Feature: AJIMAL – My 5 Biggest Influences

Photo Credit: Fraser Taylor

For our latest ‘My 5 Biggest Influences’ feature, we spoke to musician and trained NHS Doctor Fran O’Hanlon, aka AJIMAL, who released his new record As It Grows Dark / Light last month, and was recently announced as a runner-up in this year’s Glastonbury’s Emerging Talent competition.

‘My 5 Biggest Influences’ is when we talk to some of our favourite upcoming and established artists, delving into their greatest influences and inspirations, to see how bands, records, tracks, friends & family, hobbies and even environments have impacted on their work and music.

More about the new LP below, but first, here are AJIMAL’s 5 Biggest Influences…

Musical coincidences in nature

I absolutely adore these little moments, often when I’m a bit wrapped up in some unimportant minutiae and then, for example, notice a plane flying overhead that, for just a moment, forms perfect musical harmony with a nearby pneumatic drill. They must happen all the time but they’re these little fortuitous moments that no one else will have heard in the same way. I like recording ambient noises around me but most of the time you miss these because they happen without any warning. I think that’s actually what makes them so magical.

Vivian Stanshall

A friend gifted me a series of CDs for my 18th birthday with a lot of music on that he felt I should hear and one of the more obscure things that I hadn’t expected to find was a story written and told by Viv Stanshall – ‘Sir Henry at Rawlinson End’. The first time I listened through it, I was mostly perplexed and understood perhaps 30% of what was going on. But it was just roaringly funny and also incredibly poetic. Every sentence is perfectly weighted and each time I’ve listened to it, another gem reveals itself that I’d missed before. It also features the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. One of my favourite lines from it is, “A pale sun poked impudent marmalade fingers through the grizzled lattice glass, and sent the shadows scurrying, like convent girls menaced by a tramp.”

Bodies of water

I’m originally from Newcastle and my family moved from the centre to the coast when I was about 13. There’s so much beautiful coastline around the UK and I love the north-eastern beaches at Tynemouth, Druridge Bay, Berwick etc. It’s comforting and calming and I love the sea breeze. I do realise this is somewhat over-romanticised, and having never actually sailed anywhere, there’s also a nasty side to large bodies of water… (I have, during the occasional 3am YouTube rabbit hole, found myself watching videos of cargo ships facing monster waves.) The vastness of the sea just doesn’t fit in my head and the power of the ocean is simultaneously awe-inspiring and utterly terrifying. (Another of my favourite Viv Stanshall lines, incidentally, is ‘Changing yet changeless as canal water.’)

Tourette’s Syndrome

Not something I’ve ever written about before actually, but I have Tourette’s. It manifests as physical tics – of my face, arm, leg (always on the right hand side), sometimes little ones I do with my tongue or mouth and they are more or less pronounced at different times. They were what I, and people who knew me growing up, perceived to be ‘nervous tics’ that I developed at quite an early age (maybe about 6 or 7 I think?) but I only finally twigged that it was Tourette’s about two or three years ago. They’re always there but can be exacerbated by being stimulated (they sometimes seem to flare up more when I feel more creative), stressed or tired but actually a lot of the time there seems to be zero trigger for them. For a long time, I was utterly mortified if anyone drew attention to them, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve become much more comfortable that they’re ok and just a part of who I am. I like the flip side of feeling more creative, sometimes, when they’re there.

Monty Python

I’m surprising myself as I go here, but I think the Pythons were my first love in comedy and they were just truly groundbreaking – in the Flying Circus and their films, they created something so joyous and absurd. It broke the standards for the time and then they even started touring like rockstars – playing live at the Hollywood Bowl for example. I watched the films on repeat and could also recite more or less every line from the classics.

Newcastle-born, London-based multi-instrumentalist AJIMAL released his new album, As It Grows Dark / Light last month on June 26th. The album was produced with Guy Massey (Spiritualized, Bill Fay, The Divine Comedy, The Beatles, Paul Simon), and showcases AJIMAL’s haunting and bold songwriting, with intimate vocals that weave an otherworldly soundscape of unconventional synth, piano and string textures.

AJIMAL is the creative outlet for Fran O’Hanlon, a doctor by day, who acquired the project’s name in the aftermath of being caught up in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake crisis. Whilst working at a field hospital during his medical studies, he found himself in the presence of an infamous former voodoo priest, from whom he would later derive the moniker. Following this experience, O’Hanlon went on to release his 2015 AJIMAL debut with CHIILDHOOD, recorded and released as he was qualifying to be a doctor.

As It Grows Dark / Light is the product of a collaboration with Guy Massey which began fortuitously, when O’Hanlon won a Focusrite recording competition, despite never having entered (he suspects a friend did so on his behalf). Although a classically trained pianist, O’Hanlon feels much more comfortable writing and exploring music by ear, rather than through the more rigid classical syllabus he grew up with, and he further credits Guy Massey for pushing his boundaries as an artist.

Of their unconventional recording experience, he explains “Guy and I have recorded all sorts of bizarre things in the time we’ve been making the album… we’ve prepared pianos with gaffa tape and coins, we’ve used hairdryers to blow toilet roll onto guitar strings to create drones and put silicon beads in speaker cones to record the vibrations, scrunched biscuit wrappers to sound like footsteps on gravel, time stretched pianos, harps, strings, voices, musical saws. It’s been a lot of fun to experiment with.”

AJIMAL also drew in others in his orbit to contribute to the sonic textures of the release. School friend Emily Hoile, now of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, features on harp. London-based composer Hinako Omori, another chance meeting via the competition, adds flute to the equation. He is also accompanied by a cast of string and brass players, including Sal Herbert and Ian Burdge. O’Hanlon sought out acclaimed German digital collage artist drømsjel, who created a custom collection for the album artwork.

Fran recently created an incredible video whilst he was quarantining (recovering himself from covid symptoms) for recent single from the album “Above All Else, Be Kind” which features a host of his musical friends (Eliza Shaddad, Friendly Fires, Lucy Rose) alongside friends who work in healthcare across the UK – hospital medics, infectious disease specialists, geriatricians, nurses, a kidney specialist, GPs, paramedics and anaesthetists…

AJIMAL was recently announced in second place for Glastonbury’s 2020 Emerging Talent competition, and fingers crossed, he will play the festival when it returns next year. A collection of remixes will also be released in the new year with confirmed contributions from Everything Everything and Edd Gibson (Friendly Fires).

For more info, head to: www.ajimal.co.uk