JEFF JOHNSON / PHIL KEAGGY
WaterSky
(Ark Music)

 

The 2009 CD release of Frio Suite made a splendid introduction to the collaborative duo of keyboardist Jeff Johnson and rock-fusion guitar hero Phil Keaggy and in 2012 Jeff and Phil return again with their CD release entitled WaterSky. Meeting serendipitously at the Laity Lodge in Texas a few years back, the two once again reunite and in recording WaterSky they revitalize state of the art 21st century instrumental music with a brilliant musical collaboration that combines a number of instrumental music genres including electronic and neoclassical jazz fusion. Johnson’s early works, including time on the Windham Hill label established him as a contender way back in the early 1980s while for guitar fans, pop and instrumental rock followers, Phil Keaggy hardly needs any introduction. Combining Johnson’s reverential approach to spiritual music and his fondness for ethereal Celtic style fusion with Keaggy’s spacey and angular guitar prowess, WaterSky is clearly a modern masterpiece of meditative and introspective instrumental music magic.


mwe3.com presents an interview with
Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy



mwe3: It’s been 3 years just about to the day that the Frio Suite album came out on Ark Records. What a great surprise to see you recording with Phil Keaggy again on the new WaterSky CD. What were some of the circumstances involved in writing and recording this new album?

Jeff Johnson: Making Frio Suite was one of the most enjoyable creative experiences that I’ve ever experienced. I think that it’s safe to say that it was for Phil, too. One of the main reasons for this was that we didn’t really set out to make a record together but to rather just try some things for the sheer enjoyment of making music together. As you may recall, the entire record was made by Phil and myself sending tracks back and forth via the internet and then me creating the final mixes in my studio. It wasn’t until the third or fourth composition was completed that we realized that we were making a record!

So, while we weren’t in a rush to make a follow-up recording, I think we both had in the back of our minds that it would be fun to try when the time seemed right. I started getting a couple of ideas in the early part of 2011 and sent a few of them to Phil. The process of us sending tracks back and forth started up again but it took a bit longer since we were both quite busy with other projects and touring. But I can tell you that the making of WaterSky was pretty enjoyable too!

mwe3: How would you compare Water Sky with the Frio Suite album? Were you face to face with Phil during the various steps along the way? How was the music approached and recorded this time?

JJ: As I already previously stated, we made WaterSky the same way that we created Frio Suite - by sending tracks back and forth via the internet and then me mixing the finals in my studio.

I would describe WaterSky as being a bit more “piano-oriented” since I initiated most of the compositions. But all in all, it represents a nice continuation of the kind of music Phil and I started making with Frio Suite. Both albums take listeners on these multi-sectioned, instrumental, musical journeys that are fairly lengthy, 5 to 8 minutes.


mwe3: What did Phil say about the WaterSky album? Do you keep in touch with Phil and are you planning anything with him about the new album? It’s such a big country we live in so it’s hard to get some live shows in. Have you had interest in the two albums with Phil in other countries? I could see a big interest in instrumental music in countries that don’t speak English! What’s your overall impression of Phil as both a guitarist and a singer-songwriter / multi-instrumentalist? He’s such an iconic figure in rock history.

JJ: Phil is truly one of the great guitar instrumentalists of our day. He’s a wonderful person, too, and we have a great friendship developing. I think both of us were pleasantly surprised when WaterSky was completed. We knew that Frio Suite was a really special recording and I believe that we followed it up with another one in WaterSky.

There has been talk of a short tour in 2013 of selected venues around the country. It will require some organization as well as adding a few really good musicians to join us. We’ll have to see if it all works out, but I’m quite interested in doing it.

Our music is distributed in Germany and is available everywhere through iTunes. Being all instrumental, it does have the capacity to work in many cultures.


mwe3: You and Phil both mention the Laity Lodge and its surroundings as a big inspiration behind both Frio Suite and the WaterSky album. How would you describe the chemistry between you and Phil Keaggy while writing and recording WaterSky and why did you call it WaterSky? There still seems to be such a fascination with nature and natural beauty in New Age music and music in general and what do you think about the whole New Age / instrumental music scene these days?

JJ: The best way for folks to get a sense of the connection between our music with the Frio River at Laity Lodge in the Texas hill country is to view a really cool short film that was made about this very subject (https://vimeo.com/49259461). If you see this, there’s really not much I need to explain about the inspiration behind this music!

The specific title comes from the experience I’ve had floating in a canoe down the Frio in the middle of a moonless night. Instead of looking up at all of the stars, you can just look down at the water and you literally feel like you’re floating in the sky!

Regarding Phil’s and my musical “chemistry,” it’s very special. We both have great admiration and respect for one another’s music and talent and there is a tremendous trust in our relationship that carries over into the ideas that we send back and forth to one another.


mwe3: How long did it take to complete WaterSky and what other projects and things have you been working on musically since the Frio Suite album came out and how does the WaterSky album fit in with what you’ve been working on musically these past few years?

JJ: WaterSky took about 9 months to make only because we both were fairly busy during some of that time with other commitments. There was a point during the last couple of months that we decided to really concentrate on finishing the project so that we could have it ready for the Fall of 2012. But again, the process that we have is fairly easy going and we try not to put too much pressure on one another to keep it enjoyable.

With regards to this music fitting into other musical projects of mine, I love and thrive on a good collaboration. I’ve been very fortunate to work with such great musicians as Irish flutist Brian Dunning; soprano Janet Chvatal; violinist Wendy Goodwin and cellist Josef Luptak. I spend a lot time alone making and rehearsing my music, too, which makes the process of working with some of these other folks even more special. All to say that Phil’s and my collaboration is just another piece in the tapestry of the music that I create.

mwe3: What are your reflections on your 2010 Christmas season release Under The Wonder Sky album. How was that album received by your fans and are you planning any other seasonal releases or other conceptual releases in the future?

JJ: That’s a funny question. I had gone quite a ways with this new CD being titled “WaterSky” before I realized that it sounded a lot like the title of that Christmas recording, “Under The Wonder Sky!” The Wonder Sky CD was very well received and the three of us - Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin and myself - will do another Celtic Christmas tour this December in the Pacific NW as well as a few dates in Texas.

I’ve made three full length Celtic Christmas CDs as well as all of the Windham Hill Celtic Christmas and Winter Solstice CDs that Brian and I were featured on. I don’t really have any immediate plans to make another for a while.


mwe3: Can you give some background into your early musical upbringing and early studies and your first recordings and performances and how has your overall musical style evolved over the years?

JJ: The answer would take a while! I’ve been making music since I was a young teenager and releasing in since 1977 on my Ark Records / ArkMusic label (47 CDs and counting!). There are quite a lot of musical twists and turns that have happened over the years which include recordings featuring vocals as well as instrumentals. Probably the best way to hear this, if you’re really that interested, is to go to the ArkMusic.com website and hear the samples.

I will say that I had many opportunities to compose, perform and record my music via church, school and home from an early age. Both my parents were quite encouraging to me and I married my wife, Susie, at a very young age and she has been a great supporter and encourager for me over the years. Along the way, I have had opportunities to not only work with great musicians, but also great people in the music industry in my business relationships with Sparrow Records, Windham Hill Records and Hearts of Space. People have been very gracious to me and I feel very fortunate.

mwe3: When did you start the Ark label, what were some of the early releases like, and how has the label philosophy changed over time. What are a few of your favorite albums on Ark Records?

JJ: I started the label and a small studio in our house with a friend back in 1977. Most of my music has been released on that label with the exception of just a couple of recordings. I have either licensed or distributed my recordings along the way to other labels but these days everything is handled through ArkMusic directly to my listeners via our website, iTunes and Amazon.

The early releases were just that: early! Yet, there’s a nice progression of maturity with them and I’m not embarrassed by that. I view the music that I’m making now as some of the best music of my career but some of the standouts would be Shadow Play, Great Romantics, Born Of Water, No Shadow Of Turning, Byzantium, A Quiet Knowing, Vespers, Benediction, Antiphon and the two that we’ve been talking about in this interview!


mwe3: What kind of music markets are you and Phil Keaggy hoping to reach with the new WaterSky CD? It seems very hard to categorize the album as it covers a number of genres, New Age, Neoclassical, electronic music to name a few. Do you think people will be open to such an expansive type of sound in a world that seems to be moving way too fast! It seems highly reflective. What’s been your experience as an instrumental music recording artist?

JJ: Yes, categorization of this music is tricky. I guess it’s most akin to New Age but what does that title really mean anymore? We would hope to reach a fairly diverse group of listeners since I think the music is fairly approachable and yet has a subtle, sophistication as well. The trick of course is to get folks to spend a few bucks on our music rather than spend it on those two cups of overpriced coffees at Starbucks!

mwe3: What other interests do you have outside of music and what are some of your plans for the remainder of 2012 and beyond? Do you have some words of advice or encouragement for those still searching for the truth and the true meaning of life these days?

JJ: Whoa!, there’s an interesting combination of questions! Well, the older I get, the more contemplative I’ve become. The beauty and wonder in the world around me sometimes overwhelms and I find myself acknowledging and thanking God for it all. As many of my listeners know, I am a follower of Jesus Christ, so I would encourage anyone to take the time, if they haven’t already, to read the account of this story in the Bible and ask God to show them the truth. I’m a big believer in that process and hope that the music that I make reflects that wonder and truth.


Thanks to Jeff Johnson @ www.ArkMusic.com




Pt.2 Phil Keaggy discusses WaterSky


mwe3
: The new WaterSky album is excellent and your fans will love it. Can you say something about the album and how and when you started working with Jeff Johnson?

PHIL KEAGGY: Collaborating with Jeff Johnson on both Frio Suite and WaterSky has been a great experience in my musical career! My musical roots are rock and I've been a singer-songwriter / guitarist for over 40 years now. I've been influenced by many genres as well over this long period of time and some of these influences are evident on many of my albums.

I first became aquatinted with Jeff Johnson's music and style in the 80s. I heard him through the music of David Friesen, a fine bassist. Jeff provided amazing atmosphere to David's music and it had a wonderful meditative and calming effect on my soul. Later on I discovered Jeff's own music, and his gift for other forms of creative composition.

mwe3: There’s a great story, and in the video, about you and Jeff meeting up at the Laity Lodge. How did that inspire the album and how did it take off from there?

PK: We connected at a Laity Lodge retreat in eastern Texas around 2009. We were both inspired by the beauty of this region and began to speak of creating something new musically. Jeff and I exchanged musical tracks and we each added to the other's inspirations at our respective recording studios. Not unlike exploring a forest trail or a canyon of immense beauty, the pieces were taking form. I provided guitars and bass and Jeff played various keys and created percussion parts. Frio Suite is an album that doesn't demand one's attention but offers much as the listener yields to what lies within. I have rediscovered much joy and pleasure in further listenings at certain times since its release. Headphones preferable!

mwe3: Can you compare the sound of WaterSky with Frio Suite and what does the music signify to you?

PK: WaterSky, our follow up collaboration is a continuing journey of musical exploration. I find this new project to be as fulfilling as our first. It has hidden gems throughout and I invite the listener to just give it a chance to settle in to the heart. The world is a busy, fast paced and often times chaotic place. I appreciate words in music but I also see the value of music without words, and especially music that allows one to contemplate meditate or simply dream.

There are many types of musical fabric woven within these tracks, many colors and shapes of things as well. Since these two projects have been released, I am pleased with the uniformity and cohesiveness which are contained therein. The tracks may at first listen to be simplistic but there are layers of depth and it's not all musical notes and rhythms. There is spirit within as well. I think these projects may stir the heart in different ways. I love when music does that!

Both Frio Suite and WaterSky are among my favorite recordings and I am grateful Jeff invited me on the journey.



Thanks to Phil Keaggy @ www.PhilKeaggy.com

 

 
   
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