Jay-Jay Johanson: “As an alternative artist, I feel that the anarchy of the music business right now is being fantastic” 


Jay-Jay Johanson visited Málaga last weekend to give an incredible concert in Teatro Cervantes and make a review through his 20 years making music and, of course, to make us enjoy with the songs of his new album: Opium. We had the opportunity to speak with him and to discover that behind the melancholic, intimate singer there is an extrovert, funny and a very honest person and with the same delicacy than his songs. Here you can read how it was our talk.

You always take care a lot of the esthetic of your albums, you also studied Design, we would like to know how do you think the esthetic contribute to the music?

I think that when you are a kid a big part of choosing who you are as a young teenager is not only what it sounds like but it also a lot about what it looks like. Maybe it was even stronger before, when I was a young teenager everybody was choosing their camp, if they wanted to be a hard rocker, a new romantic, a punk rocker… Because in each field you choose a life style, it was not only music it was a total esthetic: the looks, the clothes you wear, the way you spoke… It´s not sort it out today, the young are more floating into each other nowadays, maybe is not as important today as it was before and also today we consume music in another way we used to do. Now there are many listeners who actually don´t look at the record cover design: who created what, actually estheticism, typography, photography and artwork. There are a lot of listeners who don´t ever encounter that art form when listening to music, who listen streaming music on sites without watching the videos. I think today there are so many other ways of consuming and listening to music than used to be. For a long period of time a lot of the music listeners discovered music on MTV because that was the way to discover it and which made the video was very important, of course. And record labels spent a lot of money on making the videos. 

In the video you have the possibility to add the looks, the style, the clothes and the music, of course. There were so many ways of showing what life style you wanted to give but now there is a lot of music only being listened by maybe people who don´t even know if it´s a cover or if it´s an original song. It seems like a lot of people don´t even need to know who produced it, but in the 80s it was so important who is playing bass on this track for example… It is a different generation of the music consumers now and I think it is fine. Things change and things have always changed so it is not strange. I would say I still find very exciting and funny to make my artworks and my videos but, of course, nowadays the record labels are spending less money on it because there is no a real purpose for a video, there is no a real purpose for photography as it was before they think. I still think that there is, of course, a part of the listeners who are interested in all these details but it´s harder to convince record label people to spend the money on that, but I still find very exciting to do and I still discover music via what it looks like before what it sounds like.

“I still discover music via what it looks like before what it sounds like”


If you would have to choose, nowadays what make people join better, the music or the esthetic?

I think is not as much as it used to be, I think today also the young generation, at least, in many part of the world gives more than ever importance to the political messages, there is another type of the listeners today. But it is also different in every part of the world because I know, for example, I am getting pretty huge for some Turkish right now. Turkey is going through a huge change of politics right now, a lot of the Turkish audience are facing difficulties in the cultural, social life, so they find, in some way, (I don´t know how) my lyrics inspiring for them on a cultural and political level and that was not at all my purpose when I did it. They find phrases that I use in my lyrics, they put them as a political sentences and spray on the walls when they are demostrating. And that was not at all my purpose when I did it but it is very exciting to know that are people who find me being a part of the political movements.

For example, in France, where is my biggest country when it comes the sales or how much I work, I know that my audience is older because they discovered me in the 90s, so they have known me for almost 20 years, so they are a different generation of listeners while in other parts of the world it is a younger audience so it is very different in different countries. And I think still that for young people the  images, photography and videos and the whole style is possibly very important but maybe not as much as it was before when there were really fights between the different young generations.

“I don`t know how, Turkish audience find my lyrics inspiring for them on a cultural and political level”


As you said before, nowadays most of the people listen to music on streaming. What do you think about the evolution of the music business?

I have been through the whole change of it I started when the CD was the product for the record label to sell and after a couple of years I remember when I went to sign to with BMG records by 1995, BNG records, SONY, record labels in Stockolm, in Sweden all they have their offices outside the city center because it was too expensive to have the office in the city center but in these years 95-96, they earned so much money on the CD sales, so in 97 all the record labels moved into town and bought huge buildings and fantastic offices and there were so many people, they served champagne all the time because they were so rich on the CD sales because didn´t cost them anything because it was just the real release of all records on CDs. So we were living like a golden age and they spent millions on the videos and they had so much fun but it didn´t take many years until that high kind of gone. In 2004-2005 they didn´t spend at all as much money and they started to sack people and then came the total break and now the record labels are outside, in the suburbs again, there is no many record labels left. I feel I am lucky that I started my career during the CD sales boom because a lot of people discovered me by buying my things, they wanted to actually own the product since a lot of my listeners are the generation that started buying it, so they still want to buy it, they continue buying my product which is fun. 

For example, I remember the first time I went to Mexico, I was asking my record label people why I am going to Mexico? Have I sold any records there? And they checked and told me you sold maybe 500 records, and I thought it is strange that I fly over… but when I went on stage there were 25.000 people in the audience and it is all thanks to illegal downloading, streaming… So it is fantastic how huge it can become without the major record labels knowing. I loved it because it was so suddenly, I felt that the music business is so independent, it´s so anarchistic, it is the listener who own the business is not the record labels because the major labels they don´t know anymore, they can´t measure these things that go on, it´s the listeners who decide and I felt that it was so funny that. So I am very happy because as an alternative artist I feel that the anarchy in the business right now is very good for me, I am sure that for some big artists is really bad because it makes people are “stealing” their stuff but for me it has made me so much bigger in a lot of territories, the illegal downloading, the spreading, the sharing, the streaming… absolutely for me it has been fantastic.

“It is fantastic how huge it can become without the major record labels knowing”

What do you think about Eurovision, which was celebrated this year in Sweden? What do you think about the winner?

The winner of this year was a crap track, I think it was really bad. I actually really liked Australia, the Australian track I thought it was really good. The reason why I was watching it is actually more because I have a 9 years old son and he find kind of funny to watch it and it is a big thing in Sweden, of course, it is a huge mass media high and this time it was celebrated in Sweden so we were watching it and I actually thought the Australian song was really good and the girl was kind of cute. I think she was kind of special, different, it sounds clear, a lot were just like a mess of sounds. No, but it is not really my thing. As a general thing there are not a lot of songs that I can admire, I have never really liked this kind of extrovert, it is too extrovert, it is too much focusing on the dress code, on the dancing… Musicians I like are much more introverts and shy than that but we were watching it.

And the Spanish singer, you watched?

I don´t remember it, I don´t remember the Swedish either!


You have played a lot of styles of music through your career: jazz, trip hop, bossa nova, electro, funk… With which one do you feel more comfortable?

I think that when it comes to the actual songwriting I have more or less only been inspired by one style of music and that’s the jazz. I mean the jazz music is the key for me when I write but then when we arrange and produce or when we record that´s when a lot of different things can be inspiration. We listen to a lot of soundtracks during 20 years making music. When we started it was a lot of fun to make the trip hop thing, the Bristol thing was really funny at the time. Then we tried a little bit more electronic, then we moved a bit more into improvisation in the studio which was more close to the jazz music and sometimes, of course, we touch the pop even though I felt that I never lost my strong interest in the jazz music as a writer but the arrangements can take so many different forms. But I feel that the voice and the melody and the lyrics I don´t lose track on that because that is where the synchronize influence stay the same.

Making music for 20 years it is not fun for us, is not fun for the audience if we would have stayed in one little thing to do the same all the time. I mean most people who work during more than 20 years of time or who work more than 5 years of time start to discover new things, to change. People seem to forget that even guys like Neil Young did electro record, Paul McCartney did electro totally digital record in the 80s. It is easier to be an artist or a band who makes three records and then the singer dies or you disappear because three records you can make it pretty homogeneous, in the same sound, but if you start making more you kind need to discover new things, new ways of doing things and then you can maybe come back again where you started and do other explorations in sounds. As a writer, jazz is my biggest influence but when it comes the arrangement and the production I can feel like making sort of experimental pop.

“The jazz music is the key for me when I write”

Jay-Jay Johanson

And from now in what sound would you like to work in?

We are working in my new record now, we are now halfway, half of the tracks are done, I guess it gonna be finished something like August-September, maybe there is a single before the Christmas and the album will be out beginning of 2017. I feel we continue with what we are doing, we are not doing huge changes, we have more synthesizers in the studio than we had had before but we don´t let them take over hand we just include them in what we are doing, we don´t focus on them, we never start with them, I mean I write the songs for piano and voice, then we add the drums and then we can adjust, check what ingredients the song needs to make it more interesting and sometimes is drums, sometimes is a vibraphone, sometimes is a trombone or a trumpet but sometimes is a synthesizers, it depends on what the song needs.


“People seem to forget that even guys like Neil Young did or Paul McCartney did a electro record”

Can you tell us something about the Sweden music scene?

The big thing of the music scene in Sweden is actually circling around a couple of guys who write all the songs that are top ten in America all the time, Justin Timberlake, they do the songs for Taylor Swift… That kind of weather is on the extreme comercial side of the Swedish music but then we have a huge kind of underground and there is a huge  electronic and a huge death metal scene in Sweden which is actually very good I am not a big death metal listener but I can hear the scene is very vibrant, funny and good. I miss The Knife because they were very important for the Swedish music scene but now it seems they are very quiet. It is happening there are some young teenagers doing cool things both on the hip hop scene, and lets say more on electronic scene but it is a small country, it is hard to say that something really big is happening. Stockholm is a small city, we all meet in the same bars, in the same cafes, in the same clubs, we go to the same concerts… Is not very big, maybe Scandinavia as a scene is more important to look at when we include, lets say what is happening in Denmark, Norway, Finland, Island, that´s what we might see more, lets say the Scandinavia movement of the electronic scene, the underground scene but Sweden is maybe a little bit too small.

And the Spanish music scene? Do you know it?

Well it is not a lot that we do seem to import to the Swedish, we don´t hear a lot in the Swedish radio or in the Swedish TV, sometimes when I hear stuff and I am curious about what is and maybe if I do a big deep investigation I may find out that it has been or maybe in some way produced in Spain but it rarely happens. It still so much based on America and UK the whole music world, that´s one of the reason why I am not very famous in Sweden because Swedish media is so much covering what is big in America an UK so even if I am huge in France, in Mexico or in China they will never know it because they only focus on what is happening en America, England or Sweden that is how Swedish media works at least. It is fine I can be able to work on a much more alternative level which I like, so I am happy about that.

Jay Jay Johanson

How do you feel when they call you to play in places like Málaga?

It is such a pleasure, it have been seven years ago since I was here last time and I played in the Teatro Echegaray it is a great pleasure to be back. Spain was the second country, after France, to release my records back in 1996 so I have a long history with some Spanish fans and it is really cool. I love to come back, it was France, and Spain came at the same time, and then spread in other languages, spread to Canadá, South America… Nice, it is really cool, it is a pleasure.

Jay-Jay Johanson


A book: Love is the Heart of Everything: Correspondence Between Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik by Vladimir Mayakovsky

A film: Hitchcock – Psycho, Birds or Rear Window. I love films, I love Japaness films, I even love cartoons, I love My Neighbor Totoro

A song: Suicide is Painless written by Johnny Mandel from an American TV serie called M.A.S.H.

A trip: My favourite destination is Tokyo, my favourtie cuisine, spirit of people, they are so beautiful, they are very kind and shy, I feel very close to them in many ways

A dream: The ones I need to write down as soon as I wake up before they disappeared from my memory, sometimes dreams can be inspiration for the story telling I sing about, some of the dreams I dream directly can be transfer into poetry and lyrics of my songs

Photos: Luis M. Carceller

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