An Interview with Boston’s David Johnston

On top of an archive of unrecorded songs, many collaborations and projects (not to mention his exclusive performances which cut through the drone of street buskers tormenting Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles covers in the hasty streets of Harvard Sq) Carnival of the Soul is New England songwriter/guitarist, David Johnston’s second release.

This rustic and resonate collection of songs features John Sands (Aimee Mann, Liz Phair) on drums, and Marty Ballou (Peter Wolf) on upright bass. Saturated with raw production and performance, spirited lyrics and arrangements, there’s no question that Johnston is a minimalist, leaving space for his graceful and lush guitar picking and breathy tone on such songs like “Honolulu” and “Smell the Coffee”. One of the finest moments can be found on the song, “She Looks like a Christmas Tree”, a deconstructed little pop song, which is reminiscent of something off Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll album.

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The dynamic of this trio certainly compliments each other giving forth to an intimate, low down, atmospheric collection of spirited songs. Whether inspired by folk, blues, sex, drugs, death or rock and roll, Johnston’s conversational tone and his practice of restraint, always implies that his music is 100% flesh and blood and well thought out.  I spoke with David about his new album.

How did you guys approach recording this album? It’s got an intimate sound; very rustic.

We didn’t do a lot of rehearsing. Rehearsing was minimal. The whole feeling of the recording to me is very spontaneous and intimate. For that reason, it wasn’t overworked. We recorded about 19 songs and ended up using about 15.

It’s been ten years since your last album, has recording your music not been much of an interest to you?

I think it’s me being more of a procrastinator. You know, I didn’t plan on waiting that long. Time just flies by you. Being a musician, I’m not very well organized.

How did you all decide to get together and make this album?

I had the residency over at old Tir Na Nog (Somerville, MA) for years, it wasn’t always the same line up as the record. I decided I was going to do an acoustic set with an upright bass. Marty (Ballou) is such a great bass player, who plays with Peter Wolf of course, and played on the last three John Hammond Jr. records. He’s just a monster. He expressed interest playing with me, which is very flattering and John (Sands) who played drums with Aimee Mann for twenty years, and one of my best friends, have been playing together for about 20 years. He’s got something special in his approach; very unique. What he’s playing on the record is almost like a dialogue; a conversation going on.  I think this record is very different from my last record and it’s also a lot different from what we may do live. When I have Chris on electric guitar it takes on a different thing when you have a lead guitar player.

Any particular track on Carnival that stands out for you?

I like the whole record. I think they are all great songs. There is the one song, ‘I Don’t Want to Know‘ , the song that Peter Wolf recorded. We do it quite a bit different than his version. I was really proud of the fact that he recorded one of my songs and played it on the David Letterman show. It became the second single from his Midnight Souvenirs album, which for me is something that you’d dream about. Peter is someone I really admire. You know, he’s kind of a legend. He was on Rolling Stone #140.

What was your personal music direction with recording this album?

I think it’s a little more introspective. It’s dedicated to my father who passed away right before we started working at it. That was maybe part of the idea, consciously or subconsciously. The idea of doing a stripped down record that is maybe a little more sensitive than the last one. I think even though it’s mostly acoustic, it doesn’t sound like your typical acoustic album, because some of those songs are rocking for a three-piece acoustic band. I got the National guitar a few years before we started working on the record, so we ended up using that on everything. That brings a certain sound and a certain vibe, having the sound of the National with the upright bass.

You said it was all-acoustic. But, based on the sound of the National on certain tracks, were you using pickups at all?

I have a pickup on mine, but I didn’t use it for the recording, everything on the record was recorded using microphones. No amps.

Your music, be it live or on recording has always had an unpolished sound to it.

I don’t like things that are real polished. So much of today’s music is overly polished. In the studio, you can fix everything. The music I’ve always loved, classical recordings, have always had a roughness about them. Some of the greatest recordings. I give a lot of credit to Chris Rival who recorded Carnival. He plays guitar in my band but he didn’t even play on the record. He’s a big part of the sound. He kind of helped me to let go of some of that stuff. As an artist you tend to always want to fix things. But he says ‘sometimes the rough edges are the parts you really like’. His role in the studio is pretty laid back. It’s like he’s producing by not producing almost, you know? He knows how to get the best performance out of you by having everyone to be relaxed. The studio can be stressful as soon as the record button goes. People tend to freak out and get nervous. We’d be in the studio warming up and he’d tell us to practice the tunes through, and he’d be recording it. It’s hard for me to trust people musically, but I trust him because I have a lot of respect for him. We’re all really good friends, Marty, Chris, John and I, and people who I also admire, musically. They’re not just musicians, they’re my friends.

photo by Michael D. Spencer

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