A mercurial English-Canadian singer/songwriter of great craft, elegance, and sharp wit, John Southworth has consistently been painting the corners of smart pop eccentricity since arriving on the Toronto scene in the late '90s. With a penchant for thematic projects with a literate bent, Southworth's shapeshifting music ranges from the quirky indie pop of releases like 2000's Banff Springs Transylvania and 2004's Yosemite to 2012's lush, orchestral Easterween and the understated jazz and folk of his 2014 masterwork double-LP Niagara. A former film student who directs all of his own videos and published an obscure children's book in Japan, Southworth has continued to both explore and refine, particularly on 2019's earthy and deeply subtle Miracle in the Night.
Southworth's father was Peter Shelley (not the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley), a notable English songwriter, producer, and record executive with deep ties to London's '70s glam scene and the A&R man responsible for King Crimson's success. While neither glam nor prog factored into the cultivated brand of highly crafted pop that he would develop throughout his career, Southworth nonetheless carried on in the family business as an English transplant living in Canada. By his mid-twenties, he had based himself in Toronto where he made his debut, 1996's Mars Pennsylvania. Originally released by the small Water Street imprint, the album earned critical acclaim and was later picked up by U.S. label Bar/None, establishing Southworth as a sophisticated and literate indie pop eccentric with a vast record collection and a timeless feel. Over the next several years, he continued to tour North America and released unusual cross-genre pop albums that frequently explored places and characters both real and imagined. 1999's Sedona Arizona was followed a year later by Banff Springs Transylvania. The Rose Milk Appalachia EP came next in 2001, making way for 2004's Yosemite. Each was distinctive and deeply imaginative. Employing a versatile group of players from Toronto's improv jazz scene as his backing back, which he called the South Seas, Southworth's music became increasingly organic with heavier jazz and folk tones on 2007's The Pillowmaker and 2011's Human Cry. In between those releases, his harder-edged pop and rock tendencies played out on 2009's hooky Mama Tevatron.
A penchant for peculiar experimental projects has remained a constant throughout Southworth's career and he has often released small-run independent singles, EPs, and even full-length albums like 2011's lo-fi all-acoustic SPIRITUAL WAR Cassette Tape, which was recorded live directly into an inexpensive tape recorder and released only on cassette. His next major release, 2012's Easterween, was a darkly gothic chamber pop collaboration with cellist Andrew Downing, which reflected Southworth's more theatrical tendencies. It was followed later that year by an oddball collection called Failed Jingles for Bank of America and Other U.S. Corporations which collected 20 wry snippets and actual takes on commercial jingle-writing, all generally under a minute long. His tendency for ambitious concepts came into even sharper focus two years later with the masterful double album Niagara. Like the city it portrayed, the album was split into two sides (Canadian and American) and contained some of the most sublime writing of his prolific career. It also marked the start of a relationship with U.K. label Tin Angel, which also released the more cerebral and electronic-tinged Small Town Water Tower in 2016. After publishing the eerie children's book Daydreams for Night, Southworth returned in 2019, again reverting to his subtler, all-acoustic mode on the hushed and jazzy Miracle in the Night. - Timothy Monger / AllMusic