Greg Johnson was born in Auckland on January 7, 1968. Music appealed early and he quickly became proficient on recorder, piano and trumpet.
Despite this, he says, “I never really enjoyed being taught much, I just liked doing my own thing. I have no particular taste whatsoever – if it sounds good, I like it, doesn’t matter whether it’s cool or fashionable.”
It was this attitude which saw him perform in a variety of styles before he was out of his teens. He played in high school bands – one of which, Compulsory Allies, supported the Instigators at Auckland University, when Johnson was aged just 15 – and in 1985 he joined a bunch of older guys in Diatribe, who played a combination of R&B, ska and reggae, and he stuck around when the group evolved into Seven Deadly Sins, featuring another young talent in singer Fiona MacDonald.
Two people who recognised Johnson’s talent were Trevor Reekie and Tom Ludvigson. Reekie’s Pagan Records released an EP by This Boy Rob (1987), a collaborative effort with Tom Fraser, and in 1989 Ludvigson invited Johnson to join Bluespeak, an acoustic jazz quartet that featured Johnson on trumpet and vocals. Johnson, in Chet Baker mode, continued performing and recording four albums with Bluespeak through to 1998, by which stage his “pop/rock” career had taken off. (“Bluespeak did feature some originals, both mine and Tom’s, but mostly it was drinking songs by people like Slim Gaillard and Mose Allison.”)
In mid-1992 Johnson was taken aback when ‘Isabelle’ provided a bona fide hit single, peaking at No.7 in the charts.
The Reekie connection was to kick-start Johnson’s career. Reekie was a member of Nigel Russell’s electronic band Car Crash Set and in 1988 Reekie (guitar), Russell (keyboards), Johnson and Johnson’s mate Joost Langeveld (bass) became the Greg Johnson Set; a drum machine (aka Car Crash Set) kept the beat. This line-up recorded the low-budget album The Watertable (1991) for Pagan Records.
In mid-1992 Johnson was taken aback when ‘Isabelle’ provided a bona fide hit single, peaking at No.7 in the charts. “‘Isabelle’ took us by surprise,” Johnson says, “we weren’t really a radio band so we had this hit single but we had no money to take advantage with an album so it was a lost opportunity.”
The next album Everyday Distortions finally surfaced the following year, by which stage the Set had been joined by a second guitarist, Chris McKelvie. Over the next two years there were regular line-up changes; those that passed through included guitarists Johnny Fleury and Boh Runga, bassists Clinton Brown and Mark Hughes, and drummer Andrew McLaren.
The third album, and the last credited to the Greg Johnson Set, was 1995’s Vine Street Stories, produced by Nigel Stone and crafted over a 12-month period, recorded in studios in Auckland and Wellington but mostly at Johnson’s Vine Street home in St Mary’s Bay. Finance to complete the project was a problem as Pagan Records’ (and band member) Trevor Reekie juggled budgets but irritation with delays were offset by the album’s reception – No.8 in the NZ Album Chart in September 1995. The same year Johnson collected ‘Best Male Vocalist’ at the NZ Music Awards.
Vine Street Stories was completed with financial support from Pagan distributors EMI and for the next album, 1997’s Chinese Whispers, credited to just Greg Johnson, he was signed to the multi-national. The album yielded a high point in Johnson’s career – he won the APRA Silver Scroll for ‘Liberty’.
The album yielded a high point in Johnson’s career – he won the APRA Silver Scroll for ‘Liberty’.
Despite, at best, just moderate sales, Greg Johnson has released a dozen albums to date, plus two compilations. He’s a master craftsman, one of New Zealand’s most melodic song smiths, but genuine mainstream success still eludes him – Vine Street Stories remains his best-selling album and ‘Isabelle’ his only Top 10 entry. He remains philosophical – “I haven’t changed what I do, I just do what I do. I still think there’s still some good songs left in me.”
In an attempt to crack a larger market, in 1997 Johnson and band toured Britain and Ireland to promote Chinese Whispers. The experience was cool enough, fun even, but it was Los Angeles where Johnson would eventually resettle.
Following 2000’s Sea Breeze Motel (produced by Ian Morris), there was interest from the USA. In February 2002, with collaborator and guitarist Ted Brown and an enthusiastic manager, Michelle Bakker, Johnson made the big move. He has remained a LA resident since.
Looking back on the early years in the USA, Johnson says, “Well our American record company (Immergent) put up a lot of money and wanted us over there and you just have to take that sort of opportunity. It didn’t really turn out the way we hoped. Life is what happens while you’re making plans, as they say. But those first few years were pretty exciting, touring around, doing a lot of shows.“
A single, ‘Save Yourself’, threatened to take off (formatted on over 60 radio stations – small stuff in the USA) and a zig zag tour saw some genuine high points, notably a sell-out concert at Boston’s prestigious Paradise Lounge. There were some positive write-ups, a smattering of television appearances, and Johnson met with Aaron Neville after Neville showed interest in recording Greg’s song ‘If You Think It’s Over’ (it didn’t happen). There were mentions in Billboard and other trade magazines, the occasional positive review.
As it turned out, Immergent Records went belly up and a second (UK) label also went under and both labels tried recouping some of their outlay through legal avenues, and lost, but none of these setbacks affected the release of the album Johnson had been working on, Here Comes The Caviar (2004).
It took four years before Johnson concluded what he’d known all along – the American music industry is corrupt, everyone with their hands out before you’d even made a dollar yourself. “I quit touring in 2007,” he says, “it was just too expensive. And my labels kept collapsing! It’s a young man’s game and I can’t go out sleeping on floors and that and stay sane. Or stay married.”
Johnson married American stuntwoman Kelli Barksdale (“she makes more money than me”) in 2007, and they have a daughter, Ruby (born 2012). He’s very much settled into an American life, has his small Birdwood Studio in his Santa Monica home, recording his own stuff and producing others. He has long collaborated with Ted Brown (who has also remained in the USA) and he also works with a string of other artists, including Lisa Crawley, Simon Perry, Mozella and others.
The Enzed songwriter may not have realised the American Dream but he gets by. He’s made contacts and has written for TV commercials and had songs placed on television and on the movies (‘I Got Opinions’ featured on the Dustin Hoffman-Emma Thompson vehicle Last Chance Harvey, 2008). There has been an album every couple of years and those regular New Zealand tours are well-attended by the faithful.
“Yeah, I come back once or twice a year,” he says, keep the New Zealand thing going without getting over-exposed, which works quite well. I get to see New Zealand almost like an outsider. American friends ask me why the hell I live in LA and I have to wonder myself at times. But it’s exciting and I’ve always liked the city and you just never know what’s going to happen in the Big Smoke.”