Phil Hall Interviews Kevin Johnson

Q) You say in your biography that you came from a musical home: what sort of music can you remember from your childhood?

A) Well, my mother played the violin; she was a good violinist and my father used to sing in the shower, so to speak, but in terms of outside music I don’t really remember that much from my childhood except for my Aunty Ethleen. She had an old record player with 78’s with Richard Tauber records on it and my Aunty Dorrie was a very good singer. So that was about it in terms of the early years I suppose until I went to High School.

Q) Once you became interested in music yourself, what musical styles/musicians, influenced you most?

A) Well there was definitely a tendency towards the singer/songwriters, and by those I mean Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Don Gibson, Bobby Darrin, Ray Charles, and, of course then, on to the Beatles, which was probably my last really big influence.

Q) Did you ever consider a career in R&R, Bandstand, J O’K etc?

A) I wasn’t really known in the main part of the “Bandstand” era. I did appear on it once, just towards the end of its run and Col Joye, for instance, who was part of the “Bandstand” family, was instrumental in starting me off, really. In the first place both he and his family, the Jacobsen family, got me started in recording, and I got to know Johnny O’Keefe in the latter part of his career and he was very much on side. I toured with Col once through Queensland with Little Pattie and Sandy Scott but this was after their bigger period and I did a couple of shows also with Johnny O’Keefe.

Q) Your music doesn’t really fit into any established category (R&B, rock, folk, country etc) How would you describe it?

A) Well, really I could only describe it by saying that I try to use what is the best feel of musical style to fit that particular song regardless of where that direction might take me.

Q) In other words we can say that the song is the most important thing, not the style?

A) Yes, yes, that’s true, absolutely.

Q) You’d appreciate it that people find it very difficult to put your music into a category.

A) Yes, yes, but I think that’s the same for many musicians. I mean how would you put the music of Billy Joel, for example, into a category? Or, for instance, many of the great songwriters, like Van Morrison, or David Bowie, or a lot of those people. It’s hard to put them into one category because everything they do is different.

Q) And, of course, that’s the beauty of the things they do in that they don’t just tread the same, safe paths all the time.

A) Yes, I’ve always liked albums that have a diversity. That’s why I liked the Beatles so much because you never knew what they would do next. Albums that are much the same I find that I get a little bit bored with them.

Q) The thing about the Beatles was that they kept re-inventing themselves.

A) Yes, absolutely.

Q) Many of your songs are very “Queensland” in feel, but they seem to be broadly appealing anyway. Can you explain why?

A) Done right, say, a French film about life in France can be very appealing world wide because all of those themes are pretty universal and I approach song writing that way.

Q) You often write of life “on the road”. How much of this is autobiographical and how much of it have you picked up from others?

A) Some of it is experience because I’ve spent a bit of time on the road, some of it’s picked up from others and some of it’s imaginary, but, basically the life on the road thing is a love of the highways and byways, not necessarily related to doing shows or performing or whatever, just a liking for the highways.

Q) Because of what you can see?

A) Yeah, there’s another hill coming up, and over the next hill distant hills are green, perhaps.

Q) And would you say this love comes partly from your upbringing in rural Australia, where essentially to get to any place you had to travel long distances to do so?

A) Maybe, I don’t know, it’s a sort of sense of adventure, perhaps of not knowing what’s around the next bend, I sort of like that.

Q) Queensland’s a pretty big place, it takes a long time to get anywhere.

A) It certainly does, but you can say that about anywhere in Australia. Q) What was the inspiration for “Their Song”?

A) That was quite simple. My parents were driving from Rockhampton to Brisbane in the late 60’s and left very early in the morning when it was dark and they came across a UFO, very close to the side of the road, only about 50 metres from it, and passed slowly by it. They didn’t bother to speed up and they could describe it in minute detail and they were very concerned about it, worried about it at the time, and they had been skeptical up to that point of these sightings, so it was no sort of imaginary thing. So the whole song was based on their sighting of this UFO.

Q) I’ve heard “Shaney Boy” compared with Harry Chapin’s “The Cat’s in the Cradle”. Do you think that’s a valid comparison?

A) Well, Yes, it is. I like many songs of Harry Chapin. In a way the two songs are similar in that they are both looking at the fleeting nature of childhood, the difference being, of course, that mine is through the eyes of a parent who is acutely aware of its fleeting nature and who is wanting to hang on to every moment. From Harry Chapin’s point of view in his song, it’s somebody who’s missed it all completely and woke up too late.

Q) And then tries to recapture it but he can’t.

A) Yes, he can’t.

Q) In the late 1970’s you toured Australia a lot doing concerts. You haven’t appeared live for some time. Do you plan to get back onto the concert tour or are there other things that are keeping you busy?

A) There will always be the sorts of things that keep you busy, but I think that fairly soon I will start to do more shows. I haven’t done anything apart from some charity things and some of those big football spectaculars that were on last year, so I’d be looking towards doing something in the not too distant future.

Q) Do you enjoy touring and performing live?

A) Yes, it all depends. It depends on the venues and there are a lot of variables. But in a given situation with all the variables coming together, it can be very good, yes. Problems at a venue can happen and there’s no way you can overcome them; that happens in the best of circles, it’s just one of those things. That’s what makes a live performance different from somebody sitting down to listen to a record; there’s always that possibility of something going wrong and overcoming those things is probably part of the magic of the night.

Q) Do you feel that having that rapport with the audience somehow affects the way that you perform the song?

A) Not really, I think that I try to keep the same dynamics and so forth in the song and the way I did it. There may be just the slightest amount of difference but I don’t think it really makes that much difference. You interpret the song in relation to the way that you worked out in the first place as the best way to approach it and I try to do it that way mostly.

Q) You travelled widely in the States and to Nashville in the early 70’s yet your music doesn’t seem to have been greatly influenced by C&W. Why?

A) I actually signed with a Nashville company, Tree International, early in the 70’s. It was probably the biggest C&W publisher in the world at the time, I think, but I didn’t actually go there until the mid to late 70’s. So I stayed at home and just wrote songs as they came to me, and then, from that point on I started doing a lot of work in Europe, and I started slanting my songs towards Europe, not necessarily writing them towards Europe, but without really thinking of the country market and I then left Tree in Nashville and that’s how I never really went into the country music market.

Q) Many of your songs speak of leaving a loved one, of going on the road, of ended relationships, yet you yourself seem to be settled and comfortable with life. Is there a conflict here? An explanation?

A) No, just poetic licence, I would say. Without imagination, none of the great works of fiction would have ever been written so, when you start off with a good idea for a song, it’s not always related to your own experience. It’s usually a combination of things.

Q) The two songs that you wrote for your two boys are among your best in many people’s opinion. Any comments on the inspiration & process of writing?

A) Firstly, obviously they are both songs for small children, written about and for small children. With “Shaney Boy” which was written for my son, Shane, the motivation was that childhood is a thing that slips by very quickly and that morning passes very quickly and (before you even notice it, it’s gone) and it seemed wise and prudent to me not to miss a moment of the magic wherever possible.

Q) And yet you were travelling and performing and everything else. This must have placed tremendous constraints upon you?

A) Yes, but while I was doing those sorts of things I was still spending a tremendous amount of time at home as well. I was fortunate in that. The other song, “Scotty” was written for my youngest son, Scott, and that was taking a completely different look at the thing in that it was the sort of understanding that life can seem daunting and confusing to the very young and that also parents don’t always have the right answers for some of these things. So it’s more or less the advice that he should enjoy the good times and try to learn something and derive something from the bad times.

Q) How much notice do you think the two boys took of the songs? How much did the songs affect them? Did they feel the songs very personally?

A) Yes, I think so. I thinks Shane was probably only two when I wrote “Shaney Boy” so he probably needed a few more years, whereas Scott was a little bit older than that, probably about 4 or 5 years old when I wrote “Scotty” for him and I think that, deep down, they mean a lot to them. The advice in “Scotty”, of course, applies beyond childhhod.

Q) How do they feel about having a published recorded song specifically for them? There wouldn’t be that many people in the world who have that.

A) I think it’s varied with the age they were too. In the early days it was great and then when they got a little bit older, in high school, it was probably something you’d hide from, but now, of course, they appreciate them. They can evaluate them; they both have very strong artistic abilities themselves so they can appreciate them for what they are.

Q) What was the influence behind “Over the Hills and Far Away”?

A) That song was written in the late 60’s or the early 70’s and it was based on a lot of student unrest that was going on at the time. And I sort of noticed that some of the people who were the most radical would then become the most conservative after a few years which represented to me either the eternal problem of the generation gap or that some people imagine they are always in the right even when they completely change sides. It was just a look at an on-going thing that will always be there.

Q) Your music is very personal and reflective. Does it mirror the sort of person that you are personally?

A) To a certain extent, I suppose, but I don’t think any songwriter has ever admitted that everything is totally personal experience. I think it’s like, well, supposing you pick out anything like “American Pie”, Don McLean’s great hit; he has admitted that many of the things were personal experiences but many of them were observations and many of them were just ideas. So there’s a whole range there. The song is a vehicle. There’s no point making a song that’s so intensely personal that no-one else in the world can relate to it. You have to make it something that is universally felt.

Q) Your music is noticeably Australian, but has international appeal. Do you find it gratifying that this is so?

A) I’ve written songs where I’ve mentioned Queensland places, but I’ve also written songs where I’ve mentioned overseas places, and what I’ve always tried to do is to make them universally identifiable themes so that the appeal isn’t limited to the area that they are in or written about; more an across-the-board appeal.

Q) What are your religious beliefs? Do they influence your writing, and, if so, how?

A) I’ve always found it a bit difficult to comprehend that a very primitive life form, feeling that it has to have eyes, can, by evolutionary means, create the incredibly complex mechanism that is the eye. And I’ve always felt that somehow there must be some guiding force to whatever has been shaped since the big bang and long before it. And so, in answer to that, I just have always felt that there has to be something beyond the scientific rationale, you see, but, in answer to the second part of the question, I don’t think it’s really been evident in any of my songs; I don’t think I’ve really touched on that.

Q) Does that perception of the fact that there must be something beyond what is immediately apparent, does that, even though you don’t touch on it in your songs, underpin some of the perceptions that you bring to writing your songs?

A) Oh certainly, there must be an element of that at work, I guess, in what one is doing and having the ability to do certain things as with everybody..

Q) A faith, of sorts?

A) Yes.

Q) In your writing, what comes first, the lyrics or the tune?

A) In the best songs, and generally, a bit of both together. And then it’s a matter of finishing the things off; usually the melody is probably the most quick to be finished because it either goes one way; it either works or it doesn’t, and it’s got a few ways it can go, Oh, many ways it can go, but the lyrics can drive one crazy for a long time.

Q) I sense that, in some of your songs the words are words that you have laboured over for some time until you’re happy that they’re just right. Is songwriting a complex process to you or are you the sort of person to whom a song just spontaneously arrives there, or is it a craft that you work at?

A) Usually, it’s an inspiration to start it off, but that inspiration can be two lines and you’ve got twenty two lines before you finish it all or whatever, but, of course, you have a set of ideals that you’re chasing and standards that you want to reach and you want to make it as good as that first inspiration, that’s where, as you say, the perspiration comes in.

Q) Can you think of a song in amongst the songs that you’ve written that just seemed to magically “appear”, it was just there and almost and entity immediately? A) A very obvious one. “Rock and Roll” came to me as an idea, just of giving someone the best years of one’s life, but rather than making it just a romance with a person, I made it with a whole musical style. I wrote that very quickly; I was finished it in a couple of days, but I have spent on other things, for example, a songs called “Shelter” where I spent months on the verses of that song, twisting it and turning it around, trying to get it to say the right thing in the right way. Going one way until you nearly go crazy then completely changing your course, but that’s the way of it. You’re either satisfied with the end result…One thing I’ve never done, I’ve never recorded anything that I wasn’t absolutely satisfied with, and that’s why it’s taken so long, I suppose, for each album. But I see no point in just finishing off with a few lines that don’t come up to the standard of the rest of the song.

Q) So can I take it from that that a lot of songs end up “on the cutting room floor”?

A) No, there haven’t been that many rejections; when I get started, if it’s a good idea, I just keep going until I get it right.

Q) If you were asked today by a young musician how to succeed in the business, what would you advise him?

A) Well, to me the most successful people have always been the ones who have done it their own way and so I would suggest that somebody finds something that works for them and, if they believe in it strongly enough, stick to their guns and don’t be turned off, because you get more advice in this industry than you get at the races on a Saturday and not all the advice is always good advice

Q) In recording and performing do you like to use the same back-up musicians all the time or do you try out different musicians to give your songs a different feel?

A) It all depends, sometimes you finish a song and you think, “That is just perfect for somebody that I’ve used before because I can just hear what he will do with that,” but sometimes with other songs, you don’t have a great idea of what you want to do with it so it might be time to try out someone different and see what they come up with.

Q) When you perform your earlier songs today, does your interpretation of the songs change? Do you add, subtract, or try to keep them substantially the same?

A) I always try to retain, obviously, the same melody, the same format, dynamics and the same lyrics; I NEVER change; but what I do change sometimes is the line-up, the order in which I do them. I’ve done tours with very sparse players, just a couple of players with me and in doing it that way you can’t stick to the original arrangement, so there’s a greater opportunity there for the players to ad-lib a lot around what you do, but I don’t think that matters so long as you retain those original dynamics. I generally try to preserve those first things in each performance.

Q) And I suppose that there’s a certain constraint there apart from the artistic considerations, there is also the consideration that that’s the way the audience expects to hear the songs.

A) Exactly. I’ve gone to see people, who shall remain nameless, and they’ve sung a bit of a medley of their original songs that were big hits years ago and it’s almost like a throwaway. It’s pathetic, because that’s what the people have gone along to hear. I don’t like that approach, you know; I don’t like drastically changing them so that you don’t have any of the original magic about them.

Q) In a recording session or a rehearsal, do you have a “set in concrete” idea of how you’d like the song or do you let it grow?

A) I’ve always had a pretty set idea every time we’ve gone in of how I’d like to approach it, but invariably, I’ve changed it every time, so it’s a matter of starting off and suddenly something will come to you which maybe you haven’t thought of before and it can take on a whole different complexion. Sometimes it’s more marked than others, that degree of departure, but generally one always changes it a little bit.

Q) Does that depend, to a certain extent, on how passionately you feel about the song itself?

A) Not so much, but when you’re working with players they all add something or they’ll put in something that you may not have thought of that suddenly works nicely at the time and that changes slightly the direction.

Q) And this is why, I guess, it’s good to work with musicians whose opinions you trust and value.

A) Of course, definitely.

Q) How long do you take to write a song? I think we’ve really covered that already, haven’t we?

A) Yes, It can take from two days to six months. There’s no rule there.

Q) How long do you intend to continue performing?

A) I guess as long as it makes sense. I never perform all the time anyway; performing has always been a spasmodic thing anyway, so as long as there’s some sort of an audience out there and it makes sense to me, I guess I don’t have any preconceived ideas at this stage.

Q) So you don’t perform because you have to or because you feel people expect you to, it’s a conscious decision that you make.

Q) What do you think of the current music scene in Australia?

A) Well, there’s a person who once said that a country gets the sort of police force it deserves, maybe the Australian people get the kind of music scene, or shall we say, entertainment scene they deserve, and I think that’s all I need to say on that one.

Q) Which musicians/songwriters/singers do you respect most?

A) The ones that are most original; they come forward and they sound like nobody else; they could never be confused with anybody else. Over the years to pick out quite a few, Roy Orbison, Credence Clearwater Revival, ABBA, Queen, Talking Heads, The Police, Enya, Billy Joel, Van Morrison, David Bowie, Midnight Oil, that’s quite a selection there and it’s a range of people who, to me, you hear a couple of bars and it’s unmistakably those people. There’s a great originality about them.

Q) Of your own songs, which ones are your special favourites?

A) Obviously, “Shaney Boy” and “Scotty” for obvious reasons; I like a number of other things for the way they eventually came together and worked; things like “Stay and Dance the Night Away” which is unlike anything else on the albums really, “Reasons” I just liked the way it worked; “I Came to Somerset” “Iridescent Shadows” Kedron Brook” It’s hard for me to pick the songs. Obviously if one writes them oneself there’s always a special reason why you end up finishing it off and recording it, so, but those I guess are some of the favourites. “Hard Act to Follow” is another. It’s just that some things come down to how it all ended up, how it all sat together.

Q) Your latest album is the first for nearly 10 years. Why the gap? Do the songs on it represent the growth of your music and yourself in that period?

A) Well, there was a 10 year gap in recording because I felt that I wanted to do some other things and I did very well in Hollywood for a while, fantastically well at Wimbledon, and brilliantly in Cannes, but gardening was not my real love so I came back to this (laughs and adds, “This is all joking, of course”). No, I just took a departure from recording for a while and then I guess I started to write a few songs and those songs that are on that album are all songs written in that specific period, so I guess they are a combination of the way I was thinking during that time. The album is slightly less lyrically involved, I think; more simple, possessing, in some of them anyway, a more sing-along, catchy quality rather than some of the more lyrically involved songs in previous times.

Q) The song, “The Lights of a Distant Harbour” seems a very personal song, or am I just reading too much into that?

A) Yes, I had written songs for my two sons Scotty and Shane, but I hadn’t written a song for my wife so this is the song that I wrote for my wife, Jill. It has a decidedly nautical feel because I look out to sea when I’m writing songs, in my office, and it was a good idea, I felt to show that life is slightly different when you’re on calm seas than when you’re on rough seas.

Q) Who are the musicians that have encouraged you most during your career?

A) There weren’t that many musicians as such; Col Joye was a big influence in terms of the fact that he introduced me to the recording and writing world in the early days and was very helpful to me with his whole family and Johhny O’Keefe was very much on side in his later years, but generally the people who have sort of, and I’ve worked a lot with others ho were not strictly musicians; Wayne Finlay and I have worked together quite a lot over the years, but there have been a lot of other people who have been instrumental in helping me along the way, that weren’t just musicians as such, like Dennis Whitburn who is a film writer and producer, he was heavily involved with his partner, Jimmy Stewart, who is a song writer, Doug Ashdown’s partner, they were very helpful to me in my early days in getting things happening and people like Patrick Dunn, in Ireland, Ray Hall and the late Bernie Stinson, they were very helpful too. Not musicians all of them; some of them were in the business side of things who helped me get things happening. Very importantly, there was Bruce Brown, studio manager at Alberts. He worked on nearly every album I’ve done and has been very instrumental in helping me over the years.

Q) Some might think that you have somehow taken away from the magic of “R&R” by redoing it for the AFL Centenary. Any thoughts about this?

A) Basically to begin with I was approached by the AFL to do this and we talked about it for about 8 or 9 months prior to the Centenary season. I was not keen on the idea but finally it came down to a commercial deal between us, but the point taken by myself and, I suppose, the AFL, was that it was an internationally successful song that was going to be used for one to three years to promote a uniquely Australian and very successful game. One with a certain charisma and excitement about it encapsulating 100 years of that very exciting, recognisably Australian sport, so in the end I decided that it was a good thing. I mean, had it been used for promoting some sort of product that was not the same thing as a sporting entity like that, it would have been different, and so I proceeded on that basis. Q) What are your musical influences now? What music do you enjoy listening to?

A) There’s no answer to that one really, it can range from anything to anything. Some things that, to me have some sort of magic in them, and, when I say that I don’t necessarily mean just the song and the right singer. I’ve heard people who have re-recorded magical things, the same person, the same arrangement, maybe even the same musicians, but, on a given day, it’s not quite the same. So I look for things that have that magic that I can listen to it a thousand times over and not get sick of it. Some songs like “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison, Ben E King’s “Spanish Harlem”, John Fogarty’s “Born on the Bayou”, Enya’s “Exile”, Anne Murray, “You Needed Me”, Don McLean’s “Vincent”. These are just a few of those things that are absolute magic. Now I heard one version of one of those, I think it was “Spanish Harlem” and it had been re-done. Same singer, same song, same arrangement, probably all the same musicians, but the magic wasn’t there. It’s just one of those things that happens. And that can come in any form of instrumental. Music from another country, whatever. Indian music, I like that, for no apparent reason.

Q) Do you listen to a lot of music; do you have the time?

A) Yes, I don’t listen to that much, I’m probably more into films than listening to music, but that’s always been the case to a certain extent, but if I listen to an album I’ll then go through and pick out those tracks that have some magical thing and I’ll play them as opposed to playing all of the thing. That generally happens; very few, with the exception of a lot of the Beatles albums, where I like to play every track.

Q) Is that because of the fact that, in any given album, from a critical point of view and from the point of view of musical satisfaction, not every track on there is worth listening to; there are some albums where that simply isn’t the case?

A) Most albums every track is good; if it gets to be reasonably successful, successful enough for you to hear it wherever it’s been, because there’s a lot of things that never get heard, so it’s not on the basis of not being good enough it’s just that some things you want to hear again and some things are very good but you don’t really want to hear it again.

Q) And those things that you do want to hear again are things that you get something new out of each time you listen to them?

A) Yes, I think it’s a working thing; it’s like a film or a great book or a great stage play where it’s just a magic thing that happens and that’s what makes it appealing. Everything happening in the right place in just the right way.

Q) A philosophical question. Are there many different types of music or is there just good music and bad music?

A) I’ve sort of answered that one in a previous question. In answer to it, I think it comes down to horses for courses, or one man’s meat is another man’s poison. One thing that I might rave about, someone else might say, “Well…I don’t like it that much.” It’s just that it strikes a magical chord in your ear and those are the things that I guess listen for and try to achieve when I’m recording. One doesn’t always achieve it, it’s the most difficult thing to achieve, but those are the things that I listen for.

Q) Have you ever heard a song and thought, “I wish I’d have written that?”

A) Every time I hear a million selling record I think the same thing. But, of course, there are degrees of that too. If it’s a song that I don’t like and it’s sold a million copies, then I suppose from a financial point of view I’d like to have written it, but some songs are such great things that you wished you had, yes.

Q) How would you like to be remembered, as a singer or a songwriter or both? Or something else?

A) Different things to different people, I guess. To family and close friends I’d like to be remembered a certain way, as most people would. But for the people who’ve heard the songs and don’t know me, then I guess, a singer/songwriter and, I guess, performer. That would be the most I could hope for. And I guess also as somebody who always did things in the way he felt that was the right way to do them as opposed to following a trend.

Q) Did you at the time, and perhaps even now, see yourself as somehow being an ambassador for Australian music or is it a more personal thing than that?

A) I’ve never looked at it that way. And I never felt that way. I mean the songs have done well internationally, yes, but as for being an ambassador for some composite called Australian music, I’ve never saw it that way, I was just doing my own thing and I don’t really think there was any feedback for the Australians on account of what I’ve done internationally. Basically I think it just comes down to individuals breaking through. Certain things did point the finger at Australia like, maybe, “Crocodile Dundee” sort of got it all going for a while, and certainly other things I suppose over the years have made everyone look in our direction, but I never thought of it in that light.

Q) And you certainly didn’t consciously set out to do that?

A) No. I set out obviously to make the songs as successful as they could be and I guess in the early stages I always thought of America as the place and I was in the charts a few times there both for myself and other people with songs there, but Europe was my main market, which was one I had never really thought about. It just happened.

Q) Because at that stage of course, America was the centre of the music industry.

A) It seemed to be but Europe is so enormous, the whole of Europe has a much bigger population really than America and it happened for me more there.

Q) Can you remember and point out the one time that was the very special moment in your career thus far, something that you can look back on and say, “That was just magic, that was just perfect.”

A) Not off the top of my head, I can’t. I suppose that various things that have happened have been special. One could say when one finishes something that it is very self-satisfying, but I suppose when there is an endorsement by others, I guess that makes it even better. There have been times on stage where things have been like that. I remember one magical night at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin which musicians were still talking about it years after when I went back there. It was just one of those things where all of the things went wrong before the show, but, on the night, it was just one of those amazing, electrical things. That has happened a few times at varying times and places. For no apparent reason. You can never tell on a given tour where that magical night might be. It might not even happen. They might all be good nights, but every so often there’s that amazing one, the night that seems to go on. And I guess when one has won awards or one sees one’s record racing up the charts overseas, that sort of thing is all very gratifying.

Q) And does the thought that that next performance could be that magic one, does that excite you, does that sustain you through the graft of rehearsal and all that goes with it?

A) To a certain extent. But when you go out to do a long show your mind is so together it isn’t thinking that this could be the great night. All of these things are very similar. It’s like going out to play a tennis match. They don’t go out thinking this is going to be the one, they ease into it and get everything under control and then from there on it could be the greatest match they’ve ever played or they could get knocked out.

Q) Anything more you’d like to add?

A) No, not that I can think of now.

Kevin Johnson, Thank you very much.