Much like fellow Chicagoans Ryley Walker and Moon Bros., Johnny Young uses his guitar create a a serene space that’s shielded from the chaos of the bustling metropolis around him. His American fingerstyle is timeless; something that could jangle from moonshine porches in Kentucky, frolic from Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin, or greet tired hikers in any number of small towns along the Pacific Crest Trail. Some songs conjure images of the railroads being built, or of floating on a barge down the Bayou. Others unfold as pastoral meditations that are as limitless as they are jubilant.
That range of experiences is all packed into Young’s brilliant six-song cassette Johnny Young – II, which was released by Portland’s Voyager Golden Records this last August. We had a chance to check in with Young and bandmate Hanna Brock on the road, as they make their way south to Texas, west to California, and then north to Washington. Damn, that sounds like a nice trip.
This will be an introduction to your music for a lot of our readers. Can you tell me a little about where you come from, and how you wound up playing fingerstyle when all the cool kids are starting garage bands?
JY: I grew up in Chicago and I started playing electric guitar in 1990. i remember seeing Elliott Smith and his playing really blew me away. He used his own tunings. From there I experimented for years with the acoustic. Since starting a band it’s evolved past fingerstyle and into something more exotic.
This summer you released Johnny Young – II on Voyager Golden Records. How long did you work on the release, and who (if anyone) played on it with you? Is there a Johnny Young – I?
JY: “I” was released on Teen-River in Chicago about 4 years ago with Jake Acosta . It has alot of 12 string. I played very fast at that time in my life. The second album was recorded a few years ago and at the time I had jumped around different studios but finally finished at Dominique D’Amico’s home studio. Andrew Scott Young plays mandolin on the new album- his picking is almost as good as his bass playing.
The tracks on II don’t necessarily sound like they were conceived in Chicago. Where are you mentally/emotionally when writing and recording, and where are you physically?
JY: Alot of the material I play now was written in Michigan. Physically/emotionally/
You’re currently on the road with a full band behind you. Who are you playing with, how’s the tour been so far?
JY: I am traveling with James Lechocki (Hanging Gardens) and Hanna Brock. At home the band also includes Doug Malone on lapsteel and Benjamin Pera on Wurlitzer. Tour has been great and gas is cheaper then ever right now!
Hanna, how did you and Johnny start working together?
HB: I’d been studying folk music and jazz for a couple years, sitting in at open mics around Chicago. By chance I saw Johnny perform, he did a cover of “St. Louis Blues,” which I’ve always loved and was working on at the time. I asked him if he’d like to try playing together and that was that.
JY: Unbeknownst at the time I had actually seen Hanna play a week before with Circuit des Yeux.
Who are some of your musical heroes?
HB: My list includes Fiona Apple, Meshell Ndegeocello, Matana Roberts, Erykah Badu, Grace Jones, Kathleen Hanna, Bach, Django Reinhardt, and Alice Coltrane.
When you’re not playing with Johnny and his band, what projects are you involved in?
HB: I do a lot of work with performance artists, composing accompaniment with viola and electronics.
What’s the most exciting part about being on the road?
HB: Seeing all these cities in one big swoop! There’s more variety in urban planning than I’d realized.
How about the worst?
HB: America is really big! That’s a lot of driving.
Got a favorite city to play in? Excluding home, of course.
JY: New Orleans has been quite kind to me.
Beyond a live show, where do you imagine people listening to your music? Is there a setting or activity you think it ideal for, or does anything go?
JY: I’m not sure really. I’ve been told it’s great for long drives.
What’s on tap for the band when you return home?
JY: We return to Chicago and play The Hideout on January 6th and WHPK radio on January 8th.
‘Johnny Young – II’ is available on cassette and digital download via Voyager Golden Records. Johnny Young and his band are currently on tour. Dates below:
12.12 Los Angeles, CA – The Beachwood Canyon Theosophical Society’s Besant Lodge w/ Meg Baird and Emmett Kelly (Cairo Gang) Tickets
12.14 San Francisco, CA – The Hemlock w/ Meg Baird
12.17 Arcata, CA – The Sanctuary
12.19 Portland, OR – Mothership Music
12.20 Seattle, WA – The Lo-FI Gallery
1.6 Chicago, IL – The Hideout w/ Angela James and Lanzón