Prior to being featured on the brand new compilation album from Jesus Rode a Dinosaur, we caught up with blues-rock artist Banner Johnson to find out more about the project, the song-writing, and plenty more. Here’s how it went.
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Hi Banner, thanks for the chat. Just to set the scene a little, where are you based right now, and what have you been working on this past month?
Location-wise we’re in Raleigh, NC. Specifically the southern part in Johnston County (JoCo as we call it). We’re still nose on the grindstone, working on our album and constantly coming up with new material.
What can you tell us about the song Smoke?
I wrote the lyrics to smoke after sitting in my garage one night. I was listening to some old Blues vinyl’s (Howlin’ Wolf in particular) and was absolutely loving the raw emotion that came out of Wolf’s mouth; it was straight from the soul! I watched the smoke from my….cigar slowly creep up and fill the garage and that’s how Smoke started.
The song itself is actually about cheating on your spouse, but not givin’ a damn because the relationship was already over. My fellow bandmember, DJ Brown, heard the vocals and put the majority of the music to it, with the first semi-lead being from myself – had to get that blues lick in there.
Is this track typical of your genre, or do you write first and then creatively craft your tracks accordingly?
The Blues is my favorite genre, hands down! There’s nothing like hearing BB King make his guitar cry! Or hearing Muddy Waters sing with pure conviction. I love it like no other music I’ve ever listened to. It’s just deep passion pouring out of these old guys’ mouths and instruments.
I enjoy laying down vocals in that traditional blues way. You’ll hear similar vocals in our other songs. With that stated, sometimes I’ll have the lyrics done before the music, like Smoke. Other times it will be me putting lyrics to music my bandmembers have laid down. Or I’ll play around with the guitar and come up with an entire arrangement right then and there. Although, my talents mainly lie within my voice and I have to rely on my bandmembers (Cameron Coolidge, Marty Coolidge Jr. and DJ Brown) to add the sound as they are all extremely talented!
You have a great voice, really unique and interesting. Who inspired your vocal style initially, or is it just natural to you?
I never set out to try and sing like anyone in particular, but I will say that it took me YEARS until I found my voice. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s, really. One day I was singing along to some Son House, but I like to record myself to see how I actually sound, and I got so lost in the song that I forgot I was recording. When the song was over, I started singing an original, but I still sort of had that old blues swagger in my voice. When I went back to listen to it I thought, damn, I need to stop thinking so technical by focussing on matching every pitch/key and just sing from my soul. I’ve been doing that ever since.
The funny thing is, I was always a bit self-conscious because I didn’t know if I had a good voice or not, so I would never sing like that in front of people. It wasn’t until DJ heard Smoke and gave me the confidence to continue with that bluesy swagger.
One bit of positive feedback I’ve received several times is regarding my vibrato. I’m asked, “How do you do that?” My response is always, I have no damn clue, it just comes out. The day I sing with nothing in my mind other than how I’m going to sing will be the day when my voice sounds like crap. I try and focus on nothing other than the story I’m relaying and the emotion that goes along with it.
How did you come to connect with Jesus Rode a Dinosaur, and how does your track fit in with or relate to the Evil, In Diana album?
DJ Brown (Jesus Rode a Dinosaur A&R) got me connected to Groove Kennedy as they go way back. JRAD was looking for new talent and DJ let him listen to one or a few of the songs we did rough recordings on. He was interested in hearing more and asked for a single to add to his compilation album.
The first song the band and I agreed on was called Without You. It’s a blues-rock type of song, but we all felt that it needed something else to help connect it with today’s listeners, so we scratched that idea, polished up Smoke and sent it to JRAD. Next thing we know it’s on the album.
I think this song stands out on the album as it’s in its own lane, genre-speaking. You really have to appreciate the older style of writing to truly connect with this song. As I like to say, if it wasn’t for The Blues, music as we know it today wouldn’t exist and my song may not be accepted by everyone, but anyone can relate to this.
You have a new album on the way, is Smoke indicative of what can be expected from the project, and will there be an overall theme or style to it?
I can’t say if the album will have an actual theme just yet. I’m leaning towards yes, but it will all depend on how well the songs jive with one another.
We’ll have a few more bluesy-type songs, but my background is country, so there’s a heavy country influence on most of the songs that are slated to be on the album.
Is live performance a big part of your plans as an artist, and have the events of the past year and a half had any positive impact on your perspective or creativity?
Right now we’re focused on getting this album done before we book any gigs. It was difficult with COVID in a sense that we couldn’t collaborate with the rest of the band so nailing down our ideas took (and still do) longer. Mix that in with our full-time jobs and everyday life, finding time to all get together is still a challenge.
What’s the live scene like where you are, pre-Covid, and what does a live show from you entail?
Me personally, I haven’t been on a big stage. I think the most people I’ve played for was a little over a hundred. I’m a natural in the spotlight though and I eat it up! I was born to entertain and when the day comes for our live shows, I’ll be sure to engage the crowd! I love to see a party and I thoroughly enjoy watching people just have fun and get lost in the music.
How does the new album compare to your previous work?
This would be my first album; however, all of my previous songs I wrote prior to age 30 were mainly country. Everything new will have that blues-rock feel to it.
Is image important to you as an artist?
I would say an artist’s voice should be of most importance. Obviously not just speaking about singing voice, but in a broad sense. Everything from what I’m singing and what message I’m relaying, to the interactions with people in general. You are what comes out of your mouth, so for me, image comes second to my voice.
What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given in music?
I’m sure the cliché response to this question is, “just be yourself.” I have to call BS on that. I don’t want to be myself when I’m writing or on stage. I think the Banner Johnson character that I’ve created (the one of a kind, wise, carefree, fun, charismatic, drinkin’ and smokin’ party dude who’s been around the block) is a better artist than I’ll ever be. So the best advice I was given was the aforementioned advice that I never took.
Is there anything else we should know?
Banner Johnson is here for the long haul!
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