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Interview with Johannes Linstead, December 2009
Interview with Johannes Linstead, image 1
Though largely known for his talent as a stellar flamenco guitarist, Linstead is by far one of the more multi- instrumentalists in his genre. Linstead has released seven solo albums in the last ten years featuring him on guitar but the count does not include his download only album Dreams Go By which features him on the piano. The year 2007 saw him collaborate with label mate Nicholas Gunn courtesy of the combined effort found on Encanto. However, ten years after his solo debut Sol Luna Tierra, Linstead recently found the time to fly solo again and recently released the impressive Mistico.

Though Linstead has yet to create a dud there is no doubt that 2003’s Zabuca was a turning point. The album certainly lived up to its title and the artist really began to shake up and shape up his music. Since then, there has been no turning back with Linstead going from strength to strength. Mediterranea represented him broadening his musical horizons to an ever expanding world stage. Meanwhile, the follow up effort Café Tropical brought in Cuban pianist Hilario Duran to give the album a different blended feel to it.

Never a musician to stand still, Linstead continues to expand his musical horizons and even explored authorship by writing a book entitled Buddha In A Business Suit. Though currently promoting his latest endeavor Mistico, Linstead found the time to answer some questions for Mainly Piano.

Q: Please excuse the stereotyping but how did a Canadian resident manage to become so passionate about flamenco guitar? And while your music certainly does not deserve to be branded in only one genre how would you describe it to those who have not yet heard your music?

JL: Living in Canada has a lot to do with how and why I became interested in Flamenco and other Latin styles. Being in a country where the weather is unbearably cold in the winter, one appreciates the annual winter getaway. Since I was a kid, my family would escape to the warmer climates of the Caribbean. In countries like Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, I was exposed since a young age to their festive and rhythmic music and colorful culture. Naturally, these journeys made an impression on me, perhaps even on a spiritual level. Thus, when I began composing my own music I had these experiences to draw upon. Later I would travel to other parts of the world, including Spain, India, and the tiny Middle Eastern island of Bahrain. All these cultures have played a part in forming my own musical style. As a general term I call my music "guitarra Latina."

Q: What effect if any did your family and cultural surroundings have on your musical growth?

JL: Both my parents are from Europe, so I had a somewhat European upbringing. My mom played a little guitar so she was actually a big influence on me at the beginning. My dad studied opera singing and my sister played accordion and organ when she was a kid. I was the only one that really took music seriously enough to pursue it as a career. But they were very supportive.

Q: Which musicians have had an effect on your own musical inspirations and why?

JL: My biggest influences are actually from the classical world. I love all the German composers ranging from Bach, Handle, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. Mozart is by far my favorite composer. I also like some flamenco guitarists like Paco de Lucia, Sabicas, Vicente Amigo, as well as the Latin guitar duo Strunz and Farah.

Q: Sol Luna Tierra appears to be your recording debut. Did you manage to record any other music with other artists or groups prior to this solo effort?

JL: Not really, at least nothing that was commercially released. I had a few projects but I didn't really understand how the music business worked, so nothing really ever got off the ground.

Q: One of the standout tracks on your debut album was “Amazonico”. Would you care to elaborate on how that song came about?

JL: When I first started I was performing at a local restaurant. Every week I had a new audience so I had the opportunity to test new material. I noticed that the patrons always enjoyed the up-tempo lively pieces; hence, I began directing my efforts to writing the more spicy pieces, one of which was “Amazonico”. It also gave me a chance to showcase some fast fretwork.

Interview with Johannes Linstead, image 2
Q: While all three of your first albums charted well on Billboard, including your debut, your 2004 effort Zabuca for the lack of a better word seemed to shake up your musical approach. The musical support cast and production efforts seemed to be more colorful and detailed. What prompted this change?

JL: I try to change a little on each album. Often if I find a new musician that I appreciate I will write a song that will utilize his or her talent. There were two musicians that I wanted to help out, namely trumpeter Alexis Baro from Cuba, and violinist Vasyl Popaduik from the Ukraine. So I wrote songs with their talent in mind. However, they were also featured on the previous album, Guitarra Del Fuego.

Q: The outpouring of emotion felt on “Eleni” featured on Zabuca is obvious. Is the character fiction or non- fiction?

JL: This is indeed a real person! “Eleni” is a Greek name. One of my percussionists (Anastasios Bigas) is from Greece and back in 2004 he and his wife had their first child - Eleni - so I dedicated the song in their honor. To this day, if he gets cranky with me I remind him that I named a song after his first born! Just kidding...

Q: While Mediterranea starts off light with the joyful “Andalucia” in contrast to the exotic “Hour Of The Lamp” and lengthy moody epic “Journey To Alcazaba” it appears you were attempting to create a bit of musical world stage. Was this the intent and if so do you feel you were successful in pulling it off?

JL: It was my wish to bring the listener on a journey to the Mediterranean. On this album you'll hear more Spanish and less Latin influence - there is a difference. Also there is a Moorish influence since the Moors had a great impact on the Spanish culture, musically, architecturally, and in other ways. When I was in Spain a few years back I visited the famed Alhambra and an old Moorish fortress known as Alcazaba, which became the inspiration for my song “Journey to Alcazabaz”. The instrumentation on Mediterranea includes many instruments from the region, including the Greek bouzouki (a stringed instrument), and the doumbek (a Middle Eastern drum).

Q: The album also included your most mainstream effort to date “Adelita”. More in the vein of Russ Freeman and the Rippingtons in a quiet mood, was this an intentional effort or pressure to deliver a radio hit? That said, she is a total beauty.

JL: Yes, that song admittedly is not very Mediterranean. It is a beautiful song and I wrote it for a beautiful woman - my mom! I had no real intentions when I wrote it other than each note inspired the next note. I did not think of radio airplay, and certainly not the other musicians you mentioned as I am not familiar with their music. I actually wrote the song many years before I released it, probably circa 1999, but kept it in my archives until I found the right place for it.

Q: The following year you completely turned the musical tables and released the download only album Dreams Go By that features you on the piano blended ever so lightly with gentle orchestration. Clearly you are very comfortable on the piano and it shows a completely different side of Johannes. Why the download release only?

JL: Well, I wanted to release at least some of my probably hundreds of piano compositions, so I put Dreams Go By together as a side project, somewhat for fun. I received a lot of favorable feedback from listeners including you. But my management at the time recommended that I don't release it as I am known for Latin guitar music. They thought it could create some confusion. That said, I am still getting people writing me that they love the album, so I may consider at least making it available on iTunes, etc. instead of just on my website.

Q: Two years ago Café Tropical saw you return to the guitar and collaborate with Cuban pianist Hilario Duran at least musically on two of the tracks and the results were delightful. Tell us how those recording sessions were?

JL: I had written a few songs for the album that I wanted authentic Cuban style piano and I knew that I didn't have the chops to play the way I felt the songs deserved. I have a couple members in my band that also play in salsa bands and they knew Hilario so I called him up and invited him to my studio. He was amazing to work with. He knew exactly what I wanted to hear and did it in just a few takes. After he left, I got on the keyboard and tried to figure out how he did it, but alas, I am a guitar player first...

Q: Once again you turned the musical tables and pooled resources with flutist Nicholas Gunn and released the collaborate effort Encanto which only featured two compositions that you actually wrote together. They were the opening and closing tracks “Torre De Oro” and “Island Song” and they represent the stronger songs of the album. If you were to do it all over again what would have you done differently?

JL: I can't say I would do anything different. I love the way the flute and guitar work together. Nicholas had written several songs and I had the opportunity to add my touch to them, and likewise he added his touch to my compositions. I visited him in California and did as much recording as I could while I was there. Making that album was a lot of fun and a wonderful memory. Nicholas is a dear friend...

Interview with Johannes Linstead, image 3
Q: Which brings us to your latest effort Mistico released earlier this year. The album opens with probably your most optimistic song to date appropriately entitled “The Happy Song (Felicidad)”. The buoyant attitude is revisited several times courtesy of the upbeat “1000 Veils” and the breezy “Coconut Girl”. Were you in a festive mood?

JL: The album was released late September '09 but took me quite a while to make. I had a busy year with touring so it was hard to find a dedicated amount of time to finish it. “The Happy Song (Felicidad)” was actually written during a trying time in my life, but it served to uplift me and put me in good spirits. Generally I am always blissful, but this year brought on many unexpected difficulties, including a problem with the master disc which cost me almost $10,000 and a lot of stress; a fractured hand which threatened my career; and to top it off an audit which is always a lot of fun. Nonetheless, in my life I look at every negative as a blessing, an opportunity to grow and learn. Recording this album was a way for me to go inward and use my strength as a yogi to overcome all these difficulties.

Q: Despite the happy go lucky attitude of “Coconut Girl” the song also includes quite an impressive guitar work-out. What is your routine to keep yourself on top of your game technically?

JL: Actually, I don't practice that much. I am fortunate that if I were to go a week without playing I can pick up the guitar and it's like we were never apart. My only real routine is performing live, recording, and writing. Occasionally, I pick up the guitar and just play 100 miles an hour for a few minutes just so that I know I can.

Q: While there is a breezy attitude on Mistico, once again you do not limit your musical options and present the listener with the very funky “Rico”. Tell me how this song transpired.

JL: This was just a need to expand. I don't want to be repetitious and I always want to offer my fans a few surprises. I occasionally will listen to sound clips from my competition and sometimes I find that if you listen to one of their albums you've pretty much heard them all. “Rico” was a chance for me to incorporate my usual Latin sound but go just a little more funky, and for the first time on any of my albums I used electric guitar. That was a lot of fun. I have an old 1969 Les Paul Deluxe that I've had since I was around 14 and it was great to bring that out of its case, throw on some distortion and play a few blues licks!

Q: From a more business aspect point of view I see that Mistico was released independently and things are unfortunately very quiet at Gemini Sun. While I certainly wish nothing but the best for CEO Nicholas Gunn and the label, are there concerns about the label going the way of Narada and Windham Hill?

JL: The music business is certainly changing, and in many ways not for the better. From what Nicholas has told me Gemini Sun is reinventing itself. I better let him give you the details as I am uninformed. It's much more difficult for any label to stay afloat these days, and as for new artists, I'd hate to be in their shoes.

Q: I see that you even found the time to write a book with the interesting title of Buddha In A Business Suit. How did that come about?

JL: I'm not sure if you were aware that I am a certified Kundalini yoga instructor. I have been meditating since my early twenties and read many books on Buddhism. Being an entrepreneur I combined my experiences in the business world and my experiences on the spiritual path to create a book that that illustrates it is possible to balance business life and spirituality, and that to be on a spiritual path doesn't mean you have to go live as a hermit on a secluded mountain.

Q: Your current concert appearances appear to be concentrated in Ontario and Florida. Are there any chances of future appearances nationwide?

JL: Yes, in 2010 we have shows planned in Texas, Wisconsin, New York, and hopefully California. I also hope we can return to Florida again as we have made a lot of great friends literally all over the state.

Q: Are you in a position to share some of your goals over the next year or so?

JL: Musically, I feel I have accomplished more than I could ever have hoped for...I've won many awards, charted in the top ten on Billboard, I've been named "Guitarist of the Year", performed for hundreds of thousands of people...So while I will continue to release Latin guitar albums I have this need to share something grander with the world. Spirituality is the single most important thing in my life, even more than music. The beauty is that as I grow as a human being my music reflects this. Times are changing and I believe that more changes are coming that will affect mankind deeply on a psycho-spiritual level. Our spiritual growth as a species is of the utmost importance now. We can continue to grow technologically, but if we don't grow spiritually we are doomed to continue making the same mistakes, and try as we may, technology will never keep ahead of the folly mankind creates. Thus, more and more I am dedicating my life to the pursuit of the science of humanology: the inner flowering of the heart and consciousness. My goal is to open meditation and yoga centers around the world. I have started webcasting my weekly yoga classes live and the response has been inspiring. I have seen my students grow and it has helped them through many difficult times. As I move deeper into this facet of my life, music will always be a part of it, as music, when created with the right intent and purity, can heal many things.
For more information about Johannes, check out his website and his Artist Page here on MainlyPiano.com.
Michael Debbage
December 2009