Songwriter Profile: Johno, Echoes of the Musical Passport

The Road Not Taken from multi-instrumentalist, composer, and vocalist Johno encompasses a panoramic global perspective, a fascinating musical expedition that celebrates the common threads connecting people, places and experiences. The artist, who currently lives on the Greek coast, collaborates with local artists and records in far-flung destinations including Europe, Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.

The collection begins with Johno’s musical adaptation of “Stopping By Woods,” the classic poem written by Robert Frost. “I’m just mesmerized by this poem,” says Johno. “I’ve known it by heart for most of my life now, and yet, I can’t claim to really understand half of what’s there.”

In adapting the Robert Herrick poem, “To Anthea,” Johno discovered modern themes in antique text. “I was just looking through this heavy book called The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry. I was flipping the pages, and came across this one, and before I even started reading it, I just looked at the shape of the stanzas and saw ‘Well, four lines each, short, with rhymes. This should be easy enough to compose.’ Only much later, when I actually started paying attention to the words did I realize how progressive in thought this really was—super girl-power feminist stuff.”

Born to Irish parents and raised in London, Johno’s musical background is jazz-based. “I’m self-taught mainly, and have been fortunate enough to grow up in this great age of digital pedagogy and free knowledge for all,” he clarifies.” A lot of my songs and compositional elements started life as either licks I’d play in improvisation, or groovy vamps I’d riff on when practicing or jamming with mates. For example “To See the World” (an adaption of the poem “Auguries of Innocence” by William Blake) was born on the piano, out of a series of harmonic exercises in moving tonal centers by a minor third, something I came across in a Barry Harris master class video.”

In addition to the words of the poets as adapted melodically and rhythmically by Johno, he includes inspired covers such as the John Denver chestnut “Country Roads.” In the realm of the artist, it shifts to 7/8 time, is embellished with Arabic riffs, and tracked with 200 instruments and a Tunisian orchestra. Paul Simon’s “Homeward Bound,” rendered poignantly with instrumentation reflecting Johno’s ancestral roots, was recorded in Ireland. 

Although recorded intercontinentally with six different co-producers and engineers spanning Ireland, Greece, Jordan, Turkey and Tunisia, The Road Not Taken maintains a sonic core. “I’m flattered, but I honestly don’t think the sound is consistent,” says Johno. “You compromise and choose variety and interest over consistency and stability––which, come to think of it, is a compromise I make as a way of life––in terms of financial, social, career and even romantic choices.”

Johno returns to the words of Robert Frost with the title track, “The Road Not Taken.” The poem also gives title, in abbreviation, to his record label, RNT. “We want to explore unwalked musical roads, and explore uncharted artistic territories. The artists engaged in our projects come from a wide plethora of traditions and locations, but they all have a common thread in their bravery to step out of their comfort zones and create really brave art, that’s totally aesthetic and communicative, but also meaningful in its content and context.”

Expanding this worldview, in addition to the label, Johno has established The Delia Arts Foundation. “My raison d'être as a humble little human, and as a mediocre little musician, is to use music and art to create and inspire positive change,” says the artist. “That’s what we’re trying to do in RNT, and that’s what we’re trying to do in my small philanthropic endeavor. It’s all about making the connections, taking these incredible traditions, learning them, respecting them, and then trying to help them communicate to a wider audience, and perhaps even with each other.”

Contact Ron Kadish, [email protected]