You could call John Southworth precocious, but that would be underestimating him; prodigious is more like it. When Mars, Pennsylvania was first released in his adopted home of Canada, critics greeted his work with a veritable pop encyclopedia's worth of flattering comparisons. He seemed to have crammed at least ninety years worth of pop musical history into fourteen songs, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Cole Porter to Sammy Cahn to Burt Bacharach to Van Dyke Parks to Harry Nillson to Todd Rundgren to David Bowie to Elvis Costello and beyond. But Southworth is much more than the sum of his would-be influences. As William Repsher of New York Press put it, "Southworth can remind you of dozens of great pop artists from the past and sound not quite like anything else you've heard before."
The 25 year-old Southworth, who is now based in Toronto, is a transplanted Englishman who left London at a tender age for a nomadic life in the far-flung corners of the late British empire: Wales, Australia, and Canada, from British Columbia to the Maritime Provinces. He is the son of the well-respected British songwriter, producer and record executive Peter Shelley -- not to be confused with former Buzzcock Pete Shelley, who has been credited with John's paternity in many colorful but erroneous Canadian newspaper profiles. John's dad was a major figure in the early seventies glam scene in London and he wrote songs for artists ranging from Lulu to Gary Glitter; he also was the A&R man who brought the world King Crimson. Southworth sounds like none of these artists, but he didn't outright reject his dad's line of work. "For me," Southworth has remarked, "rebelling would have meant going to law school."
Instead, Southworth has been writing songs on a daily basis for the last ten years. He would combat the isolation of often being a stranger in a strange land by retreating to the creative safety of his bedroom, where he could play the piano and listen to any sort of record he fancied. When grunge captured the ears of North America, Southworth flirted with "extremely left-wing, alternative, punk-inspired music." Then one day he had an epiphany: "It just didn't mean anything to me to stand up there and just scream my head off. It was a dramatic change at one point -- I went from writing absurd, dadaesque, obscene lyrics...to The Wizard Of Oz. In a day!"
Although Southworth has contemporaries in artists like Eric Matthews, Divine Comedy, and even Ben Folds, he knows that his approach is more of a rebellion to the staus quo than any Marilyn Manson MTV production number: "I just got so fed up with the music scene over the last ten years that I went back and bought every kind of pop record I could find, from Gilbert & Sullivan to Abba, Burt Bacharach and even Gershwin -- music that people today would consider totally out of it -- truly alternative music. It's not that I tried to copy any one thing, but I drew on popular music of years ago to find out who I was."
It's a similar process of discovery for any listener of Mars, Pennsylvania. Behind the smart arrangements and musical allusions is a unique and endearing character who tells the very personal story -- by turns funny, satiric, and poignant -- of a figurative, and often literal, outsider. "There's a kind of upbeat melancholy to the songs, "Southworth has explained. It's particularly in evidence on the gorgeous "It's Not the End of the World" and "This Halloween I Go As Me," in which Southworth sweetly laments, "This Halloween I go as me/ door to door with my heart on my sleeve."
No reclusive pop savant, Southworth has built a strong following in Toronto and eastern Canada through live performances and TV appearances with the band he had assembled for the record. Southworth plans to bring his combo to New York City and the rest of the United States in the coming year. He's already made a few appearances in New York City, at CBGB's and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where he performed in the BAM Cafe last year before the opening of the Lou Reed/Robert Wilson pop opera, Time Rocker. His shows have garnered the same sort of rhapsodic praise as his record, which was originally released by the eastern Canadian indie, Water Street Records, then picked up by A&M Canada for national distribution. On stage, says one Canadian critic, "Southworth broadcasts on a million frequencies, combining century-old musical traditions with the energy of rock and roll. Imagine Charlie Chaplin singing Mott the Hoople tunes, backed by a disco band in the process of switching over to skinny-tie era new wave."
In a club as on a disc, Southworth seems to inspire a dizzying range of connections to our collective pop past. But, with work that strives to be, in his own words, "bohemian, artistic, colorful, sappy,, everything in one," he is really challenging a jaded present: "The fact that there aren't any 20 year-olds writing love songs anymore makes it all the more interesting that some guy can come along and dare to do it." Mars, Pennsylvania may take you many places, but mostly it will hit you where you live.