Jeff Johnson
Cornerstone '97 Festival Press Conference

A press conference can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. Usually the press, professional or otherwise, have an opportunity to query public figures after a prepared statement has been read. But things are a little more relaxed at Cornerstone Festival. Loosely following the daily schedule written in dry erase marker, the artist simply takes his place behind the press table and waits to be noticed.

This proved to be an apt environment for Jeff Johnson, a prolific musician with a 20-year catalogue of original, independently released music. Renowned in Christian music for his Songs From Albion series, based on Christian novelist Stephen Lawhead's trilogy, Johnson has earned his greatest commercial success far from the traditional avenues generally thought to be acceptable for Christian musicians, in a genre known as "New Age." Although well-known to fans of Windham Hill, he faced a tent of clueless, shy reporters that'd never heard of him:

"Any questions from the peanut gallery? See, at a press conference, you're supposed to ask questions." Despite our shyness, Johnson spoke at length about many aspects of his work and artistry.

Current Releases The latest thing is the one on Windham Hill called, Celtic Legends; and Brian Dunning and I are just finishing up a new album that's supposed to be coming out through Windham Hill, but it won't be 'til next year. And whether it's going to be called Celtic Legends 2 or not, I don't really know. Steve (Lawhead) will probably be involved in some way, but that's the gist of it. 

I got involved with Steve through a publisher who approached me about doing that, and Steve and I hit it off. That's the very short story there. It was all very natural, actually. Steve may be one of my best friends other than Dave Hastings who does a lot of my artwork. The friendship has been probably a greater gift than the music and the albums.

Reporter - How about doing a project that incorporates readings by Steven Lawhead?

Johnson - Over Steve's dead body. I mean, Steve has no interest in appearing on a spoken word CD, although if you heard him read this morning, he did a pretty good job. No, I'm sure he would never, ever, in a million years do that. Spoken word is a funny thing. When Sandy Simpson and I did The Awakening, we had a bunch of spoken stuff recorded and edited, and we had it all tracked in with music and stuff. It was really fun to listen to once or twice, and then it became like a book on cassette; whereas the Centerpoint album was created to be kind of an Advent season meditation, and Dullis McKinnon did such a wonderful job on those readings. But I don't really have any current plans to do any spoken word thing, and particularly with Steve. (laughs)

Reporter - Are you going to work with other authors?

Johnson - No. Well, you never know, but I don't have any plans. It's really weird how it all came together, but it's been very natural, and fairly spontaneous; so it's been very easy to sustain. It hasn't required a lot of work, which is good--with Steve living in England, me living in Oregon, and Brian now living in Ireland. We have this kind of triangular tandem thing going on. Which actually is very good for the music. Brian is from Dublin originally and spent ten years in Portland, which is how we met. He just moved back to Dublin last year, and so the new album was actually partially recorded in Ireland, which has been great. We used a lot of people we wouldn't normally have used.

My new album, Navagatio, is coming out on the Ark label. I couldn't get any Christian label . . . well, I had a whole bunch of people--because I know a lot of people in the business after being in it for twenty years--who said, "Wish we could do this album, Jeff." But I didn't want to wait around. I've already moved onto a new project, anyway, and Navagatio was finished last November. So for those of you who heard the Psalmus album, I describe Navagatio as Psalmus gone awry. It's much more adventurous than Psalmus is. It's not available for a couple more weeks, and will be distributed solely through the mail order and our website, as far as I know.

Reporter -Will you be doing any projects that are more radio friendly?

Johnson - I've never done an album with the idea of trying to please anybody but myself. Even the Celtic stuff, we just happened to be on the right ship at the right time. As it turns out, they're very popular, but I've never worked that way in twenty years. If you see me put out a pop album, you better write and remind me. As it turns out, I wouldn't put the music out if I didn't think it was decent. There are some things on Navagatio that are very "radio friendly," but it's not like I'm worried about it. 

Reporter - You've got a nifty Internet site. Is that important to you, or is it just something you're starting with?

Johnson - I'm really surprised with the Internet activity that we have. Cord Patten from Patten Brothers, who does the site, also does all the design on our albums, and he's very savvy about that. It's a great way for people to connect with me. It's a little easier for me to respond by email, obviously, than it is to type out letters, although I'm not opposed to doing that. I actually like to hear from the people listening to me, because I find my listeners, generally speaking, to be fairly interesting people. They're usually somewhat college educated, they're literate, and I enjoy talking to them. Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming, but that's just the way it is.

Reporters - Do you have much of an interest in film? 

Johnson - I've scored a lot of small films and things. That's how I used to make most of my money, by doing a lot of commercial and sound track work. Some of our Celtic stuff is going to be used for some films--not big, "Braveheart" type films, but they're being used for PBS type things over the next couple of years. I haven't done a serious film project for some time, other than some commercial things. I did stuff for Speedo, Mercedes Benz, and Nike, but those aren't really films.

Reporter-Are you a self-supporting artist?

Johnson - Well, I still try to be. (laughs) My wife works, and early on, we were sustained by that. I've been very fortunate to have done as many albums as I've done, to have been doing it for as long as I have, and to pretty much call all my own shots creatively. 

People come up to me all the time and say, "How do I do what you do?" There is no formula. The only formula for the music business is if you can survive and you're any good, you have a shot. That's really the only formula. But it's been helpful to have been . . . like the Celtic thing. Brian and I did the Songs of Albion and, at the same time, the Celtic music genre was developing. And now everybody and their grandma is doing a Celtic album, but we just happened to be kind of on the forefront of that wave. I'm sure that wave will crash. But we've done enough albums now where I think we've established ourselves in the genre. We've been featured on albums like the sampler albums Celtic Twilight 1, 2, and 3 (put out by Hearts of Space); Celtic Christmas 2 that Windham Hill has put out; we're going to be on Celtic Christmas 3 in the fall, and Carols 2. Those albums sell zillions of those, and that's been really good for us, to kind of keep things going. 

Reporter - What's your running total number of albums released?

Johnson - You know, I don't really know how many albums. I think there's a couple dozen albums. You'd have to look at the flyer. Our latest flyer has everything, so you could grab that and count 'em yourself.

Reporter -Do you perform a lot live, and what should we look for in tonight's show?

Johnson - (Laughs) Actually, no. I think it will be good. I hope you'll go away thinking it was good. I'm playing with a band tonight which I've never done at Cornerstone, and Brian Dunning is here. 

I don't do a lot of performances mainly because it's such a hassle. Doing all the session work that I do, it's really a hassle to go and tour and do concerts. Brian and I have done a lot of duet stuff on the West Coast. We love to perform, and the guys that we're playing with tonight are fantastic. It's really more of a - if we could work out a situation where it would be a little easier and maybe a little more concentrated at certain times of the year, we would do more of that. But that hasn't happened yet. 

I only come to Cornerstone. I'm not going to really make any money from this concert, but you just got to do it, and there's no better place to do it than at Cornerstone Festival.

I think in the future, with this line up, it's quite possible, even with Brian in Ireland, that we'll do more touring. We're quite popular in Spain and Germany, and they're wonderful places. I would go there just to perform in their cathedrals. Our music would do real well in that kind of ambiance.

Reporter - What are your general impressions of Cornerstone?

Johnson - I love this. I love these people. I've performed here three times over the last fifteen years, and the people are fantastic. I am always honored when they ask me to come. I think it's a great festival. You never know what kind of weather you're going to get, but that's the way it goes with any festival. I always look forward to it, so that's why I come, and it's good for me to play.

Reporter - Why?

Johnson - It's good for an artist to perform live. We've had two rehearsals this week. In each rehearsal, every song was different; and I can tell you that every band song tonight will be completely different than how we rehearsed it. And you don't do that in recording. You don't have that kind of give and take in the studio, that sharing that happens live. That's what's good for me. Plus it's humbling for me to go out and have to share my music in front of a group of people.

Reporter - Is humbling a good thing?

Johnson - Humbling is a good thing, especially when you're almost 41.

Reporter - How does your songwriting process work?

Johnson - It depends on the album. Brian and I have a tendency to just come up with ideas, and we trade them back and forth before we jump into it. I write a lot of stuff at the piano, I have my studio at my house, and then I go up and I just kind of start putting things in. It's a pretty typical process, actually. I've done a fair amount of traveling and that stuff shows up, as well as my reading. There's a lot of literary allusions in my music, so it depends what book I'm reading a lot of times. The process is probably not unlike a lot of other composers.

Reporter - What's your favorite CD?

Johnson - The favorite album is always the latest one, so Navagatio, even though I said you get to the point where you hate it. I'm just very proud of Navagatio, so that's my favorite one right now. Of the older ones, Shadowplay still works for me, Icons, some instrumental ones. I think Celtic Legends is pretty good,.

Reporter - How do you express your own faith through your music?

Johnson - It's just there. It really is there. When you've done as many albums as I have, you don't have to really answer . . . I'm not offended by your question, but I don't have to say anything about that anymore. I only have to say something if you listen to my body of work and you don't really know where I'm coming from; then you probably need to ask me some questions, but I don't think that's the case with my music. I wouldn't call it overtly Christian, but my sense, my whole take on it all, is everybody has a worldview. And everybody's worldview comes through in whatever they do, whether they write, whether they sing, whether they dance--well, dance, that'd be a little trickier--but anything where you're communicating language, and I think that my Christian world view is actually quite apparent in my music.

In fact, I've gone a bit baffled by Christian music right now. The great epiphany for me was when Windham Hill released the Celtic Legends album. Of course, they did this huge marketing blitz. I get this thing in the mail, and Brian and I are on the cover of The New Age Voice. I'd never been on the cover of a Christian magazine. I thought it was hilarious. 

Don't worry, I haven't jumped off into the new age thing, but frankly, that's what you call this genre of music that Brian and I do, that I will always do. That's one of the reasons I'm putting my album out on Ark label. I think it keeps it pure. Most of my listeners are originally from the Christian music scene, so to speak. But I'm not really connected with it anymore, other than through my listeners.

Reporter - Anything in your music you regret?

Johnson - You can't do your music with that in mind. There's never, ever been a concept that I've developed in my music that I've regretted, but you make production decisions that years later, you listen to them and go, "That really wasn't such a great idea." But if you approach your music that way, you will never put your music out because you'll always be so worried about it that you'll never ever finish it. People say, "How should I get started?" My response is usually, do something. Do something, just put it on cassette, and let people hear it,. If that goes well, do something more. That's the way I started, and that's continued to work for all these years. 

Complied by Linda Stonehocker

Jeff's music can be ordered from his web site or in the UK from New Dawn Music.

Copyright© 1997 The Phantom Tollbooth