Jay-Jay Johanson: still gloomy after all these years

Jay-Jay Johanson: still gloomy after all these years
Johanson is finishing an 11th album that he hopes to release in early 2017. Photo: TT/Scanpix
When Jay-Jay Johanson's gloomy voice first seduced fans, CDs were king. Hailing from the streaming industry's epicentre of Sweden, Johanson has watched the music business transform firsthand -- and he likes what he sees.

Johanson — whose quickly recognizable sound couples his plaintive, high-pitched voice with dark electronic soundscapes and sparse but intense beats — tours to make a living, with album sales no longer what they were when he started in the 1990s.

But Johanson, who has put out an album on average every other year, said: “I'm having a great time.”

“I love the way things are changing. I think it's exciting times in the music business,” Johanson told us in Quebec City, where he played the summer festival, the Festival d'ete de Quebec.

“I like that it's the people who are in control of the record labels instead of the opposite. Huge labels used to decide what we were supposed to listen to, and now that's not the case, and I love it.”

Johanson said he saw the changes up close in Stockholm, the home of Spotify, leader of the fast-growing streaming industry that offers listeners unlimited, on-demand music.

While record labels had been moving into lavish offices in central Stockholm when Johanson was starting his career, he said he now barely knew a place to buy a record in the city.

But while he personally prefers the physical product, with its opportunities for design, Johanson said he respected not only streaming but illegal downloads.

He recalled his first show in Mexico, where he was listed as a headliner along with Icelandic experimental pop icon Bjork and French electronic duo Daft Punk.

Johanson was incredulous at his billing, with his record label telling him he had sold perhaps 500 CDs in Mexico.

“Then we come on stage and there are 25,000 people who know the lyrics. And that's all thanks to the illegal spreading of the music,” he said.

“And I just realized that, wow, this is nothing we can touch. This is happening, and it's adorable and it's fantastic.

“I would never complain that people are doing it because it has given me so much. You can never stop the anarchy of the youth.”

Despite singing almost exclusively in English, Johanson has enjoyed a particularly strong fan base in France, where his 1996 debut album, “Whiskey,” became a breakaway hit.

Even 20 years ago with “Whiskey,” Johanson was reflecting grimly on aging. On the song “I'm Older Now,” a bleak opus of strings and trip-hop beats, Johanson confronts his fading luck with women as he says goodbye to youth.

Johanson is, in fact, older now. At 46, he is married with a nine-year-old. Yet even wearing a wedding ring, the lanky blond singer returns on stage to dark territory.

In Quebec, performing in an intimate club setting away from the festival's main stage, Johanson occasionally flashed an ironic smile at the end of his gloomier old songs.

Johanson said he was fundamentally “more secure” as a person but still understood the “searching, nervous guy” from before.

“The loneliness that I was describing on my first three or four albums was loneliness written by a very lonely person,” he said.

“But then the loneliness I'm describing on the rest of the albums is a loneliness of being away from the people I love.”

Johanson is finishing an 11th album that he hopes to release in early 2017. He expects the yet-untitled work to be his first double-album, with around 16 songs.

Contributing to the size, Johanson, a lover of film soundtracks, said at least three tracks would be instrumental.

Johanson said the work bore similarities to his 2011 album “Spellbound,” a stripped-down work with guitar, but this time the key instrument was piano.

“I think people will again recognize me but I feel it's maybe more piano-driven than before,” he said of the album.

Johanson said he generally composes songs on piano and has grown more confident at his own playing skills.

But Johanson is often on the road, without a piano. With song ideas coming to him constantly, Johanson said he jots them down on paper or, if necessary, sings into his phone's voice notes.

“I usually only write when I'm alone,” he said, adding with a smile: “There is still a lot of darkness and loneliness to write about.”