A Soundtrack for Life: An interview with Jeff Johnson

A Soundtrack for Life: An interview with Jeff Johnson January 14, 2013


Jeff Johnson‘s Musical High Calling
I stood with Jeff Johnson overlooking the Frio River in the Texas Hill Country and his eyes danced with wonder. Like an artist who breathes in a subject before touching a brush, or a writer brimming with words but has no paper, Johnson’s music is a reflection of a world that resonates God’s splendor.


For him, Laity Lodge is more than just a pretty postcard. It’s an inspirational backdrop for some of his most innovative work that now spans 35 years and 50 albums.


 “There’s something about the creativity of this place. It’s an amazing experience,” he told me. He credits Laity Lodge for serving as inspiration for much of his recent work. “I set up my laptop and my keyboard here and I just write.”


Frio Suite and Watersky are two recent collaborations with legendary guitarist Phil Keaggy, who has an equal affinity with Laity Lodge. The albums are filled with rich imagery and themes inspired by the storied location.


You’ll find also songs inspired by the Frio River and Laity Lodge on Johnson’s Antiphon album. And Journey Prayers was actually recorded in the Cody Center.


 “I don’t know what it is, but originality is so natural here,” he said. “This place has songs floating in the air and I simply have to reach up and grab them”


A special destination

Jeff Johnson has traveled the world, listening to the music that moved the saints. He’s sat in historic cathedrals finding inspiration in the musty air of the Ancients. He’s dined in Billy Graham’s home, playing songs for Ruth while she smiled and nodded in admiration. He has sung with the traditional Celtic troupes and surrounded himself with some of the world’s best musicians. But there’s something about Laity Lodge that is giving this veteran artist a new spark.


“I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places in the world, making my own Christian pilgrimage. But this place is different. This is become a special destination for me.”


It was six years ago that long-time friend and Laity Lodge Executive Director Jeff Purcell invited Johnson to bring his Celtic trio to Laity to lead music for a retreat.


“I admit, I had a stereotypical view of Texas,” he admits. “But I was completely blown away by the beauty of the Frio Canyon. And the people are amazing.”


Since then, he has entered the limestone river gate more than 20 times.


Although his career started with tones of pop progressive rock, his music has taken on a more serious note since. Sample any of his 50 albums that he has recorded and sold through Ark Records and you’ll hear hints of hints of Irish folk, modern pop, jazz, mystical world music and historical Christmas tunes. He’s recorded concept albums based on Stephen Lawhead books, ancient prayers, and iconic figures. All of this variety isn’t just to be clever; rather it’s a celebration of the many nuances that good music can absorb.


Johnson’s current music is best described as contemplative, but he draws upon rich traditions of the church – chants, bells, and simple melodies from ancient peoples — all deftly splayed on a palette that crosses denominations, traditions, musical styles and ages.


“It’s sacred music. I hope to create a place for people to experience God.”


A soundtrack for life

You’ve may have heard his work before and never realized it, as he has contributed to a variety of commercial and film work, including an original tune on the movie Gangs of New York. He was distributed by both Sparrow and Windham Hill.


Johnson recorded an album of original music for Mercedes Benz, titled “Rhythms for the Road.” The company included a CD with every new car sold. He was contacted by a car owner who totaled her Mercedes, with Johnson’s CD stuck in the player.


“She was more upset about losing her CD than losing her car.” Johnson sent her another copy.

Jeff Johnson’s music can take on a reflective tone. If you listen to it, you begin to hear your own thoughts and perhaps, God’s thoughts as well. For me, I turn it on when I have to drive long distances and it’s especially moving in the rain or driving through the mountains.


“I hear from people who say that they play my music on their commute to work. It puts them at ease and it’s their time with God,” he says.


The music Johnson plays is worshipful, but it’s also preparation for the hard tasks of life.


“I’ve had people tell me that they use my music to go to sleep,” he laughs. “But that’s a good place. It calms them. For me, hearing the wind blow through the trees calms me. It’s all about being aware of the sounds of life. It’s about wonder.”


A woven theme through the last 35 years of music for Jeff has been wonder. You see it in his titles, you hear it in his lyrics, and you sense it when he talks.


“Music takes us places.  But those places aren’t always specific,” he said. “Wonder and inspiration aren’t always easy to define, but we know when we are there.’


Laity for the rest of us

What if you aren’t a creative?  You don’t write, sing, paint or sculpt; can you still be inspired?


“It’s an impoverished life if you aren’t experiencing creativity,”Johnson said. “It’s good to have unstructured time to be with God. You realize that life is more than work, more than even learning.”


For me, it’s about experiencing creativity, even if I’m not the one producing it.  To listen to a song, to admire a painting, to gasp in awe at the carved limestone cliffs all can give me an admiration for something – Someone else.

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