The Alaska-born, San Francisco-bred and Buenos Aires-based singer-songwriter seems to be blithely uninterested in fitting in the mainstream sphere: with songs that pursue sensory experiences and a peculiar narrative, Kevin Johansen is in a constant search for new affinities through a journal of life stories.
“I have my antennas open permanently absorbing a topic that needs to be touched or addressed,” he tells me. “The machine never rests. There’s a method to the madness but I’m always open to what’s happening in my surroundings, to new themes, like the roaring 20s, for instance. As we approach 2020, I have been thinking of this nice thematic for a story.”
We sit on the rooftop of a boutique hotel in Coconut Grove, Miami. Clad in a formfitting navy-blue suit and a gray t-shirt underneath, he is tranquil, as if taking a Sunday stroll in Bosques de Palermo in Buenos Aires.
I hand him Algo Ritmos and point at the album’s artwork and title (Algo Ritmos literally means “something rhythms” but the title is a word game including the word ‘algorithms’). “It was somewhat fortuitous,” Johansen laughs. “I’m in love with titles and songs. All songwriters love writing titles because it’s the gene of the idea.”
I hint that the cube he is holding on the album cover sends a “keep them guessing” message with a title that synthesizes the album’s message overall. He agrees. “It has to do with the times we are living, this craziness in which we move. Paint your time and you will become timeless, at best,” he laughs. The sculpture he holds on the album cover was done by Austrian artist Alois Kronschlaeger, who works with geometric elements.
As a romantic, he insists there has to be substance behind a title. “I love when a word becomes fashionable and ‘algorithms’ is already something colloquial,” he adds referring to new techs. “A journalist told me many years ago what the great Italian writer Umberto Eco said to his students, ‘In order to write a journalistic story or an essay, a story has to start with the title, as an exercise.’”
With a career that shows how comfortable Johansen has become with wearing his large-scale influence of sounds and puns under his sleeve, Algo Ritmos is no different: a revelation of the mundane, penned through some of his most personal lyrics with a forward-thinking thrill of pop. “I always thought that music was the only thing I could do,” he jokes. “Algo Ritmos is my sign of the times and it’s about finding another avenue to the moment we’re living. One always takes off the backpack with four or five things that one wants to say at a specific moment.”
His adoptive hometown Buenos Aires is very present in the album, whereby the paradigm of equal rights between men and women is a current issue: “I was raised by a single feminist mother, I have two older daughters who are witnessing this moment and it’s interesting to see how the circle turns around.”
Algo Ritmos also dwells in the meaning of love and commitment, the meaning of having a partner. “I am exposing what it means to tell your partner ‘I love you,’ and what one can offer and want in a relationship. There is a lot of an untimely presence of love.”
The complete recording process lasted around a year since Matias Cella, the album’s producer, also works with Uruguayan singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler. Drexler, featured on “Mi Querido Brasil” toured for the majority of last year. The album turned into a new challenge and an added musical experience on his shoulders. “To record is always a sweet torture. Because you are always dreaming of a specific sound or idea, and then you arrive to the studio and other concepts arise and then you ask yourself “how do I turn the screw, how can I simplify the situation?’”
A storyteller, Johansen has a curious process of shaping a song from the moment a thought arises in his brain to the instant he takes that feeling to the studio: “Woody Allen used to say, ‘If you don’t have a story, you don’t have a movie.’ Well, I’m a bit old-school and think that if you don’t have a motive why bother? It has to initiate as one’s own desire to say something in the now. Recording is a strenuous process, especially for Cella since I’m a bit chaotic at the beginning and turn into a perfectionist toward the end which makes things a bit more complex for the producer. There is a lot of untidiness that he understands and then has to turn around.”
In each song of his ninth studio album, Johansen wallows in the intricacies of life: with romance, empathy for one another, imperfection and what compromise means in a relationship.
In the music video for “Cuentas Claras,” a song with a retro vibe, Johansen appears as a bicycle mechanic. A casual love story takes place on his store façade, opening the doors to a candid connection. “Since the music has something challenging, a very basic ranchera, it seemed to fit well,” he adds.
Johansen mischievously flirts with urban sounds as in “La Gente Más Linda,” a trap-infused tune approved by two of his children who orbit around the Argentinean urban scene and the country’s trap newcomers, Paulo Londra and Duki. The dialogue of “La Gente Más Linda” beckons to the beauty of imperfection flanked by Johansen’s deliberate flawed rap. “It talks about ego in times of rage and love in times of Instagram.” He laughs.
The inclusion of three English songs that appear sandwiched between an all-Spanish track listing seems laudable. “New York Without You” opens a personal wound, a chapter of his life that needed closure. His mentor, CBGB’s owner Hillary Krystal, who essentially witnessed him bloom musically in 1990, died in 2006, the same year the rock and punk music club closed its doors, and Johansen never got to say “good-bye.”
Johansen enjoys being called a ‘desgenerado musical,’ which means ‘without genre,’ a term he coined for himself; another word game comprising of the words ‘degenerate’ and ‘genre’. “The story of my life begins with my American name and since I’m Latin that tends to confuse. I was once in Spain and people insisted I defined my music genre, so I came up with desgenerado musical. I told them I just make songs. You don’t know in which pigeonhole I belong? Then great, I’m free.” He smiles.
Our interview ends with “Cocktail Groupie” and the sound of the broken glass which ends the song. “I’m blind, “ Johansen laughs. “We were in a recording studio in Brooklyn hitting over the cymbals and Leo Sidrán handed me a cracked wine glass and a spoon. I didn’t see the crack! I just wanted to jam out to the rhythm I had in my head. We were recording the song with my New York friends, Rod Holh and Robert Bonhomme and as the glass crashed into million pieces and the water fell over the carpet, we laughed hysterically. We felt like teenagers.”
As we walk back inside the hotel, I ask him what music means to him. He smiles and answers, “Music is a tool that goes through everything: race, creeds, nations.” He then frowns and adds, “All countries seem to be in an overlapping civil war, where 50 percent think one way and the other 50 percent think diametrically the opposite, and there is a terrible straining. I hope we reconsider and find through future generations, something that saves us, that empathy wins and that we evolve as a species. Music can help through the process.” As he gives me a hug, he adds, “We need to celebrate the differences and rejoice on diversity.”
Kevin Johansen performed last night (May 22) at Flamingo Theater in Miami, Florida, as part of Techo Music Sessions, a charity event that raises funds to build homes for families in need in 19 Latin American countries.