Jesse W. Johnson is a guitarist and singer-songwriter from Illinois with a penchant for dark, introspective rock that's both joyous and melancholy.
Jesse's most recent band is called Dreamjacket, which he formed with his longtime friends/bandmates Dane Marcussen (drums), Yoo Soo Kim (viola, synth, vocals), and Timothy Cap (bass, vocals). They're joined by Bradley Bergstrand (guitar, vocals) and Gretchen Bergstrand (vocals) from OH band Coed Pageant, for which Jesse sometimes plays guitar as well.
Dreamjacket's debut album, Lost at Last, came out in 2021, and they are currently hard at work on twin EPs to be released in 2023 and 2024. Check out their most recent single Deep Dream wherever you stream music.
I was motivated to pick up the guitar after my parents took me to see Dan Fogelberg and then Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young when I was in grade school. I remember really digging the whole vibe of a singer/songwriter onstage with an acoustic guitar, just bare bones and getting straight to the heart of a song. I hadn't experienced music in such a pure, innocent state before, and it really grabbed me. At the same time, seeing and hearing Neil Young blast the most gnarly electric guitar sounds through a stack of old amps awoke an unquenchable thirst in me to rock out as hard as possible. I was up in the nosebleeds, and I could just feel the immense volume in my chest. It was a truly amazing thing to me then and still is today.
I had some intense performance anxiety when I first started playing out, like super flushed face, sweats, shakiness, the works. So I'd try to set myself at ease but probably be unsuccessful. There's a lot to be said for experience and falling on your face on stage early on. Nothing will shape you up as a player/performer quite like failing in front of an audience, no matter how big. But I'd just explain a bit about how the DIY scene works, how it's about networking and sharing your passion, and how people generally are rooting for you to succeed onstage.
I think of it like an addiction in some ways. I still feel that excitement and a deep-seated desire to write and perform just as strongly as when I was a kid listening to the Beatles or seeing that first CSNY concert. It just grabbed ahold of me and has never let go. I feel most fulfilled and happy when I'm working on music, and that's all I really know. It's simultaneously an outlet and an inspiration, so it feeds back in on itself. When I've had writer's block or haven't been able to play as much, I'm a miserable mess. I think I'll always need to play to feel like I'm being true to myself, and as long as I'm fortunate enough to be able to do it, I will.
So I'd definitely go Electro-Harmonix POG I, then Endangered Audio Research Spectravibe, then Endangered Audio Research AD4096 MK I Delay. The old big-box POG just sounds enormous and is pretty simple to dial in a bunch of great sounds. The Spectravibe is a really versatile synth-trem pedal that you can get a ton of sounds on. I feel like I've hardly scratched the surface of what it can do, but I really like the crazy vibe sounds and then adding modulation to lock up the time and make it sound like a fuzzy cocked wah. It's nuts. Last but not least, I love delay and would choose the AD4096 MK I over any other pedal. Delay is a must for me on many guitar solos, and in a pinch, you can really get some great faux reverb, trem, and modulation sounds from it by turning the dials or using an expression pedal. I was torn about not having some sort of clean boost or fuzz, but I'd just crank the amp and use the guitar volume if I really needed more gain or volume.
When I'm stuck I try to look for inspiration outside of music, then bring that feeling or experience back to write something new. If I can really open myself up emotionally, eventually, I'll see a movie or read a book or have a conversation that will shake me at my core and make me wanna beeline for my guitar and play. It can be a struggle though, and what I know 100% does not work for me is forcing myself to finish something I'm stuck on. It's always better for me to step away and come back.
I do think playing a different instrument sometimes will pull different ideas out of you, and a while back, I started playing synth, and it inspired me to write some totally different stuff than I would on guitar. It was limited, but in a good way, b/c I couldn't really play that well, but I could play chords and write progressions. Even picking up a different guitar will sometimes get me out of a dry spot, and last year I wrote a song in Chicago Music Exchange on an unplugged hollowbody while waiting for a pickup to be installed in my acoustic.
Hmmm... There are bands I was listening to then that haven't moved off rotation like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Metric. Emily Haines is probably my favorite lyricist ever; she's just amazing. I think I was listening to more classic country back then, like OG Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and I haven't revisited those in a while. The band I was in at the time had a country-rock phase going on around then for sure so that makes sense looking back. I also listen to a ton of pop while driving, and back then, it was probably a lot of Ke$ha, whereas today, I'm constantly rocking Charli XCX. Today I also listen to a lot of instrumental soundtrack music like Jeremy Soule to get into work mode and be productive. Back then it may have been more rock-like Andrew WK or the first Ace Frehley solo record. It's interesting to think through this stuff, for sure. Really I just keep adding new stuff to the mix, and eventually, I think I'll come back around and listen to everything again.
I always play the most recent song I'm working on and/or songs that our band is currently playing. I will bust out some Hey Hey, My My if I'm plugged into a particularly nutso rig, though. Gotta blast some slow grungy thing to really get the vibe of an electric guitar I think. Acoustic guitars I like playing chords and just seeing where the instrument takes me. If it's a great acoustic, it'll inspire a cool progression or a different version of a song. If it doesn't, then I generally grab another guitar.
Oh, probably my 1955 Gibson Les Paul Jr. I got it years ago before the prices on juniors really skyrocketed. On top of that, it had been refinished in jet black with Grover tuners added forever ago and even had crappily filled-in bridge posts from where someone put in a tune-o-matic. So it was far from mint, but I got a great price on it, especially compared to now. I met a guy in a Starbucks parking lot to try it out, then went over to his house the next day while he was having a family party for the handoff. It's my number one electric guitar and it has a screaming P90 that cleans up so beautifully with a simple turn of the volume and tone knobs. It's a simple thing that sounds so complex and musical.
Well, I don't think it's gonna happen anytime soon, but I'd absolutely love to have a Castedosa guitar. I don't even really care which one, but probably the Conchers since I don't have anything like that. I've seen a buncha of videos, and they sound huge; plus, Carlos Lopez seems like a super cool person. I like his style and all the artistic choices he makes as a builder. The finish, hardware, electronics, and body shape all are fantastic. It'd be a dream guitar for sure, so hopefully, one day, I can make it a reality.
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