You may have seen Russell Jamie Johnson working as an archer, knife thrower and stunt double if you’ve watched Aquaman, Robin Hood (2018) or the TV series Elementary, Sneaky Pete or Orange is the New Black. But those roles just pay the bills.
Growing up in the Midwest, Johnson learned archery almost before he could walk, thanks to his father who started an archery business, hand-crafting bows and arrows, after leaving the Navy. But when his dad died in a plane crash while Johnson was still in his teens, the die was cast for him to—eventually—pursue a career in music.
Johnson, 27, who played in bands while at school but never expected music to be a career, is now working toward his first full-length record. To that end, he’s been dropping the occasional track, most recently releasing “Tenth and Canal.” It follows close on the heels of “Put Me Out,” about a relationship Johnson had while living in Boston, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in songwriting from Berklee College of Music.
Via Zoom from his home in Brooklyn, Johnson talks about his career and recording at local studio Conveyor, owned by fellow Berklee alum Andrew Sheron.
On the Path to a Music Career:
Within a year after my dad died, I was in military boarding school. Two years later, I went to Berklee. If my dad hadn’t died, I never would have gone to Culver [Military Academy]; I never would have met my music teacher, who never would have suggested Berklee College of Music; and I wouldn’t be a songwriter now. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with music. I wrote my first song after he died, and I just kept doing it. When I think about it now, it’s a powerful image in my head, that you’re the sum of every moment in your life.
My sister is a classical pianist. My mother was an old hippie that joined the Navy; I was hearing James Taylor from her. My dad loved big band. And my brother was a songwriter for a while. So I was exposed to a lot of different things. When I was 16, I wanted to be the Beatles; when I was 18, I wanted to be the Stones. But then I started getting into lyrical writers. I had the background of listening to Bob Dylan—who’s a better lyric writer than him? The stories behind the songs were what really got me. One of the albums that really inspired me was Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker. Gillian Welch is a hell of a songwriter and I also got heavily into Jason Isbell; I love his lyrics—and he’s a hell of a guitar player.
On the Path to a Full-Length:
I’m working with my violinist, Chase Potter, and I met a British duo, the Ruen Brothers [Harry and Rupert Stansall]. They moved to Brooklyn; their first record was produced by Rick Rubin. Rupert heard one of my tracks and said, “I’d love to help you out.” When I write songs I’m more lyric-based, but Rupert has these amazing ideas. Like on “Put Me Out,” which has a very Americana vibe; it has a mellotron in the background, which I never would have thought to use.
“Tenth and Canal” started as an acoustic track, very much in the Heartbreaker vein. A friend of mine spotted a 1967 Princeton Reverb; I bought it and was so excited to use the thing. I said, “Why don’t we play it faster and make it into a rock song?” I plugged straight into the Princeton with my Strat; no pedals, just cranked the reverb and cranked the volume to get that crunch, and that was it.
I’m very blessed to know really great players. Danae [Greenfield] plays keys; she just played on John Legend’s album. The slide part is my favorite part. That’s my friend Charlie Kendall; he plays all the lead parts on my songs and gets such a great tone.
I would have loved to get a full band together and record an album in a few days in a studio; that’s the way I’m used to doing things. But with the pandemic, it became a little slower than I hoped.
Russell Jamie Johnson • www.russelljamiejohnson.com