstone Press and Design For Today.
You may recall his Darktown Turbo Taxi solo exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, near Wakefield, in 2018, and Darktown lies at the heart of his latest works too, but what is Darktown, Jonny?
“It started off as my idea that it was on the edge of any city that had a collection of odd characters, that had places they frequented, maybe shops too,” he says.
“The inspiration came from Fats Waller, the jazz singer, singing Darktown Strutter’s Ball, and C W Stoneking replying Don’t Go Dancin’ Down The Darktown Strutter’s Ball. So, Fats is saying ‘go’; Stoneking is saying ‘don’t go’, and you think, ‘oh god, what should I do?’!
“I decided I should go down there and it’s become my alternative reality to my reality, as opposed to one of my great hates: Star Wars fantasy.”
Defining that alternative reality, Jonny says: “It has to be urban, ever since I left home in Dunfermline; it has to have a lot of concrete, like there is in Southampton, my home now.
“You’re cherry picking from what you do and don’t want to experience, including shops, characters, streets.”
One street, in particular: Shirley High Street, where Jonny lives in Southampton. “I take some of the characters from there and mix them in my head with historical characters,” he says. “But it all has to have that dollop of reality; if you go too far off on fantastical bent, it isn’t Darktown.”
How did Jonny develop his distinctive style? “You have to be patient, to make things work, for your style to appear. I’d start from other artists and do my own versions, and after a decade, maybe a couple of decades, I’ve found my own style with life’s experience feeding into it: who you are, where you live. Whereas if you force it, that’s when it becomes disingenuous.
“The more you do it, the more those things inside you, what’s internal, becomes external and is expressed in your art. That’s when you overtake your influences and your voice becomes the significant voice, not the ones that inspired you.”
Jonny Hannah’s pricing policy is admirable. “The idea of my work being available potentially to almost anyone is exciting, so I’ve sold it for as little as £5. I price it for what I think it’s worth; even if people say I undervalue it, I don’t think I do,” he says.
“I love the idea that my art is distributed rather than being stuck in my lock-up, so the possibility of it being someone’s home, office, or place of work, is important to me.
“I also like to think of myself as being like a medium holding a séance, where my art is telling you about Fats Waller and Jacques Brel, if you don’t know who Jacques Brel is; I’m contacting their spirit, so I’m doing my job as a conveyor of popular culture that you can connect with.”
Jonny acknowledges the significance of art that provokes and can change opinions in the world, “but I don’t need to be one of those people”, he says. “I like the idea that art is entertaining. I’ve always opted for entertainment, for enjoyment, for making people happy with what I create. I have fun making them, and that notion of enjoyment is so important to me.”
Jonny’s palette of colours exudes that element of enjoyment and fun too. “I don’t say that it’s specifically down to my colour blindness – I’m colour blind for green and blue – but I did start by using primary colours, then varying their brightness,” he says.
“You can try out endless variations and for me now it’s always blue, red, yellow, black and white and variations on that,” he says. “I’ve tried to be subtle with colour but it just doesn’t work for me!”
His Darktown Turbo Taxi, first exhibited in his Yorkshire Sculpture Park show, and now acquired by Southampton Solent University for permanent display there, is a case in point. “It was my agent’s idea that I should buy this Saab 9-3 Turbo off Gumtree and paint it. Afterwards, someone said ‘you can’t miss it in a car park’, and he was right! That notion of not being able to miss it is part of my painting philosophy.”
That said, Jonny reveals: “I don’t think too much. I say to my students thinking can be a bad thing. If you face a blank canvas, then start creating, you come up with something better. Drawing is a form of thinking in itself; you start drawing, you are thinking.
“You find that certain things keep coming back in your work, and what I know I can be guilty of is laziness, when I need to find new inspiration or find new ways of expressing things. It’s always that thing of challenging yourself creatively. There’s nothing worse than repetition.”
After releasing his latest book, A Confederacy Of Dunces, for The Folio Society, Jonny is now working on a commission for Museums Northumberland on Northumberland folklore that will run from May to September at Woodhorn Museum, Ashington, Hexham Old Gaol, Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum and Berwick Museum and Art Gallery.
He is also creating a set of woodcuts for The Skids’ frontman Richard Jobson’s book of short stories set in an imaginary bar in Berlin called The Alabama Song. “Richard lives in Berlin for half the year now, and the woodcuts will go on show in an exhibition at events where he’ll sing and I’ll play guitar,” says Jonny.
Also bubbling up is a book on the history of pop culture, as his prodigious productivity continues unabated, with a mischievous spirit at play. “When you’re young, you get told to tidy up, but as you get older, mess is a creative thing,” reckons Jonny.
“If you’re creative, there’s an immaturity to you that never goes away. You don’t have to tidy up until it really does become too much!”
Jonny Hannah’s Songs For Darktown Lovers runs until March 7. Lotte Inch Gallery is open Thursday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm, or by appointment on 01904 848660. FortyFive Vinyl Café’s opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm; Saturday, 10am to 6pm; Sunday, 10am to 5pm.