From pop star to pig farmer
As a youngster, Jonathan Benjamin Gill – best known as J.B. – was torn between becoming a musician and a rugby player. Little did he know that he would eventually become a farmer and a father, with a deep passion for both roles.
By Joy Tibbs
It was playing the recorder at primary school that first sparked J.B.’s interest in music. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I used to play with my brother and I used to race through all the books.” He learned to play the flute and piano, and sang in the school choir, and by the time he left primary school he was a fully fledged music fanatic.
J.B. attended the Centre for Young Musicians for around two years, but his love of rugby threatened to end his musical ambitions. “I loved going there, but to be honest even at 11 I didn’t really see how I’d be able to make a living out of playing in an orchestra, so I took the naïve view that this wasn’t going to be the future,” he explains.
“The school had a rule that if you were selected for a team to play on a Saturday, you had to play. So that kind of messed up my training at the Centre for Young Musicians, because obviously that was done on a Saturday. Being a boy and loving my sport, I just kind of took it with two hands and had the perfect excuse not to go.”
Falling into place
However, an injury brought J.B. to the realisation that he was unlikely to end up as a professional rugby player and he turned his attention back to music. The vocal coach he had while he was at university put him in touch with Oritsé Williams, who was putting together a band. Oritsé had already signed up Marvin Humes and Aston Merrygold, but he was looking for a fourth member.
“I met him and sang for him,’ says J.B.. ‘He said he liked me but he wanted me to meet the other boys. I said pretty much the same because I was at university, still, at the time. I still hadn’t finished my exams for that year. Once I’d met the boys something just clicked, I guess, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The JLS boys spent hours practising and attended every gig and competition opportunity that came their way, but it felt as though they had hit a brick wall. It was at this point that they decided to enter The X Factor.
“To us, at the time anyway, The X Factor was a bit of a last resort,’” J.B. admits. ‘”But I guess we swallowed our pride a little bit because the traditional way to make it in the industry is to get signed and then make it work organically. But as The X Factor’s proven time and time again, it’s just as successful a route into the industry as anything else. Everyone’s route is different.
“At the time we entered we were one of the few groups that were already put together, and because we’d been working together for a year and a half we had a great chance of going all the way, which we pretty much did.”
Life under the lens
When it came to facing the judges, the JLS boys experienced what J.B. describes as “good nerves”. He says: “We knew that we had talent, and for us it was a case of making sure we showed everything we were capable of. We were so prepared it was almost virtually impossible for something to go wrong, but the last thing we wanted was to be told no and we hadn’t given our best. So there was always that apprehension beforehand.
“We made sure that we coordinated our outfits and were as prepared as we possibly could be. And it was fine. The judges were nice, or nice enough. They gave us great comments as well, which always helps. We delivered to the best of our ability, and obviously we got through that audition. It was kind of surreal, I guess, meeting the judges for the first time, but we were looking forward to it and hoping it would be good news.”
The first week of The X Factor – Michael Jackson week – still stands out in J.B.’s mind. “It’s not like performing in front of an audience, because obviously you’re looking at cameras and making sure that you engage with the audience as well as the people at home,” he explains. “So it was a bit hit and miss, in my opinion, for the first week.”
Disappointment and success
The band gradually got used to the cameras and started to enjoy the experience, but it wasn’t until the semi-finals that they really started to believe they had a chance of winning. But despite finishing in second place, there was disappointment ahead.
“We finished the show and Simon [Cowell] turned round in his dressing room after the final, and said: ‘Sorry, guys, but I’m only going to sign the winner this year.’
“We were heartbroken at the time because we were like, ‘Well, what does that mean? Does that mean we’re not going to get signed? We’ve done all this stuff, we’ve performed in front of all these people, this is what we’ve been looking for and now it’s not even going to happen.’”
However, hard work and perseverance saw JLS land a contract with Epic. Their first single reached number one and since then the band has sold more than ten million records worldwide. “I always knew that if we had the opportunity we would make the most of [it], but as with everything you can’t call it,’ says J.B. ‘You never know when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, but you have to have that belief in yourself that it will happen.”
Keeping in touch
When JLS decided to call it a day in 2013 it was tough on their fans, but it was also an emotional decision for the band members. They had become so close over the years it felt like a family was being torn apart, but as they began to start families of their own, they knew it was time to take a step back.
However, the JLS boys still make time to hang out together. “Not long ago we all went away for a weekend together in Wales, which was nice,” says J.B. “We often see each other out and about and I see different boys at different times, but it’s so rare that we get a chance to hang out with the whole family … We try our best to maintain that contact because we spent a lot of time together over the years and it’s important to try and continue that relationship.”
Pushing the boundaries
Since the band’s break-up, J.B. has appeared on various reality shows including MasterChef, The Jump and Strictly Come Dancing. While the latter two were fun and challenging in equal measure, it was MasterChef that really tested the pop star.
“I love cooking and I had a great time doing it, but it was probably the furthest out of my comfort zone compared to any other shows I might have done,” he shares. “And it was hard at the time as well because I was trying to organise my wedding, so trying to juggle life and also prepare and keep myself focused for the show was not easy, and wrecking the kitchen in the meantime was a little bit hard to handle.”
This turned out to be excellent training for J.B.’s current roles of farmer and father, both of which involve a good deal of juggling. J.B. originally bought his ten-acre property to provide a peaceful haven away from London where he could rest on rare days off, but before long he decided to make the most of it.
“Land is a valuable commodity so I didn’t see the point in having it and not using it,” he says. “A few people mentioned getting into deer farming and I had wild deer here on the land anyway, and I thought it was a great idea. I just began to investigate it, really, and the more I investigated I guess the more the desire and the passion grew.
“I started off with one pig, funnily enough, and now I’ve about 50 pigs and 170 turkeys. I’ve still got the wild deer and I’d still love to have a venison farm but I haven’t quite got enough space, even though ten acres seems like a lot of land. It’s just grown organically, if you’ll excuse the pun, and as it’s developed I guess my passion has increased with it.”
Fortunately, J.B. is used to working hard, as running a farm is no easy task: “I always like to remind people that it’s every single day of the year, so I actually don’t get a day off, which is a bit hard to take.”
However, as well as bringing in an income, the musician believes the farm has given him an important opportunity. “For me, food and the origins of our food and how we understand our food from the field basically to the fork or to the plate is really, really important,” he asserts. “When you’ve got kids who don’t really understand where their chicken comes from and think fish comes from the supermarket we’ve really got a lot of work to do to re-educate our children, who are going to be the future of our food industry in years to come.
“Without wanting to be holier than thou or anything like that, I have a voice and I’m a spokesperson just based on being in JLS and my history and my past, and I think that it should be used for good. Aside from the fact that I love my food and [knowing] the provenance of my food, it also gives a good example to kids and to younger people to also take an interest in their food.”
The best part of the job is that J.B. can be home at a reasonable hour to spend time with his wife, Chloe, and their son, Ace. “When you have young kids they change so much so quickly,” he explains. “Honestly, in hindsight, if I’d been doing JLS and I had a young family I probably would have hated every minute. Not because of the experience, because the experience is brilliant, but to me being at home, being able to see my family, my son, being able to spend time with him and teach him and experience him is much more important.
“Even if I’m busy every day, it’s nice to be able to finish at five or six and still have time to be able to put him down or bathe him or read him a story, or have dinner with him, even. It’s crazy, it’s nuts. So much changes. It’s hard to explain, and until you go through it I don’t think you’ll ever fully grasp it.
“But it’s incredible. I love every single minute. He actually has been a dream, so I count my blessings every day. He sleeps very well, he eats absolutely everything. He doesn’t complain or moan too much and he’s very, very intelligent; very astute. So it’s such a joy to be around him and to experience him.”
J.B.’s life has changed completely since he became a father. “I’ve re-evaluated what’s important in life,” he shares. “Obviously you still have to go out and work, you still have to keep busy. You can’t just stay at home all day, or I can’t. But at the same time you reprioritise everything.
“I make sure that I have time with him and I do things by myself with him as well. It’s easy to do it as a family, but for me there’s a very special bond between a father and a child; just as important as the child and the mother’s relationship is. It’s a different relationship so you have to cultivate both. It’s changed my perspective, which I’m sure it does for most people.”
Keeping the faith
Having decided to fully commit himself while he was in the band, J.B.’s Christian faith also plays a major part in his life. “[My faith] is encompassed in everything that I do, so I always think about that first before I commit to an event or commit to a job, maybe, or commit my time elsewhere,” he says.
“Time is a very valuable commodity. It’s one of the things you can’t get back, no matter how hard you try. So [it’s important] to use my time profitably for myself, for my family. At the end of the day I can work until I’m blue in the face, but often with children and often with your relationships they’re less interested in the things that you have and the things that you do than they are with the time you can give to them.
“Obviously there’s a balance that needs to be struck, but at the same time, for me now a lot of the decisions I make in my life, and family decisions as well, will be based around my faith rather than the other way round.”
If you’d like to sample one of J.B.’s delicious turkeys, which he may or may not have personally serenaded, visit kellybronzefarmers.com