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KEVIN JOHNSON: THE ‘DEVIL FOUND WORK’ INTERVIEW

Veteran Australian singer, songwriter Kevin Johnson, best known for his 70s hits Bonnie Please Don’t Go and Rock n Roll I Gave You The Best Days Of My Life, has just released a new album, The Devil Found Work. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips had great pleasure in catching up with the master songsmith for a chat

You may have heard legendary tales about New York’s famous Brill Building. Situated at 1619 Broadway in Manhattan, in the 60s and 70s it housed young songwriters such as Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond and Paul Simon to name a few. Their daily job was to churn out hit songs for record companies. Some of the songs were recorded by themselves but most were passed onto label bosses to distribute to the recording stars of the day. Way over on the other side of the world in Australia, it’s hard to imagine that a songwriter could be paid a wage to write songs for other people … but there was most certainly at least one successful example, Kevin Johnson. Best known in the 70s for his hits Bonnie Please Don’t Go and Rock n Roll I Gave You The Best Days Of My Life, Kevin was paid by a giant Nashville-based music publishing company to write for them in the 1970s. They knew they were onto something as his biggest hit, Rock n Roll I Gave You The Best Days Of My Life was recorded by 27 other artists in1975 alone. Despite having a low public profile in Australia since then, Kevin has continued to write and sustain an international career in music for the last 50 years. Granted, it’s been well over a decade since the release of his last album but finally the master song-craftsman has decided to collate a bunch of new tunes, gather some musicians and record a new album. It’s titled The Devil Found Work and shows that Johnson has lost none of his songwriting mojo. So why record a new album now after such a long break?

I’ve been writing songs all that time and had enough to fill at least a couple of albums and just thought it was about time to start to record some of them rather than just stockpiling them,” he tells me. “It’s called The Devil Found Work and the title is an escapist kind of thing. It was a curious title and I had an idea for the front cover and it all tied in.”

There are 13 tracks on the album including four songs dedicated to each of his granddaughters. On past albums Johnson has named songs after his sons, as well as his wife. Clearly he has no issues using names as song titles. I asked Kevin about that and the criteria for songs making the album cut in general. “There are a lot of songs with names and I have never had any issues with it,” he states. “I’ve had people write to me and say they have named their children after the boys’ songs over the years. They were popular songs overseas. The only problem you might get is that someone else may have got there before you. On three of the songs I had to put things in brackets after the name because other people had already written songs with those names. You have to clarify your version. Obviously I put the whole four on there otherwise I could have been in trouble! I had them half finished. I started them when they were about three years of age and I stopped half way and finished them all off so I could put them on this album. But really I just thought this combination of songs went together. I always like to have a bit of variety, I get a little bored with albums that sound like they have the same musicians in the studio for two days and it all sounds somewhat the same. I don’t think I ever got over The Beatles Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band with the variety that they had. I have always worked that way with a variety of different styles in each album.

Indeed there are a variety of styles throughout The Devil Found Work.  The title track is a mid-tempo rock song, In Another Time, Another Place is a ballad, Further Down The Road an upbeat rocker, Saskia includes an atmospheric intro and so on. The Instrumentation too differs from track to track. Song number three on the album, Political Shuffle features a jazz shuffle which motors along nicely. I wondered if Kevin experimented with that song’s tempo and style before arriving at the finished version?
“Political Shuffle? No that was the way we recorded it on the day,” he says. “I knew it had to have that feel. As I was always my own producer, I’d be in the booth with my guitar and microphone and the musicians would be in the studio. So I’d set the rhythm and they would play along with what I was doing and it’s just how it came out. It’s totally different to anything I have done before and certainly different to anything that the players were doing on the day but they did a magnificent job. It was a few years ago now but I had Jim Kelly on electric guitar, Kirk Lorange on acoustic guitar, Tim Partridge on bass, Wayne Findlay on keyboards, and Russell Dunlop on drums. A guy named Eric Cook did the brass arrangement on it and everybody did a great job.”

Johnson has written songs and performed on a wide variety of guitars over his five decade long career but like many songwriters, his first guitar was an unremarkable no-name instrument. “My first guitar was ten dollars in a shop, I don’t know what it was,” he explains. “There’s a guy in Rockhampton who had a bad motorcycle accident and from the insurance money he bought a Fender Jaguar and a Fender amp and later sold them and I bought them. That was the first guitar of note that I had and it is still in the family. My son Shane has it now and uses it very frequently. I had a Maton Southern Star which I used all over the world but that was stolen. I now use a Martin, that’s my main guitar and I have an Ibanez Les Paul lookalike, which is a beautiful guitar. My son Scott also has a couple that I owned but they have all done the job.”

Pushed to name his favourite songwriters, Johnson will offer you names such as Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, Don Gibson, Cat Stevens, and Van Morrison. Each a successful songwriter in their own right and individually praised for either their song construction, lyrics, melodies, catchy choruses, or in many cases all of those elements together. However, which of Johnson’s own songs is he most proud of?
“There are probably quite a few of those,” he says after a brief think. “I always liked the song I Am Wanting You More Everyday, it’s very much an old 30s kind of song. I really like that song because of the 30s simple, short, concise, economical kind of songs. And on this album there is a song called In Another Time, Another Place which also is that same short  concise, economical kind of song. Obviously I like all of the songs written about my grandchildren and children because of the subject matter and it’s not easy to write songs about that … there are six songs in total and they are all different enough to stand up on their own rather than all sounding like they have the same idea … representing their personalities at the same time, so I guess I am proud of those.”

A dilemma which many songwriters face is trying not to keep writing the same song over and over. I asked Kevin what his methods were to prevent that from happening. “Maybe I do that a little bit but I think laziness would be the motivating force in my case,” he laughs. “That’s because after writing each song, I completely forget about songwriting for a while and when I come back to it, it would be weeks or months later and I’d be thinking a completely different train of thought to when I was working on the previous song. Also having starting off writing for an American company, which I did back in the 70s, you automatically steer away from everything that sounds remotely like something else you might have done. If it is starting to sound like something you have already done or something that someone else has done, then you slide away from it pretty quickly.”

Kevin has seen much change in the music industry since starting out and is not a fan of where things are heading. “The changes are for the worse not the better, that’s for sure,” he says without hesitation. “Apparently there used to be 2,000 independent radio stations across America back in the day and anyone of those could pick up a record, start to play it and if people liked it, it would spread across the country but that doesn’t happen now. All of those stations are now owned by just a few corporate giants and unless you are chosen by one of their selectors, which is only a handful of people, then nothing goes on the playlist. That’s one of the detrimental forces. The other thing which has gone haywire since the internet, is the man in the street has been led to believe that all music and entertainment should be available for nothing. There’s some sort of right that people think they can get everything for next to nothing and that is the way it has gone. There are exceptions of course, if someone goes and buys a CD, then that’s not the case but a lot of the streaming sites, the writers and performers get virtually nothing out of it.”

With his first album out since 2006’s Songs from a Troubled World, to wrap up our chat, I asked Kevin what his hopes and expectations were for The Devil Found Work. “One never knows,” he says thoughtfully.  “It’s just come out and actually today I am signing a deal with another record company in Europe for the next 5 years. I just finished one for Europe for the last five years and this has gone on since 1970, so the album will be released over there. They are trying to get me over there to promote it and do some shows, so I am thinking about that at the moment. Certainly the overseas thing has been continual for the last 40 or 50 years. It all depends on the reaction. I’ll wait and see how it goes. If the demand is there I will do some shows, if not I won’t.”

Purchase The Devil Found Work here: www.kevin-johnson.net