Speedy Johnson is a Montreal-based 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 April he released his astoundingly marvelous debut solo album, Before It’s Dark.
A Musical Labyrinth of Surrealist Jollies
Much as I hate to make comparisons, there’s a musical tradition, harking back to the sixties at least, of which Speedy Johnson’s music forms a welcome component. It’s kind of like listening to drunk people when they start making up their own songs, with just as much potential for flashes of insight.
The task is to make such songs intelligent while hanging on to that essential raw quality. In the murk of the mumbling and meandering singing style and the wealth of original musical ideas a rare beauty arises, illuminating the transcendent subject matter. We’ve heard this with The Incredible String Band, Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, and, more recently, Ronley Teper.
Does it have a name as a genre? I haven’t heard of one yet so I’m going to have to make one up: “Oracle Haus.” My humblest apologies to all implicated. I don’t feel quite so guilty for naming the genre when I see Speedy’s music described on a website as “Pirate Folk,” which also seems apt.
Before It’s Dark is a musical maze with something new around every corner and the lurking danger that the Minotaur might appear at any moment. The lyrics are almost entirely surrealist, but ours seems to be a time for surrealism.
That’s a good thing for mindful bards, because the creative muse thrives on regular doses of surrealism, whose absurd juxtapositions of ideas and things stimulates all the nerves at the inspiration centre of the brain (not scientific but I’ll say it anyway), and the bonus is that much of it is incredibly funny. A case in point from “Ua Mau (Pussy Cat):”
I saw a cow’s brain lying in the snow
It was smoking a joint and told me which way to go
So I went up north . . .
The contextual clues are mystical and metaphysical, pointing to a world not perceived by the five senses. If William Blake were alive today, and an indie musician, his Marriage of Heaven and Hell would probably have sounded a lot like this.
And if he ever took the stage he’d probably behave a lot like Speedy Johnson, no stranger to theatrics (watch him here with Ol’ Savannah).
Some of the high points of Before It’s Dark:
“I Don’t Ever Need So Much,” rife with rockabilly guitar and funk brass:
Just cast a little light on me;
We hope that might just bring some smiles and make us all worry free.
It’s just the kind of song you could sing with your friends on a road trip. Like “The Bohemian Rhapsody,” the bridges bear almost no musical connection to the verses that precede them, which just adds to the fun.
“A Ship Full of Demons” is a waltz number about a ship of demons coming to wage war on the human race. Prog rock guitar frames the demons’ droll chorus: “God makes you cry and the devil makes you laugh. So we must laugh!”
There are a couple of mock country tunes, “An Everlasting Youth” (musings on the meaning of life) and “Eternal Bliss,” which, like a Jonathan Coulton song, is sweet on the outside but disturbing on closer inspection.
“The Day Man Dies” is reminiscent of Latin American protest songs, complete with minor key and heavy acoustic guitar strumming.
“Deep in the Mire” is the most coherent song in the whole set. A song of love lost, it uses mud as a metaphor for a lost richness.
Before It’s Dark manifests four of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen:
It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
It provides respite from a sick and cruel world.
It makes me want to be a better artist.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.
Speedy 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 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.