Friday, March 6, 2009

Harping On: Scott Albert Johnson

Scott Albert Johnson wrote an article for the HOOTer about bending a few months ago. His harp technique is strong.  His album, Umbrella Man, has quickly become a favorite of mine. I hope you all enjoy the interview.

1. When and how did you start playing the harmonica?

I sang and played bass guitar in bands during high school and college. During those years, I used to doodle with the harmonica and learned some basics like a major scale and some note bending, but that was about it. Then I stopped playing music for several years while I worked in the journalism and communications fields. In 2000, I was working for a nonprofit group and started singing a bit with a coworker.

I started playing with the harp again to have something else to do besides just singing, and I very quickly got obsessed with it.

2. What about the harp was the most difficult to learn?

Oddly, I would say that tongue blocking took me the longest to get the hang of. I say "oddly" because it is completely second nature to me now -- I switch back and forth between pucker and tongue block without really thinking about it -- but at first, it was a real challenge.

3. What harmonica do you prefer and why?

I usually end up coming back to the Hohner Special 20, because I think it's a very good harp that offers a lot of versatility for the money, and it suits my style. But there are a lot of other great harps, including a bunch of the models from Suzuki, Seydel, and Bushman. I'd like to experiment some more with those. And I do use a lot of the alternately tuned Lee Oskars. I think those are great harps, but the equal tuning of their regular diatonics sounds a little weird to me. I prefer the just intonation on the Special 20s, and they also overblow a little better.

4. Some of your playing is pretty fast. Does this come from experience, or from repetition of scales?

I guess from experience. When I first got back into playing, it wasn't so much from the perspective of trying to emulate the great classic blues players; we were doing rock and pop songs mostly, and I was playing more melodic lines. Now, later, I did really immerse myself in people like Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, and Sonny Boy Williamson. But I would say that, overall, I am more influenced by guitar and horns, and that definitely comes out in my style.  

Also, I think John Popper gets a lot of richly undeserved criticism from the "blues purist" crowd. He has a unique and, I would say, revolutionary style, he's an excellent musician and songwriter, and he definitely influenced me. Great harmonica playing is not mainly about speed, but when a player can play fast and still be musical, that's a very valuable skill and it sounds great when it's done right.

5. Any advice for playing strong blow notes?

Good posture helps a lot. Also, try to "mentally center" yourself in your chest area. Don't focus on "blowing" with your cheeks; hold that air in your chest and release it in a relaxed but smooth and steady way. Also, make sure your embouchure is good. The important thing in blowing those single notes is a smooth column of air, and a "pinched" mouth opening can lead to a lot of wasted breath. Beginners, and even intermediate players, often play "too hard". The longer play, the more you will realize (and internalize in your playing) that you don't have to play very hard to get a smooth, rich tone. Your harps will last a lot longer, too!

6. The photos for Umbrella Man were very interesting and well thought out. What is the concept behind the song, and where did the album design come from?

The song concept came while I was sitting in a cafe in Amsterdam in 2001... it was three months almost to the day before the 9/11 attacks. The "umbrella man" of the title refers to the figure in the Zapruder film of the JFK assasination, who opens his umbrella just a few moments before the firing of the fatal bullets. Some believe that this was a signal to the shooter(s) to open fire.

I intended this song to be about those people or events that cause the ground to shift under our feet.... "strange attractors" and wild cards. It's about fanaticism and obsession and cunning and temptation and daring and courage. The "Umbrella Man" could be the ones who pulled Oswald's strings, or Bin Laden, or George W. Bush... or any one of us, given the right or wrong circumstances. There's a line in the song, "I'm sending out false messages and I'm burning buildings down", that is a little disturbing now, looking back after these last seven years.

The album artwork was based on the work of the surrealist painter Rene Magritte. The art director was the very talented James Harwell, and the photography is by two award-winning local photographers, James Patterson and Susan Margaret Barrett (the latter happens to be my lovely wife and is an amazing talent).

7. When playing through the microphone, do you hold it in your hand, or is it on a stand? It sounds very natural and it seems you have some and effects going on.

Usually, when I play live, I am cupping a mic in my hand unless I am going for a purely acoustic tone. On the record, half of the songs use amplified harp and half are me playing

acoustic through a condenser mic on a stand. I do use extensive effects on some songs, particularly on "Walkabout" and "Umbrella Man" (but I use light effects on a lot of songs, mainly reverb). I use effects a lot more live.

8. Which harp players do you admire most? 

List is long... LIVING: John Popper, Howard Levy, Mickey Raphael, Carlos del Junco, my good friend Kurt Crandall, Kim Wilson, Lee Oskar, Stevie Wonder, Charlie McCoy, Bill Barrett, Hugh Feeley, Magic Dick, Charlie Musselwhite, Toots Thielemans, Richard Hunter, Jason Ricci, Billy Gibson, and my fellow Jacksonian Greg "Fingers" Taylor.

IN HARP HEAVEN: Little Walter, Paul Butterfield, Larry Adler, Sonny Boy Williamson, Junior Wells and many more. As I said, I am at least equally influenced by non-harmonica players, particularly Bruce Hornsby, Mark Knopfler, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison (who actually does blow a decent harp), all the members of the Police, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Daniel Lanois and many others.

I think of myself as a musician first and foremost, not a "harmonica player". The harmonica is just one part of that, but it's an instrument with so many possibilities.

9. What can you tell us about the new album?

We start the first sessions next Friday... I think it will have a different flavor from the last record. But it's hard to say until it's done! I think most songwriters put their own experiences into their songs, either overtly or in more subtle ways. My life has changed a lot since I recorded the first album, especially in the family area, and I am sure that will be evident.

10. Last words to members of HOOT?

Don't get bogged down in the idea that things "have" to be done a certain way. There are certain techniques that everyone should know, and players that everyone should be familiar with, but at the end of the day, set your own boundaries. Anything else leads to cliche.

Little Walter was a legend and a revolutionary, but we don't need 100 more of him; he already cornered that market. Learn from him and the other greats, but then you have to take that and make your own statement. There's a saying that is often told to aspiring actors: YOU are a thousand times more interesting than the most interesting character you could ever hope to play. Be yourself!!!!


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