Jay Johnson is a lover trained to fight; a tattooed ex-Marine with a song in his heart and a load on his mind. Sounds like the premise of a crappy TV show destined for pithy evisceration at the pen of a certain boob tube columnist, but it’s an accurate description of one of Salt Lake’s finest talents.
A native Bostonian, Johnson enlisted out of high school and was eventually stationed at a naval base in Goose Creek, S.C., guarding a portion of the country’s nuclear arsenal. It was there, perched in a tower at 3 a.m., where his latent sensitivity bloomed and his inner troubadour began to emerge. “[I had] lots of time to reflect and let my mind wander,” he explains. “When you sit for four hours in a tower without much to do, you start thinking about things.”
Never the stereotypical “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out” Marine, the affable Johnson used his tower time to ponder his personal and musical identity. In boot camp, he’d undergone a complete takedown and rebuild, altering his world altogether. He began to realize that the violin, which he’d studied since the age of 7 with some success, including guest performances with the Boston Pops, would no longer suffice as a means of expression. He wanted to play guitar and sing.
“In boot camp, the whole objective is to sort of start from scratch—break the morale, then build it up. There was a real change that took place. I knew that I just didn’t want to live halfheartedly. I wanted to give it everything I had, even if it was going to hurt. And it sort of marked a change with music as well, because when things settled down, there was still this interest and desire to make music. And because I had done the violin for so long, it wasn’t happily received at the house because my mom had invested a lot of money in my violin playing. She wasn’t about to buy a guitar for me.”
Post-discharge, Johnson returned to New England where he took up vocal lessons. A few months later, he relocated to Oxford, Miss., to attend Ole Miss. While he was there, the urge to write songs persisted. He decided to spend Spring Break holed up in his room with a cheap guitar to try writing songs. “[The guitar] had the tone of a cardboard box with a couple of elastic bands. It sounded like garbage, but it was there to give me an idea and help transfer what I knew over to that instrument. I started to understand song structure and chord structure, things that as a violinist I never really understood.”
He emerged with a dozen songs that were, by his own admission, terrible, but a start nonetheless. It sparked an obsession, and songwriting became a natural mode of communication for Johnson. “I generally work better when I sit down and try to really think things through and take the time to consider one thing for a long period of time and then, naturally, apply it to a melody.”
Over time, his songwriting skills developed and he started collaborating with a friend, playing for burgers at local grease-pit Phillip’s Grocery. But that’s where it stalled. Attempts to assemble a band in Oxford failed, and his musical endeavors cooled off. In 1997, Johnson answered the call of great skiing and moved to Salt Lake City. He took a job at Alta to help finance his ski-bumhood, but it was only a matter of weeks before he’d assembled another band and was playing shows at the now-defunct Library. “At the time, it was sort of a side thing. I wasn’t taking music all too seriously because I was more concerned with skiing. It didn’t take long after putting a couple bands together before I realized, I really wanted to do this.”
That first band didn’t last long, but Johnson did manage to find a steady drummer—no small feat in SLC—in Nine Spine Stickleback basher Jeremy Child. Child proved his mettle, nimbly adjusting from Nine Spine’s thrashy industrial rock to Johnson’s smooth alternative pop tunes. In early 2000, the pair enlisted local producer-guitarist Sean Halley and began work on what would become Jay Johnson’s debut CD, Yellow.
Strikingly beautiful in its lyrical candor, musicianship and production, Yellow stands out as one of the very best local music releases in years. Johnson’s voice echoes a less tortured Jeff Buckley, but has a pop quality that easily lends itself to mainstream formats. The songs ring with an upbeat, introspective elegance and maturity, evincing a talent rare to the Salt Lake music scene. Johnson, Child and Halley were largely responsible for the music on Yellow, but since recording, Halley left for Los Angeles and Johnson and Child recruited bassist Ray Opheikens and keyboardist Christian Nelson. “Within the last two years, I’ve been playing as regular as one can in SLC without overdoing it,” Johnson said. “Now I’m trying to figure out what step to take next; what I want to accomplish here while I am here.”
While he’s here? Well, it’d be selfish to assume Johnson would remain exclusive to Salt Lake City. His abilities transcend mere local status, and frankly, it’s about time someone broke out of here. It wouldn’t be too farfetched to declare Johnson The One. In fact, he’s already been discovered by Nashville producer-guitarist David Zaffiro, who happened upon a copy of Yellow and summoned Johnson to Nashville to record two amazing new tracks, “Broken” and “All Alone,” both available at www.JayJohnsonBand.com.
“About nine months ago, I got a call from Dave’s secretary,” says Johnson. “He was very excited about what he heard and was interested in getting together. Over the course of this year, I’ve gone back and forth to Nashville four or five times. We’ve been pitching [the new songs] to the record industry and trying to get the finances to do a full-length project. We managed to get some record labels in Nashville interested, but the contracts aren’t coming in just yet.”
It’s a cautious and modest optimism he maintains, as he recently signed with William Scholes’ Tsunami Management. Things appear pretty rosy. “He’s pretty well connected in the major music cities and has some real strong connections to most of the major record labels. I guess there’s hope and promise of a bright future there [laughs]. And it’s really cool, because he’s from England, so he’s got this sweet, Manchesterian British accent that … I’m just going to send him out there to represent me and people will think I’m that much cooler because of it.” u
The Jay Johnson Band with 13th Ave. Band and Hudson River School. Trolley Square Live, 523 S. 600 East, 363-4474, Friday Nov. 30, 7:30 p.m.