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Song After Song: Josephine Johnson

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We were lucky enough to call Josephine Johnson one of our own for quite some time. The prolific singer and songwriter has lived all over the country since her career began, and she’s currently living in Nashville. But Johnson, who writes beautiful, thought-provoking music, will always be connected to Savannah.

Given Johnson's ties to the city, we thought it’d be fun for Johnson to participate in our series “Song After Song.”

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Original Song: "Built To Last"

What stands out about the writing process?

I was doing some back and forth collaboration, a long distance kind of thing, and I wanted to create something containing poetic imagery, social insight, and hopefully, a catchy hook. I wanted these as the bones to stand solidly on their own, but I had a specific feel and vibe in mind for the final production.

What’s the song about?

It’s a response to a couple of songs—The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want; The Beatles, Ob-La-Di, Ob La Da; Lord Huron, Ends of the Earth. I wanted to synthesize a thoughtful, poetic response to all of these tunes. And I think the final work produced with Andrew Sovine achieves that end. Proud of how it came together.

How long of a writing process was it?

Well, at first like I mentioned, I was doing a long distance collaboration of sorts, and the lyrics went back and forth a few times. The tune that Andrew and I recorded is ultimately what came of that writing.

The bones of it took about three weeks to build, and then what Andrew and I created required a series of months and represents the best version of how I intended the song to come through. Andrew very nearly read my mind for the song’s production.

What about this song makes it an important one for you personally?

It’s one of the few tunes for which I had a specific set of goals in mind—the key written in, lyrics—and like I mentioned, the synthetic response to those other songs—as well as the final vibe for full production. It also doesn’t hurt to have some one like Andrew to bounce ideas off of. I enjoyed working on this tune with him.

Generally speaking, who are some of the artists you look to for inspiration as a writer?

Gah! I have so many though I try not to get all my inspiration from musicians alone. For example, I really like Oscar Wilde and his sharp wit—he has some poignant things to say about human nature, and I like to think about his witticisms and insights.

Being in nature and observing it also informs what I do. In recent years I’ve come to appreciate Joni Mitchell’s wisdom, and of course, Brandi Carlile just kills me with her depth and efficiency—she cuts clean to the bone.

As a songwriter, do you tend to have a goal in mind musically that you sit down and work at? Or do you let songs happen organically?

It depends. In the batch of song for Double High Five, the EP I’ll be releasing later this summer, about half of those were goal-oriented, meaning I gave myself “an assignment” to see if I could reach specific songwriting objectives.

The other tunes, though, wrote themselves with words that came from the ether. The key is to consistently work at it. I write a lot of duds, but when a song throws me, I do my best to get back on and keep writing. Doing the work is what makes the art happen.

Favorite Song: "Ends Of The Earth" - Lord Huron

When did you first discover this song?

In the spring of 2019.

What stands out to you about it?

I like the story and the overall atmospheric soundscape. I love the tone on the lead guitar. The song is about a man torn between adventure—seeing all the beauty and bandits in the world—and a woman he loves. He wants her to go with him to the “ends of the earth.” But she wants to stay. And so he goes. The last half of the last verse kills me:

I’m on a river that winds on forever

Follow ‘til I get where I’m goin’

Maybe I’m headin’ to die but I’m still gonna try

I guess I’m going alone

Dissect it musically; what’s most interesting to you in terms of production, writing, instrumentation, etc?

I like its tight songwriting, succinct to the point. Really, it’s a simple song, in key of E, kind of Johnny Cash-ish, but the layers of instrumentation build the song into this rich, lush soundscape—so many layers of harmony on lead and backing vocals; lots of reverb; horns and violins. It builds into this nice indie-Americana-esque pop song.

If you could make one connection between this song and yours, what would it be?

My song is, in part a response to this tune, from the perspective of the woman to whom he’s singing. In my last chorus, the tune asks:

Can you see between what you think you want and what you really need?

What you think you want and what you really need?

Could I be what you really need?

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