The Texas singer-songwriter talks about his most recent album, Hemingway, available now.
Filled with complex, heartwarming, and sometimes dark characters and short stories, Dan Johnson’s latest album, Hemingway, finds a new way to communicate to audiences.
The tracks on Hemingway are accompanied short stories written by novelist and journalist Travis Erwin; the music and songs touch on subjects ranging from suicide, drugs, and alcohol to raising children and finding life’s purpose.
Though tragic songs can be tough to listen to, Johnson presents his in a way that bares his faults and personal battles, gently weaving them into emotional narratives that manage to encourage and ultimately uplift.
“Hemingway,” the title track that jumpstarted the whole project, was inspired by the death of Johnson’s father and evokes the tragic end of the famous namesake author who died by his own shotgun-filled hand.
After performing the song for a friend in need, Johnson realized his own hardships could help heal others.
Recently, we chatted with Johnson about Hemingway in particular, songwriting in general, and his work in the fight against veteran suicide.
Cowboys & Indians: What’s been the response been like, so far, to your newest album, Hemingway?
Dan Johnson: It’s been interesting because in a lot of ways ... personally, I get a lot of emails and messages through Facebook and Twitter [from people] who are thankful that there’s a new way to approach the subject of how to deal with people who might be struggling with either post-traumatic stress or just the emotional issues that come from reacclimating to civilian life. So in that way, it has been everything that I hoped it would.
I’ve been traveling the entire country, about two weeks out of every month, going from place to place, doing a free benefit concert. The nature of the concert is a very uplifting show. Sometimes people are concerned; they think, you know, my gosh, that’s going to be such a heavy subject. Nobody wants to come and listen to a sermon about something so difficult. One of the things that I’ve always got to illustrate to people is that it’s actually a really fun and uplifting show. I mean, I even do some old singalong songs, old Beatles songs, and things like that. Each song in the show has some sort of message to it. Between the songs, I do a bunch of storytelling.
C&I: And the album comes with a companion book by novelist and journalist Travis Erwin. …
Johnson: That’s right. He and I have been friends for quite a long time and I’m a huge fan of his writing. When he found out that I was working on this project he said, “Man, I would love to sit down with you and write the full stories behind all of these characters and how they’re interrelated.” Because every song on that album tells a story and you would never know that all of those characters are related to each other. ... When you dig into the book itself, you figure out the secret connections between them and that part’s pretty cool.
C&I: Some of them are based on true stories. Are all the characters people you know?
Johnson: Yeah. The way that it worked out is I love writing music and I’ve written music for many, many years. And one of the hang-ups that I have is that so much of the music you hear is in first person, written from a self-centric or egocentric standpoint. One of the things that I wanted to do was create an album of songs that were very closely related to me autobiographically. I mean my mom is in there and my dad is in there and I’m in there and my sister’s in there. So all of these characters are people from my life, but they are told through the stories of others. That’s partially just to take the focus off of me and partially because I wanted it to be a little bit more universal, where no matter who was reading the book or who was listening to the album, they might find that they have some connection to the people or that they speak to them on an emotional or even a spiritual level.
C&I: Some tracks detail dark secrets and difficult struggles, most notably, the title track. Was it hard for you to be so vulnerable with the album?
Johnson: I’ll tell you the funny thing about it is the music that was written for this album [is the culmination of] about five years, probably. These were songs that I wrote mostly as therapy for myself to deal with difficult feelings that I had and never had the intention of really sharing with anyone else. The reason that this all got shared with everyone else is I was actually challenged by a very dear friend of mine who is a veteran who came back from Afghanistan with serious post-traumatic stress. And I shared the song “Hemingway” with him personally, because I knew that he was struggling and I wanted to find a way to connect with him and maybe help with some of his feelings if I could. And he said, “Man, I’m going to challenge you to sing that song every time you play a show because you never know who might be listening. You never know who might need to talk or might be on the verge, or maybe they know someone that they’re worried about.” I wasn’t planning on playing those songs live, because they are very personal and also because they deal with some dark and difficult issues. But because of that challenge, I started doing that and that’s how this whole project sort of became what it is. And now I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to do it.
C&I: You balance the difficult with pockets of hope and shed some light in there. Was it easier for you to write tracks like “Bloom” and “Lone Gunman’s Lament”?
Johnson: You know “Bloom” was very specifically taken from an experience that I had with my own daughters. Because I started very young, I had my oldest daughter when I was a senior in high school. It’s interesting because I have three of them and they’re all at different stages in their lives. Getting them together doesn’t happen all that often because one of them lives in Germany; she was living in Russia at the time. One of them is in college in Texas. And then the youngest one is 14 and lives with her mom the vast majority of the time. When I got them together it was so interesting to see the different stages of their lives and what amazing women they had become and were becoming. The thought occurred to me [that] there’s going to come a time when I’m going to be gone from this world and I won’t get to see the rest of their lives and children that they might have. So that song poured itself out very quickly. In that song and in that story, actually, the mom is me. It’s probably the only song I’ve ever made myself a woman. That final message of how proud of them I am and how proud the mom is of her daughter and what she’s become and she’s got this amazing life with this amazing man and now they’re having this baby— it was oddly easy to write a lot of this stuff. Same with “Lone Gunman’s Lament.” I wrote “Lone Gunman’s Lament” on the side of the highway. I don’t know if you’ve read that part of the story, yet, or not. There was a point in my own life where I had made up my mind that I was going to kill myself and I was driving down the highway as fast as my car would let me go because I had decided that I had ruined way too many relationships and made life miserable for my own kids and just been about the worst example of a human being you could imagine and this world would be a better place without me in it.
I realized that the self-talk that I was having was the exact same thing that my dad used to tell me right before he died. I realized that he thought he was doing me a favor and that all of the pain and anger that had come in my life since then — he didn’t mean for that to happen. I realized that I would be doing the same thing in my daughter’s lives that he had done in mine. And I pulled over to the side of the road and I sat there and I just cried and cried and cried. And so the nature of “Lone Gunman’s Lament” was, again, a very therapeutic thing. In the story, the guy doesn’t live. I knew that I had made the commitment not to take myself out of this world, but in the story, I could sort of vicariously get rid of the bad guy.
C&I: Did you always want to go into music? Was this always your therapeutic outlet? Has music always been that for you?
Johnson: As a matter of fact, yeah. I actually started playing venues and state fairs and things like that, started playing live when I was 17 years old. And then I had my oldest daughter and I put music away, or at least the public pursuit of music. So music was something that I spent the next 18 years of my life just writing in my back room, kind of expressing my feelings and dealing with the good times and the bad times in my life through music in a very private way. It wasn’t until my daughters were grown that they encouraged me to get out and let other people hear the songs that I had written. They were absolutely instrumental in encouraging me to start playing all that music live in front of other people. It took off fairly quickly, actually, at that point — to the point that I decided I needed to quit my full-time job and just pursue music full time.
C&I: This album is so impactful. Why do you think these songs resonate with people so much?
Johnson: I think the biggest thing is that it is such a raw and vulnerable offering of my own life and my own heartache and my own experiences and the lessons that I’ve learned. I know when I sing those songs that it is undeniable how incredibly personal they are to me. And when you’re willing to make yourself that vulnerable, I feel like other people are willing to open themselves up also. In that music, they find themselves and they find the people that they love. It’s amazing to me just to sit there on a stage — sometimes in a loud, crazy, rowdy bar or something — and have people that will gather there. They just sit there and I can look at their eyes while I’m playing and see that they’re emotionally connecting. You can sit there in a big, rowdy bar and have someone just absolutely pour their heart out and cry to you because you’re willing to be the person that opened yourself up first.
C&I: That’s something to be truly proud of. Is there a specific track that you’re most proud of?
Johnson: As far as the Hemingway album goes, really, I believe that “Bloom” is probably the one that I put the most determination into. “Hemingway” was such an odd story. I wrote it, actually, in Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West, Florida, and oddly enough, that one poured out. … So when it comes to the album, “Hemingway” is obviously the anchor. But the one that makes me happiest when I get to sit there and listen to it is “Bloom” because it just has so much beauty in it for me that relates to my own daughters.