An Interview with Isaiah Johnson
by Noah Adaikkalam
Last week I interviewed local musician Isaiah Johnson. I met Isaiah at the Kota the Friend concert I attended two months. I spotted his gold North Face jacket and complimented him on it. We stuck around after the concert and swapped info. Isaiah is a jazz musician out of Brooklyn who graduated from New England Conservatory last spring. He works primarily in Jazz, but is not limited to one genre. After all, it is pretty hard to when he can play thirteen instruments.
When and how did you end up in Boston?
So I got to NEC as a full-time student in August of 2016 and just stayed there and did the thing for two years. I figured if I was going to go out and check out another place it was going to be grad school… I talked to my professor and he was like “dude I think this program would be great for you” because like… I grew up playing music in general.
I started playing Clarinet and Saxophone in middle school, and then in high schools, I started playing bass, but I was playing in like metal bands, rock bands, playing hip-hop, R&B bands, just tryna get there and be a sponge… Then I was cast out on this trajectory of what Cats call a doubler, I guess. Cause I’ve been playing Clarinet and Saxophones in school, I just never really thought about it until I got to college and I had my first few musical gigs. I did a Clarinet degree in undergrad at Long Island University.
Do you mind me asking you how you got into Clarinet?
My folks were into all sorts of cool shit. I tell them all the time how grateful I am that they listen to great music. Like they were playing Erykah Badu, but my pops was also really into Sting, Parliament and the Funkadelic. There were all these rap albums they were playing. Just like being a cat from Brooklyn who was a sneakerhead in the 80s, my pops was just into that stuff. We’d listen to Old Hove (Jay-Z), but from really early on I remember being into rock music. My favorite record, I had two records and a CD player when I was nine and I think they were American Idiot by Green Day, well three, Hybrid Theory the Lincoln Park record and then the one they did with Jay-Z. I would always try and sneak and listen to it, cause I know it had like curses so I wasn’t really really allowed to listen to it.
I remember I tried a Clarinet mouthpiece [in middle school] and it worked so I was like “okay”. And then summer of 7th grade, my band director was like you should pick up Saxophone, it’d be great, it’d allow you to do a couple more things. I wanted to be in Jazz band after school so I was like “Alright cool.” …
I feel like I am to this day, unapologetically from Brooklyn. Ya know like “yo what's up fam” - The way I dress, what I listen too, what I talk about, what designers I like, whatever, it’s like been influenced by Brooklyn. There's so much going on in Brooklyn that I felt like I couldn't take with me up there. And even at NEC, NEC was a great thing but I still feel like they’ve been two separate parts of me and they can influence each other. Like for my exit project at NEC, I did a big band arrangement of “Runaway” by Kanye, and that was my exit project, and I did like “Street Lights”, and “Drive Slow” on my exit recital but like trying to do any of that stuff over there was like tough. It’s a wonderful program, that’s just not the vibe.
I feel like I had to go there [to NEC] because what I was tryna do as a doubler, I figured out where the bar was for everything… The end of my senior year at LIU we played the Mantra Jazz Festival in Switzerland and like we played part of it, wasn’t like “featuring the-”, we took a trip and we played a couple hits there, and it was cool, but it wasn’t like we were the best in the nation. But coming off of that, and being catapulted into this it was like “Okay, the Jazz Festival Hang was cool.” Then I got to NEC, it was some of the best musicians I have heard in my life, doing this, doing that, so it was like “Okay this is where the bar is, you’re tryna be a sponge and do this and this and this, well show em what you got tiger.” But NEC was great, and it let me get known as me.
What’s the hardest element of your life right now?
Balancing. Balancing it all out. We almost didn’t have this today, and if we didn’t, I was gonna sit at home and play flute, play clarinet, shed Coltrane, go pick up an Oboe reed, cook dinner. It’s just like, tryna give everything the right amount of time. Being a doubler, I had a set practice schedule so I’d play, I’d go in at like 8, 7:30, 8, and if I had ensemble I would practice less cause I would be in rehearsal playing some of the craziest music I’ve ever seen. But I’d do like Oboe, Flute, Piccolo, on a Monday in the morning, touch Saxophone that night after rehearsal, and do Saxophone, Flute. The next day, I’d do Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Tenor, then throw in Oboe that day, then play Bass Clarinet for an hour. I’d just keep doing it that way to stay fresh on everything. I actually got tendonitis at the end of my last semester, and they were like “you can sing your part” so I had to sing my bass clarinet part. It still creeps up every now and again... There’s a thing called getting worse, that happens to everyone. So finding the sweet spot, what everything actually needs…I’ve gotten good at working smarter not harder.
Where’s your mind at next? What’s your plan for the future?
Man, I have like five, five-year plans.
Where do you hope you are this time next year?
I wanna hit up at least two showcases, been asked to perform with this new project, this record should be done, it’s gonna be called Peter Piper. But, I wanna take up Peter Piper project, play a couple shows, play a show or two in New York, play a show or two here, but be asked to do that… I have this side business, it’s like side hustle, side hustle, side hustle. I was taught you don’t get rich on the job. I’ve been writing, working on a compilation book of ICE stuff, just to hustle it out. I’m tryna get that book done, shoot it out to my students, get them to shoot it to their friends etc, etc. I wanna get significantly better at Oboe. If I can play flute, saxophone, clarinet, and oboe well, the list and level of gigs I can take is going to grow exponentially, even by just picking up oboe.
One of my goals is like getting out of my own way. I feel like I am the only thing standing in my own way, but it’s like priorities. Rent is due, I can’t not eat, I have to hit the shed, there's this whole writing process. I have another side business, I’ll say it has to do with music and just say that, so nobody takes it in the interim, but have that jump in, have the books out, have more students. I guess just be happy. Some many people get lost in the process, and are like, ‘man what am I doing here, what is life, this is so boring, what did I get myself into?’ I’m sorry to give you like a vague-ass answer, but I guess like continue to be healthy.
Keep your eyes on Isaiah Johnson and look out for his project, the Peter Piper Record and whatever else he comes out with in the future!