ten years of Jay-Jay Johanson

By: Mattias Huss

Jay-Jay Johanson has swept mediterranean Europe with his rat pack muzak and mellow trip hop for years, achieving stardom far from his native, cold and indifferent Sweden.
Now, after a decade’s worth of stardom and a decisive move toward a sleeker, but also more complex kind of electronic pop, the big country in the west awaits his coming.



Grand feelings
I have no idea what it feels like being famous. I have never been a pop star, a celebrated fashion model or an it-boy of the month. My joys and sorrows mean the world to me, but their proportions are, to be perfectly honest, very modest to anyone except for myself. I guess it is the same for anybody, that Britney Spears’ feelings when throwing up in an Dutch coffee shop are just as banal as the next lowly backpackers’. Still, damaged by cinema from an early age, I cannot quite get rid of the idea of rumbling bass and lush strings coloring the experiences of the larger-than-life crowd. Having gotten to a certain age, I’ve grudgingly accepted the fact that those strings are absent from every important occasion in my emotional life, though the mood can sometimes be artificially injected with the help of headphones and some Schubert or so.
Nowhere are those grand feelings more present than in the songs of Jay-Jay Johanson. In the lyrics of ”Kate” he regrets having to leave his lover to meet the crowds calling out his name outside. In other songs on the compilation ”Prologue”, the narrator drifts restlessly between the great metropolises of the world and bemoans the passing of more colorful days. Though on top of the world, the narrator is drifting, restless and romantically, decadently unhappy in a way that appears almost desirable. The mood is somber almost without exception, sometimes even desperate, as with the cover of ”Automatic Lover”. Whatever the mood though, it is always elevated to the cinematic hyper-unreal level that only a feeling accompanied by a string orchestra seems to be able to reach. It has been that way, in fact, ever since Jäje (as the Swedes know him) first stepped into the studio to record his first album ”Whiskey”.
– That was back in 1995 and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to sing myself, Jäje Johanson says over the phone. I thought maybe I’d let some female singer do it. Anyway I had no idea how I should sing. So, what you’re hearing on the album is me trying different styles of singing.

Help from Kent's Sami Sirviö
He is referring somewhat apologetically to the Ol’ Blue Eyes-style vocals of his breakthrough single ”So Tell the Girls That I Am Back in Town”. The new 2004 version of the song has Jäje singing in his own voice without Sinatra mannerisms, and the drowsy jazz elements for which his music was justifiably compared to Portishead, have been scrapped in favour of brisk guitars and keyboards, courtesy of producer and Kent guitarist Sami Sirviö. Yet the cinematic aura has remained present on all the records he has made to date. Like Sinatra, Johanson stands with one foot in music and one in cinema. Perhaps it is simply because he never got to write a lot of proper movie scores. That is after all exactly what Jäje Johanson has been dreaming of.
– I talked to several directors in 2000-2001, people like Lars von Trier who I really like. I was also planning something with Hal Hartley, but in the end nothing came out of any of those projects. Now I’m getting a lot of offers from German directors, but they don’t sound very interesting. Also, I didn’t feel quite comfortable with the one soundtrack I wrote for this French director, Ilan Cohen. Some directors are protective of their babies, and when people like me come in to meddle with them it really disturbs them. So I don’t know. Bernard Herrmann had to fight with Hitchcock too. Maybe directors should just score their movies themselves.

Drinking with Daft Punk
The film scores of Bernard Herrmann would in fact point the way when Jäje Johanson directed his jazzy lounge music in a slightly darker direction on “Poison” (2000). But rather than working with film directors, Jäje has searched out musical directors to help him take his music in new directions. The trip hop tag may still have been bothering him when he sought out the forerunners of modern dance music for help in recording “Antenna”. Daft Punk proved to be more interested in drinking beer with Jay-Jay than producing his album, so assistance was instead recruited from German IDM duo Funkstörung. The attention given to their intricate sound engineering on tracks like “Wonderful Combat” would probably have been greater if it wasn’t for the two attention grabber singles “Automatic Lover” and “On the Radio”, produced by Martin Landquist (a k a Nåid) as stylish fusions of classic electro pop and disco. In the year of electroclash, those songs made Jay-Jay Johanson a cheap imitator to some, and in particular to the style police in Sweden.
– It was so infuriating, Jäje Johanson almost moans. If the guys from Funkstörung had read those Swedish reviews they would have been pissed. They are so far from that kind of trend. I would have wanted to have more focus on the tracks they did, but all the attention was directed to those Nåid songs, which were in a simpler disco style.
Still, Sweden finally started to open up commercially with the release of ”Antenna”, and the timing was good since Jäje had just ended his long exile in Strassbourg and returned to Stockholm.
– I only went because of my girlfriend, in the first place, even if France was the first country that opened up to my music. When that relationship ended there wasn’t any reason for me to stay in France. I’m much more comfortable living in Sweden and then going to France a lot. I recently played my first gig in Sweden since the Lollipop festival in 1996. Let’s hope it doesn’t take eight more years until the next one.

Andreas Tilliander co-operation
Wherever he may perform, speculating about Jäje in the following eight years is tough; his music will probably change as much as it did between ”Whiskey” and ”Antenna”, into some new electronic hybrid form. ”Prologue” – which is mainly aimed at the American market where all his previous records are set for release for the first time – contains a guest appearance that Jäje did on an album by Sweden’s premier glitch artist Andreas Tilliander. Naked over the sparse tapestry of crackling and irregular beats, Johanson's vocals really shine in their desolation, and ”Rescue Me Now” points out a possible new direction for him, particularly since Tilliander’s promising label buddy Johan Skugge has become part of the Johanson tour band.
– I’m also working with him on my new demo. He is incredibly gifted! Now he is handling beats and some pads and things on stage, but I hope that we will be doing a lot of work together further on. I’ve also been talking to some French guys, in the same circles as Daft Punk, about production, so anything can happen. I’m hoping to increase the BPM rate on the next album closer to 118 than 56 like it has usually been in the past. It should be more danceable and less moody. More ”Computer World” than ”Electric Cafe”, if you see what I mean.
Thus grandness and melancholy may turn out to no longer be the right words for describing the music of this once so world weary pop dandy. A new change is no doubt ahead, and a quite new artist might be waiting on the other side of it. That is one of the charms of Jay-Jay Johanson.

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Read our review of Jay-Jay Johanson's "Antenna" here.