Interview: Nicholas Johnson on why he keeps going back to Shady Pines

Kentucky country and Rust Belt rock with a dash of La Dolce Vita.

He may have been born and brought up in Kentucky and is currently a resident of Cincinnati, but singer-songwriter Nicholas Johnson has a sojourn in Italy to thank for providing the impetus for him to start his full-time professional music career and develop his own take on Kentucky country music and Rust Belt rock. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Nicholas Johnson in Cincinnati over Zoom to discuss his new album ‘Shady Pines Vol 2’ and get the lowdown on his time in Italy. He shares the fact that Shady Pines is an old address where he lived before he went to Italy, and why he has just released another record in the series. He laments the fact that Cincinnati’s music scene isn’t more structured given the amount of local talent, which includes Dayton-based producer and engineer Patrick Himes, who has worked with Ryan Adams, Ethan Johns and Lilly Hiatt among others, and who worked on both ‘Shady Pine’ records.

How are you, are you at home in Cincinnati?

I’m good, and I’m just off to my side gig working for Cincy Shirts, which allows me to get my most profitable item on the road at cost.

There seems to be a lot more money in t-shirts than albums these days, unfortunately.

I had a really good friend, who is way more accomplished than me, tell me that my music was simply an advertisement for my t-shirt business.

What is your connection with Italy and has it had any influence on your music?

It is the wildest story, I went over for love, and we’ll leave it at that, and it was a crazy time in my life and I’d never been overseas before. I sold the car, I sold the house, we kept the dogs, and we moved over there for an adventure, and when I got over there I found out it is hard to make money if you don’t know Italian super well. It was the first time I had to jump in with both feet into music, and that is how my doing this for a living began, in earnest anyway. Every time I had done it previously it was just dipping my toe in as a hobby. Once I was over there I was lucky enough to run into a fella called Andrea Rock, he is a radio personality and is the drive-home guy for Virgin Radio in Italy. I didn’t know him from Adam, and we just started talking about the Boston Celtics and NBA, and American sports, and I thought this is great, I’ve got an Italian fella to talk American sports with. Lo and behold he was a radio personality, and a very good singer-songwriter in his own right, and we became the best of friends, and he helped me open a lot of doors, and really propelled my music career.

What did the Italian audience make of this singer-songwriter who was learning his craft and their language?

You know what, it was great.  Unless you are a big dog, not a lot of non-big dogs pass through Italy, and while in America and the UK we have this culture of a dude with a guitar in a bar, or a smaller venue and stuff like that with dudes just playing, over there that just isn’t as prevalent. So when they see an American with a guitar who can’t speak Italian properly they are just like, what’s going on, this is fantastic. They dug it, and it was really cool to have those types of audiences.

Why did you come back to America?

There was a career and a role switch for my partner, and she was basically going to be in Cincinnati half the time and Milan half the time. So February 1st, 2020, there it was we moved back to Cincinnati and the next week Italy went into lockdown. On the one hand, it was good timing, but a month later it happened to us too. I was getting ready to go back and do another tour, I was planning to do another tour for you guys and Ireland, I’d just been over with you guys for the first time in October 2019. It was lovely planning to come back again, with a German singer-songwriter actually, Tim Vantol, and it obviously didn’t work out for anybody that year. We are going to make up for it this year, I’m coming back to see you guys in October

You were born in Kentucky and live in the Rust Belt, Cincinnati, how does that add to your americana credentials?

I grew up in the sticks, Rocky Hill, Kentucky, just google that shit and prepare to be amazed. My roots are in Kentucky, and as you grow up you can’t help but be immersed in it. I switched from drums in high school to guitar in college, I mean, they don’t appreciate it when you bring drums into a dorm, and when you first start doing this in the bars and putting yourself out there you are going to get yelled at, Gareth Brooks, Waylon, Willie, and to hear it for years and years,  honestly,  I stepped away from it a bit. When you are inundated with it, it is something I had to come back to and fall in love with on my own terms. In my stuff, you can probably hear the influence of Tom Petty and stuff like that, stuff that had maybe a little more rock to it. I gravitated to the rock and punk aspect of it, and even though I came from that area, just because it’s in your face, I had to come back to it on my own terms. It is there, it’s in my DNA, it’s in my blood, and I can’t get away from it. It’s my primer if you will.

‘Shady Pines Vol 2’ comes five years after ‘Vol 1’, what is the link?

For some reason, I have place as my title often, and Shady Pines was my street before I moved to Italy, and every time I think of that time in my life I think of Shady Pines. I called it ‘Volume 1’ because I did get kicked out of Italy, and it was by accident that I showed a friend these new songs that I had, and through a set of circumstances I found out that Patrick Himes who had worked on Ryan Adams ‘Heartbreaker’, one of my favourite albums, as Ethan Johns’ engineer was in Dayton, Ohio, I was like, are you kidding me? He was originally from Dayton and had recently moved back home. By the time he was able to get me into the studio to record these songs we had like two or three days. It was such a brief time and I had such a good experience with this guy, I heard a thing that a great producer is mainly a good psychiatrist. He has a way of just pulling it out of me and getting me to let my guard down. I had such a great experience, and it was such a brief experience, that I called it ‘Volume 1’ because it was an excuse to come back and work with him. These projects that I work with Patrick Himes on I’ve just volumized, and they are cousins for sure, ‘Vol 1’ and ‘Vol 2’.

How have you developed as an artist over the five years?

I think by the osmosis of being around super talented people, learning how to do things properly, and I think I’ve learnt how to craft a song better. I’ve learnt how to hear people when I’m writing a song on my acoustic, like my violinist Lorena.

How do you approach your songwriting, do you work at it or is it more when the muse takes you?

I work, I work really hard at it. You guys get six or seven songs an album on average, and there are probably a hundred and eighty that got edited out. There are a lot of things that I slack up in life, but that isn’t one of them. I also just try and get better, like I said, I’m not a natural guitarist I came from drums, so I just know how to beat the hell out of things. If I see somebody fingerpickin’ I’m like, how do you do that? I’m just coming at it with the curiosity and humility, I’m not going to become these fellas, I’m Nick, that’s the skin I’m in. I’ve just got to be the best Nick to give you guys a piece of myself.

What is Cincinnati like for a musician?

It is infuriating, and I will tell you why, there are just so many talented people here it is mindnumbing, and the scene doesn’t represent the talent that is here. It is so fragmented here, and there are certain scenes like Tulsa and obviously the big ones like Austin, but Tulsa gets me because we are a bigger city but when you go there, there is just this very cohesive scene, and the city government puts money behind it and it is a really cool scene. Even Appleton, Wisconsin, there is a great Wisconsin scene, but we are just so fragmented and one of my goals is to eventually get these talented people to realise they are better together than fragmented, and if that were to happen I think you’d have a really cool scene, not just Cincinnati but also the Southwest Ohio area in general including Northern Kentucky as well.

How much touring are you doing behind ‘Shady Pines Vol 2’?

We hit it heavy in the beginning, we went down to South by Southwest this year and I took myself, a drummer, and Jesse from the Pinkerton Raid, a band out of Durham, North Carolina, and we were each other’s band. So we did this thing where I would play for him and he would play bass for me and it was twenty-two straight days on the road. That was a lot so we’ve pumped the brakes for a month or so, but I’m hitting the road in June for a Southern swing, and then I’ll pump the brakes again before doing the East Coast in August, and I’m doing two or three weeks on the East Coast before heading to see you guys in the UK and Ireland in October.

What can UK and Irish audiences expect?

I’m trying to get a band, I’m trying to con a few people to have some fun with me. If not my drummer really wants to come so maybe just me and some rhythm, and maybe with another singer-songwriter but we are still working on that. I miss you guys, and while I love Cincinnati and touring the US, I lived in Europe for five years and the rhythm of life just suited me so well and I was treated well as a songwriter even if it was only because I was different. After I see you guys I’m off to play in Italy and see my buddies and I haven’t played there since 2019. I call my backing band the Same Old Strangers because I never know who the hell is going to be in it, and I have my Italian version of the Same Old Strangers and I can’t wait to get with those guys again.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

This is going to be a wild card, I was watching the Hulu series on ‘Wu-Tang’ and I’m actually digging back into my high school days by going into Wu-Tang Clan. It is phenomenal the way they were able to come together, and when you tie it into the stories of the Hulu series you get it, it really clicks. I’ve just been to see Jason Isbell, that was my first concert of his here in Cincinnati, and I started right back into his Drive-By Truckers days and did the documentary on HBO for him too. I really liked the new stuff, ‘Weathervanes’. It makes you cry, that ‘Caste Iron Skillet’ song just kills me and there again, when you are talking about evolving and listening to stuff like that as a songwriter how can you have an ounce of humility and say I’m there? There is a really good band here in Cincinnati that I’ve been listening to who are phenomenal, and they are called the Carriers, and they are getting ready to come out with a new EP, but their old stuff is just fantastic. The drummer from The National here in Cincinnati is on that album, and the bassist is from War On Drugs, so a star-studded cast but again, this fragmented little thing in Cincinnati is happening but it has to bake and become a pie if you know what I mean, all the ingredients are in place but it has to be baked.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I can’t wait to see you guys, keep an eye out on Nicholas Johnson because as soon as things are confirmed and nailed down I’m going to start posting dates, and on the socials as well, obviously.

Nicholas Johnson’s ‘Shady Pines Vol 2’ is out now on Ninja Jam Records.

About Martin Johnson 407 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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