Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Greg Johnson celebrating 20 years of songwriting

LA resident Greg Johnson is celebrating 20 years as a solo artist with an album and Kiwi tour. He talks to Lydia Jenkin.

Greg Johnson's LA contacts have led to some interesting collaborations. Photo / Supplied
Greg Johnson's LA contacts have led to some interesting collaborations. Photo / Supplied

Phoning in from his home in Santa Monica on a Sunday afternoon, things sound pretty relaxed for Kiwi songwriter and new father Greg Johnson, who has his wee daughter Ruby in his arms.

"I'm sitting here with a bottle feeding the little one, and my wife is at a bachelorette party for a friend, so we're just kicking around really, strumming guitars and mucking around in the studio. Maybe I'll have a beer later, might go for a swim. Quite a relaxed day, ideally," he laughs.

Johnson has made a good life in the US over the past 11 years with his wife, stuntwoman Kelli Barksdale, and with his own studio set up at home he's able to work on TV and film music (he recently wrote a track for an episode of hit show Castle) and the occasional commercial, as well as producing for other artists, and of course working on his own songs. Rock 'n' roller married to a stuntwoman, living the dream in LA - it almost sounds like a sitcom.

"It kind of is sometimes, there are definitely moments of hilarity. But there's also fear because we both rely on the phone ringing to an extent to survive. But I've managed to survive for the past 25 years and Kelli's done very well, she's had some quite big movies, which pay quite well when they come through, so it can also be like glamorous sitcom land, but there are also plenty of times when it's not. I know I'm one of the lucky ones though."

It's not just down to luck - after 20 years in the business, and more than 10 albums to his name, no one could say Johnson hasn't worked hard for the life he has.

In fact just yesterday he released his tenth official studio album Exits, which, much like his previous release Secret Weapon, was funded independently with the help of his fans, and features a wide array of guest contributors, which Johnson sees as pretty much essential when you've been working as a solo artist as long as he has.

Singer Flip Grater and guitarist Geoff Maddock, fellow Kiwis, join him on The Sheriff ("a kind of reinvention of the Bob Marley song I Shot The Sheriff, but more with a Bonnie and Clyde twist"), and there are other contributions from LA Philharmonic bassist John Kibler, singer-songwriter Ted Brown, guitarist Darren Tehrani, drummer Wayne Bell, singer Martha de la Torres and several others.

Also, in what sounds like a bit of a typical LA story, Johnson ended up doing a co-write with old-time soul songwriter and producer Richard Rudolph, whose late wife Minnie Riperton sang his well-known hit Lovin' You in the 70s. Rudolph is also the father of Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids star Maya Rudolph, who's married to star director Paul Thomas Anderson.

"We were at dinner with friends at a Spanish wine bar just down the road here, and we were sitting quite close to another table, all jammed in there, and I hear a chap mentioning a recording studio. So I leaned over to ask him about it, and we got talking, and it turned out he lives on the same street as us - though at the much richer end - and he turned out to be Richard Rudolph.

"We ended up hanging out a bit, and then writing this song Meant To Be Mine, which we were both very happy with.

"I learnt a lot from him while we were collaborating. He really stuck to these classic song forms, especially in the lyrics, and whereas I would often bust out of those, thinking 'you don't need to match that rhyming there', he would adhere to it quite strictly, but it made for a really strong song. It was a very interesting lesson in old school songwriting for me, and we've got some more projects coming up, which is great."

It's a dynamic, wide-ranging album with many inspirations (including a trip to St Croix in the Caribbean, which Johnson describes as a dark and fascinating place), but importantly, it has already had the stamp of approval from his wife.

"She thinks it's her favourite since Anyone Can Say Goodbye, so that's cool. She can be quite a harsh critic actually" he laughs.

He'll be celebrating the release, and marking his 20th anniversary as a solo artist with an extensive tour of New Zealand starting next week, and this time he'll be taking a full five-piece band of Kiwis who'll all be singing four-part harmonies too, making it the biggest sound he's ever had with a band.

"We always have an excellent time, five old dogs roaming the country," he chuckles, "but hopefully the music reflects that as well."

Who: Greg Johnson
What: New album Exits
Where and when: Eleven-date national tour including three shows in Auckland - Thursday November 15 at Victoria Theatre in Devonport, and Saturday November 17 plus Sunday December 2 at The Paddington in Parnell.

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