Johnny Normal and Bridget Gray have been writing and performing as The Rude Awakening since 2018. The release of their debut album Kaleidoscope drew praise with The Electricity Club’s Jus Forrest declaring them the most promising act of 2018. Among the album’s highlights were tracks such as the sensual ‘Your Wetness is My Weakness’ and the muscular ‘Fuck Puppet’.
Since then, the duo have offered up the perky pop of ‘Squeal!’ and the Covid-inspired reverie of ‘It’s Ok Not To Be Ok’. More recently, The Rude Awakening have released their Under The Covers EP, which presented a selection of choice cover versions drawn from the classic era of synth-pop, including TRA takes on OMD, Erasure, Japan and Gary Numan.
The duo have also collaborated and remixed for a variety of acts, including B-Movie, Birmingham Electric, The Livelong June, Mechanical Cabaret and Peter Godwin.
TEC sat the pair down for a discussion of The Rude Awakening’s history and plans for the future…
How did the concept of The Rude Awakening first come about?
Johnny: I had been performing as Johnny Normal, either alone, as a duo with my guitarist Psycho Pete, or as a trio with our amazing drummer Jase since 2008. After two original albums (There’s Nothing and Robot Rock) an electronic version of the Kings of the Wild Frontier album with Marco Pirroni, the Robot Rock remixes album, and a number of festivals, gigs and amazing support slots with Adam Ant, Blancmange, Altered Images and others I really thought that Johnny Normal as a music act had gone as far as I wanted it to go. I was hospitalised in 2014 for a considerable time and didn’t expect to survive. During a prolonged and very traumatic recovery period I had so much time to think and refocus on what I wanted to do next. I was so glad to still be alive and I was hungry for a new direction and some of the ideas I had inside me needed a new face to present them on stage and in the studio. Coming through this whole situation changed my view on life in general and I realised that you have to do stuff now, today, live your best life and seize the opportunities you are given… better still, seek out new adventures and be the best you possible. Life is fragile and short and very precious.
I was toying with the name The Rude Awakening, which seemed to sum up perfectly my newly discovered way of thinking. I had indeed had one myself and this would be the perfect banner to use to create a new musical offering. Music that talked of love and lust, hope and despair, innermost feelings and desires and social taboos.
The first release from The Rude Awakening was myself aided by the American musician Brooke Calder on backing vocals (see TEC review previously). The song, based on a real personal situation, tells you to stand tall and stick to your guns and never give up on what you believe in. I was so happy with the result, the message, the instrumentation, production, everything… and the music had a fresh edge to it. But it was going to be very difficult to take this project on the road, especially with one of us living across the pond, and Brooke was always so busy with her own material of course… and The Rude Awakening was going to be a performing act.
I was aware of Bridget Gray from her previous synthpop outfit, which had been dormant for a while, and had played her songs on my radio show a few times. I had always found her voice very unique and versatile, capable of beautiful harmonies, solo ballads as well as more pop-orientated delivery. The next release for The Rude Awakening was going to be much more risqué … and the thought of having Bridget’s beautifully pure and angelic voice singing the more colourful lyrics of ‘Your Wetness is My Weakness’ (see TEC review) made me feel like a naughty schoolboy. So I sent her the song and I asked her… and to my amazement she said she loved the song and the concept of The Rude Awakening… and so it began.
Bridget, what were your initial thoughts in getting involved with this project?
Bridget: I was excited and delighted, of course! I had been a fan of Johnny Normal the band, and Johnny Normal the person behind the radio shows, for quite a few years already. We knew each other through social media, through the radio shows because Johnny had played my previous band on his show, and we had a lot of mutual friends and musical interests. In 2017 Johnny had introduced me to the world of radio presenting and we were both working at Radio Warwickshire at the time so when he asked me to guest vocal on a TRA song it seemed quite a logical step to take our working relationship into our music as well. I had purchased the first The Rude Awakening single ‘Let Nothing Take Your Pride’ which was out in 2017 and really loved the direction his music was going in, so I was very happy to be asked to be part of the next single.
What’s the usual process of writing and producing songs? How do you decide to assign vocal duties between the pair of you?
Johnny: Songwriting is always a lovely organic process. We don’t tend to sit down and make time to write a song, we just jump into action when an idea appears and get it recorded. It’s important for us to pounce on an emotion or a thought as it happens and write from the heart about that moment. All of our songs mean something to us. They are personal and precious.
Many of the songs have started as two lines of a chorus, or a bass line, or a couplet of verse… Bridget keeps a little black book filled with lots of ideas that we update all the time… she’s like a literary Womble, recycling words and phrases that we find amusing or interesting for use in future songs. We both have a MacBook Pro with music software and we use these as sketchpads to record an initial song structure.
Bridget: The vocal duties really depend on what suits the song, based on the subject matter but also the sound. We both usually sing most of the parts, lead, backing and harmonies, then work out which sound best not only with each other’s vocals, but in the overall structure and instrumentation of each track. The songs are organic too, they take on a life of their own and will adapt themselves constantly until the finished version. Johnny will amend the structure of the track to varying extents after the vocals are in. We don’t ever finish up with a track sounding exactly like it started though.
Johnny: When we have a basic mix we then hand it to our fantastic producer Saul (Mr Strange/Dead Lights) and he adds his production prowess to create the final version. Saul is a genius and we work so well together. Having said that, some of our recent releases (‘O’Holy Night’, ‘It’s OK Not to Be OK’ and the Under The Covers EP) have been recorded and produced entirely by The Rude Awakening.
Johnny: The Rude Awakening is about having fun, living, laughing and loving. Many of our songs are tongue-in-cheek. Someone once suggested our songs may be immoral and condone promiscuity. But they had just missed the point completely. The basic message of the more risqué songs is that within a truly loving relationship you can and indeed should push the boundaries, try new things, keep the spark alive, tempt and tease and appreciate your partner, give and receive the most incredible emotional and physical experiences, dominate and submit, surprise and excite and delight. Love, care and trust completely. Surely that deserves a song or two?
Bridget: One of the things that really appealed to me about working with Johnny is his incredibly positive outlook on life, his joy at the world around him, and his general mischievous spirit. We are both really positive people who appreciate the wonders of nature and the planet and human beings and beasties, and that translates itself into our music and lyrics. Got a swear word in it? Great! Saucy and controversial? Excellent! Because “why the f**k not”?
The themes in TRA including the ones that may be considered a bit fruity are all to do with the human condition. As Johnny said, some of it is indeed tongue-in-cheek, some of it is fantasy, some of it is raw and fragile, but all of it is relatable and there’s an honesty behind the words in so much as we’re not saying anything that people don’t think about or experience themselves or wish for. I’ve been in previous relationships, personal or musical, where I’ve felt like I couldn’t always express myself for one reason or another, so the anything goes, no holds barred approach of TRA is incredibly refreshing and downright fun! Also, Johnny is totally hawt so it’s easy to sing some of those lyrics!
Which acts or artists inspire you both?
Johnny: Oh, where to start? I have obvious influences I guess… Gary Numan, Soft Cell, The Passage, Japan, The Human League, Adam Ant. I grew up listening to all manner of styles and I do appreciate all kinds of music from soul to rock, punk to classical. But my heart is electronic.
The way that Gary Numan has lived his life and adapted to everything thrown at him is truly inspirational. On stage I have been so in awe of watching Bridget perform that I have missed my cue to sing on a few occasions. I just get absorbed and immersed in the moment. Bridget inspires me, totally.
Bridget: Well the obvious ones such as Erasure, Depeche Mode, Yazoo, The Human League, Heaven 17, OMD, Mike Oldfield, Toyah, Duran Duran, Hazel O’Connor, Gary Numan, Chvrches. Julian Cope, The Alabama 3, Jean-Michel Jarre to name but a very few but I also like classical, punk, rock, new age, and all sorts of other genres. I’m really just inspired by anyone that creates beautiful music and we’re so lucky to have access to so many sources whether that is mainstream or independent acts or medieval madrigals. Also I’m really in awe of a lot of current independent acts such as ReveLever, Brutalist Architecture in the Sun, Austerity Complex, Heliophile, Cult With No Name, and am just as likely to reach for an album of theirs as Violator for example. We also have access to so much incredible music from around the world thanks to the Artefaktor radio shows we present and there are frequently songs we get sent that just blow me away.
You recently did remix work for B-Movie (see TEC review). How did that collaboration come about?
Johnny: I had played a recent B-Movie release on my Synthetic Sunday Radio show and their singer Steve Hovington messaged me to say thank you… and also asked if I knew anyone who would be available/recommend to remix one of their new songs called ‘Promenade’. It’s a song that Bridget and I really liked and so I threw our name in the hat, simple as that!
We created two remixes… one of which was more of a 12” remix influenced by the old Martin Rushent 12” remixes I grew up loving. The B-Movie guys released both versions and were very kind with their comments and appreciation. A lovely project.
Conversely, you also have a whole range of other acts remixing TRA’s material. How do you select acts to remix your work? Or is it a case of them approaching you?
Johnny: Bridget and I give a lot of thought to remixes of The Rude Awakening songs. The songs mean so much to both of us and we are protective of them. We also believe that a remix needs to be someone else’s own take, their own interpretation of our song… even if that means it’s not what we would have done, in fact, especially that! There are obviously people we know we can turn to who will deliver a great remix every time… but we carefully consider each song and who may be able to give us something totally fresh and bonkers and amazing.
Bridget: Absolutely, yes, It’s often people we have worked with before, and always people whose work we know and admire, but we have an idea of which artist would work for which track and come up with a shortlist between us of who we would like to approach. Thankfully, they usually say yes!
Johnny: Some producers/remixers are more suited to certain songs. We are contacted all the time by people asking to remix our work… sometimes although they are really good artists themselves, they’re not necessarily a good fit for the song. Every remix we have had back so far have been a unique little gem. We are so grateful and honoured that other people love the songs we make.
What’s the typical technical set-up in the studio for writing and recording?
Bridget: If we’re recording together we’re usually at Johnny’s, so we use his set up.
When we’re in different countries, (Me in Scotland and Johnny in England) I will record my vocal using my MacBook and send it over the internet for mixing.
Johnny: For instrumentation we use multiple soft-synths with the odd ‘guest’ unit dragged into the studio and of course our very special and very amazing Access Virus that provides the DNA and signature sound of The Rude Awakening. Vocals are via our trusty AKG mics. Everything is recorded in our own studio onto MacBook Pro and then mixed and mastered with Pro Tools.
You’ve just released a new EP of cover versions (see TEC review). Can you talk a little about why you decided to do this? Also, what inspired the choice of covers?
Bridget: It’s not our first foray into the world of covers, as we did a collaboration with our lovely friend Daniel Graham that is LorD and Master which was a cover of The Knife’s ‘Marble House’ and we’ve also done an homage to our favourite Shiny Darkness track ‘Moments’, both of which we’ve played live and we had been thinking about putting one or two other covers into our live set. Given that we weren’t in a position to do any gigs for a while we decided to work on them anyway and the result was the EP that’s coming out on 1st May called Under The Covers.
We’ve chosen these artists to cover because they were particularly influential to us in our formative years and we are still both huge fans of them. As for the songs, the choices were down to different factors really. Some of them are really famous, some not so much and maybe just known to the fans, so it’s not as if we were just going for the hits or not hits route when choosing which tracks to cover.
The Erasure track was chosen because we both love the album The Circus and ‘Spiralling’ is not a song you hear that often, and hardly ever in a live Erasure set anymore although it was many years ago. And you could go bonkers with it and mess with the speed and time signature, and we like bonkers.
Numan’s ‘Bombers’ is brilliant live; the TRA’d up version is kind of a mish mash of the live one, the album one, and a whole lot more with so many layers of instruments, vocals, and effects it’s a real auditory experience.
We love OMD and were gutted to be at the ill-fated Watford gig (that wasn’t a gig) on the last tour (we’re hoping to get to see them later this year, though fingers crossed it all goes ahead). Anyway, we had done a backing track for ‘Joan of Arc’ and we were going to play live at the Artefkator Live 4 events that were cancelled last year so we decided to record it with the vocals. Following an interview with Andy McCluskey for Johnny’s radio show, we sent him a copy and he immediately sent back a message saying “It’s a really cool version of JoA. Always good to hear a different interpretation”. With that in mind, we decided to release it.
‘Quiet Life’ was an opportunity to move away from where you would expect a cover to go (fretless bass) and bring something different to it that isn’t in the original – the vocal harmonies for example. I think that song in particular also really shows how amazing and great Johnny is vocally.
Your most recent release, ‘It’s OK Not to Be OK’ (see TEC review), offered a commentary of sorts on the recent Covid crisis. How did you both cope during the past year?
Bridget: We consider ourselves to be incredibly fortunate. We’re very grateful that we haven’t been ill ourselves, and our mums, siblings and children are all well. I could work from home with a relatively smooth transition as I’m a software consultant so we’re pretty much geared up for remote working anyway. A lot of my role pre-lockdown consisted of being on the road and travelling round various client sites, so I’m used to not being office based. But the best thing was that before covid our relationship evolved into a personal one as well, so we were fortunate that the lockdown law still allowed for people to see their partners even if they don’t live together and as such, we got to spend a lot of quality time together that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m very thankful for that, alongside being very aware that it’s been incredibly difficult for some people and many lives have changed irreversibly not just because of the virus but all of the consequences of that.
Johnny: Most people have been touched by Covid-19 and their lives affected adversely in some way. We see family and friends putting a brave face on for the benefit of others and yet we can sometimes sense their underlying suppressed despair and fear. We wanted to say, stop thinking of everyone else and it’s absolutely a normal human thing to admit we are faltering and need a hug.
On a personal level, Bridget and I had developed deeper feelings for each other before lockdown and after a forced separation for a few months due to the English and Scottish Government Covid-19 border regulations, combined with the airline companies going bust, we were finally able to travel, albeit the long way by road, and have been able to see a lot more of each other recently. So actually it’s a really positive result coming out of this pandemic and I am the happiest I have been for a long time.
What are your thoughts on the future of live music post-Covid?
Johnny: Covid will stay with us indefinitely I think, like variants of Influenza. Vaccinations are key to this, and common sense too of course. It’s going to be a new landscape out there isn’t it?
Will people return to live music in the same numbers as before? Will there be so many live gigs and festivals that will all be poorly attended? It’s difficult to predict. As promoters ourselves (Synthetic City events), we are watching and waiting with great interest. I hope we see more live music soon, but only when it’s safe to do so.
Bridget: Yes, I think it will come back although it won’t go back to the pre-Covid position for a long time to come, if ever. Venues will come and go, bands will form and reform, but music and the people who love it will always find a way to come together to celebrate it in some capacity.
Do you think the grassroots electronic music community is in, to use a phrase, rude health at the moment, regardless of the issues that Covid has brought in the past year?
Johnny: I sometimes see the odd post on social media saying the grassroots electronic scene is dead. That is utter crap. Of course, nobody is going to get rich putting on grassroots electronic music events. If that’s the aim, then give up because it won’t happen. It’s not a good business model. These events are, by and large, staged and promoted by electronic musicians themselves, and/or genuine supporters of the genre, for the love of the music and not for financial gain. But that’s not to say they don’t play a massively important role in modern popular culture today and for tomorrow.
Don’t get me wrong, making money would be great, but that’s not how it is, and money doesn’t drive the scene. Artefaktor Radio is at the forefront of presenting fresh independent electronic music to worldwide audiences with over 20 radio shows, and there are many radio stations and shows cropping up all the time dedicated to the genre. Broadcasting synth-scene supporters like Rob Harvey, Jimm Kjelgaard, Garth Musk, Chris Watts, Ulf Mueller, and many others are championing new synth talent week-on-week. Music websites including, notably, your own The Electricity Club remain the go-to place for synth-music lovers to discover new talent.
Bridget: Yes I really do, there is so much incredible talent and diversity, and it’s increasingly easy for people to not only write and produce their own material but also to promote it. So although gigs in the traditional sense where you have a clear separation of artist and promotor may be a thing of the past, the music community is still very much alive. It may be harder to bring people from such diverse genres and locations together into organised events but the music itself is in abundance.
Johnny: We get literally hundreds of new electronic songs submitted to Artefaktor Radio every week as single releases, remixes or albums… and the standard on the whole is getting higher. It’s true that enticing people out to see grassroots music at pubs, clubs and other venues to organised events is hard work… but many bands are putting on their own gigs the live landscape is changing year on year. So, overall I see a very healthy independent electronic music scene, albeit currently and for the foreseeable future being focussed mainly around digital downloads and streaming of course.
Tell me about Derek The Puppet and what Derek represents for The Rude Awakening?
Bridget: Aw Derek! Derek started his life as a prop in the ‘F**k Puppet’ video, alongside The Creepy Hand among others but he became a part of the TRA family when he was given a face at Synthetic City London I think it was? It’s amazing what you can do with a couple of sharpies, but Derek went from an inanimate wooden figurine to a wee superstar in his own right.
Johnny: Oh yes, Derek, lol… Well he’s actually not a real boy you know. He has his own summer and winter wardrobe, a passport, his own Facebook page and he travels around to gigs with us, even making a stage appearance on occasion. He has a very unfortunate looking girlfriend called Joyce. We don’t talk about Joyce.
Bridget: He’s also presented a show on Artefaktor, although he can be quite rude, he gets away with it because he’s so cute. He represents the cheeky fun side of TRA I think, and also what’s really lovely is how many people seem to like him, he’s always having his photo taken with his admiring fans. Maximum Derek? Oh yes.
What does the future hold for The Rude Awakening?
Johnny: The future is brighter than white and bigger than a double garage. Of course we can’t wait to start performing again, when it’s safe to do so. We are working on the second TRA album, one or two remixes, the covers EP of course and also we have a rather special collaboration waiting for contractual signing off, with a fabulous act that had some chart success in the 80s. Also 2021 will see more videos to promote the music and a more defined social media approach from us.
Bridget: We’re missing performing, but we’re finding other avenues for our creative endeavours as we talked about earlier, although they all do revolve around TRA. We’re not doing any solo projects or non-TRA collaborations now because we’re focussing all our energies on the various aspects of where The Rude Awakening can go. TRA will continue to be an expression of whatever the f**k we want it to be, it’s a wonderful, unique, happy-serious-thing that we’ve created, and I love making music with my best friend. Also, I think it’s time Derek learned to play an instrument so we might get him an ocarina, or possibly a kazoo.
Under The Covers is out now on the AbNormal label: https://therudeawakening.bandcamp.com/album/under-the-covers-ep
Photos: Robert Minter