Nicholas Johnson has been all over. His story is filled with setbacks, chance encounters, and his dependence and trust in the kindness of others from all walks of life. Originally from the small Western Kentucky town of Rocky Hill, KY, his roots are very much in Kentucky; however, his music is more emblematic of a nomad.
Through life, work, and family, the artist has found himself playing bars and small clubs in Dayton, OH, where the only members of the crowd by the end of the evening were Dave Chappelle and his entourage to getting a D-battery thrown at him in a bar out west in Wyoming to opening for a Karaoke night in Millan, Italy. The man has traveled far and wide but has found his home in Cincinnati and is releasing some of the more compelling Americana in the local music scene.
Before embarking on his next tour of the East Coast and Europe, Johnson sat down with CincyMusic at Rhinehaus in OTR over drinks to tell his story and what comes next for the singer-songwriter.
Growing up in the small town outside Bowling Green, KY, Johnson was the youngest of three.
“I was the super, super youngest,” said Johnson chuckling. “I was clearly a mistake, so I really fell in love with music by rummaging through my siblings' records. My sister was ten years older, and she’d have stuff like Cindy Lauper, Whitney Houston, you know, shit from the ‘80s. My older brother was way older, so he had like Kiss and the Beatles. And obviously, my mom and dad had country records.”
A self-proclaimed “band geek,” Johnson followed his interest in music by playing drums in his high school band. However, when it came time to head to Western Kentucky University, where Johnson attended college, he found that an entire drum kit wouldn’t fit in his dorm room.
“They don’t appreciate it when you bring drums to the dorm,” said Johnson. “So I switched to guitar… At that point, it was just a borrowed guitar… From there, I learned four chords and became obsessed. I started writing immediately and learning (cover) songs I liked.”
It was there at WKU where Johnson would begin, like many singer-songwriters do, playing in coffee shops. Johnson credits the fan reaction to his cover of “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows as the moment he realized he wanted to pursue this as a career.
“I played at this place called the Java House,” said Johnson. “It was the first open mic I ever did. I played like two or three of the very shitty songs I wrote, and then I played “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows, and everyone started bobbing their heads. I was like there; this is what I love to do. I don’t know what it was about that validation, but I was addicted immediately.”
As Johnson continued to play the Bowling Green bar circuit, he continued to hone his craft. Playing covers of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Oasis, and more, it was here that Johnson says he began to find his voice.
“When you tend to do covers, you try to throw your own songs in the middle. I call it a shit sandwich,” said Johnson. “Like, are they going to notice my song in between these two songs that they know? It started to get to the point that they didn’t… At that point, you do start to become confident in your own songwriting. I went from writing songs about sneaking out with a girl to writing about real shit that affects you. I think that’s really where you begin to find your voice.”
After graduating from WKU, Johnson found himself lost. A recent college graduate with an English degree, and splitting time between working the night shift at a hotel and working at an Australian-themed Animal Park called “Kentucky Down Under.” He worked with Kangaroos and Wallabies and taught visitors Australian culture. Now, in all of his worldly travels, Johnson has still admittedly never been to Australia.
Lost and trying to figure out what to do next, Johnson left behind the obscure jobs to begin working on oil pipelines around the country with a buddy. This would indeed be the beginning of Johnson’s nomad lifestyle.
“I quit both of those jobs on a Thursday, and by Monday, I was in Albuquerque, NM,” said Johnson. “Helping a welder. That was a really good excuse to start playing the bars in other areas. I would work from 6 am in the morning till around 4 pm in the afternoon, doing grown-man shit: pipeline constructions, no goddamn joke. I almost saw a dude get crushed to death. I would go from that to playing any bars I could from 10 pm to 2 am when I could burn the candle at both ends.”
From playing the local bar scene in different towns around the country, Johnson became a pro at handling tough and rowdy crowds while learning what audiences wanted to hear.
“I went from Albuquerque to Wyoming where I had a battery thrown at me from the audience, at a place literally called Hole In the Wall,” said Johnson. “Somebody kept saying play Metallica, play Metallica, and I was like, “That’s not how this shit works! I don’t know how to play that.”’
After dodging the D-Volt battery, Johnson went from Savannah, GA, to Champagne, IL. Where his playing really began taking off. Johnson was playing three to four nights a week between Illinois and Indiana. However, that was soon uprooted when Johnson had to move to a job in Binghamton, NY, a sleepy town in the central part of Upstate, NY, where he’d meet the love of his life.
“I had a choice at the end of that job in Binghamton,” said Johnson. “I could see where this relationship went and truly give music a shot. So that’s where I really jumped into the music head first.”
It was there where Johnson would record his first studio album, aptly titled Upstate. However, Johnson left the recording experience unhappy and unfulfilled.
“I recorded this record that I wasn’t super happy with, with a guy who was super green in the studio,” said Johnson. “He was green, and I was green. I was kind of pushed around in the studio because I didn’t really know what I was doing. The whole experience just sucked. There were really good songs there that just didn't get the attention they deserved.”
After a lackluster recording experience and lack of traction in the quite isolated town in New York, Johnson found work in Dayton, OH, but not what he expected from his career trajectory—working with Mattress Firm.
“I decided at that time it was time to grow up,” said Johnson. “I got the corporate gig, opening up stores with Mattress Firm. I stopped writing. I stopped playing. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it felt like my right arm was cut off. I wasn’t me.”
If you see Johnson walking down the street in OTR, where he currently lives, you’d see a man with long dark hair, tattoos covering both arms, and a beard, not your typical corporate stooge. However, Johnson had given all that up at this time in his life. He’d shaved his beard, cut his hair, and all but gave up on his dreams of playing music professionally. That is until the tragic passing of Johnson’s mother.
“When mom passed, all of this shit hit me,” said Johnson. “I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t like anything about me. I didn’t like what I was doing. So I started dipping my toe back into open mics and getting my chops back. Where I played a gig in the Oregon District in Dayton.”
This would be the defining moment of Johnson’s career, as a chance opportunity to play in front of and meet comedy legend Dave Chappelle, who lives in Yellow Springs, OH, would send Johnson down the path of pursuing his dream.
“It was like a Wednesday. Nobody was there,” said Johnson. “It must’ve been 11 pm or 12 am. It was later I had stopped playing by this point, waiting to get paid out. Then all of a sudden, Dave Chappelle walks into the bar. Evidently, you don’t really have your Dayton citizenship unless you have a Chappelle run-in up there. His entourage of four or five people came in and then I was like, “I need to keep playing.” I don’t know why. I don’t know what he was going to do.” Johnson chuckles.
Making his best Chappelle impression, Johnson describes the meeting with Chappelle as him poking his head around the bar to see him play and then shouting, “Hey man! Unplug that shit and bring it down here.”
“I thought he just wanted me to stop playing, but as I walked over to him, he said, “Play a Christmas Song,”’ said Johnson. “This was like in November, I was like, “I don’t know any Christmas songs,” but I knew “Blue Christmas" by Elvis was a blues chord progression, so I fumbled my way through that.”
After playing a few of their requests, Chappelle and Johnson began talking about life, art, and anything.
“We had what I considered a really deep conversation,” said Johnson. “Maybe he’s like this with everyone, but we started talking about my mom passing and my music. He said if this is what you want to do, you should do it. He then said, “My parents didn’t want me to be a comedian when I told them I wanted to do that. But you don’t have to be famous to be successful. If you make what they made doing something you love and make a career out of it, how are you not successful?”’
This lit a fire under Johnson to continue to pursue this as a career. It was soon after this he began writing the songs to what Johnson considers his first true record in 2017’s, Shady Pines Vol. 1.
Shady Pine’s Vol.1 is sonically a nod to all of Johnson’s inspirations. Recording it with Ninja Jam Records and acclaimed Dayton-based producer and engineer Patrick Himes. Himes is known for his work with artists like Lilly Hiatt and Ethan Johns and was the engineer and producer of Ryan Adam’s classic Heartbreaker.
The record is clearly influenced by Bruce Springsteen's dark years of Ghost of Tom Joad, mixed with the pop sensibilities of Counting Crows and The Wallflowers. Both bands have had a resurgence of critical appreciation and their influence on modern rock, filled with the harmonica, country twang of a steel guitar, and organs of past great records that bands like The Band popularized in the ‘70s. Blended together with Johnson’s heartbreaking lyrics, made for this truly great Americana EP that has the bones of contemporary artists like Jason Isbell, Drive-By-Truckers, and much of Jeff Tweedy’s work with both Wilco and Uncle Tupelo.
“I was still going through all of this stuff with my mom passing and trying to find myself,” said Johnson. “That’s where all of the songs from Shady Pines Vol. 1 come from. It’s about finding yourself, having mental breakdowns, and trying to see yourself past it all.”
After his meeting with Chappelle and finally beginning to find his footing in Dayton, Johnson and his partner were forced to pick up their things and move to Milan, Italy, due to unforeseen career changes. Once again, Johnson was on the move, forced to start from square one with his music.
“I had never been abroad in my life,” said Johnson. “This was the best thing that could’ve ever happened in my life. It was so serendipitous. I was forced to jump into the deep end. I couldn’t speak Italian. I couldn’t even fake Italian, so I couldn’t get a real job. So the only thing I had to offer was music. That’s it.”
Once Johnson had gotten settled into the Porta Romana District of downtown Milan, his first order of business was to find all and any live music spots in the city.
“What I come to find quickly is even if they say live music, that doesn’t mean they have live music,” said Johnson. “They just don’t have that culture of live music with a dude with a guitar playing in a bar.”
However, through a conversation of broken Italian and English, Johnson was able to secure his first gig opening for Karaoke at a bar around the corner from his home in Milan.
“I was able to secure this gig by promising to play at least one Prince song. He had just passed at this time,” said Johnson. “This gig worked out, though. Sort of like it does in the U.S., one gig leads to the next and then leads to the next.”
As Johnson continued to play throughout Milan, his presence grew. Johnson was finally beginning to see the fruits of his labor from one venue to the next. He then played a gig at a Hostel in Milan, where he would meet his friend and future collaborator Andrea Rock.
Rock is a Drive Home Radio DJ for Virgin Radio in Italy. Their friendship blossomed over a simple conversation about sports. A lifelong baseball and Cincinnati Reds fan, this was a sense of home that Johnson deeply missed. Rock and Johnson bonded over their love of music and American sports and began supporting each other from afar. Rock, a punk musician in his own right, played gigs throughout Milan. Rock and Johnson would attend each other's performances and work with each other as songwriters.
At this time, Rock is also introducing Johnson to many great artists from Europe and around the local Milan music scene.
“I think everybody in the world should have to live abroad. It humbles the shit out of you,” said Johnson. “Depending on the kindness of the people around you just gives you so much hope for humanity. I will never be able to repay the debt that Andrea and others around me gave me while I was there. Helping me to get gigs, releasing CDs, and simple things like ordering at restaurants.”
Prior to opening his studio in Milan, Rock, and Johnson agreed to collaborate on a record, serving as the inaugural record release for Rock’s studio Attitude Studios.
“To open his studio, he wanted to do a collaboration together, so that’s where the This Is Home album comes from,” said Johnson. “It’s my songs, but it’s not necessarily my style. It was a together thing because we were influencing each other.”
This is Home, is an incredibly interesting project highlighting Johnson’s songwriting versatility. With Rock’s clear background of this sort of folk, Celtic punk, and Johnson’s American songwriting style, the two come together to make a record steeped in the roots of folk, pub music, and Heartland rock. With an exceptional spin on the Smashing Pumpkins’ classic, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.”
After the release of This is Home, Rock, and Johnson were able to set up a tour of Italy in support of the record. This was a launching point for Johnson, as he began to gain a following around Italy and parts of Europe. Once he had finished touring, Johnson was back on the road solo, touring the small venue and bar circuit of Ireland and the U.K.
“It was wild. I had a little bit of juice over in the English-speaking countries,” said Johnson. “It was very DIY. It was shoe-string, with low to no margins, but it was cool. I made connections that I maintain and will be going back this October because of those connections.”
Just as his career was finally taking off, Johnson had made friends with artists like Nic Cester, the lead singer of Jet, and had a small contingency of fans in Europe. Johnson and his partner were forced again to move back to the U.S. where not too long after the COVID-19 shutdown took place.
Now, in Cincinnati, by choice of Johnson and his partner, he once again was starting from square one. Only this time, he was prepared with two legitimate records under his belt and hours of stage time, Johnson was ready to face American audiences again.
“Honestly, dude, I would’ve been fine to stay and have a whole career over in Europe,” said Johnson. “But COVID had kicked everyone in the nuts. So we chose to move to Cincinnati simply because I loved it here. Even when I was in Dayton, this is where I preferred to be. Artistically, culturally, culinarily, musically, sports, it was always my favorite city to visit when I was a kid.”
Since returning to the U.S., Johnson released the follow-up to Shady Pines Vol. 1, with Shady Pines Vol. 2. Again recorded in Dayton with Patrick Himes, the album was a continuation of the collaborative relationship Johnson and Himes shared on the first record. However, this time, Johnson and his writing perspective had changed. Tackling much darker and more mature issues like the political climate of 2020, his relationship with places like Ohio and Binghamton, NY, and coming to terms with loneliness.
“The first volume took like three or four days to record, but (Himes) made me fall in love with the recording process again,” said Johnson. “The reason I called it volume one was because I thought, “Man, that was too quick.” So I called it volume one, so I had an excuse to keep coming back and with him… It was just so much fun. We learned to work with each other so quickly, and I felt that creative juice again working in the studio.”
Johnson finished writing the record while quarantined and credits that for part of the tonal shift on Vol. 2.
“It wasn’t until listening to the final masters of the record where I began to realize that, damn.. This is kind of dark,” said Johnson. “I finished writing this during lockdown and so maybe that had something to do with it? The political climate definitely did. Especially on “New Vampire,” if you listen to the lyrics. I don’t like to place myself in the center of my songs, though. I look at each one more like little vignettes. Using that English Degree I have I suppose. It’s from the perspective of looking out. It’s the window versus the mirror.”
When asked where his style of writing is most influenced, Johnson credits the Beatnik Poets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which explains his voyeuristic and nomadic style of writing.
“The beat generation. I love that stream-of-consciousness style of writing and phrasing,” said Johnson. “Whenever I’m struggling with ways of phrasing, I’ll pick up Ginsberg or Kerouac… Moving abroad, I think I got a whole new understanding of their work… These are all American stories, though.”
As our long conversation and evening came to an end, I had one final question. As an Upstate New Yorker, I had to find out where the song “Binghamton, Ny Is a Portal to Hell” originated from and if Johnson truly has that much disdain for the sleepy New York town.
“I have friends and family there that I love, and I like Binghamton a lot,” said Johnson chuckling. “It is a narrative. Honestly, though, the song started as a joke. It was this punk song I drunkenly wrote as a joke. When I brought it to Patrick (Himes) though, he said, “Dude, this a good fucking song!” So we fleshed it out and slowed it down to make it more of a Shady Pines song. Honestly, though, when you go up there, you learn that it’s the second most gray city in America behind Seattle. My intent of the song was not to slam the town or the people of it. It was more of a playful take on the eerie aspects of the town.”
After laughing over our shared understanding of the elements of my homeland, Johnson pointed out the fact that that song still gets him the most radio play on independent and college radio stations in that area. Once again, proving that New Yorkers have a strong sense of irony when it comes to their home.
Now, on a break from his expansive Spring tour and a stint at South By SouthWest in Austin, TX, Johnson is gearing up to embark on his next tour spanning the East Coast of the U.S., and then he will be returning to Ireland and the U.K.
“Music I’ve had to learn is a lot of luck,” said Johnson. “My whole story is a lot of me lucking into these chance encounters… my advice to anyone is just to say “Yes!”’
I’ve begun asking interview subjects to recommend three pieces of work they recommend to all their fans or anyone new to their work. Johnson’s picks go as follows:
Bruce Springsteen’s - Darkness on the Edge of Town
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Damn the Torpedoes
Jack Kerouac - The Subterraneans
Johnson's upcoming tour dates:
8/4 - Southgate House Revival - Newport KY
8/10 - Woodland Tavern - Columbus OH
8/11 - Music on the Lawn - Pittsburgh PA
8/13 - Bar Freda - Queens, NY
8/16 - Crossroads - Garwood, NJ
8/17 - Lucy’s Garage - Pleasantville, NY
8/18 - Dogwood - Beacon, NY
8/19 - Sleepwalker - Brooklyn, NY
8/20 - Parlour - Providence, RI
9/22 /23 - AmericanaFest - Nashville, TN
10/13 - TBA - Dublin, Ireland
10/15 - American Bar - Belfast, UK
10/17 - TBA - Liverpool, UK
10/19 - Lock 91 - Manchester, UK
10/20 - Holmfirth Tavern - Holmfirth, UK
10/21 - Spiritual Bar - London, UK
10/22 - Kingsmeade - High Wycombe, UK
10/24 - TBA - Lake Como, Italy
10/25 - TBA - Lugano, Switzerland
10/26 - TBA - Milan, Italy
10/27 - TBA - Milan, Italy