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Interview with Donovan Johnson, August 2017
Interview with Donovan Johnson, image 1
Donovan Johnson in Montreal
Donovan Johnson recently released his sixth album, Rustic Piano: A Day at Heart Land Hill, which is being categorized as “Country” by Amazon and iTunes. Yes, this is the same Donovan Johnson who has released several albums of so-called “new age” piano music and who founded Enlightened Piano Radio. At first, this seemed a bit out of character, but after doing this interview with Donovan, it all makes sense and I really appreciate that he is being true to himself and to his roots with this new music. I also appreciate Donovan’s candor in this interview and hope you, too, will find the interview “enlightening”! If you would like to know more about Donovan’s background, here is the link to our previous interview: http://mainlypiano.com/interviews/donovan-johnson-2013-february

KP: Hi Donovan! I’m amazed to see that it’s been more than four years since we first did an interview! Lots has happened over that period of time! How are you?

DJ:  I'm great Kathy, life is good.  Thanks for asking! 

KP: A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed your new release, Rustic Piano: A Day at Heart Land Hill.  It’s a great album and I made it a “Pick,” but it’s so different from anything else you have done. Tell us a bit about it and how the idea came about for doing it.

Interview with Donovan Johnson, image 7
Interview with Donovan Johnson, image 6
Click on album covers to go to Kathy's reviews

DJ:  The inspiration for Rustic Piano came about through life experience, which is true of everything I've released.  With the birth of my son, my life has changed pretty dramatically over the last four years.  My last album, Infinite Beauty, was dedicated to my son and based around the experience of becoming a father for the first time.  Infinite Beauty came into being from that experience, and Rustic Piano came into being as a result of that experience.  Since becoming a father, there has been a tremendous amount of self examination in my life.  "Am I fit to be a father?" "What will I do differently from my own parents?" "How do I prepare this new human being for what awaits him in the world?" "How does all of this relate to the way I was raised?"  The list of questions goes on and on.  In examining these things I came to two conclusions:  1)  It's time to let go of the self criticism, and the judgement that I've held onto for so long, and all of that begins with me.  It's okay to be me, and it's okay for you to be you - no matter how different from me you might be!  This relates to Rustic Piano in that I've been able to truly embrace many of the things about myself and my own upbringing that I'd abandoned long ago, or at least I thought I had.  My being raised in a lower middle class family on a farm, in a rural area, not having many of the same conveniences as my peers, the unhappiness in our home life - these are the things I'd been focusing on and rebelling against as negative things.  In many ways, I was ungrateful for all that I did have.  Only recently have I truly begun to accept all that was positive and truly priceless in my experience.  The simple way of life that really does exist in rural farming areas.  The work ethic. The strength of character that my parents tried so hard to instill in me.  The outdoors and how I loved to spend every moment playing and imagining while I climbed trees, explored abandoned buildings, ran through corn fields, and walked down the gravel roads.

This leads me to the second realization, which was simply that I had been taking myself and my life way too seriously. Every day is a gift, and we only get one shot at living.  True and genuine living is what matters.  Musically, all of these things show up in Rustic Piano because the album is "unfiltered" in any way.  I wanted to make it a reflection of all that I am musically and personally, and frankly, where I'm at today.  My parents are Boomers, so growing up I listened to a lot of music from the 40's through the early 70's.  There was a lot of country music, old rock and roll, ragtime, swing and crooner music in our household.  I've always loved these styles and learned to play them on the piano at an early age, and at home I still listen to them often!  As a contemporary pianist in the millennial era, I was afraid to bring these genres to the surface in my artistic works for fear of judgement and rejection.  Rustic Piano is so different because I finally became a little braver and decided that it was okay to be me.  I think it's worth noting that there are several pieces on Rustic that are contemporary piano arrangements as well, because that style is also a part of who I am.  I'm not trying to abandon anything here, I'm trying to include it.  Also worth noting is that if you go back and listen to some of the tracks from earlier recordings (especially Infinite Beauty) and imagine hearing bass and drums along with the piano, you can clearly hear many of the same Americana influences.  "Midwestern Hoedown," "Nebraska Countryside," "Isle Du Massacre," "Green Pastures Still Waters," and "Epiphany" all immediately come to mind, and there are many others I could add to that list.

KP: What a tremendous amount of insight you have given us here! Thank you for that! I do remember some toe-tappers in your other albums, but they didn’t have the whole band, which I guess is the biggest difference between Rustic and your earlier music.

DJ:  I would agree with that, although I think it's fair to say that the ratio of "toe tappers" vs. artistic Contemporary piano pieces is also reversed on Rustic. This album has a lot more of them!

KP: So tell us, where is Heart Land Hill?
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DJ:  "Heart Land Hill" is a fictional place that I've created for the listener to experience and enjoy, and it goes right along with what I just described above.  It's a relaxed and beautiful place where you can go to completely be yourself, whoever that might be.  At Heart Land Hill we have people at the lakefront who are ready for a keg party, and we have people sitting in the shade by themselves who are there to get away and reflect.  The well educated and the redneck are both more than welcome to join us, this is a place where no judgement exists.  Folks are loving and welcoming to one another, and honest companionship can be found wherever you go.  Whether you're ready to hit the bar and "tie one on," or to get away from the stresses of this fast paced life, there is no better spot to do that than Heart Land Hill.  It's a vacation destination that anyone can retreat to anytime, and on their own terms.

KP: It sounds really nice! That description really suits the mood of the music on Rustic Piano and also makes it seem more personal.

DJ:  If I'm doing my job well, the listener should find the recordings as personal to them as they are to me.

KP: Since the album has several instruments in addition to the piano, are you going to do the sheet music for it?

DJ:  Yes, that's the intention. As you know from working with me yourself, Kathy, I spend a lot of my time creating sheet music transcriptions for other people.  As a result, I haven't had the time to do my own transcriptions. I've even considered hiring someone else to do them! Comical, I know.  It's kind of like the couple who owns a house cleaning business and never have the time to clean their own, so when you go visit them their house is a total mess. LOL But it's becoming more and more of a priority to get my sheet music "out there," so I'm hoping to have a songbook finished by spring 2018.  I'd love to have you proof read it for me.

KP: I’ll be more than happy to proof it for you!

When you have done concerts recently, have the audiences been surprised by your new music?
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Donovan playing at Carnegie Hall

DJ:  No.  This is because regionally (IA and NE), my fan base has seen me perform with so many other acts that they're well aware of my "bag of tricks" so to speak.  Ask anyone in my home town of Forest City if Donovan Johnson has ever played anything by Jerry Lee Lewis and they'd laugh and say, "That's his main thing!" In the Omaha area, I gig out so often with other bands that people are well of aware of my honky tonk style of playing.  So Rustic doesn't come as a shock to these folks.  When I performed the set in Denver CO, the fans who were there to support me weren't surprised either. They were having such a great time with the music that I don't even think it occurred to them to be surprised.  So far, the overall reaction to the "Rustic Piano" show has been overwhelmingly positive because the songs are so much fun. On many levels, that's exactly what I was going for - some non-pretentious fun.  Welcome to Heart Land Hill.

KP: Do you plan to do more music of this type or will you return to solo piano? Or do you know yet?

DJ:  The ebb and flow of this musical journey is so full of surprises. If I've learned anything it's that I can never say anything for certain.  What I can say is that after moving forward, it's nearly impossible to move backwards again. Having recently become more accepting and aware of all that I have in my life, I would expect that future recordings are going to be much more in the vein of Rustic than that of previous recordings.

KP: It certainly sounds like you’ve had an epiphany or, at the very least, a very strong self-realization! It’s fantastic to have such a strong sense of direction.

DJ:  Yes it is.  Ultimately I believe it's those streams of direction and our sensitivity to them that guides us through our lives.  That's how we create our story.
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KP: Exactly! You have been known for quite awhile as being part of the new age genre and founded Enlightened Piano Radio, which features mostly new age pianists. Are you playing Rustic Piano on EPR or are you keeping it kind of separate?

DJ:  Enlightened Piano Radio technically covers any recording that is "piano driven."  One of our cornerstones is that the style of the music is irrelevant as long as the recording meets our standard of quality and the work features the piano as the centerpiece.  For example, we have several original jazz pianists on EPR, some with recordings that feature other instrumentation around the piano.  We also have some pop style pieces, and of course the genre has a very dominant Contemporary/New Age leaning.  Technically, Rustic is perfectly eligible for airplay.  That being said, I'm making a personal decision to include only the tracks from the album that are not as "hard hitting" as some of the others.  There's some rockin' stuff on Rustic, and I don't want to put anything jarring into the airplay rotation for our listeners.

KP: I think it’s great that you are leaving EPR kind of open-ended, allowing for a variety of styles and also allowing for changes in the future. 

It’s interesting that this year’s EPR awards show will be at The Grand Ol’ Opry. Do you think that influenced the album at all? 

DJ:  Not at all.  I started work on Rustic a little over two years ago, long before we had plans to bring the EPR concert and awards ceremony to the Opry.  EPR has a standard of holding our annual awards show at some of the world’s most recognized locations.  The fact that the Opry qualifies as that and that we have numerous artists who live in the Nashville area were deciding factors in holding the concert and awards ceremony there in 2017. 

KP: Do you plan to perform music from Rustic Piano at the awards concert?

DJ:  Yes.  Eric Bikales, the flute player from one of the Rustic tracks will be at the awards show.  He and I will be performing the track "Early To Rise" together.

KP: We might as well do a plug right here. What’s the date of the EPR Awards Concert and how can people get tickets?

DJ:  The event will be held over the weekend of September 22nd and 23rd, Friday and Saturday.  On Friday night, the meet and greet will be held at the Opryland Hotel at 7pm, with music workshops being held on Saturday morning at the same location.  Facilitators include Philip Wesley, Kimberly StarKey, and Eric Bikales.  Saturday evening is the concert and awards ceremony at Studio A, Opryland, at 7pm.  We have a room block at the Opryland Hotel and we do have a few rooms left, so the public is invited to call the hotel and book a room under the "Enlightened Piano Group" room block if they plan to attend (a cheaper room rate is available in the block through Aug. 22nd 2017).  Tickets for the event can be purchased online or at the door, and the ticket link is:  

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KP: How many artists are on the broadcast now and how many will be playing at the concert?

DJ:  We currently have 175 artists on the Enlightened Piano roster around the world, and we're growing monthly.  24 of those artists will be performing with us in Nashville.  Internationally, we have an artist coming from Mexico this year, one from Quebec as well, and possibly one from New Zealand!  In the past we've had artists fly in from Germany and Norway to perform, and next year we're looking at having the awards ceremony abroad in an effort to reach out to our international community in Europe (The hall is already secured, and the official announcement will be made at the Opry awards ceremony).

KP: Okay, now back to you! The last time we did an interview, you said you had 30 piano students most of the time. Is that still true? 

DJ:  No, that hasn't been true for a couple of years.  When I started to make sheet music transcription work my full time job, it eventually took over my schedule and I had to cut way back on the teaching.  I now only teach one night per week (Tuesdays) for a four hour block.

KP: How is it teaching piano in Nebraska? It seems like out here that piano lessons are really far down on most people’s priority lists. Fortunately, I still have a few students who really “get it” and love it, but most just don’t want to devote the time and energy to become really good at the piano. How is it for you?

DJ:  There is luckily still a demand here.  Many of my colleagues locally do teach full time and have no problem finding new students to fill their roster, so I wouldn't say there's any kind of a shortage of interest which is great.  Finding those students who have the talent, the interest and the family support to continue and to do well is another story altogether.  Learning to play the piano is a huge undertaking, and it takes commitment and family involvement to really get the best results from our students.  The teacher is only part of that equation.

KP: I completely agree. The parents have to be willing to be engaged and interested for most students to do well. Are you still the Music Director at your church as well?

DJ:  Again, it's been a couple of years since I've done that.  I've held two music director positions at two different churches, and have been the music director for a couple of local theater productions as well - but I just don't see going back down that road anytime soon.  Currently being too busy with EPR, transcriptions, and everything else aside, I much more enjoy playing, creating, and being a part of the team, not the leader of it.  

KP: Let’s talk a bit about sheet music transcription. I’m so glad that many composers are getting their music into print. I really think printed music will outlive the recordings by a long time. The technology keeps changing so drastically with recorded music that I’m afraid a lot of the music will be lost over time. Of course, if everyone leaves their sheet music on an iPad (or whatever is current at the time), that could all disappear at some point as well. Thoughts?

DJ:  Oh boy.  Now we're moving into territory that I could really get onto my soapbox about. LOL  I'll keep it short - I agree with you.  On a personal note I despise technology and the directions it's headed, and I think social media combined with modern technology is one of the greatest detriments our world has seen and will see for generations to come, God willing we're around that long.  I utilize these things because in our line of work there is simply no other way, but in the end much will be lost.  Much is already lost.  The sheet music and the recordings are a small but very significant part in all of that.

KP: Yep - this could be the subject for a very long interview - or a diatribe! I’ll get back on track. 

How old is your son Leif now? Is he showing any interest in playing music?

DJ:  He's five as of this writing and growing an inch a day.  Yes, he's showing some interest in the piano, but I'm not sure how much of that is because he sees and hears me play as opposed to his own genuine interest.  I personally have no interest in steering him in the direction of music unless it's of his own accord, by the way.  Even if that happens, we'll be having some in depth father/son discussions about the fascinating world of medicine, government and law practice.
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Donovan with Cathy Oakes drawing for a free CD at Kathy Parsons' house concert 2014.

KP: The voice of experience!

You have performed twice at my house. The first time was solo in 2013 and then you played with Cathy Oakes and Rhonda Mackert the following year. Do you plan to come this way again?

DJ:  I'd love to Kathy, I just need to make it a practical decision when I do. It's expensive to travel from the Midwest to the West Coast, so making that work well can be tricky.  Still, I don't think it will be too long before you and I discuss some upcoming possibilities.  I'm in the process of booking more in the way of "Rustic Piano" tours all the time, and playing a solo piano performance for your kind patrons is always an honor.  Plus, it's always just great to see you and your wonderful mother in person again.

KP: That would be fun! And thanks for the compliment!

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

DJ:  I think we've just about covered it.  Just know how much I appreciate you and all that you have done for the music community at large.  I can't express to you how much I genuinely appreciate that, and how much I appreciate you.  Thank you Kathy.

KP: Thank YOU, Donovan!

Many thanks to Donovan Johnson for taking the time to chat! For more information about Donovan and his music, visit his website as well as his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Kathy Parsons
August 2017