The ‘sub-tropicalista’ celebrates his 20-year career anniversary.
About a year ago, Kevin Johansen was sitting in a rooftop of a hotel in Miami, Fla. garbed in a spiffy navy-blue suit and his habitual tranquil look on his face. From that time onward, many things have happened, and in spite of his 20-year career anniversary, his spirit remains the same. There is no sound of birds or the robust trees whooshing through the air in the background. Instead, our conversation dwindles to the soulless connection of two screens 4,406 miles apart.
Sitting in the comfort of his house in Buenos Aires, Johansen sips mate, crossed legged dressed in blue jeans and a blue sweatshirt. “I’m here, resorting to endurance, like everyone else,” he sighs with a smile. “Like my mother used to say, ‘do like the Philistines, hold on and beat it’.”
He’s just released “The Available 20’s,” an addendum to his 2019 Algo Ritmos, an album that expanded his reach, putting him ahead of the experimental folk-pop pack with compositions that continue to eschew the informal for profound and selfless poetry.
“The Available 20’s” loomed during a stroll around his loved CBGB in the old Bowery neighborhood in New York City. “A couple of years ago, one summer night, I was walking around the neighborhood thinking back at my years in the 90s and I stepped upon that typical corner that vibrates, full of young people dancing on the sidewalk waiting to go into a bar and with certain melancholy I started humming, ‘everybody is drunk, like that funk, everybody is drunk, what the funk, we just wanna party’,” he remembers.
The tune, produced by Cachorro López (also on guitar) and Sebastian Schon (also on clarinet, ukulele and keyboards) is as brisk and equally appealing as his past releases which relish on creating chasms between genres and savor the synthesis of styles, adapting to infinite variables, fiddling poetically with puns and humor.
It’s been a year since the release of Algo Ritmos, Johansen’s last full-length effort, and following a wave of shows and promotion his peripatetic life halted earlier this year, like million others, and was reduced to the confinement of his Buenos Aires home, a setting he’s very much enjoying but which took him some time to adjust to.
“At the beginning of this chapter, there were no planes or cars, the pachamama was breathing fresh air, it was delightful,” he recalls. “That made me think of a phrase from ‘The Apocalypse,’ a song I wrote with the beautiful Brazilian Daniela Mercury: ‘the plague is us.’ From an ecological point of view, everything is associated, humanity, dirt. I read an article where a psychologist said, ‘we were all left pedaling in the air.’”
It’s a particular time to celebrate 20 years of musical career. The release of his album debut, The Nada in 2000, was considered a breeze of fresh air, coincidentally the same fresh air Mother Earth was gifted during the stillness the world was obliged to in March, both on a work and vital level, but Johansen is living up to the spirit of his understanding of things while exploring further the strange world musicians have been forced to dive in to. “I am slow, I take my time,” he laughs. “However, for some odd reason, from that Sunday, March 15 to Monday, March 16, something happened. I woke up at six in the morning and composed a song that came out in one take. It has to do with what I envisioned. I enjoyed having that immediate creative reaction.”
The Nada was recorded between 1999-2000 and marked the conclusion of a 10-year period in New York City. “Round numbers always make you meditate on your life, your cycles,” he continues. “It was a very important period in my life because it was a learning stage where I really trained as a musician at CBGBs, where Hillary Krystal supported me unconditionally, it helped me to grow as a musician.”
The album was a globalist take on pop music melding highs and lows of cultures and genres, fiddling with technicolor compositions exposing candid and lithesome topics where New York sounds and his Argentine and Latin American reverberations unlocked new rooms of possibilities. “I’m extremely thankful and also have a little pride,” he laughs. “My chest swells – in the good sense – with having played in such an emblematic place, of having recorded in the last decade of the 20th century in one of the most incredible cities on this planet. You lift a stone and you find an Argentinean musician, a Cuban percussionist, an Arab-Israeli drummer, an Israeli trumpeter, Cuban son, Argentinean tango musicians, it’s just incredible.”
Inadvertently, he had set the stage for young musicians to become just as musically ‘degenerate’ (des-generados) and had lifted the weight of belonging to a musical party. “Back in Argentina there was a lot of neighborhood rock circling, a lot of rolinga and cumbiachero rock. In turn, it was an album that was received with great reception by the media and fellow musicians.”
Johansen has deftly fueled a galvanizing blend of musical cultural diversity with eight studio albums, always advancing through unknown terrain with a peculiar sonic collage but remaining faithful to his essence and never compromising his artistic integrity. “There is a fine line in the creative task,” he continues. “I say, do not succumb to others’ gaze, keep it in mind, though, stay faithful to the faithful, awaken the gullible with an idea, song or line. Music is an eternal education, one is an eternal student. Making songs is a format that also has infinite possibilities in that puzzle, so there is always something interesting to discover. ”
The conversation further contextualizes his upcoming album or perhaps an opportunity for a new format of releases, following the footsteps of his recent “The Available 20s.” “I think I’m going to continue releasing songs here and there, individually,” he adds. “They could end up being part of a new album. It’s something I never did, I’m experimenting. I think there are songs with themes strong enough to have a chance to attract attention without falling into an effect.”
About his anniversary and the current state of the world, he adds, “These are crazy times, just like the 1920s, but at the same time, the times are available,” he smiles. “We don’t know what will happen in the next decade. As Murphy said, ‘a pessimist is an experienced optimist’.”
To celebrate his 20-year career anniversary, Kevin Johansen launched his first virtual show of the year on July 28 with a brew of all Spanish songs. His next shows, all buoyed by a special theme, with accompanied acts and a playlist of curated songs, will include a cocktail of English tunes, some of his own and covers, and a collection of Latin American classics:
August 8 – Own songs in English
August 18 – Own songs and others’ songs
August 28 – Latin American songs