Friday, June 13, 2014

Chicago musician Jesse W. Johnson reveals quiet side on new EP


Those who only know Jesse W. Johnson as the frontman of Chicago band Jet W. Lee will see a different side of him on his new EP, "Cannon Rows."

"Cannon Rows" is a quiet album, a stark change from the relentless energy that Jet W. Lee,, delivers on stage and on record.

In support of the new EP, Johnson will perform June 28 at The Throne Room, 2831 N. Broadway St., Chicago. The Holy Alimonies, Swearwords and Doubting Thomas Cruise Control also are part of the bill.

The show starts at 9 p.m. and tickets are $7, available at

I had the chance to talk to Johnson about "Cannon Rows."

Q - Your new EP, "Cannon Rows," is a quiet album, much different than the high energy Jet W. Lee delivers on stage and on record. Did you feel you wanted to do something totally different than Jet W. Lee?

I didn't really start with the idea to do something totally different, but I certainly had been wanting to do some acoustic recordings and it seemed that the material fit that format well. A lot of Jet W. Lee songs are written on acoustic guitar too but then we give them the rock treatment. 

I actually started out performing solo acoustic shows and have always loved it. There's definitely a different energy that goes into it than playing with a band, but I love the dynamics and intensity that you can reach with acoustic music.

There's no covering anything up, that's for sure. 

Q - In sitting down to record "Cannon Rows," what were your goals and do you think you accomplished them? 

I wanted these songs to sound dark and intimate, and to capture as much of the emotional state I was in while writing them. In order to best do this, I wanted to record live and get them down pretty quickly after they were written.

I find if I sit on a song for too long before recording, it can lose some of the edge that makes it unique in the first place. It's not an easy thing to get back.

Fortunately things went great and I'm proud of how it turned out. I'm OK with a song being a little rough around the edges if it has "that spook" so I ended up using the first or second takes on most of them. 

Q - Is there a meaning behind the name of the EP?

"Cannon Rows" was a title that just came to me when I was in the shower or something, ha ha. I didn't really know what it meant, but when I played that song for my grandmother she told me she pictured soldiers coming home with a bunch of discarded weapons scattered behind them.

I like that. These songs have characters at turning points and who are coming to terms with actions that caused other people pain.

They've got their own cannons casting shadows behind them. 

Q - How did the songwriting go for this EP? Was writing the songs for "Cannon Rows" harder or easier than writing songs for Jet W. Lee? 

Oh man, I don't think the writing was any harder or easier but the arrangements were quicker and the recording was faster. Writing is my favorite part of the process, but the songs were recorded so soon after writing that it melded together.

It was natural and fun to do and I wanna keep doing it that way for sure. 

Q - I understand that Jet W. Lee is taking some time off and will be playing again in July. Do you see this record as a side project? Are you going to be touring with this EP even after Jet W. Lee resumes its touring schedule?

I suppose you could call it a side project, but I've always done some solo stuff while Jet W. Lee has been going on too. I love doing both! I'm definitely planning a tour right now for this EP and intend on recording more soon. 

This solo show coming up June 28th will feature some new songs that I can't wait to do. 

Q - Speaking of Jet W. Lee, are you guys working on new music? What should people expect from the next Jet W. Lee album? 

Yes indeed we are. We've actually finished recording our third album and are mixing it now.

We hope to get it out by the end of the year. Its gonna be called "Dream is a Dark Cloud," and it features some extremes for the band.

There's a few songs that are harder than usual, and some that are kinda country-rock. Overall, its darker than our last album and reflects our experiences hammering things out on the road for the past few years.

It's gonna be epic. 

Q - What do you think of the Chicago music scene compared to other music scenes around the country? Are there other Chicago musicians out there that you admire what they are doing? 

Chicago has a ton of awesome bands. A few of my personal favorites are The Safes, The Runnies, The Noise FM, Panoramic & True, Birches, and The Thons. 

They are all above else fantastic live players, which means the world. Plus, I admire their work ethic and songwriting.

I love that Chicago has so many bands, but sometimes it feels like too many going in too many different directions. I think we could benefit from more unifying events like the Lottery League they have in Cleveland, where local musicians are randomly assigned into a band and given time to write, record, and play a few songs at a showcase.

It's a fantastic mixer that promotes the scene as a whole. My favorite venue here is Coles, because they book great bands, they don't charge cover, they run good sound, and they pay bands fairly. Who would've thought?! 

Q - Do you have any dream projects or collaborations? 

I'd love to make a sad, dark song with Jessica Lea Mayfield. She's one of my favorites right now.

Plus I'd love to be a part of something with David Bazan. What a great voice he's got, not to mention his songs.