Below, you can read our interview with wildly talented and hardworking blues artist, Justin Johnson, and watch/listen to his music. Check out our full artist/music feature of Justin Johnson, HERE.
Q: You’ve been making your brand of roots-blues-Americana music for some time now. Tell us about that galvanizing moment as a kid that you knew—beyond all shadow of a doubt—that you would be a musician one day.
A: Music has always been a language that I understood and felt a passionate connection with. Before I got my hands on a 6-string, I was banging around on just about any instrument I could get my hands on, from the piano to the trumpet and baritone. When I got my first guitar, though, it was all over. You couldn’t have pried that guitar out of my hands! About a year after I got my first electric guitar, I was already gigging, and music has been my full-time job ever since.
Q: Where are you from originally, and how has your home specifically influenced your sound and style?
A: I was born in Southern California, right on the tail end of Route 66. I didn’t live there very long, though…my family moved around quite a bit on the East and West coast. I think that traveling must have gotten into my blood, because it really broadened my horizons culturally and musically. I love the idea that music not only comes from a person, but it comes from a place. Certain places have a distinct sound and vibe, and I noticed that growing up and moving around. Once I hit the road full-time with my music, I made it a mission to travel to the birthplaces of some of my favorite music, and track down those vibes. Places like Memphis, TN; Clarksdale, MS; New Orleans, LA; and of course, Nashville, TN—where I live now.
Q: Can you tell us about the first moment you picked up a guitar?
A: As long as I can remember, growing up, there was a beat up old Stella guitar lying around the house. It was a crooked-necked sunburst beater with only one rusty string on it. I remember picking it up one day and trying to pick out melodies like “Louie, Louie” and “Wild Thing” on the one remaining string. Much later, I would realize that many of my guitar heroes started out on one-stringed instruments as well; people like Bo Diddley, Lightning Hopkins, Elmore James, Blind Willie Johnson, and even Jimi Hendrix.
Q: What was your first guitar? Do you still have/play it?
A: My first working 6-string was a cheap J.B. Player single-cutaway electric that I bought from a local record store. I sold it a long time ago in order to afford my first Fender Strat, which became the first guitar I ever played with professionally. That Strat now belongs to the Executive Producer of my most recent album, If Walls Could Talk.
Q: You’re also a musical instructor/teacher. As an independent artist, where do you find the time to teach with your busy recording, touring and promotional schedule?
A: I try to pass along support and advice to other players whenever I possibly can. Between albums, I will often create instructional DVDs and books to answer the most common questions that people ask. There is something deeply rewarding about helping other players over the hurdles that I encountered early on in my musical development. I know how special that feeling is when you struggle to learn something, and then one day it’s explained to you in just the right way, and all of a sudden the challenge becomes much easier to approach. That’s the feeling I try to give through my online instruction, DVDs, Books, and live workshops.
Q: What is the most important thing that you tell your students with regard to learning their craft?
A: I think that in order to develop your skills in any art form, you need to have the right combination of genuine passion and strong character. The passion drives your enthusiasm for your craft and is the fuel for your drive. The character needs to kick in, in those moments where you’re not having “fun”… for example, during the endless hours of practicing, during the long nights on the road, during the embarrassing mistakes, and all of the other experiences that require genuine character building and prolonged physical training.
Q: Tell us about your move to Nashville: What struggles have you encountered there? What have you found to be true/false about that legendary music city?
A: I’ve found Nashville to be one of the most welcoming and supportive communities I’ve ever experienced, both musically and personally. Many people think of Nashville as a Country Music town, but it really supports any musical style you can think of; Country, Blues, Rock, Jazz, Classical, you name it! It’s also one of the best places in the world for finding talented musicians and world class studios, producers, labels, lawyers, etc. All of this is a huge benefit when you are working as a professional musician, but can also present challenges for musicians who are not totally sure about their career goals and musical direction. In those cases, wading through the sea of options, pitches, venues, and false leads can make you dizzy, lost, and disillusioned.
“I think that in order to develop your skills in any art form, you need to have the right combination of genuine passion and strong character.”
Q: Perhaps in some unspecified amount of time, your musical career explodes—completely out of control in the best of ways—what does that look like for you?
A: My goal is to continue to make more music that is genuine to me, and that speaks to my listeners in a deep and profound way. Right now, as an independent musician, I fund my albums and tours directly from the interest that the fans show in my projects, collaborations, concerts, and sound. I would love to continue to grow all of these aspects of my career and have a fan-base and listenership that can allow me to create ever-bigger and more meaningful art. My belief is that if I am always trying to put out honest and positive music, then that message between the notes will take root and grow in the worldwide music market. That’s what success looks like to me.
Q: You get to collaborate with anyone of your choosing. Who is it?
A: I would love to collaborate with Jack White. I’m a big fan of his, and admire how he has worked to bring back Roots Music into the popular consciousness of a new generation of listeners. He has also played a huge role in the re-popularization of vinyl, and on top of all of that, he’s just a hell of a musician with a huge range of styles.
Q: Your favorite album of all time? (Yup, you gotta choose one.)
A: If you asked me that question every day, you’d probably get a different answer from me each time. But I can tell you how I feel today! I’d have to say Jimi Hendrix’s “Blues” album. It’s a compilation album of some of Jimi Hendrix’s best blues tracks. Some are well known, and some are very rare live and previously unreleased takes. That album had an enormous impact on my playing style as a guitarist, and is like a blueprint for how someone can take a Roots Blues vocabulary, and paint a completely unique masterpiece by merging traditional techniques with a modern unorthodox style and approach.
Q: Your favorite song of all time? (Again, only one!)
A: Since I’m talking about the Jimi Hendrix “Blues” album, I’ll pick a song off of that album. There is a completely instrumental version of “Born Under a Bad Sign” by Jimi that blows my mind every time I hear it. I’ve probably listened to it a thousand times, and each time it brings new inspiration to me. It’s a very unadorned track with just bass, drums, and Hendrix soloing. For me, it’s comparable to stepping into Jimi’s mind, and seeing the inner workings of his approach to guitar. It’s a long, slow, stream of an exploration of consciousness, via psychedelic blues rock guitar, that’s perfect in its raw communicative power and simplicity.
Q: What would you like fans to know about you that they’re most likely unaware of?
A: Although I generally play Roots music, Blues, Americana, and similar styles, I am a fan of almost all of the music that I hear on a daily basis. I love all genres and even consider the sounds of nature and everyday life to be as beautiful as organized music. If I’m at the beach, or a lake, or in the middle of a bustling city, I try and hear all of the sounds around me as they weave together into a random symphony. It’s amazing how much sound you actually “zone out” on a daily basis, and if you take a moment to re-calibrate your ears and listen for all of the nuances of sound around you, then you realize how much beauty and information you are normally missing.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I am very excited about my upcoming album, Drivin’ It Down. I’m recording it now, and it will be my first album to feature guest musicians, and will have a full-band, high-octane Roots Blues vibe. On my previous two albums, I personally recorded every instrument on every song. Drivin’ It Down will feature some of Nashville’s best, along with exciting guest artists that are coming in from all over, to put their magic down in the studio with me. You can check out more about this album project (and get your order in!), HERE.