“The record will make you want to dance, make you want to cry, and make you want to turn around and buy a little property in a small town somewhere.”
On paper, James Johnston’s meteoric rise appears to have unfolded at a back-breaking speed, but after speaking with him, you quickly realise that he is exactly where he should be, and it's been decades in the making. Refreshingly, James extinguishes any ideas of imposter syndrome and embraces his position and accolades, reflecting on the last two years gratefully.
“I feel incredibly honoured, lucky and blessed that I get to be doing it,” Johnston reveals. “I have been dreaming about this experience my whole life; it just took me almost 30 years to finally get out there and do it. And for my music to have connected so well, that’s the part that has been the dream.
“I get to now travel around the country, like last night; I played to 3,000 people in a venue that was literally next door to where I would play pub covers to nobody listening. I was there three years ago with my acoustic guitar, and everyone was screaming at horses and barely listening. I used to watch people lining up at the venue next door, and I’d be like, ‘Imagine one day’.
“Last night, I played to a packed house and toured with Morgan Evans, another hero of mine. It's crazy. To be able to play those shows and see whole crowds of people sing my songs back to me and come up to me after and say, “Your story is like my story”, it’s just really cool.”
Johnston’s popularity has been quick and emphatic, with many of his songs centred around the seemingly everyday experiences of being a parent, a husband and life on the land. With storytelling so foundational to the country genre, James’ ability to capture a feeling or message and convey it so earnestly has made him appeal to such a wide country audience.
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Johnston says when he sits down to write a song, there is no strategic thinking in creating something that is sure to connect with people. Instead, he made a commitment to himself when he started taking his music seriously that he would only speak his truth. When asked if his upcoming record would be more of the upbeat anthems he has come to be known for, he assures us it is but also hints that we can expect a broader range.
“The record is a journey; that’s all I am going to say,” he teases. “There are 20 songs, and when you get to the end of the record, I think you will know me way more intimately. The record will make you want to dance, make you want to cry, and make you want to turn around and buy a little property in a small town somewhere.
“The over-arching thing I say is that it is a celebration of a way of life. Raised Like That is just that - a celebration of being raised like that. There are topics that I touch on that are heavy, as things about living on the land are not always nice. But the over-arching message is being thankful for that way of life.”
Johnston continues, “A lot of the music I have released up to date is pulled from my upbringing and growing up in a small town, growing up in the country and all the things that come with that. I think the album, a lot of the songs are the evolution of that - it goes from now, being a dad, and then getting back to my roots and reconnecting with my childhood, taking my family and being back in that environment and what that means now.”
Track five on the album, This Land Is Killing Me tackles the historically high suicide rates in country towns, something that Johnston feels connected to. The song itself came to Johnston after a late-night call from a friend experiencing tough times facing the struggles of living on the land. Johnston’s father was also part of community groups in their country town that supported men of all ages facing similar situations.
Johnston explains, “I have written a lot of songs with messages that I want to share, and I’m really excited that there are a few of those songs on there (the record). To be honest, I didn’t sit down to write them, thinking they would be my next single; I just wrote them because I felt like I had something to say at that time.
“I was very content with them sitting between me and my guitar, and that’s the way I thought they would exist. It was only when I was putting the record together that I thought, ‘You know what, I am going to let some of these songs go and be a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable and share my story as well’.”
Fans who fell for Johnston’s upbeat anthems can expect that same flavour when they listen to parts of the Raised Like That album or when seeing him on tour or at the Cruisin’ Country Festival. In fact, Johnston and Morgan Evans (who is touring with him) go way back and actually met at a local all-schools combined event, Star Struck, which was created to identify the next generation of music talent.
Morgan, 16 at the time, took 12-year-old James under his wing and showed him the ropes, as it was the first time James was on a stage that big. Now, 20 years on, they are able to channel their decade of experience of growing up and performing in that Australian bar scene to deliver their fun, country-grown performances together.
“That full circle moment of travelling with him and having these shows sell out once, twice and sometimes three times. It’s crazy. This feels like our home territory. Both our shows are high energy, and it's cool because we are different artists, but there is a lot of positivity in the room when you come to a Morgan Evans and James Johnston show. Good vibes going around.”
With Johnston receiving a Golden Guitar award for his Same Songs duet with Kaylee Bell, which features on the album, it’s clear that Johnston thrives when collaborating with friends and peers. When asked what it was like to collaborate with Zac and George on Some Things Never Change, he assured us that filming the clip was as organic and fun as it appears.
“The amount of planning that went into making that video clip was just, ‘Hey, let’s go and shoot a music video at my old pub’. That’s about as much planning as we put in,” Johnston laughs. “We kind of let whatever happens happen. It was great because so many locals showed up, and this song is about connecting with old friends.
“We were just sitting there having a beer, and the locals just kept topping up our beers and topping up our beers. In music videos, you often shoot the same clip five times or something, so every time we sat there, we would drink the beer, and then they would appear and top the beer up again. By the end of the clip, we were a bit toasted, but we had a good time. That’s what the whole song is about; it felt authentic.”
Johnston is tight-lipped about any other collaborations that might be in the works, saying that he cannot announce anything but teases that we can add “yet”. When asked how his two young sons received the album at home, Johnston assures us that they aren’t too fussed.
“I’m just plain old dad, to be honest. It’s funny; people always ask me how my kids feel about what I do and all that. But at the same time, my youngest, who is 18 months old, actually said his first sentence only two days ago, and the sentence was “I’m talking about my people”, which is one of my songs, My People. I was with my wife, and we said, ‘Did he just sing the lines to that song?’ So that was very cute; we might have a little rockstar on our hands.
“There is also (another) song on this record that features my older boy, Coda, and it’s the first time he has ever sung before, and he’s actually singing on one of the songs. It’s really a story of being away from home and the challenges with family, and now he gets to be on that. It’s really nice. There is even a song on there that my wife and I wrote together. I’m excited; it feels like a piece of the family is in there.”
“For me, I want to take people on a journey, and hopefully, they can see themselves and their story in some of my songs. They can also get to know me a bit better too. Hopefully, people like it, and if they don't - I’m still really proud of it.”
James Johnston’s ‘Raised Like That’ will be released on 29 September, with pre-orders available now. Johnston will perform at the 2023 edition of Savannah In The Round festival in Mareeba, Cairns Hinterland, on 6-8 October.