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Jesse W. Johnson: Salving Sadness With A Song

Jesse W. Johnson
Kelli Morrison
Jesse W. Johnson

Listening to Jesse W. Johnson's latest album certainly begs a comparison to Bob Mould's Husker Du and Sugar incarnations of the 1980s and 90s. But a hint of the early to mid 70s sounds of Love, Fleetwood Mac, and John Stewart can also be discerned. 

"That's what I grew up listening to ... 70s stuff," said Johnson from his hometown of Springfield. "I love that kind of music. I love the tones, the sounds, and the recording techniques around that time. I feel like that's the golden age of vinyl and recordings."

Johnson's music is extremely melodic and often upbeat. It's a counter to much of his lyrical content.

"I remember when I was younger," chuckled Johnson. "People used to ask why the lyrics were darker. I don't really know, I guess it's the way things come out for me. When I write, I don't have something I try to write about. If I do that, I never end up liking it. So usually when I write, I just let stuff come out."

He said songwriting is therapeutic. Perhaps the music acts as a counterweight?

"It helps me smile on my day to day," said Johnson. "But I definitely agree having the music be a little more uplifting and brighter is super important to me because I think the marriage of that darker theme but brighter sound ... I personally like that sound. I don't want music to be a total drag. It's got to be a little bit catchy."

Johnson conceded the lyrical content on his new album "American Dumpster" is often autobiographical. "Kid in the Castle" hints at anxious youthful times.

"I'm a pen with no ink/"A car with no gas ..../I'm a trembling child scared half of their life."

"That's definitely me," said Johnson. "At first I wasn't even sure I wanted to record or release that song, because it's really getting down to anxiety and stuff I have. It's not super bad, but it's definitely there and a presence in my life."

"Stand To Smile" is the standout track on the 10-song album that's solid from beginning to end. It's catchy pop-rock that should be in heavy rotation on Chicago's legendary WXRT. But again, the upbeat music is balanced by darker lyrics.

"And you will think of me/As someone make believe/And I will be there"

He said he loves the happy/sad dichotomy.

"If you listen to the words, the lyric says 'I will be there.' It's kind of like a ghost that used to be in your life, and still hanging around. That's a little creepy that it's someone that you used to be in your life, and you can't shake them," said Johnson.

As fine a vocalist and guitarist as Johnson is, he's self-conscious about singing when not playing, and vice versa, saying he "sucks" if he can't play and sing simultaneously. He said for him, it's a "rhythm thing," in that one gets thrown off rhythm without the other.

"I also think when I'm just playing guitar and not singing, I'm concentrating too hard on playing guitar and I'm worried about messing up ... and that's when I'll mess up," laughed Johnson.

Jesse W. Johnson will sing and play guitar (simultaneously) with his band July 21 at the Cowboy Monkey in Champaign, then at the Butternut Hut in Springfield on July 22. He'll return to central Illinois to play the Rail II in Peoria on July 29.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.