ST. LOUIS — Justin Johnson has to make music in order to feel whole.
There are some musicians who perform for mere money or a chance to become famous, and then there are others like Johnson who simply need to write and perform songs in order to deal with the everyday chaos of life.
The St. Louis native has a new album coming out this weekend, 'Never Coming Home', one that he is celebrating with a release party show at Off Broadway in south city. While this is his first solo release, his voice may sound ruggedly familiar to local music fans.
He spent five years as the front man for Pretty Little Empire, touring and releasing three albums. He also performed in smaller groups like The Fog Lights and Jump Start, but for the past few years, it's been a microphone and lonesome stage for Johnson.
That changes this week with the new album, consisting of seven songs. I spoke with Justin over Gus' World Famous Fried Chicken about the music-making past, what brought out these songs and how it all comes together with real life.
Johnson didn't plan on releasing a solo album; it just sorta happened.
"It wasn't one that I was setting out to make. It had been about four years since I recorded anything. I had the opportunity to work with someone who I have known for years in Vince Corkery," Johnson said. "He told if I ever had something worth recording, and I just so happened to have something. Sometimes you need that opportunity to find the time. Over the next few months, I had a grouping of songs. It went from this idea of doing this stripped down thing to something different. What started out as a couple songs changed."
Johnson called on old friends, not only people who he felt comfortable playing with, but ones who could just walk and get what he was going for. Melinda Cooper brought exactly what Johnson needed on lead guitar and bass. Corey Woodruff, who also functions as Johnson's photographer, produced drums and percussion. Cooper, Jenny Roques and Devon Cahill contributed additional vocal work. Corkery can be heard on bass on a few tracks as well as the organ.
Having familiar faces and players was a vital asset to Johnson.
"There are some people who I know from shows, and it's always a pleasant experience. There are others that I have played with before, and now they are playing on my record," Johnson noted.
The community of musicians aided the project, as did the organic come-easy aspect of the album making.
"I get the most excited when the music comes organically. You do it and then you get excited, and then two songs turn into four and five. I wanted it to be sparse, but I wanted other arrangements, so I called on some friends."
The album, recorded at Corkery's El Mas Studio in Rock Hill, has a distinct melancholy feel to it. Songs like 'The Place We Were Before' and the title track speak to a regretful urge to revisit the past while keeping a paint brush on the future, but Johnson's lived-in voice, which brings to mind a combination of My Morning Jacket's Jim James and The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, grounds all the songs in a relative place.
One tune ended up being a bittersweet choice, and that was 'Devil Town' by Daniel Johnston, who passed away earlier this month. The unconventional musician was an inspiration for Johnson, who got to interview the late singer many years ago.
"He's always been an influence. His voice is so wrong. There's a certain level of nuance and raw emotion to it. It hit me hard," Johnson said. "The song wasn't one of my favorite songs of his, but I loved the unassuming aspect of it, which is why I enjoyed doing it in this playful way. It was a great bookend to 'Wake to My Demise.'"
On more hopeful tunes like 'Turn it all Around' and 'I Hope', Johnson ponders the idea of redemption without fully accepting it. When it comes to conjuring up ideas for songs, Johnson looks inward and is patient.
"It's something that is very therapeutic for me. But I don't think there's ever been a day where I tell myself I have to sit down and write a song. It's one night, I sit down, grab my guitar, and it just happens," Johnson said.
Songs usually "come out of the blue" with him, finding their own seat in his head before prying their way out onto the page. Their origin isn't a hard place to find.
"I pull from my life, experiences that I've had, from people and movies. Emotions that I get. I don't like to be too specific. If I can, I like to leave things open. I love how I can interpret a song one way and someone else sees it another way," Johnson added.
Movies are an especially special asset for Johnson, who co-hosts a podcast, 'Don't Push Pause', where he and Lindsay Reber dive into older cult favorite films from the 1980s, finding infinite details in their passionate discussion. During our hour-long chat, movies were discussed and dissected amid the conversation about music. For Johnson, the two artful worlds intertwine quite easily.
Johnson built the podcast studio in his basement, taking months to get the sound right and build a rapport with Reber on the mic before actually recording. One could say he does the same thing with his music. He lives with it for a while before marrying it and completely buying into the sound.
After all, the songs you hear on 'Never Coming Home' started out on stage the past couple years with him singing them in acoustic fashion. While he initially thought solo work would be liberating, there was something restrictive that didn't appeal to him after a few experiences. One of the reasons for that was Johnson isn't one to interact with the audience and tell stories.
"There is some freedom in playing solo, but for the most part, being a singer-songwriter, most scenarios aren't working in your favor. As a solo performer, you have to be on your game, as in talking to the audience."
He's just not that guy. When the songs found more arrangement and gained more sound, Johnson found more comfort in playing them.
Off Broadway was always the required venue for his release show. The place holds a special place in Johnson's music-loving soul.
"Off Broadway was always my favorite venue to see bands. The first few times I played there, it seemed like the most welcoming to me," Johnson said. "The owners are awesome. When I was out of work, they let me come sell hot dogs and paint. It's a venue I respect. It's having that comfort level. Any number of things can go wrong during a live set, so having any kind of edge helps."
Johnson likes to live on the outside of convention, which can explain his likeness for Johnston. One could easily label him a folk artist due to the way his music sounds, and they wouldn't be far off. Folk artists sing from their bones, as if they need to get these words out, in order to find something in the performance. Johnson needs to perform music. For him, it applies some meaning to the world and connects him to his past.
Todd Snider once said, "I'm not trying to change your mind, only ease my own." That's Justin Johnson and his music in a nutshell. He's up there figuring stuff out and putting out music that easily connects.
This Saturday at 8 p.m., Johnson will be playing with Town Cars, O'Ivy, and Roques at Off Broadway. Just a group of people doing what they love because they are compelled to do it.
That's the only way Johnson knows how to do it.
"Music has helped me for so many years. Listening to it and creating it," he said.
In the process, he's helping us too. That's good music for you. It's always a two-way street.