Over the years, I have occasionally strayed into speculating on what success looks like in the WA music industry. When I’ve strayed into suggesting that success is in any way connected with filthy lucre, I’ve been called out for it, possibly quite rightly. The aversion that some players in the local industry have to connecting their art to money is, however, interesting to say the least. From my perspective, the protestation that art is for art’s sake when you’re looking to get paid for what you do is an admission of failure. But, when I met local musician, sound engineer and educator, Dave Johnson, to talk to him about anything but his latest album, Inequality Boulevard, I had to reflect on my ideas about success.
An acoustic instrument, the mandolin is a staple of traditional, folk and bluegrass music. It has its origins in Europe in the 1600s and is equally at home as part of an ensemble as well as taking the lead. Johnson wasn’t quite born in the 1600s, but the rest suggests a match that was simply meant to be…
Johnson is ubiquitous in the WA music scene, particularly in Waylyup/Fremantle, where he’s based and seems to do most of his work. I’ve most often seen him behind the mixing desk at Clancy’s, a calm, capable and amenable presence amongst the hubris of performing live, his long grey curls lending him old-school gravitas. But don’t take your eyes off him or the stage for too long because you’re just as likely to look up next and see him playing the mandolin with whoever he was mixing just seconds before. They who coined the idiom, Jack of all trades, master of none, obviously didn’t have Johnson in mind. And, of course, unlike the stereotype of the curmudgeonly old soundman, or the FIGJAM musician, Johnson is eminently likeable, humble, funny, complex and softly spoken.
Johnson is a musicians’ musician. If you rummage through his list of contacts on social media you’ll see that he has connections with just about every notable Australian musician from the last 20 or so years. Dig a little bit deeper into his digital rubbish bins and you’ll find all sorts of musical heavyweights lauding Johnson for his abilities and his status as an all-round good human being. Try to unwrap Johnson and each successive layer will tell the same story, like a stick of rock, until you get to his heart.
The youngest of five sisters and three brothers, Johnson grew up in a family where the female influence was strong. When I tried to pick away at his drive to contribute to achieving social justice and his quiet philanthropy, Johnson attributed this to his sisters’ influence saying, “Growing up in a home full of women helped me see the world in a different way. They opened my eyes to the injustice in the world and it just seemed natural to do whatever I could about it.”
Doing what he can about it currently includes Johnson sharing his love of music with people at St Patrick’s Community Support Centre and Banksia Hill Detention Centre. “Teaching people how to make music transforms them,” Johnson said. “Sometimes people have difficult times in their lives. If music helps get them through that and gives them something good, I’m happy to be part of giving them that.”
When I pushed him about why he really does it, Johnson said, “Well, I get paid. Sometimes.”
It was the ‘sometimes’ that gave Johnson away. Giving his musical heart to other people whose need may be greater than his is part of this musician’s success. He’d do it if he got paid or not.
There’s a lot about what Johnson didn’t say to me when we spoke that also gives some clues as to who he is and why he would spend years of his life giving away his talents. “I’ve always had a need to travel,” Johnson told me. “I grew up in Geelong and, one day, I was pretty young, I just up and left. I’ve been on the road ever since, learning and playing music. I’ve travelled around Australia, Europe and now I’m here in Fremantle and I’ve been here for a while, but I still feel like I’m on the road.”
Johnson didn’t elaborate too much on his years on the road, let’s just say he’s pretty much seen it all over the years. His success as a person and as a musician in such a restless life is a testament to his inner heart. Peripatetics are either running away or they’re spreading the word, often both. What those prone to constant movement often overlook is that they’re carrying with them the one thing they’re trying to escape, themselves. Johnson, however, is one of the few who moves so that he can take himself on the journey. Along the way, he picked up the mandolin, an instrumental predilection of which he said, “I don’t know, it was just attractive to me. I picked one up and fell in love with it.”
The mandolin is an appropriate choice of primary instrument for Johnson, although he is, of course, a multi-instrumentalist. An acoustic instrument, the mandolin is a staple of traditional, folk and bluegrass music. It has its origins in Europe in the 1600s and is equally at home as part of an ensemble as well as taking the lead. Johnson wasn’t quite born in the 1600s, but the rest suggests a match that was simply meant to be, the Universe arranging things while the rest of us were studiously looking in the other direction. Sometimes meaning is as simple as finding your true affinity and, in the Mandolin, Johnson has certainly found his. This is another layer of Johnson’s success as a musician and, I daresay, as a human being.
Johnson gets by from making music, teaching and helping others make music. Before we met he said he could give me plenty on the vagaries of the music industry and why, for most, it simply doesn’t work. It never came up during our conversation, though and the more I listened to Johnson the less relevant a topic of discussion it became. What he confirmed for me is that success is inherent in the individual. But, and this is a big but, Johnson left me on the age old musician’s conundrum. Here he is with a new album, Inequality Boulevard, and faced with the seemingly unscalable mountain of how to take his music to the world.
“Freo Social (album launch) went really well,” said Johnson, “I’ve just got to figure out what to do next. I’m looking at some bookings over east and working on digital distribution, but it’s hard getting people to listen to your music.”
And there’s the rub. No matter how connected and successful you may be as an independent artist, cutting through with your music, the final frontier of what it takes to be successful, remains elusive, if not impossible for most. This is the serious end of the business, but maybe not to be taken too seriously.
“I mean, how did we ever get into the position of giving away our music for .004c a play on Spotify?” said Johnson, “Might go back to busking”.