For someone who was, by his own admission, "extremely shy" as a young child, Ethan Barnett, aka Ten Tonnes, cuts a strikingly confident
figure on stage at The Lexington in London. The 20-year- old musician from Hertford, a name on the lips of a select band of tastemakers but still some months away from launching himself on the world, looks as if standing in front of a packed crowd and knocking them dead with a breakneck set of songs is the most natural thing in the world. Among the songs are ones that Ethan has recorded, in the course of the past year, with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Cherry Ghost's Simon Aldred and Hugo White from The Maccabees (who is in the audience tonight, looking on proudly). That's a pretty impressive roll call, when you think about it. But Ethan, as his growing army of fans confirm, merits keeping such illustrious company.
One week earlier, over a drink in a west London bar, he had worried that his inter-song banter wasn't up to much. In truth, it could do with some work, but that will come. Besides, the slight hesitancy in his on-stage chatter is in keeping with the air he gives off of a box-fresh, whip-smart new talent whose artlessness and unsmoothed edges are a crucial part of his charm. Add to that a breezy, seemingly effortless ability to fashion snap- crackle lyrics and earworm melodies, and it's easy to see why the crowd fall at his feet. So that's where Ethan's
at now. The question is, how did he get here?
Until the age of nine, when he enrolled in the same drama club that his elder siblings had once attended, he scarcely spoke a word in public (he's certainly making up for it now). "You used to have to do singing in the club, and a play at the end of the year. That helped me massively, it changed my character completely, because I'd been very self-contained before that." Home life was nurturing, his parents, both teachers, encouraging their children to be creative, to express themselves. Ethan's dad "had a couple of guitars around the house, and there was always music on, things like Paul Simon and Van Morrison. I started playing the drums when I was about nine, because George (older brother) had started the bass guitar and persuaded me to start the drums. But it wasn't for me, so I switched to guitar when I was 14. I did that classic thing of standing in front of the mirror, posing. Even when I'd only learnt a couple of chords, in the back of my mind there was that naive thing of: 'I think I can give this a shot.'"
Hertford remains hugely important to Ethan, and he and his siblings all still live there. "Even if I'm on tour for just a week, I'm so happy to get back to Hertford. Me and my sister and brother are incredibly close." For all that, Hertford was also the setting for a disastrous early gig that, Ethan jokes, haunts him to this day. "I used to have this song called Let Me Sink, the riff was a rip off of Bob Dylan's Song for Woody. It had this big note at the end, and once when I played it live, in this bar in Hertford that's full of stuffed animals and palm trees, I went to do it and it came out like this terrible screech. And then the song stopped. That was meant to be my big finish, and there was just this silence. I think maybe one person clapped. I can still feel the horror of it now." His live audiences are much more appreciative these days, but that wouldn't tempt Ethan to whip out some of his earliest attempts at songwriting, he says. "I used to put songs on Soundcloud, just for myself really, and I listened to one the other day. It was f***ing dreadful. I'll be honest, none of them were great in hindsight. And the production is awful."
Which is ironic, because, for a year until he dropped out, Ethan went to uni – in York – to study music production. He quickly discovered it wasn't for him. "For me, when it comes to music, I want to do it, not learn about the theory. I wanted to get out there and go for it. Besides, so much of that course was about the science of it, and I'm absolutely s*** at science. I mean, really bad. And working out what a sound is, I'm not bothered about that. I just want to make the sound."
That year in York involved, Ethan says, a lot of late nights and very little work. "I ended up getting zero marks, because I didn't hand any work in. My parents were very good about it, all things considered." Love Me to Death, Born to Lose and Silver Heat, the three tracks on Ethan's debut EP, Born to Lose EP, capture the mix of wry humour, wistfulness and poetic imagery in his writing; there is a power of observation in his songs that, you can't help feeling, springs from those early childhood years, watching but not speaking; taking things in, and making mental notes about what he saw. He still isn't sure, he says, exactly what the songs are about, but he's content with that. "Maybe I lean more towards the diarist side of songwriting, but having said that, I don't tend to think: 'This happened to me, I'll write a song about it.' But things do come out, it's just that you're not necessarily aware of that at the time. I suppose that's the magic of songwriting. You like to think you're in control, but most of the time you're not." Of the moment-in- time snapshot that is Silver Heat, Ethan comments: "It's really just about looking back, about that mood you can get into, when a flashback hits you suddenly, and you're right back in that place."
Working with Dan Auerbach was a revelation, Ethan says – and a much-needed opportunity for songwriting feedback in a process that is for the most part solitary, and therefore lacking in perspective. "Those sessions were pretty mind-blowing. He works super fast: it's all like, 'Let's try this; yes, that's good; no, not that bit.' We got four songs done in two days, and it was great, the idea of taking risks, trying things out. Plus, sometimes you need someone to bounce ideas off, because I'm useless at answering the question: is this good or is it ****? But the mistakes are important, too, because they mean you go: ok, I don't want to do that, I'm going to try this instead."
Ethan isn't bothered about what people call his music – besides, it';s out of his hands now, he says. Mention genres such as garage-rock and folk-pop and he smiles enigmatically; adjectives like propulsive, gabby, raucous and tender produce a similar response. It's all just music, isn't it, he eventually suggests. "Everyone goes on about things being cool or not cool, but I can't see the point of that. What does it mean, anyway? I couldn't make music with that hanging over me. And why complicate things? The songs I write are pop, but the rough edges are
still there. That seems pretty simple to me."
Labels aren't important, all that matters now is getting out there and delivering the goods, he says. "To me, 'm already living the dream. The last year has been mental, so I'm like all guns blazing; you know, 'Let's smash it.' I've got one stab at this. It's time to do it."