Kentucky-born singer/songwriter Nicholas Johnson is headed back to The Southgate House Revival for a homecoming. After moving to Milan, Italy a few years back he is excited to come back for an epic night at SGHR.
His latest EP release, Shady Pines Vol. 1 is the first release of the double EP project that has Johnson teaming up with acclaimed Producer and Engineer Patrick Himes (Ryan Adams, Rubyhorse, Lilly Hiatt) with the goal in mind to craft a recording that matched the intensity of his live shows. The result is a beautiful, energetic mixture of fuzz and twang from one of the next great voices in Americana music.
We were thrilled to chat with Nicholas prior to his show at The Southgate House Revival on Thursday, May 10th!
Give us some background on Nicholas Johnson…
I’m originally from around the Bowling Green, Kentucky area and grew up on a farm in a very little town called Rocky Hill. I started out on drums at a young age, but I eventually switched to guitar once I got to college. I began writing songs fairly quickly after learning a handful of chords and then started going to open mics. While I was at Western Kentucky University I played bars, parties, and coffee shops a couple nights a week. I loved it and was hooked. As the crowds slowly grew and people were requesting my songs, I knew that pouring my heart out to total strangers onstage is what I wanted to do from then on.
After I graduated WKU, a guy I grew up with asked me to join him on a pipefitting job near Albuquerque, New Mexico and I’ve pretty much been on the road ever since. I lived in different locations for months at a time: everywhere from Wyoming to Savannah, Georgia. I would work very hard labor from 6 AM to 4 or 5 PM buffing and grinding welds all day and then I would play bars and clubs whenever I could at night (most of the time from 10 PM to 2 AM – get 3 or 4 hours sleep and go to work). But the music portion of my career really picked up when I was working on a job from Champaign, Illinois to Indianapolis, and I started playing nearly every night. Very cool opportunities started to come my way and I got to open for bands such as Margot and the Nuclear So and So’s and Great Scott.
I carried that momentum to the next stop in New York and for the first time I shifted my efforts and focus solely to music. The effort paid off. I played festivals upstate and in NYC and recorded my first album, “Upstate”, and it culminated in being asked to play at the Emerging Artists of New York Festival. It was an important period for me of learning firsthand what it meant to be a professional musician. Not too long afterward, my wife (whom I met in New York) was transferred from New York to Ohio for work. So we picked up and moved to the Cincinnati area, which we love and became our adopted home. We lived in the area for around six years before the big move to Milan, Italy. But Cincinnati will always be “home” for us.
From Cincinnati to Milan? Tell us about your journey…
It was a whirlwind. The opportunity to move to Italy came in early 2016. My wife’s job began talking about the possibility of transferring around January and by March we were in JFK airport with 2 dogs and whatever clothes and important things we could fit into 6 suitcases. We sold our house and cars and took the plunge. At first I was really nervous. I was worried about barely knowing any Italian and making new friends. I was also concerned about being able to play music. There wasn’t really any information online on how to be an English-speaking musician living in Italy (besides Sting – but…). But I was very fortunate that I met wonderful people who helped me to navigate my way through those early stages. As a matter of fact, my first gig in Italy was negotiated completely in Italian! Luckily, my fears were unfounded. Italians LOVE American music and there is a vibrant music scene in Milan and most of Italy. Most importantly, I’ve had the pleasure of making amazing friends and meeting other very talented musicians who are fans of what I’m doing and have guided me through the language barrier and helped accelerate my career overseas. But music is truly a universal language. There are members of my Italian band who don’t speak English, but when we play a song, we understand each other perfectly. And it’s also an overwhelming experience as a musician when I’m on stage and an audience in a different country, who speak a different language, is singing my song back to me. That’s a beautiful thing. And the audiences here are truly wonderful; attentive, receptive, and are genuinely appreciative of the experiences you provide for them.
What can one expect at a live show?
Just like on the farm I grew up on or the pipefitting job, I work hard. I give everything I have, every show. I try my best to bring energy to every song. Whether it’s a slower song or an uptempo one, I want the audience to feel what made that song and those words come about and hopefully it resonates with them and at the end of the night, they have a good experience. Plus, at Southgate House I will have the pleasure of playing with my US band, The Same Old Strangers, who are a collection of amazing musicians from the area. They are great and it’s really fun to share a stage with them.
Tell us about your songwriting process…
My process varies. A lot of times it is different pieces that come together. Sometimes the lyrics come first. There are notebooks all over my apartment with lines or random ideas. Then the music comes along afterwards. Other times I will find a nice progression and I will record it with a mumble track and the lyrics come along afterwards. As far as content, it’s mostly observational. Some of my songs are auto-biographical, but a lot of times the songs are narratives I invent from scenes at a bar, stories I’ve heard, or just walking down the street. And I’ll project my own thoughts or emotions into these scenes that play out.
For example, I wrote the song “Rollercoaster” after a random scene I witnessed on St. Patricks Day a couple years ago. I was at a bar in Dayton to watch my friend’s band play and I saw two couples at a table. One couple was very much in a “new love” phase: close talking, a lot of touching, etc. The other couple (who may not have even been a couple) seemed very distant and just annoyed with each other. In the moment, it was striking to me to think how the “new love” couple could devolve into the other one, who were very clearly disinterested in one another. So the song is the story about how a relationship goes from these high points to the lowest.
What is next for Nicholas Johnson?
After the show here in Cincinnati, I’ll be heading back to Italy and getting ready to go back to the studio later this Summer. Then my Italian band and I will be gearing up for a tour this Fall through Italy and Europe with my good friend and fellow songwriter, and musician Andrea Rock.