JBL Emerging interview: Cannons on how ‘Fire For You’ changed everything

You’ll already know the synthy, dreamy song, Fire For You from Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, but who is the band behind it? In this Emerging Headliner interview powered by JBL, your new favourite band, electro-pop trio Cannons, (Michelle Joy: vocals, Ryan Clapham: lead guitar, and Paul Davis: drums, keys) explain the unusual way they met, how they bubbled up into the collective pop culture consciousness after landing a dream sync, and how new album, Heartbeat Highway was inspired by life on the road.

In terms of each of your individual musical upbringings; what music did you gravitate towards when you were growing up?

PD: Type O Negative – kind of goth metal because I was really into metal, especially in my high school years.

RC: As a teen, I definitely listened to a lot of metal as well, and then metal turned more into punk, and then pop punk – I guess just anything other than the radio. I wasn’t really into mainstream music back then.

MJ: In high school I had an Alanis Morissette album that I listened to on repeat and I was really into Fiona Apple and Ani DiFranco, and I really liked Incubus in high school. I remember writing their lyrics all over my notebooks in high school.

RC: I think you just had a big crush on Brandon Boyd…

How did you come up with the band name, Cannons?

RC: It came from a book series called 33+1⁄3 – each book is about a different creation of an album. The one that I was reading in particular was about My Bloody Valentine's Loveless album. The band name Cannons just stuck because I was just reading a particular part of that book where the author was comparing the sound of My Bloody Valentine, live to sound cannons, which are these military tools that they use, apparently. I just thought the name Cannons sounded strong, we started using that and it just really stuck. We might have contemplated changing it once, but it just works for us.

MJ: I remember trying to make a list of other options, but nothing felt as powerful.

Our lives completely changed after Never Have I Ever. I'm hearing Cannons everywhere.

Ryan and Paul; you’ve known each other since you were kids. When did you start making music together?

RC: In our teens, as soon as our parents could get us some instruments. For me, personally, it was maybe sixth grade going into seventh grade, I got a guitar. Paul lived – literally – directly across the street and his parents ended up getting him a drum set and his two brothers, a guitar and a bass as well. I would knock on Paul's garage door – we were a true garage band. We played many different types of music as well: metal, punk, emo, screamo, you name it – all in the garage.

You found Michelle via a Craigslist ad. Did you have high hopes about meeting someone talented on the classified ad site?

RJ: It's definitely the norm to meet like minded musicians and all that jazz, but Paul and I never had luck on that. It was always almost comical…

PD: We had some really interesting encounters…

RC: The cool thing about where we were at with Cannons at the time, was Paul was getting really into doing home production, so we already had some songs made and we didn't actually have to go in person and rehearse the songs in front of somebody. So when we found Michelle on Craigslist, we were able to send her a track that we had worked on, she put her vocals on it and sent it back and it sounded really great. 

There was a good topline there and the tone of her voice really fit the style of music that we were writing at the time, and our writing now. To this day, we don't ever go into a writing session anticipating an outcome to sound a particular way.  We just knew when we heard her voice – we love her voice. And she's an alright person too.

How did you shape Cannons’ ‘80s electro-funk sound?

PD: Me and Ryan were definitely listening to a lot of that kind of stuff at the time, like Depeche Mode. When we started the band, we tried to use that influence, but also put in funk elements like Prince-type stuff and old school hip hop influences, like ‘90s Dre and Ice Cube.

We had pretty much every record label that we could think of – and more – show up in our email inbox.

Things really picked up for Cannons after Fire For You from your second album, Shadows, was prominently featured on the Netflix series, Never Have I Ever. How did they use it in the show and how did that change the trajectory of the band?

MJ: They used it in the most important scene of the show, which was really awesome. It was when the couple that you had been wanting to get together for the whole series finally had their moment, and they used the whole song, so it was kind of a music video for the song. 

I don't think there was any audio or anything over it, it was literally just Fire For You blasting. That week, it went to number one on the TV Song charts and on Shazam, and our lives completely changed after that. It was a very surreal moment that took a while to sink in for me. What a wonderful sync; we're forever grateful for it.

Do people recognise you in public these days?

MJ: Lately, since we've toured so much and especially our show in Los Angeles – it was a pretty big one at The Greek– I've had quite a few people recognise me walking around, and I'm hearing Cannons everywhere in restaurants and stores, in the mall and on the radio – everywhere I'm going.

You generated 20 million streams independently and landed placements on Lucifer and Never Have I Ever, and were then signed to Columbia Records after Fire for You reached number one on the Billboard Alternative Airplay Chart. What was it like to suddenly get label interest?

MJ: We had pretty much every record label that we could think of – and more – show up in our email inbox right after that. We spent quite a few months meeting with a bunch of different labels and Columbia just stood out to us. The A&R rep had loved Cannons since we started and had been keeping track of us. 

She said she was really rooting for a song to really move with so that she could sign us, and we just felt comfortable because she already knew us, knew our music and vibe and made us feel really good about continuing to write and continuing to express our vision that we have for Cannons.

We have people ask many questions about the lyrics that are kind of far-fetched.

You then played Coachella and made your television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! What was it like suddenly landing all these high profile opportunities?

MJ: We were so excited to hear that we would be playing Coachella, and it was the same week as Jimmy Kimmel, which was our first TV debut. That was kind of a wild week, because we did both weekends back to back and then Jimmy Kimmel in between. It was a pretty fast-paced week, so I was just hoping that everything went smoothly. 

Everything went better than I imagined. The Coachella stage we played, people were pouring out as far as I could see. Our agent told us he'd never seen so many people at that specific stage before. So we walked away feeling like we crushed it.

Your fourth album Heartbeat Highway is out now. What is the concept of the album and how did it take shape?

MJ: We don't really ever start out with a concept, we just enjoy the process of letting whatever is supposed to come out of us creatively, happen. We're always writing and we're continuing writing throughout the tour. Naturally, with us being on the road for quite a bit of that year, we started thinking about titling it Heartbeat Highway, because we had spent so much time on the road, following our hearts and what we feel like we're supposed to be doing. 

We did want a song that was called Heartbeat Highway on there, and naturally, somehow it worked out that one of the last songs that we worked on, came into being and tied everything together nicely.

Do you all contribute when it comes to songwriting?

MJ: Yeah, we all have ideas, suggestions and things we'll throw in. It's a pretty collaborative process overall. I'll try and make sure it's something that I feel passionately about, can relate to and feels like a personal thing that needs to be expressed.

Do people ever ask you if a song is about them, or do they have theories about what certain lyrics are about?

MJ: Yeah. We have people ask many questions about the lyrics that are kind of far-fetched and I'm just like, “No, this is not what it's about.” But it's nice; we do enjoy having lyrics that people can interpret and make their own, so we try to not be super specific, on the nose on exactly who and what it's about because it's a really nice experience to take a song and be able to make it your own.

We are currently working on new music...

What song are you each most proud of on the album?

RC: I like the song, Sweeter. When I was showing the album to some close friends before it actually came out, a lot of them were like, “That is that is the quintessential Cannons sound right there.” I would be gravitating more towards the song Sweeter than maybe Heartbeat Highway.

MJ: I'm going to go with Sweeter too. That's my mum's favourite song on the album, and the same for a lot of my friends that have heard the album too. I don't know why exactly, but I do love listening to that one over and over.

PD: I'm gonna go with Heartbeat Highway, just to change it up a little bit. It’s for sure one of my favourites on the album. The lyrics on that are probably my favourite of all the tracks.

The song Heartbeat Highway was produced by Cannons; was the whole album also produced by the band?

RC: There is one song called Bad Tattoo, which was not produced by us, but for the most part, the entire album was produced by us. Paul does most of the production, if not all of it. We did some co-writes on this album, which was the first time we ever did co-writes, which was fun, and not fun all at the same time. 

That’s because we've been a trio doing this for a decade now, so we all trust each other, and to bring somebody else into the mix and literally lay out your feelings on the table and hope that this person can also vibe with you can be a challenge sometimes. But the outcome was really good.

MJ: And writing the song in a day – that's the hard part.

RC: That's really hard. A lot of the time, even when a band is starting their first album, you have these riffs and melodies that you've been creating for years – a long time – and then all of a sudden, you're expected to go into a writing session with somebody that you don't even know and come up with a song in a day, and sometimes that's all you get. 

I'll go home and I'll be like, “Damn, I wish we came up with this different melody for this song,” or I'm sitting here playing guitar and I can think of 10 other parts, as opposed to the part that I laid down in the studio. So that's always challenging.

MJ: But the good thing is that since the beginning, we have produced and written and done everything ourselves, so we can go back and change.

PD: That's when it becomes handy to have your own producer.

The band’s sound blends analogue production, glossy guitars, and cinematic synth-craft with fluid breathy vocals and evocative lyrics. Paul; How do you approach the production and collaborate on that side of things as a band?

PD: Lately, I'll come up with beats and stuff on my own. But usually Ryan will send me some kind of demo and then I'll be like, “Oh, that's cool; send me some stems for that,” and then I'll usually use his guitar part and write around it and send it back to the guys and see what they think. Then Michelle usually puts something on it, and then Ryan will put something else on it. Then we try to think of a chorus or a bridge and build from there.

Do you have a Cannons HQ or home studio?

PD: Yeah, at my house I have a designated room for my studio.

RC: I think the studio is a band member at this point. Because if we were to do this live, it would be more or less the same process. It would be trial and error of actually just meeting up in person and doing it. But because we're fortunate enough to be able to have Paul in the studio, the studio is a band member. He does a great job!

PD: What’s his name?

RC: Stu! [laughs]

In terms of the equipment you rely on inside your studio, what is a piece of kit that’s proved to be essential to your music-making process?

PD: JBL 308P MkII powered studio monitors. I have been blasting some of my favourite music from them. They're extremely loud, they're very, very crisp, and you get a really nice frequency response from them. I love them. They sound great. I'm looking forward to testing them out more on some new sessions we have coming up. I definitely like what I hear and the bang for your buck is pretty great – they’re really modestly-priced. They’ve very easy to set up too: just one plug for plugging into my interface, and then another plug for power, and that's it!

RC: I liked the low end response. Very nice.Paul has a go-to song that he likes to play on his speakers, and it sounded really good when I heard it.

What’s the song?

PD: Seal’s Kiss from a Rose.

Do you have any plans for new music?

MJ: We are currently working on new music. Once we get back from this tour, we do have a bunch of festivals and one-offs that we're going to play, but in between that we're going to continue to write and shape up a lot of the song ideas that we have brewing inside ‘Stu’.

Since the beginning, we have produced and written and done everything ourselves.

Is there anything that people would be surprised to learn about each of you?

MJ: I have this book called The Book Of Unusual Knowledge that I like to read at night. I like the animal section and insect section. I read a whole section on bats the other night, and I have a newfound respect for bats.

RC: You didn’t respect them before?

MJ: Well, there's a lot of misinformation about bats out there. So I learned quite a bit about bats. Apparently, only 10 people have got rabies from bats in the past half a century.

PD: I do like a good alien story here and there, and a good theory about the creation of the world or end of the world theories. Stuff like that is kind of interesting to listen to.

RC: Lately, I've been getting into video games. I started playing the game Doom, which led me down this big rabbit hole of watching YouTube videos with my wife every night about different planets because Doom takes place on Mars, and there's so many terrifying planets out there. So that became our weird obsession right before we would go to sleep, which is not healthy. And then I got into fish – I'm an aquarium guy now.