Interview: Will Johnson

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Photo by Matt Pence

Some folks talk about giving of their time and talents to benefit others in order to make an impact and change the world for the better. Others actually walk the walk, and Austin-based singer/songwriter Will Johnson is one of those individuals. He recently donated proceeds from the sale of his music and art to socially-oriented non-profits, and at the time of our interview, Johnson was preparing to play a benefit show for fellow Austin musician Chris Porter, who died in a tragic car crash in October.

“It’s a gathering of friends, a coming together to raise money to release his record that is finished but still hangs in the balance,” explains Johnson. “It’s going to take money to get it out. It’s a little joy and a little sadness. It will be a needed and comforting thing to get together and sing some of his songs. There’s a lot of power and energy in art that can make the world a better place,” he continues. “I always tell my kids to make something cool each day, even if it’s the smallest thing. Over time, you can use that creativity and that art to try to help people, there’s a lot of healing in it; with the loss of our friend Chris Porter, there’s a lot of healing, not only in one another’s company, but also in each other’s music.”

Johnson, who began his musical journey as a drummer at the ripe old age of four, decided to give a music career a try after college. “I had a very abstract plan to play a little music and tour to get it out of my system before I pursed my masters and possibly my PhD and start teaching,” he recalls. “Around 2001, things got busy with the band, and I decided to commit my life to making music full time.” Johnson has been a central figure in many influential groups over the last two decades, creating visual art and music in his quest to change the world for the better. “There’s a wonderful physical release that comes with playing music,” he explains. “I would hope that my music would provide a place of sanctuary, a little bit of an escape from this crazy world. There are a lot of amazing political songwriters out there, it’s a skill set I might have somewhere in me, but I usually veer away from what’s been going on in our world,” he says. “Right now, with each record, I want to provide forty minutes away from that, something peaceful that lets me have a breather from the intense energy of our world. For the most part, I write from a fictional standpoint, and it provides a temporary escape from the clatter.”

“As challenging as this stretch of history has been, I do think we’re on the cusp of some amazing art coming around the bend,” he adds. “Like during the Reagan era—that’s when I discovered punk rock, this whole underbelly of culture that I had the secret password to get into that was a whole world of like-minded and kindred spirits. History proves that resonant art comes from the rubble.”

Johnson recently completed a short and successful Southern tour with Jason Isbell, and has an album release on the horizon. “The new record, Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm, comes out in March and things will be pleasantly busy for a while,” Johnson notes. In the new year, I’m taking a five-piece band out and we’re gonna make a big ol’ racket.”

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Susan Hubbard

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