Seamlessly moving between genres and soundscapes, Jay-Jay Johanson has made himself known for his enthralling, melancholic music. He recently released his ninth studio album Cockroach, and we took the opportunity to meet with Sweden’s most unknown superstar.
When we meet with Jay-Jay Johanson, he is just about to open an exhibition at Snickarbacken 7 in Stockholm, a multifaceted venue housing amongst other things a café, a couple of stores, and an exhibition space. During October and November, this space has displayed an exhibition mirroring Jay Jay’s boundless creative universe, a mix of drawings, photographs, tour posters, sketches, and handwritten lyrics.
Ever since he made his debut with Whiskey in 1997, Jay-Jay Johanson has continued to release albums at a steady pace, with his ninth studio album Cockroach being the most recent. With an unmistakable sense for delicate melodies and dense harmonies, Jay-Jay is seamlessly moving between genres and soundscapes, from dark and suggestive pop songs to taut dance tunes and languorous ballads. Initially too shy to enter the stage, Jay Jay‘s relation to music changed when he saw a show with renowned jazz singer Chet Baker.
– My parents weren’t completely unmusical, but they didn’t have any musical training nor did they play any instruments, Jay-Jay says. But when they had kids they decided to get a piano, just so that we would have the opportunity to sit there and tinkle it if we wanted to. It awoke an interest in music in both me and my two siblings. I don’t think my parents realised what an impact that piano would have on our lives.
– I began writing music at an early age, even if I at first didn’t take it that seriously. But in 1985 I saw a show with Chet Baker in Skara. Up until then I had thought that you needed to be extrovert and confidant in order to stand on a stage, and I was sure that I was way too shy for that. I wasn’t into jazz at all, but my dad convinced me to go. To me, it was a real eye-opener.
Then he sat there in the shadows
and sang such brittle and beautiful
and honest and sad songs
– The first thing Chet did when he entered the stage was to move his chair away from the limelight, and then he sat there in the shadows and sang such brittle and beautiful and honest and sad songs. He showed that you could be shy and still be on stage. It made me realise that I could do that, that I wanted to do that.
In the beginning of the nineties, Jay-Jay moved from the small city of Trollhättan where he was raised, to study art and design in Stockholm. In addition to school and jobs at magazines like i-D magazine in London and Pop in Stockholm, he continued writing songs, blending jazz influences with samplings and drum machines. When he graduated from art school, it wasn’t long before he had completed his first album and signed a contract with a major record label.
– Before I signed with my label, I was sure I wanted to work with art and design in some way, and have music as a hobby, but instead I ended up working with music and having art as a hobby. Which I love.
I read somewhere that you were convinced that you wouldn’t do any more albums after the debut.
– When my debut album first was released, it sold maybe 1500 copies, and then it turned quiet. I was happy with that, I was just so proud to have a record out there, standing next to all the other fantastic records in the store.
– But before I had time to embark on something else, we got a call from a label in France, saying that they wanted to do something with my album. Two months later they sent over a team of journalists and not long after that they released the album in France. Then it all kicked off. The following year we went on a world tour, and when we found the time we began working with album number two, and when that was released we toured with it, and then we began with album number three.
And now you’ve just released album number nine.
– Exactly. But it still feels like I just got started, like I’m in the beginning of something. There are so many exciting things happening. We’ve just expanded into the US, Russia, and China, and at the moment we’re working on expanding to South America. Africa and Scandinavia pretty much the only continents where I’m still relatively unknown.
Why do you think you haven’t really broken through in Scandinavia?
– In the beginning I didn’t know what to respond to this question, but now I think I know why. We Scandinavians always keep track on what’s happening in Great Britain and the US, but we have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world.
– As I haven’t had a great break through in neither Great Britain nor the US, the media doesn’t know that my albums climb the charts in many other parts of the world. There’s no natural way for them to approach it. That’s why I haven’t bothered to venture into Scandinavia.
Have you felt bad about not breaking through here?
– I lived one year in France, but that wasn’t the best idea I’ve had. I don’t think I’ve ever been as unproductive as I was that year. There were too many fun things happening, events, parties, gallery openings. I got a lot of input, but had no time for output. Here, where I’m less distracted, I also have more time to create. There were also people camping outside of my house, taking pictures of me when I took out the trash. It’s nice to escape that.
There are many thoughts about
longing, nostalgia, loneliness, regret.
Not as many broken hearts
as it used to be though
Ever since you made your debut, you’ve kept releasing albums at a fairly steady pace. What is it that drives you?
– I’m constantly writing music. I never stop. Sometimes I even have trouble knowing when to stop writing and start recording. When I look back at my records they are somewhat blurred. I even write while recording. All I need is paper and a pen.
– When I’m done touring with an album I usually have enough material to record the next one. So ever since my debut, I’ve more or less done one year of touring, one year of recording and releasing the next album, and then another year of touring.
How do you find your subjects?
– It took me quite some time to write something that was a reflection of what I saw, and not just an excerpt from my diary. But I’m always writing about something in my immediate surrounding, something that I feel is close to me. There are many thoughts about longing, nostalgia, loneliness, regret. Not as many broken hearts as it used to be though, Jay-Jay says with a smile. Now I have a wife and a son.
– I’m mostly writing when I’m on my own, often in hotel rooms or airports while travelling. The writing process is not always that pleasant. With the production and arrangements I work together with people I know.
On the sleeve of Cockroach, Jay-Jay can be seen peeking out underneath an enormous black hat, like a young boy trying to look grown up, while also hiding himself from the surrounding world. The photo, taken early on in the process, was also one of the reasons why Jay-Jay chose to call the album Cockroach.
– The title carries several different meanings. Throughout my entire life, I’ve tried not to hate things, and if I’ve felt hatred or irritation towards something I tried to deal with it. Take for instance the song Dry Bones. I’ve always hated choir songs and barber shop, so I decided I had to do something about it, just to get rid of that hatred.
– Another example is the track Antidote. I’ve always hated the instrument didgeridoo, so I decided I needed to use that instrument in some way. So we added a long didgeridoovdrone throughout the whole track, and now I kind of like it.
– It was the same thing with the cockroaches. As soon as I’ve seen a cockroach, my first reaction has always been to stamp on it, to kill it. What kind of a reaction is that? Poor thing! I felt I had to do something positive with this hated animal.
– When we shot the photos for the album I also wore this huge hat, and I felt like I was hiding under some kind of shell. Just like a cockroach.
Listen to Jay-Jay Johanson’s latest album Cockroach here.
Photos by Aron Pelcman.