It’s not often that one of us Bido Lito! scribes has the honour of interviewing a musician who has played to a sold out audience at Wembley Stadium. But, in a convivial recording studio on the docker’s side of town, that very honour was instilled upon me on meeting a truly amiable chap named Jon Lawton. Name not ringing any bells? How about SAMI YUSUF? Still no pang of recognition in some distant cortex of your brain, usually brimming with myriad sources of musical knowledge? Well shame on you for the latter is, as Time Magazine succinctly put it, ‘Islam’s biggest rock star’ and the former, Jon, is his close friend and guitarist who owns, runs and makes the coffee (and a decent cup too) at Liverpool based CROSSTOWN STUDIOS.
Named after Hendrix’s Crosstown Traffic, despite Jon initially wanting to call his recording cubby hole Zeus Studios (with some sagely advice from his father he decided the Hendrix reference would prove more relevant than an allusion to Greek mythology), the studio has recorded a host of local acts including youngsters The Cheap Thrills and My Auntie Sam, an acoustic guitarist and cellist working under the moniker Cherry and rap artists galore.
However, though there is certainly a profound streak of eclecticism running through the list of artists recorded, no story seems more curious than that of Jon’s relationship with Sami Yusuf and consequently, the fact that the guitar parts for his most famous single Healing (which in little short of six months has racked up a staggering one million hits on YouTube) were arduously written and recorded over the course of one night at Crosstown, sent to Sami in the small hours of the morning with the track being released mere weeks afterwards. Not to mention that the slide guitar on the track was preternaturally recorded using an old, rusted padlock fresh (or not so) from the door of a charismatic and equally ancient Liverpool warehouse for the actual slide had gone awol.
The two fraternal associates met studying music at Salford University playing in a band together though Jon remembers, “he would always come to practices knackered.” His comrades thought little of his seemingly erratic sleeping habits until one day Sami presented Jon with a CD. “Obviously in university doing music everyone comes in and goes ‘I’ve got a CD, have a listen’ but when I saw it was cellophane wrapped I knew it was the real deal. So I opened it, he signed it and that’s when it all unravelled that he’d recorded it with his brother, released it and it was doing really well.” The reason for his chronic fatigue? “He was flying off around the world every weekend playing gigs.” The modest fellow had clandestinely kept his occupation from the humble university band he sang and played keyboards for.
Not only though is Sami unpretentious but philanthropic too. In 2007 he got in touch with Jon, asking if he wanted to play his next gig with him. “I asked where it would be and he simply answered ‘Wembley.’ It was to raise money for Darfur.” Another sporadic phone call in 2009 whilst Jon was on the road to Sheffield with his own band Eighth Day Army to his “usual crowd of about ten people,” saw him performing live with Sami again in Bahrain, Istanbul and for a BBC Maida Vale session. Not letting his altruistic nature leave him, last year Sami released a charity single Hear Your Call to raise money for Pakistan flood relief effort, which again Jon wrote and recorded the guitar parts for at Crosstown.
Now an established member of Sami’s live and recording band, Jon worked on his latest album Wherever You Are in Sami’s home studio in Sharjah (the third largest emirate in the UAE for those who do not know their Arabian geography). Other collaborators included a certain Mancunian by the name of Ian Brown who co-penned the album track Give The Young A Chance, as well as the choir from the Lion King which to me, as a proud child of the nineties, would be a juvenile dream realised.
However it’s not all (stone) roses and Disney nostalgia for Jon, acknowledging that the recording industry is “hard business to make money at,” especially noting the competition in Liverpool which makes it “difficult to get your name around.” Having just relocated to a more central location in L3 after a disheartening dry spell around Christmas, life in the studio is picking up and deservedly so for a young studio with such a wonderfully intriguing story behind its success.