Oct 2, 2012

Interview with musician Jeff Johnson

Today I'm blessed to be bringing you my interview with musician Jeff Johnson, who has a remarkable Celtic voice. I have been a fan for a long time. If you're not familiar with his music, this will help explain why I find it so inspiring. (With the talented Brian Dunning.)

Hello, Jeff! You’ve been called a musician’s musician, someone who writes and performs a variety of music. How would you describe your musical style?

I’ve always been a bit of a minimalist whether I’m doing my solo, conceptual projects, collaborating with Irish flutist, Brian Dunning or working with Phil Keaggy on the new release. The older I get, the more I’m interested in all that is subtle and the space between things. I suppose that reflects my attitude about things in general these days - there’s nothing more that I like to do than to just be still and listen. That’s pretty significant since I’ve always been quite driven and goal oriented.
Technically, I’m still interested in melody, composition and texture of sound. Yet I find that I’m more influenced by the song of bird than a song from a CD.

Jeff Johnson with Brian Dunning
How has Ireland, its music and people and culture, affected your music?

Well, I’ve collaborated with an Irishman (Brian Dunning) for many years now so that’s one major influence! Yet, Brian and I have never viewed ourselves as ‘traditional music’ players - our music is very contemporary in composition and production. Yet, in much of the music from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany and Galicia, there is a rich tradition of melody, whether it be a jig or a lament and that has influenced me strongly.

I’ve also been influenced by the Christian traditions from these regions. I find the many Celtic traditional prayers from Patrick, Columba, etc. share a similiarity with the Psalms by David in the Bible. There’s an earthy, organic quality to this spirituality that appeals to me very much.

How did you get connected with Irish flutist Brian Dunning?

I grew up and began my career in Portland, Oregon where Brian lived and was based with the group, Nightnoise. In 1989, I hired Brian to play on a children’s project that I was producing, The Tale of Three Trees. (Cindy's note: this was based on the book by Angela Hunt.) It wasn’t long after that a project was presented to me that married music with the first book of the Stephen Lawhead trilogy, The Song of Albion. I approached Brian about collaborating with me on this since the story had a very Celtic slant to it. Little could I have imagined that that would be the beginning of a rich, musical collaboration between myself, Brian and Steve, as well as a great friendship that we all share with each other.

You’ve written music inspired by books written about Ireland’s past. What is it about Ireland’s history that inspires you?

I do love much of the literature that has come out of Ireland, but it’s been more about the Lawhead stories that have inspired the albums that Brian and I have created. And personally, my favorite one is Byzantium, even though I think that what Brian and I did for “King Raven” was pretty cool, too! I love the scope and range of Steve's storytelling and I've found it quite inspiring to create music to go along with the stories.

I love those too, and Byzantium is also my favorite!
Tell us about your newest release.

WaterSky” continues the rich collaboration between myself and guitarist, Phil Keaggy. PK and I were always fans of each other but we finally had a chance to spend some time together at a conference center in Texas called Laity Lodge in early 2009. 

We began sending music back and forth to one another just to see what might happen. It all just seemed to “work” and that music eventually became Frio Suite. The new one was recorded the same way with PK and myself sending tracks back and forth and then me producing and mixing the final compositions. We were never in the same room recording on either of these CDs!

Jeff Johnson with Phil Keaggy
But, may I say, it’s not that we don’t like being with each other and, Phil and I have performed a few things together recently and there are some plans to maybe put together a tour of this music. There’s a tremendous musical trust that we share and that has carried over into the process of the actual creation of this music. I can’t begin to describe how much fun it’s been!

Incredible that you and Phil were able to create a CD like that. It reminds me of how I co-authored a book. Everyone reading this absolutely should not miss this video where you can hear Jeff and Phil talk about the creative process. When they speak about the landscape, I'm reminded of the Celtic concept of a thin place.

What’s next?

Brian has been writing some new music and I intend to jump in when I’m ready to. I also lead contemplative worship (Selah) at many churches and conferences and that keeps me quite busy. Right now, I’m savoring the completion of WaterSky, though!

That sounds wonderful. Thanks so much for visiting with us, Jeff! Many blessings on your musical journeys!

Jeff's newest CD is now available. You can order here or on iTunes.


  1. What a beautiful piece! Thanks, Cindy.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Cindy. I bought Jeff and Brian's King Raven CD several years ago after you recommended their music to me. I may just have to add to my collection. And by the way, I have decided to read all of Stephen Lawhead's books. I'm more than halfway through now.

  3. Phil Keaggy and Steven Lawhead? Excellent influences to have!