Brian Byrnes: Tell me about the journey that brought you to Buenos Aires.
Kevin Johansen: My dad was born in Denver, Colorado. My mom got a scholarship from Buenos Aires to study in Boulder, Colorado to study when she was 19. She met my dad, Ken Johansen, and fell in love. He was a conscientious objector, and he didn’t want to go to Vietnam, so he had to do paperwork for the government for three years in Fairbanks, Alaska and that’s basically why I was born there (in 1964). I lived there until about 4 years, then hopped around a little bit, we went back to Denver for a year, then to Tempe, Arizona, where my sister was born, the exact opposite of me. Then we went to San Francisco, which is probably what I remember most. My life was kind of like “That 70’s Show,” with Cat Stevens and the Jackson 5 being my first musical acquisitions and disco music. Then I went to Buenos Aires and discovered a whole new world of music. I already had a bit of the tango and the Argentine folklore at home because my mom had albums there. We also lived briefly in Montevideo when I was 12 or 13 years old, but mainly in Buenos Aires from age 12 to 25. Then I lived almost 10 years in New York.
You moved to Buenos Aires in 1976, at a difficult time in Argentina’s history. What was that like?
It was quite a culture shock for my sister and I. Of course my mom probably would have been another desaparecida (disappeared) because she was an intellectual, socialist, writer and literature professor, so that was a very delicate period. The worst years were the late 70s, early 80s, and then in 1982 the Falkland/Malvinas Islands War made everything explore and democracy came back soon after that, because of all the corruption and military mishaps. They were very dark years, but there was always this ray of hope that democracy was going to kick in, and so it did. I was coming out of high school at that time and writing my first songs and having my first pop group (Instrucción Cívica). I had my 15 minutes of fame in Peru with a gold record and traveled around Patagonia with a lot of local bands and that’s the part that really started clicking for me, getting to know the music industry. I had two records, and at the same time I fell in love with an Argentine dancer who wanted to study in New York, so we got married and went to New York.
Describe the sensation that pulled you back to the U.S.?
I wanted to go back to the States to see how North American I felt and how South American I was. I had clicked with Argentina in such an organic way. They always told me that one is from where one’s past is, and all those love decisions and careers decision when you are coming out of high school are important, so I guess Buenos Aires really branded me in that sense. But I still had the curiosity of a kid who had lived in the States. I would have probably gone back to San Francisco, but the girl I was with at the time wanted to go to New York. At the time, I realized that Buenos Aires was a port city looking towards Europe and New York was a port city looking towards Europe too. There were lots of Italians, lots of Jews, lots of Europeans and I really felt comfortable in New York almost immediately, it really clicked. There were cobblestones streets and at the same time it was a huge city and obviously, a culturally vibrant city to live in, and I was lucky enough to find Hilly Kristal in CBGB’s gallery, who heard me play with my guitar the first time I played alone in New York, during the first Gulf War, and he said: ‘This is your place, you can record and play here and get used to playing in front of people.’ That was really the beginning of my musical career. We did four independent albums at CBGB, the last of which was the first official album, with “Guacamole” and all that.
What influence did (CBGB owner) Hilly Kristal have on your music and your career?
The interesting thing about CBGB itself was its initials: Country, BlueGrass and Blues. His (Kristal) head was open enough to accept everything: The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie. He even had Madonna playing drums in a girls band and all the anecdotes that you can imagine. So it was quite an honor to have a guy like that, being 24 years old, and playing my songs in English and Spanish and having him say to me ‘Hey, why do you sing in both languages?’ and then telling him my life story and him giving me that input, and telling me he liked my songwriting. That was really something special and it really encouraged me. It’s curious, too, because I felt like that was enough for me, at the time; I was really happy to just play there. I had other jobs: I worked at the UN and worked as a barman at a hotel and did whatever I had to do to make ends meet, and at the same time I had my artistic place to put out what I wanted to put out and sell records and play gigs. I really enjoyed those years. He (Kristal) was very influential in making me not feel ashamed of playing stuff in Spanish if it came out that way, or in English if it came out that way, and also encouraging me to mix it up. I was kind of getting comfortable in my own skin, just accepting that bicultural thing that was inside me. So those years were very important. When I finally came back to Buenos Aires with that fourth album done, “The Nada,” (recorded at CBGB) I wanted to remix it and do it over again, but some old producers and musicians and critics started listening to it and they all said the album was great as it was and not to touch it. So it came out in 2001 and was promptly also released in Spain and that’s kind of how the snowball effect started with “The Nada.”
How would you categorize your writing style?
I would just say that I’m a bilingual songwriter. It’s kind of like What Woody Allen says regarding filmmaking: You need a story to have a movie, beyond all the technology and technique. And a song is kind of the same thing: it’s like a 3 or 4-minute script, it’s like a mini-movie. I think that there is a new kind of audience that is open enough or educated enough to appreciate a cumbia flamenco, a milonga, a tango, a bossa nova and an American country or folk tune, and that’s kind of my excuse to dive into all sorts of different genres, and all within the context of that 3 or 4-minute song scheme. What’s happening in the Latino music market now is interesting because the bands that used to be alternative are becoming mainstream, and it’s beginning to happen with songwriters as well. What might have been taken as ‘too alternative’ or ‘too bizarre’ in the past now has the chance to prove that it can work within a certain quantity of the mainstream.
Describe your songwriting process.
Having grown up in Alaska and Arizona and mainly in San Francisco until I was almost 12, I moved to Buenos Aires at the exact right age to learn a second language easily. The fact that my mother was Argentine also helped a lot, and I adapted. So both languages just became like one. For me, English and Spanish are really just one language. So sometimes when they ask me: ‘What do you dream in?’ I say: ‘I don’t know, I don’t even think about it.’ It’s really just second nature. The process of writing songs….I’m a very conceptual songwriter. Many times I will start with an idea, and it might even be just the title. I like what Umberto Eco says when he teaches essays. He makes his students start with the title before they write an essay. I always thought that was great exercise for a songwriter as well, because if you can come up with a title that can synthesize what you want to say in three or four or five words, then you’re off to a really good start. That kind of happened with my first album and then with “Sur o No Sur” as well, which was really important for me. “City Zen” has to do with that as well. “City Zen” and “Sur o No Sur” are both play on words and they can both be translated two ways. I have gotten a lot of response from Americans or friends who speak English and a little Spanish and they usually get those puns. But it’s still complicado.
Your music seems to transcend borders, languages and cultures. How and why?
There is the possibility that I do have the gist of an American culture. I was brought up with everything that represented the 1960s and 70s, so I’ve got things like Johnny Cash and Cat Stevens and The Beatles and disco music, and there is a data there that is already ingrown, but at the same time there is this more tango and jazzy thing that came from somewhere else that I was able to put together. So a lot of it has to do with the music, and people seem to get the music. I really believe that music is the first language. I believe in communication beyond one language. Although the words are very important in my lyrics, the language could be any language, really.
It’s exhaustive work, and at the same time, you have to relax about it and enjoy it and not be uni-dimensional. I think what’s been happening is that there is a saturation that came from the whole “Latin Boom” that started in 1998 with Ricky Martin and all that. What I call the stereotype of the Latin “Shake-your-Bon-Bon/Elvis/Latino Lover-thing.” It was really being cloned so much that the people just got fed up. The same thing happens in the Anglo market, you see all these British bands that come out and once one of them hits success, somehow twenty more just like them come out. The music industry always has that knee-jerk reaction. The good thing for a Latin songwriter like me was that all happened pretty quickly, so all these alternative Latin artists, from Café Tacuba in Mexico to Andrea Echeverri (Colombia) and Jorge Drexler (Uruguay) or myself, we started getting more of an audience interested because we simply had something else to say, and there was an audience for that as well. The fact is that a person who speaks English and is American or British and also has learned a bit of Spanish, they can get certain things of my music and can appreciate what I do.
You were nominated for a Grammy in the “Best Latin Pop Album” category this year. What was that experience like?
I think that it’s interesting that they would put me on their radar. Obviously my name is totally Anglo, not Latino at all, so it gives me a chuckle to be the first Alaskan nominated for a Latin Pop Grammy. It’s an honor. It’s interesting. It shows that there is a new opening for songwriters. What used to be alternative in the Latin music industry is not anymore. The music has quite an edge, quite a possibility to prove successful.
Your life has literally taken you from Pole to Pole. How has that adventure affected you and your music?
I really started thinking about the Alaska-to-Argentina thing when I came back to Buenos Aires from New York in 2000. That’s when I said ‘Wow, I’ve really got a story to tell.’ I felt that really profoundly. I was trying to make sense of it myself and trying to understand it, through some of my songs. “Sur or No Sur” -- “To South or not to South” – was really kind of an unconscious way of drawing a parallel between what I was feeling personally and what a lot of people in Latin American countries feel. They sometimes have to change their whole culture and move to another one to get a better living, to achieve their goals because they can’t do it in their own country. And in a different way, of course, I felt that in my own skin too.”
To learn more about Kevin Johansen, visit: www.kevinjohansen.com
Brian Byrnes is an American journalist who has called Buenos Aires home since 2001. www.brianbyrnes.com