Jodi Nicholas Photo
Much of the material on Colorway’s debut album came from dreams, says songwriter and primary creative force F. Alex Johnson. On his nightstand the singer/guitarist keeps an iPhone, whose voice memo app he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and hums melodies into.
“This never used to happen,” he says. “It used to be so hard to write music—now I don’t know if it’s the sobriety, I don’t know if it’s the enjoyment of life, I don’t know if it’s me being in love, I don’t know if it’s the seasons changing or what, but for some reason they started coming to me.”
Johnson isn’t shy about recounting his years of alcohol and drug abuse; he’s documented them extensively in his locally known blog Fearless By Default, and he’s very open about how his life and his songwriting have changed in his five years of being sober. A longtime member of The Drunk Stuntmen, his role in that band—perhaps because of his generally limited functionality at the time—seemed to have settled into the background as a sort of George Harrison to Terry Flood’s and Steve Sanderson’s Lennon and McCartney.
“I think I always had an ego waiting to come out,” says Johnson, “an alpha behind the beta. At that time though, my ego just basically manifested itself by saying, ‘I can do whatever I want,’ and if what I wanted was to drink a bottle of vodka, then that’s what I did. If it was on a gig day, I felt bad, but that was how it was.”
Johnson says his interest in exploring a trio format was piqued by an earlier side project, The Spoils, which alternately featured bassists Ed Mubarek, Kurt Fedora and Kevin O’Rourke and drummers Brian Marchese and Don McCaulay. In Colorway’s trio equation, the rhythm section of Dave Hayes (bass) and J.J. O’Connell (drums) has brought him back to a place where his is the primary voice—be it sung or played on his instrument. Is it his mission to bring back the guitar solo?
“When you and I grew up, we listened to Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, etc.—now they call that ‘classic rock,’” he says. “I want to make music that makes people feel like I felt when I heard those songs on the radio as a kid. Is it my mission to bring back the guitar solo? I guess you could say so, yes, and I would like to bring back more of what they call ‘classic rock,’ and maybe make it current again.
“My vocal range doesn’t have much in the high end,” he reflects, “so I guess my guitar playing is an extension of that; it goes farther than I can sing. I like to give a little bit of melody, and a little bit of “zazz” or “zazzle”—whatever you want to call it.”
Johnson’s new songs, and the fact that he whipped them out in a period of perhaps two months in between touring with the Young@Heart Chorus, are also deeply conscious of his own mortality, and perhaps playing with the Chorus (which lost more than a few members in the last couple of years) has kept him keenly aware of the brevity of human life in general.
“My family’s shrinking rapidly,” he says. “I don’t know what’s around the corner. If I go by my family history, my mom, my aunt, my grandmother, they all died in their 60s, and I’m 43. I’m not going to say that I’m afraid of dying tomorrow, but time is ticking faster, or at least louder, and I feel an urgency to get this stuff out.”
Johnson also seems to have finally arrived at a place wherein his songwriting more accurately reflects his own life, feelings and whatever personal philosophy he’s cobbled together.
“From the time I was 18 until I was about 38,” he says, “I would write in other peoples’ characters, like I was someone else. If you look back at those Drunk Stuntmen songs of mine, they’re all about characters. Since I stopped drinking, since I stopped smoking, since I stopped doing everything, I’ve written from my own first-person perspective, talking about ‘me,’ ‘we’ and ‘I’ instead of ‘he,’ ‘she’ or ‘it.’ That’s something I didn’t even realize until I listened to the record.”
If there’s a theme to Colorway, it seems a bit of a lonely one.
“Dave and I are both only children, and none of us have kids, so maybe there’s something about that,” says Johnson.
Still, the man has been dramatically transformed by the events of the last decade, and his life at the moment is not what you’d call lonely. His companion Jodi Nicholas is, he states, a big part of his life, and is credited for a song on the album (“Go Back to Sleep”) because it was essentially transcribed from something like a lullaby she sang to him when he woke from a bad dream one night.
“That song wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her, and I don’t know if I would’ve been here if it weren’t for her,” Johnson says with a palpably genuine tone of gratitude in his voice. “I don’t want to get too mushy, but she’s a big part of my life and a big part of me keeping my shit together.”
At the end of our interview I corner Johnson with a metaphysical question that he, to his credit, meets head on with the honesty and self-examination that have clearly been required of him in the last half-decade.
VA: What do you think about most of the time?
AJ: Dust. It’s infinite. I clean it from countertops every morning and it goes into the windows and gets exposed by raking light.
When I stopped my excessive lifestyle, the little things like keeping my house clean became so important to me. I like to keep everything in place in my house, because who knows if I’m coming back? I’ve had a lot of loss in my life. Even contemporaries can just… vanish. Life is so random like that. Also, dust is us—most dust is made from our skin. So it’s not quite rock ‘n’ roll, but I think about it a lot.•
Colorway performs at a CD release show this Saturday, June 29, 10 p.m., $10/advance, $13/door, The Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, www.iheg.com. Dave Houghton (Fancy Trash) opens. To purchase tracks or the full album or otherwise keep tabs on the band, visit www.colorwaymusic.com.