Will & Jessie Johnson: Love At First Sound
words by me; photography by Wynn Myers; styling by Sara Oswalt
A match so supreme it was perhaps ordained in the stars; meet the creative duo whose magnetism knows no bounds.
Jessie Johnson fell in love with her future husband’s music before she ever met the man behind the drum kit — after putting off what was a work chore for months, she was blown away with one listen. And though the actual romance came much later, the musical one was immediate, and set in stone. As far as the rest of his fanbase, the feeling seems equally persistent — 26 years of making music and counting, and Will’s music is more relevant than ever, touching people’s hearts by way of thoughtful lyrics and a smooth sound wholly unique to his creative vision. His latest album is no exception: a collection of what Will describes as short stories and character studies, rooted at the intersection of morality and human nature, it’s only further proof of this artist’s creative genius (not that he needs it, of course).
“I was in a writing phase of creating characters and scenarios that put good people, decent souls, in the position of maybe doing bad things; a temptation to betray one’s self at moments, just for the act of momentary simple satisfaction, and then hopefully backing themselves out of that,” he says. “I think we’ve all been in those positions at some point, on varying levels.”
A brighter note finishes out the record: what Will calls a “lengthy, meandering love note from the road,” and the only song that’s truly autobiographical in nature. This track should come as no surprise; for anyone who’s spent time around the Johnsons, there exists a creative magnetism that simply cannot be ignored. And the epicenter of such an epic love? Arguably Waterloo, where Jessie heads up the marketing department (after leaving and returning multiple times, it seems this was another love she couldn’t quite forget), and where the pair met, by way of the music that was, for her, love at first listen.
“I was just head over heels in love with the music,” she says. “You know, there’s a difference between hearing a song on the radio that you like that’s catchy, and hearing a song that really makes your heart burst. You just want to know everything about them.” And Jessie got her wish: after marrying in 2011, she’s had a front row seat to every aspect of Will’s process, and witnessed each album evolve from an initial demo phase to the finished product. But she’s not simply a fan; as a fellow creative, her handiwork is often visible on both Centromatic albums (Will’s band, for whom she designed a final album cover in 2014 for Take Pride in Your Long Odds), and his solo work, of which she always gets first listen.
“It’s so great; just such an honor,” she says. “I fall in love with the demos, and a lot of times I’ll be like, ‘Just release it just like that! That’s the one!’ But of course they have to change the instrumentation and do it in a studio. So I hear the first demo and it’s so raw and good, and then I hear the final piece and it’s like hearing a whole symphony. And then you fall in love with that, too.”
Just as his family lives alongside the influence of his music, so too does he pull from both memorable and mundane aspects of their life together. Understandably, it’s all become wholly intertwined, and it follows that each —his music, and his fatherhood — takes from the other in equal measure.
“It’s positively the most joyous endeavor, being a father and being a parent,” he says. “Just the constant motion of being a parent and learning so much about this world through your kids’ eyes, and considering a lot of what this world is about through your child — that will definitely get into one’s art. I think it’s inevitable that that will happen.”
Will’s music takes similar steps of familiarity and connection, but the effort is perhaps at its most effective when he’s on tour — typically, in people’s living rooms, local art galleries or similarly small spaces, where intimacy is key and there’s littler room to hide. It’s all out there, and it’s what makes the show so much more than just its set list.
“The idea is to play in a less conventional space,” he says. “It intensifies it for sure; it definitely peels things back and puts everybody on neutral turf. And I like that energy — there’s a bit of vulnerability and trust that comes with it.”
Both Will and Jessie’s artistic interests span far beyond those of music; each also pursues visual art as a medium of expression, she, with multimedia collage work, and he, painting iconic baseball heroes as a tribute to their skill and stardom. What’s more, the pair’s love and dedication to fostering creativity extends past their individual art: with two kids in tow, their home has become a workshop of sorts, and yet another physical place (Waterloo being the most memorable) where their creativity has banded the two together.
“We are both just so jazzed to support each other,” she says. “Just having that creativity in the house — we feed off of each other in that way. It gets you excited to be creative. And the kids are effected by it, too — there’s been several times that Will or I have been working on something and before you know it, the kids will whip out their paint brushes and we’ll all be working on it together. It’s been so organic with our kids and we just get excited about everything. It’s contagious.”
It’s impossible to predict where Will’s music will take him (and his family) next, but one thing is certain: creativity will always be the most important part of the equation.
“I really try to encourage the idea of making something every day — even if it’s just a little something,” he says. “We continually try to bring that energy into our daily life. I figure, the more tools you have for making stuff and creating around the home, then inevitably, the more you’ll make. And I think that’s an inspiring way to live — it’s definitely the way I like to live.”
Will's Paintings: Art as Catharsis
Will works fairly evenly on both his music and his visual art, but that’s not to say they’re intertwined; on the contrary, each has its own independent effect on his overall vision, as well as its own version of personal catharsis.
“Writing and recording is more of an ambiguous spiritual search, to my mind and to my ears,” he says. “Whereas with these paintings, it’s therapy to push the paint around and make these things, but they’re also history-based.”
The emphasis on historical here is quite literal: each piece typically honors an iconic baseball player (aside from the occasional stadium scene or non-sporty profile) for their legacy both on the field and off. As for who ushered his work out of the house and into galleries though, the credit all goes to Jessie.
“I’ve learned so much from her about visual art,” he says. “I was reluctant to show her my paintings, but it was from her encouragement that I ever started to entertain the idea of having art shows.”
Once again, the dynamic duo has proven itself invaluable, this time for the sake of Will’s visual artistic expression. He’s now completed over 250 pieces, each individually unique, and the reception remains the same: we’re always hoping there’s more where these came from.