Speedy Johnson is a Montreal-based surrealist minstrel who’s long divided his creative energies between the meaningful and the absurd. After having contributed his talents to the performing stage with friends for years (notably the band Ol’ Savannah), this month he released his astoundingly marvelous debut solo album, Before It’s Dark (read the Voice review here). He recently took the time to talk to us about French literature, Montreal as co-writer, and artistic goals (one of which may involve deranging of the senses).
What role did music play in your childhood?
Beatles’ records dominated my early childhood. I used to play a snare drum?an upturned cylindrical metal trash can, and would kick the snare case while my younger brother played electric guitar and sang songs that he wrote. We were probably nine and seven years old at the time. I never became a good drummer, but we knew how to rock n’ roll.
What or who in your musical training had the most?and best? influence on you, as a musician, a composer, and a human being?
I guess I’d thank Don Henley most of all. He cancelled a show back in the fall of ’99 at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, not too far from where I grew up. Bob Dylan and his band picked up the date fairly last minute, and I ended up going. I remember hearing “Masters of War” during that set and being blown away.
What was the most mesmerizing musical experience of your life?
Performing or performance unto itself is undeniably the driving force to creation. I write and record in order to perform. The connection that exists between the performer(s) and the audience is indelible. Can’t say there would be one specific experience that beats out the rest, but I can always seem to go back to and recall some pretty great moments, or hear certain songs the way they were played on a given night.
What’s the meaning of those strange sounds you make in “Ua Mau (Pussy Cat)?”
Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono is the motto of Hawaii. It translates to “The life of the land is maintained by righteousness.” Wrote that tune right after Obama won his first presidential election, and a few months after I arrived in Montreal.
What life conditions do you require in order to go on being creative?
Food, money, wine, whiskey, friends, at least one string.
Is Montreal an inspiring city for you?
Montreal can be considered a co-writer to almost all of the songs on this album. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world I could have moved to when I did and found that I could create as much as I have over these past 10 years without going hungry.
What do you feed your muse? Are there any books, films, or albums that have deeply influenced your development as an artist?
François Rabelais is in “A Ship Full of Demons.” Arthur Rimbaud can be found in “Assez eu.” I spent a lot of time reading French writers in university?not always the ones for classes. The list of artists that have inspired me could go on and on.
If you had an artistic mission statement, what would it be?
I feel like the goal of the artist should be to threaten the establishment and question the status quo, all the while projecting love upon the world. Other times I feel like the goal is to derange one’s senses enough to somehow glimpse the unknown, never quite being capable of expressing it, but having seen it to at least be better off.
What will you be doing after the album’s release?
Touring around Quebec. One show in Ottawa. I also have a recording date set up for some new Ol’ Savannah songs at the end of April. Then, I’m heading down to Georgia for a month to see an old friend and drummer who I’ll be getting up to speed for an Ol’ Savannah European tour (Oct/Nov 2017). I mainly plan on playing a bunch of country blues while down South.
Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.