When it comes to traveling, Jay Johnson is quite the enthusiast.
Over the years, this Pennsbury graduate of 2009 has experienced an impressive 20 countries, from which he usually brings home a prized souvenir. Rather than the typical magnet, mug or T-shirt, he always tries to discover a musical instrument that’s native to the region he’s visiting.
Johnson is self-taught on the bouzouki (a popular lute in Greece), ukulele, accordion and almost two dozen others, most of which can be heard on his debut solo album Four Quartets, released digitally on July 15.
“Normally, I play guitar, keys or bass in most bands. But this gave me the chance to just get weird with all the instruments I’ve collected over the course of my life,” he told The Times on the heels of the album’s release.
The majority of Four Quartets was penned by Johnson in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many ways, the worldwide health emergency inspired the unique concept — a 16-song album that’s sectioned into four-song EPs, each boasting its own theme. The first, “In Nature,” features timeless folk music.
“One of my goals with that was to make music where you kind of don’t know what century it came from,” Johnson explained. “It could be recent, or it could be songs that were just from a long time ago.”
Next is the travel-themed “In Transit,” which was largely influenced by Johnson feeling trapped at home, unable to do one of his favorite things for some time. The tracks of “In Change” focus on tumultuous times, while the final, “In Love,” is comprised of feel-good love songs.
“I’ve always been kind of a romantic, but it made me want to make happy, positive music all the more because the world’s a little crazy right now,” said Johnson, who named this portion of the album as his favorite.
Overall, Four Quartets was heavily influenced by some of Johnson’s top bands, including The Beatles, The Kinks and Velvet Underground, as well as his appreciation for philosophy, poetry and history.
“The whole thing, I’d like to think of it as a little escape from the world. It’s kind of an idealistic take on the world. It’s a little break,” he said. “And since it is the four-song, four-EP concept, part of my intention with that was to give people a chance to dive into different sections if they don’t want to listen to the whole thing.”
Johnson, a San Francisco, California native whose family moved to the Yardley area in 1999, started honing his musical craft in the fourth grade, when he began learning violin. He added the guitar to his repertoire the following year and hasn’t stopped expanding his talents since.
During his years at Pennsbury, where he proudly served as his class’ vice president, he formed his very first band, Nerve.
“We were a cross country band. I ran cross country, played baseball, and some of the cross country guys and I, we formed a ‘60s-inspired blues band, played a couple shows. It was fun,” he fondly reflected. “A lot of jamming.”
After Pennsbury, Johnson graduated from the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State with degrees in History and Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies, plus minor degrees in German and International Studies.
Now, as Johnson pursues this solo endeavor, he’s simultaneously part of two bands. He plays guitar in Three Yards To Dover, an Americana, folk rock group that’s currently working on its second EP; and bass for Mandy Valentine, a country western-themed rock band that Johnson said has been recognized on WXPN.
In fact, Mandy Valentine bandmate Mattie Klauser, of Pillow Princess Productions, engineered and played the drums on Four Quartets, recorded at South Philadelphia’s Tralfamadore under the indie label Goodhowareyou Records. Johnson admitted that he hoped to incorporate even more instruments, but didn’t want to make the recording process too tedious.
“We tried wooden spoons. That was actually the worst part of the whole process,” he said. “We tried for an hour. We can play them live but they don’t record well.”
Now that Four Quartets has been released to the world, Johnson is excited to play some solo shows, a number of which he said are slated for the fall. In the meantime, a Maddy Valentine gig is set for Aug. 28 at Johnny Brenda’s. Johnson also performs nearly every Tuesday at the Trenton Social with New Jersey-based band Over The Counter.
The big question is — does Johnson tote along his array of instruments for live shows? Yes, but not in the vehicle one would expect.
“I actually drive a smart car, like one of those little ones, so it’s even more ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “You get creative with space and I’ve got my system by now.”
In addition to upcoming gigs, there will be new music from Johnson before long. He’s been writing nonstop and believes he has two albums worth of material, which he’s in the process of demoing. With each song written, Johnson works to paint a scene in as few words as possible, allowing listeners to decipher their own meaning.
“My endeavor is to incorporate just enough life lessons that I’ve gathered into it. I would hope that people, when they listen, are inspired by a love of nature. I hope it inspires them to want to travel and just do stuff. I hope it is a positive light for people, especially the love songs,” he said. “That was my main goal, to just kind of give people a hug in a way.”
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Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org