I had the pleasure of interviewing
Fort Worth singer-songwriter and author, Dan Johnson.
Dan has a remarkably unique writing style, influenced not only by his focus on intricate composition and lyricism, but also by a life most people would consider fairly intense and extraordinary.
His most recent release, “Hemingway,” is a two-part release, with a concept album as well as a companion book of short stories that delves deep into the struggles of a soldier returning from the war, struggling with PTSD and thoughts of suicide.
Dan was gracious enough to really open up and tell us his story which I believe will resonate deeply with many of our readers.
Too many times we all get caught up and think we’re the only ones going through a struggle when in fact, it’s more common than you think.
Learn more in the full interview below.
Dan, thank you so much for joining us! Let’s show everyone you’re a normal human being. What are your hobbies, favorite places to visit, pet peeves? Tell us about YOU.
“Normal might be too kind. I have been very fortunate though. Music was always my passion and hobby, but it has sort of taken on a life of its own and turned into a full-time career. Although the old adage about ‘turn your hobby into a career and you’ll never work a day in your life’ is pretty much BS. I’ve never had to work so hard at anything in my life.
“Outside of work, I spend my time travelling, seventeen countries and thirty-three states so far. I’m also really passionate about culinary arts. I’m a pretty good amateur chef, and one of these days, I’d love for life to slow down enough that I could attend a culinary institute. Maybe someday I’ll be a relaxed old man, with a really badass restaurant.”
Can you tell us something about you that few people know?
“With the way social media is these days, life has become a bit of a fishbowl. But I guess a lot of folks don’t know that I’m an active member of Mensa. I had a really negative experience throughout school and a lot of disciplinary problems. It was later on that I was encouraged to do some IQ testing and found out that I qualified for Mensa with an IQ of 143.
“It’s kind of nice being affiliated with a group of people who have often struggled socially and in school because their IQ was too high to feel very normal. Having an overly-active brain can be more of a hindrance than a blessing in a lot of ways, but it has its perks.”
Do you have any exciting projects going on right now?
“This newest release, “Hemingway,” has been in the works for about three years now. The album is a concept album and the project is pretty grandiose. I’ve always admired writers who have a fully developed theme behind a complex concept album, and I wanted to create something with that kind of depth. The music is emotional, sometimes dark and gritty, Southern Americana, with an intense focus on song craft, both lyrically and instrumentally. It’s five songs with a hidden track at the end. Each song tells a separate and stand-alone story.
“Then there’s an accompanying book of short stories, co-written with my friend Travis Erwin, who is a fantastic novelist. In the book, the listener or reader finds the secret ties between all the songs’ stories and characters across time, from a prequel approach to an expanded look at the present, and a taste of what happened after the last lyrics.
“Much the way parables taught lessons in the bible, the complete project serves as an allegory about the inseparable nature of good and evil in this world, and man’s ability (or lack thereof) to determine the difference through our everyday choices. 20% of all profits go to “Operation Hemingway,” a not-for-profit organization fighting the battle against veteran suicide in America. My father was an injured vet who struggled with depression and mental illness and took his life the day before my 11th birthday. This album honors him and families like ours, who have lived with the tragic pain of suicide.”
Many people say success correlates with the people you meet in your life. Can you describe two that most impacted your success and why.
“I’ll always owe a debt of gratitude to my high school band director. By my senior year, I was trying to quit. Actually, the principal was threatening to kick me out and I was trying to save him the trouble. Our band director, Jim Little, went to bat for me. He kept me in music classes nearly all day, so that I could fulfill my senior year requirements without dropping out. I was in the orchestra and marching band, played guitar in the jazz band, and he invented a class called “independent studies in music” where I hung out with him in the band hall for an hour and learned about music theory, taught myself piano, and looked at jobs in the music industry.
“Next, I’d have to probably say Walt Wilkins, who wrote the foreword to the book. Walt is an amazing singer-songwriter. It was while I was watching a show of his, that I made the decision to pursue music full-time. He was there on this stage, just him and his guitar. He had this audience absolutely spellbound. The spirituality of his music moved me to my core. Later, I wrote a song about the experience called “Troubadour’s Prayer,” that he recorded with me. It’s still one of my favorites ever.”
Leaders always seem to find ways to overcome their weaknesses. Can you share one or two examples of how you work outside of your comfort zone to achieve success?
“I feel like I’ve got more weaknesses than I have strengths honestly. I could probably go on forever about this one.
“But the first couple that come to mind are the fact that I was never happy about my voice. it doesn’t really sound like anyone else’s. And it certainly doesn’t sound like what modern listeners seem to gravitate toward. In high school I tried out for the All School Musical. I was literally given the only non-singing part in “Grease.” The vocal instructor said “this must just be too hard” for me.
“I have an ex-wife who used to tell me that no one was ever going to want to listen to my voice, because it’s just not pretty. But music was so important to me, and I was so passionate about songwriting that I just made up my mind to never quit. And I think as is often the case, the more I allowed myself to express my feelings and the heart in my writing through my voice, the more I began to like it. And now it’s probably the thing that people mention most often about what they love about the music.
Secondly, I would have to mention stage fright. You wouldn’t know it now, but there was a time when I couldn’t stand up in front of people and speak or sing without completely falling apart. My heart would race, my gut would turn, my throat would constrict, and my voice would waver. It makes it pretty difficult to sing, obviously. And I would get so angry at myself for being so weak.
“So, I joined Toastmasters, where they make you get up and give a speech every single week. The first full speech I had to give, I had always heard that if you imagine the audience in their underwear that it will make it easier. But I had tried that so many times before, and it never worked. So, before my speech, I excused myself to the restroom and stripped down to MY underwear. I figured I would be so preoccupied with standing in front of a crowd in nothing but my skivvies that I would forget all about my fear of speaking.
“In the beginning of the speech, I held up a glass of water and my hand was shaking so badly that the water was spilling out. I made a dedication that by the time I finished that speech I would be able to stand there and hold that glass perfectly still. It was equally humiliating and effective. I was never afraid to get in front of a crowd again.”
The concept of mind over matter has been around for years. A contemporary description of this is having mental toughness. Can you give us an example (or two) of obstacles you’ve overcome by getting your mind in the right place (some might call this reframing the situation)?
“Earlier on you asked about heroes and influences. I listed two of my musical heroes. But the fact of the matter is that two of the biggest influences in my entire life were actually authors…one being Tim Ferriss, famous for The 4-Hour Work Week, and the other being Anthony Robbins. Those two men changed my entire life.
“Tony Robbins particularly talks about reframing the situation. A great example of this would be this most recent project I’ve released. When my dad killed himself, I spent the next 30 or so years angry at the world. I was more destructive not only in my own life but in the lives of so many others than I care to admit or talk about here. And people often say that when you look at a terrible situation in retrospect, you see that it was some sort of a stepping stone and had some kind of positive outcome. But I could never find that in my father’s death. It was just horrific and unfair.
“But, a few years ago, I realized that if I reframed the situation, I could use my own pain and grief to reach out and speak to people on a level that no one else has done. Instead of being a veteran talking to and about veterans, I’m the civilian child of a veteran who went through these struggles and took the most painful way out. And now when I do suicide counseling and veterans’ counseling, I can speak to it from an angle that most people aren’t used to hearing.
“For the first time in my life I can look at my father’s death and realize that something tremendously positive and impactful is finally coming out of it.”
What are your “3 Lessons I Learned from My Most Memorable Failure”
“I spent a brief while in jail a few years back because of a series of terribly bad decisions I had made. It was my lowest point. Three lessons I learned… Number one, don’t hang on to people who don’t want to hang on to you. You can’t love enough to compensate for someone else who doesn’t.
“Number two, don’t let anything or anyone shake your foundation. Decide what you are about, and if it is legitimate and just, it’s worth moving past situations that detract from your Divine Purpose.
“Number three, life is only made of all you’ve got to lose. Take a serious inventory of the most important things in your life, and with every decision you make, never put them in jeopardy. If you fiercely guard the most important things in your life, no matter when you die, you know you will have been a defender of beautiful, unconditional love.”
What unfiltered advice can you give aspiring stars regarding how to avoid common mis-fires in starting their career?
“A career in the music business has no rules. I know some of the most amazing artists who will die in obscurity because they never received the acclaim and accolades they truly deserved. On the other hand, I know some no-talent hacks who blew up and gained a massive following because of popular appeal.
“There is so much in this life we never get to choose or control. Make sure you are doing something to keep your bills paid…and then make the purest, most beautiful art you have inside you. It will take off, or it won’t. But you will know you gave everything inside you to touch someone who might be listening. It’s a terrible business model. But it’s the best bad decision I’ve ever made.”
What is one “efficiency hack” you use consistently in your life to keep your time and mind free to focus on your strengths and passions?
“I use my Google Assistant non-stop. It annoys nearly everyone around me. I never type anything into my phone. It’s all voice text. If I need to answer a text message, I just talk to my phone. I write complete documents with voice text. If I need to set a reminder or create an appointment, Google does it for me. I know it’s kind of creepy that it’s probably tracking my every move and reporting it to the CIA, but it’s doing a lot more good for me than harm.”
All actors or musicians have sleepless nights. We have a term we use with our clients called the “2 a.m. moment.” It’s when you’re wide awake and thinking not-so-positive thoughts about your business choices and future. Can you describe a 2 a.m. moment (or moments) you’ve had and how you overcame the challenges?
“If you ever do any research on people who have truly accomplished something substantial, you quickly realize that they seldom slept. A few hours at night, a nap in the afternoon; if your brain isn’t constantly racing about all the things you could accomplish if you took the next step, I really don’t think you’re working very hard.
“The best leaders of all time woke up in the middle of the night with so much on their plate they couldn’t do anything but start working again. If you choose an extra-ordinary life, you have to realize that ‘extra’ means higher highs and lower lows. So, if your mind keeps you up in the middle of the night with the weight of everything that needs to be done to make this world a better place, you should damn sure stay up and take the next step in your own personal journey to impact change on whatever level it has been given to you to impact.
“So, wake up, look at your task list, and tackle one little thing. Most likely it will lead to 10 more, and that’s okay. And when you find yourself exhausted at the end of the day, if the world doesn’t change, it wasn’t for the lack of you trying.
“There’s an entire population of people who make the world go ‘round, because they’re the cornerstones of society who wake up at the same time every day and do the jobs that hold everything else together. On the other hand, there are those of us who can’t sleep because there are battles that need to be fought, against the worst of odds. But if it weren’t for the people willing to fight those battles, the most amazing advancements in our society would have never been accomplished.
“Get up. Get moving. The world needs you. In other words, a lot of my best work happens at two in the morning…or three…or four. I often wake up in the middle of the night, feeling massively overwhelmed. And the best thing I know to do is to start working diligently on the things you can control, so that the things you can’t control won’t torpedo your productivity.”
What’s on the drawing board for your next venture?
“I’ve got the next album already in the demo stage and ready to record. It’s a themed album, not quite as intense as the project I’ve been working on for the last few years. The next album is called “Heartache.” It’s about the lessons I learned from the biggest failures and heartbreaks in my life. It’s not as heavy as it sounds. Most of the songs are very uplifting. Because how do we ever learn what love and happiness feel like without understanding what heartbreak and failure feel like? I’m absolutely pumped to get that project going.”
What did we miss? Feel free to share any other thoughts or advice on overcoming failure, initiatives you’re currently supporting, any other relevant information you would like to share with the readers.
“I think the only thing left in my mind is that it has been a really long time since people on this planet poured enough heart and soul into their artwork that it would last forever.
“We keep looking back to the past for the great artists. When you stand in a museum and you look at the brush strokes that Vincent van Gogh smashed onto that canvas, in a veritable fury, you understand something special happened there.
“When Carole King sings “You’ve Got a Friend,” you can feel the soul coming from the woman, reaching out to someone close to her.
“The general public has had such a terrible excuse for music crammed down their throat and been told it’s good because it’s profitable for corporations. It’s poorly written, formulaic, basic, and mind-numbingly repetitive. So, if you’re out there, if you’re paying attention, and you care, please pour your art into the world and make some art. Write something, paint something, create something. We need it.”
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
If you Google “Dan Johnson music” you will find my big, bald head all over the web. My favorite thing is for people to show up at live shows and connect on a level that you could never find, listening to a CD or god-forbid online streaming. But most of my information shows up on Facebook and bandsintown. Oh also, I prefer twitter, mostly because my mom isn’t on it, so I can say whatever I want on there. If you want the unfiltered version, it’s @danjohnsonus.
This was really awesome! Thank you so much for joining us and opening up to our readers, Dan!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my story.
Originally published at medium.com