01 Jun Artist Highlight – Scott Albert Johnson
Born in St. Louis and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, Scott Albert Johnson was bathed in the wide range of the American songbook, as well as the sounds of his 1970’s and 80’s childhood. The soul and spirit of that diversity is at the core of his new album, Going Somewhere. Johnson incorporates elements of rock, jazz, blues, funk, country, and world music, mixed with thoughtful lyrics, strong vocals, and virtuosic harmonica playing, to create a unique, modern concoction of sound.
“I’m influenced by almost every kind of music that I’ve ever heard,” says Johnson. “Growing up in the heart of the South, obviously blues has had a big impact on me. It’s also the heart and soul of virtually every type of modern music. But I also grew up a big fan of artists like Peter Gabriel, the Police, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Bruce Hornsby, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Daniel Lanois, John Scofield, and Rush, just to name a few. So I draw on all of that, and I try to write lyrics and music that have an emotional as well as intellectual impact. Then I throw in some harmonica for good measure.”
How does “Mississippi” affect you as a musician?
My music is pretty eclectic… it’s a mix of rock, blues, jazz, funk, folk, country, world music, and a lot of other stuff. The roots of so much of that started right here in Mississippi. Beyond that, I was lucky to start playing music here in Mississippi back in high school, and then to come back to Mississippi in my 30s when I was kind of rebooting my music career after some time away from it. Both times, I was incredibly fortunate to play with so many musicians who were as generous and supportive as they were talented. I’ve been the lucky beneficiary of exposure to some incredible people.
You received a 2013-2014 Performing Arts Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. How does it feel to have your work validated by your state’s arts agency?
It feels amazing. It is such an honor to have my work recognized by the arts organization that represents the “Cradle of American Music.” It’s also very gratifying to know that our state recognizes the importance of our culture — not just music, but our literary, performing, and visual arts traditions as well — and stands behind that appreciation by actually helping artists from a financial standpoint. The MAC has some absolutely lovely people (Diane Williams and Mary Margaret White come to mind) who do incredible work.
What do you wish you had known when you were beginning a career as a songwriter?
I guess I wish I had known that the hardest part of writing a song is getting started. If I had understood that, I probably would have started writing songs earlier. You think that, because a song doesn’t just flow right out of you like water, that it must not be worth writing. What you eventually realize is that you have to grab inspiration when it comes, and then you usually have to work to nurture that idea into something that really works as a song… but once you commit to the initial idea, it eventually reveals itself to you, and it’s worth it. One song (“If I Only Knew the Words”) took me ten years to write, but I am so glad that I didn’t give up on it.
If you could give only one piece of good to advice to a young musician, what would it be?
It’s simple: KEEP GOING. Get better at your craft by plying your craft whenever and wherever you can. You are going to run into all kinds of roadblocks and frustrations. You’re going to feel like no one understands you or your need to create and perform music. You might struggle with the business side of being a musician. Obviously you have to deal with these obstacles, but don’t let them defeat you. If the music is important enough to you — the MUSIC, not the idea of fame or fortune — then you will keep going.
How important are the arts in education and why?
I get very upset every time I hear that funding for this or that arts program has been cut, or when I hear someone suggest that the arts are disposable or a luxury. First of all, there are many studies that show the cognitive and “life” benefits of participating in the arts (on whatever level). Beyond that, though, I am adamant that education needs to be more than just job training. I support the liberal arts ideal of education generally, and the arts have to be a big part of that. As the Robin Williams character said in Dead Poets Society: “That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse… what will your verse be?”
Who was your greatest mentor?
That’s a tough one, because I have been lucky to have many great teachers, coaches, and colleagues who have all taught me something. But I’d have to say that my parents always taught me the importance of believing in myself, because they believed in me.
How important is it to you to mentor young musicians?
It is an honor every time I get to work with or teach younger musicians. There is so much talent here in Mississippi, and it’s really cool when some of them want to work with me on something. I get to learn from them, too. I also teach harmonica to players at all levels of proficiency, in person or via Skype (I have had students in Europe), and I always enjoy that… but there’s something really special about giving a child a harmonica and helping them understand how they can use it to make music.
“I think it’s fantastic that the MAEC will shine a bright light on the incredible musical legacy of Mississippi… a legacy that is still being created every single day. Hopefully it will help the rest of the world to better understand why Mississippi really is the “cradle of American music.” And I also hope I get to play there when it opens!”
Visit Scott Albert’s Website
Scott Albert Johnson photo credit – Susan Margaret Barrett