Nicole Brice & Chris Pryor
May 30, 2023
Nicholas Johnson’s music is soulful and nostalgic
Americana, what is it exactly? A sound? A feeling? A moment? For singer/songwriter Nicholas Johnson, based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, it is a masterfully crafted album that showcases his songwriting and vocal talents. Released March 3, 2023, Johnson’s “Shady Pines Vol. 2” picks up where “Shady Pines Vol. 1” left off with country-tinged folk songs that tell stories of love, loss, and redemption.
On “Shady Pines Vol. 2,” Nicholas Johnson’s songwriting is more mature and nuanced than ever before. The lyrics are poetic and introspective, painting vivid pictures of the characters and settings in the songs. His vocals are powerful and expressive, and he delivers the songs with a sense of conviction and emotion.
Johnson always had the goal in mind to craft a recording that matched the intensity of his live shows, and the result is a brand of rock that manages to sound familiar and original with hints of nostalgia thrown in. Mixed with great modern production, thanks to superstar Dayton producer Patrick Himes, this album is sure to resonate for years to come.
Feeling as if you're on a steam locomotive shredding across the wild west with the eerie style harmonies of "On the Avenue" is an exhilarating experience, and the lyrics fall right in place with the backdrop that the arrangement paints. One might even say his music could fit in perfectly with the show Yellowstone, and the ghostly sound of the guitar solo in “Dark And Bloody Ground” is killer and a masterpiece. It’s one of our favorite tracks on the album.
With seven songs coming in at a little under 30 minutes of listening, the tunes evoke a sound reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen if he teamed up with Toad the Wet Sprocket—pure, enjoyable American rock.
Nicholas Johnson is extremely talented, and why we are not hearing his music on radio stations across the nation is beyond me. There is an audience for him anywhere and everywhere. “Shady Pines Vol. 2” is a must-listen for fans of country music, folk music, and singer-songwriters. This album will stay with you long after you have listened to it.
We reached out to Nicholas so we could learn more about him and his craft, so be sure to check out his music after you finish reading this interview. We guarantee you’ll love it as much as we do.
MaM: Nicholas, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. Your music is so soulful and full of nostalgia. How did you get linked up with Patrick Himes to do both albums?
NJ: Well, it was a weird set of circumstances and very serendipitous. I got kicked out of Italy, which was crazy because it was on my birthday. It was the weirdest thing ever. Honestly, there were little moments leading up to it, but I think the Italian motto should be like, ‘It’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok,’ but it’s not ok. It’s never ok. I had sold my house, car, everything, and so when I got kicked out of Italy, I was couch-surfing between Louisville, Kentucky, and friends in Dayton, Ohio.
When I was in Dayton, I was around fellow musicians and was showing them this group of songs, and they’re like ‘Dude, you gotta record these.’ I’d had some bad experiences in the studio, and so I was apprehensive about going back in, but then I found out that the producer who had worked on one of my favorite albums actually had a studio in Dayton and through a series of very fortunate circumstances, I was able to work with him, but we only had two or three days to knock out all of the songs. It was really quick and [was] an awesome experience. It made me fall in love with the studio all over again just by working with him.
MaM: Wow, that is incredible.
NJ: Yeah, it was, it was so quick and that was part one. I ended up telling him that I had such a great experience that I wanted to come back and record more. That’s why I labeled the first [album] Volume 1 just to have an excuse to come back.
MaM: That was smart thinking. As far as the recording process, how do you approach going into the studio? Do you do anything to prepare first?
NJ: Well, I think with Patrick, we have learned how to work with each other and honestly, every time I go to the studio now, I feel it’s an evolutionary step because I went from being super green to a little apprehensive, and then when I went back for this new album, I had formulated this plan. I knew exactly who to use for drums and who else to work with. I definitely had a bit more of a plan going into Volume 2.
MaM: Tell us a little more about your backing band, The Same Old Strangers.
NJ: Yeah, I call it the ‘same old strangers’ because I never know who is going to be in it.
MaM: That’s awesome. Not just a clever name!
NJ: It’s the curse of knowing all these super-talented people, but they’re always busy. I’m used to doing things solo, but I’m also glad I get to have these guys on the road to do something, and it feels like every time I am on the road, it’s a different experience and a different group of people. The cool part of that is I get to hear my songs played in different ways because I give the musicians free reign on how they play the songs. I want to hear their personality come through on the instruments. Whether it changes the tone and makes the songs appear more bluegrass, punk, or funk, then so be it. When I was in Italy, I had a traditional Irish folk violinist in the band and a punk drummer, so it’s crazy. We sounded like Flogging Molly for a minute. It had this whole Guinness rock-type feel.
MaM: I see you are currently residing in Ohio. What brought you to Ohio from Kentucky?
NJ: After college, I worked two jobs. One was working the night shift at a mammoth cave hotel there in Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. I was sleeping behind the desk, and then I’d wake up in the morning and I would go to an Australian-themed animal park called Kentucky Down Under where I worked with kangaroos and wallabies. I was working 16 hours a day and not really making much money, so my buddy, who worked in pipeline construction, said he would help me. I had this English degree I wasn’t using from Western Kentucky, so he asked me to come and be his helper. He was a welder. He then took me on the road and so I was able to quit my other two jobs. I ended up going from New Mexico to Wyoming and eventually wound up in Indianapolis and Champagne, Illinois. I would work from six in the morning till four or five in the afternoon and then play in the bars until two in the morning.
MaM: That is pure insanity! (laughs) So, I read you started off as a drummer in your high school pep band but now, of course, you play guitar. How was the transition going from percussion to guitar?
NJ: Oh, man … I just beat the hell out of it! (laughs) I’ve broken a lot of strings and I’ve really had to learn over time that it’s not a percussion instrument.
MaM: Right. You gotta treat it gently, man!
NJ: Right, but I’m a hard learner. The percussive element is there, and the rhythmic element is there, but I’m learning how to craft it into a different kind of sound where you’re doing the picking and hammer on/off and all that stuff.
MaM: Do you have a favorite guitar to play as far as sound?
NJ: Yeah, it’s just a matter of affording them. I’ve had a Takamine Santa Fe since 2001, so it’s been my workhorse. It’s been everywhere with me and is kind of my safety blanket. I love the way it sounds and know every inch of it. I know how it’s going to react to certain things, and it travels well. Even when I try to switch to a different guitar, I always gravitate back towards it.
MaM: You just came off tour in March. What were the crowds like? Were they receptive to your new material?
NJ: Oh absolutely! I was pleasantly surprised since this was the first big tour I’ve done. I did a little East Coast thing last year, but this one was over 20-something straight days. I was on tour with The Pinkerton Raid, so some folks are familiar with them, and some were familiar with me depending on where we were. I think the Midwest is where we’ve planted our flag now and it was great. Hopefully we’ll go back there.
MaM: Do you have any plans to tour more this year?
NJ: Actually, I’m going on an East Coast tour in August. [I’m] headed up to Columbus, Pittsburgh, New York, Boston, and New England and all that. A big chunk of August will be that. In September, I have Americana Fest in Nashville, and in October, I’m going to go back overseas for the first time since COVID. I’ll be doing Ireland, UK, and Italy.
MaM: Right on! I want to ask you about your vocal influences. I love your style. Who do you cite as influencing you vocally? I hear hints of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Toad the Wet Sprocket, among others.
NJ: Well, Springsteen and Petty are at the top of my list. Petty, for sure, he’s kind of my musical hero. When you’re growing up in Kentucky and going over the hills and the curves there in the backwoods, that’s who you have blaring with the windows down, and it’s such an honor to hear someone say [his name] in relation to my music.
Toad the Wet Sprocket, too. They’re a representation of that alternative movement and my favorite from that movement is Oasis, but Adam Duritz is a big influence of mine, too; I don’t know about vocally but, for sure, lyrically. The way he’s able to paint a picture with every lyric … [there’s just] not a wasted word. Not one.
MaM: All of your songs tell a story. What inspires your lyrics and what goes into the songwriting process?
NJ: Well, you know sometimes, you’re just drunk and stumbling, and I’m a visual person. I’m not able to paint, so I use my words. Take, for example, [the lyrics] on ‘Lost and Found,’: ‘green glass on the sidewalk, shimmers like stars.’ … I was drunk in Milan at 2 a.m. and I saw this green bottle. And from one image to the next, some of it is observational and some of it you pepper in yourself and [add] your own experiences. Sometimes, it just starts with being drunk and seeing an image, and sometimes it’s just hanging out and watching a situation. I’m a barfly—a pub guy—and sometimes you just hang out there and see certain situations play out and that becomes a story. I don’t like to be completely blatant and biographical.
MaM: One of my favorite song titles on your new album is “Binghamton, Ny Is a Portal to Hell.” (laughter) Can I get a backstory on that one?
NJ: (laughs) I’ve got family up there. They have the second most gray days besides Seattle, and you wake up and the morning looks like 4 p.m. (laughs) Time gets lost up there. It’s funny, too; Rod Sterling from The Twilight Zone, he’s from there, and I feel like things are just weird there. We had a series of unfortunate things happen there, like family’s health, and our dogs passed away when we were up there one time, too, so there’s just this series of unfortunate events and things. It just became this thing where Rod Sterling knew what he was talking about. This is definitely the twilight zone.
Honestly, I may have upset some people with that title. (laughs) It wasn’t intentional, and it all started as a joke. It was a punk song at first. Patrick was like, ‘That works, man; [just] slow it down,’ and it happened. It almost didn’t get recorded because it did start as a joke.
MaM: Nice. Okay, last questions: What are your future aspirations? Where do you see yourself headed?
NJ: Well, I’m all in. This is what I want to do. It’s been a long and winding road to figure out that this is what I should be doing. I just want to keep producing, getting better, and writing good songs. It would be fun to do a project where I didn’t have my name on it. Maybe a little side project. I would love to tour with a bigger act or cool band. I’ve always wanted to open for Wilco or something like that. I’m going to keep plugging away and see what we can produce and hopefully keep doing albums with Patrick.
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