Homegrown stories. Multi-keyboardist. Sentimental Soul.
Under the roof of his second floor apartment, on a makeshift stage in a Slovak bar, hunched over his grandfather's baby-grand piano – Michael Johnston draws inspiration from many places, and creates timeless, affecting songs.
A passionate performer and intimate storyteller, Peterborough, Ontario-based Johnston counts Barenaked Ladies, The Wailin’ Jennys, Justin Rutledge and Andy Kim among his many musical collaborators. He is quickly becoming a major talent on the Canadian scene, gaining tremendous acclaim from critics and his growing fanbase.
“The illegimate son of Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman" raves Juno-winning designer Michael Wrycraft; "sweet, uplifting, fresh and original."
Johnston’s 2005 full-length solo debut - “Curious Heart” - was produced with drummer Don Kerr (Ron Sexsmith). Built around the piano, the album’s 14 songs are a mix of exquisite melodies, rootsy ballads, and spirited vocal harmonies. Johnston's graceful and distinctively Canadian lyrics create engaging moods and enduring images.
A cast of dream musicians including Maury Lafoy (K-OS), Don Rooke (Mary Margaret O'Hara), Lewis Melville (Cowboy Junkies), and long-time collaborator Reid Jamieson ("The Vinyl Cafe") embroider Johnston's arrangements with class and soul.
Written with a lead female vocalist in mind, Johnston invited Juno-nominee Oh Susanna to perform his ballads “Apology” and “Sunday Afternoon.” Johnston also welcomed the powerful lead vocals of Andy Maize (Skydiggers) on “The Country North of Peterborough,” and the spellbinding performance of Jamieson on “Three Days".
Johnston grew up an only child in Peterborough, Ontario. After studying Music and English at the University of Guelph, he moved to Toronto in 1999, where he became certified as an English as a second language teacher. He took three months off performing, taught ESL in Bratislava, Slovakia and traveled throughout Europe. He returned to Canada with a suitcase full of new songs, and moved to Winnipeg on Valentine’s Day of 2003.
In 2005, Johnston was the ‘buzz’ act at the Mariposa, Stewart Park and Hillside Festivals, both solo, and with his band “The Gentlemen Collars” (featuring original Rheostatics drummer Dave Clark, along with Lafoy and Melville). His song “Katie” was shortlisted for the National Campus Radio Assocation’s 2005 Roots compilation. He also showcased at the 2004 OCFF and 2005 NXNE conferences, and will be among the official showcase artists at the 2006 NAFA conference in Austin, Texas.
“Michael Johnston is a real find, and every folk festival should hire him next year!” - Richard Flohil
*Digital distribution of "Curius Heart" through Zunior.com - the little label. Order online.
Michael Johnston - vocals, piano and accordion
"The Gentlemen Collars":
Dave Clark - drums, vocals, tuba
Maury Lafoy - upright bass, vocals
Lewis Melville - pedal steel, banjo, guitar, vocals
Tannis Slimmon - vocals
2005 - "Made in Manitoba 3" - featuring "When You're In Love" by MJ, along with tracks by Nathan, The Wailin' Jennys and Greg MacPherson
2004 - Michael Johnston "Curious Heart" - 14 song debut produced by Don Kerr at the Gas Station Studios, Toronto, ON, Canada
2004 - "Made In Manitoba 2" - 18 song compilation featuring Michael's song "Stars"
2003 - Michael Johnston (EP) - four song FACTOR-funded demo produced by Don Kerr
2002 - "Sixty Second Songs" (DROG/Outside) - featuring MJ song "Bedbugs"
Music in Four Four - Autumn 2005
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A spiritual cross between Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman, Michael Johnston is like a male Sarah Har...A spiritual cross between Burt Bacharach and Randy Newman, Michael Johnston is like a male Sarah Harmer; his music is quinessentially Canadian, even though there's only one direct reference to the country on the entire CD. This is a joyful record; even the sad songs lift your spirits.
(from En Route Magazine)
CD review (3 1/2 stars)
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June 24, 2005 By Darryl Sterdan Sun Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 STYLE: Pretty, rootsy piano-pop th...June 24, 2005
By Darryl Sterdan
Sun Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5
STYLE: Pretty, rootsy piano-pop that's also pretty smart.
SUBSTANCE: Michael Johnston is a hard guy to pin down. A former Torontonian now living in Winnipeg, the singer-songwriter and pianist wrote his debut disc here, there and almost everywhere -- including Slovakia, where he spent a spell teaching English. Thankfully, his music is a tad more firmly rooted. With a dusty, plaintive voice, a delicate touch and a way with a melancholy melody, Johnston specialises in rootsy piano-pop ballads. Some are as direct and simple as lullabies. Others are nearly as bouncy and catchy as Ben Folds. One even borrows the bridge from Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head. But with the help of an all-star cast including Oh Susanna, Reid Jamieson, Skydigger Andy Maize and former Rheostatics drummer Don Kerr, Johnston weaves them all together into a unified and likable debut disc. Check him out while you can -- we'd bet this guy is going places.
STANDOUTS: You gotta love a tune subtitled Missin' Manitoba and You.
"full-bodied" (Chart review - Jan '05)
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MICHAEL JOHNSTON Curious Heart (Idle Free) This album is purely Canadian in all the best ways. M...MICHAEL JOHNSTON Curious Heart (Idle Free)
This album is purely Canadian in all the best ways. Michael Johnston has finally succeeded in uniting our great land — at least musically. Haunting traditional melodies drive out from the East Coast to marry a distinctly Southern Ontario sound (think a male Sarah Harmer). Throw in some pretty Montreal-influenced arrangements (Stars, a dash of Cuff The Duke for a low-key country twang, a few chilled out West Coast guitar arrangements and a bunch of jazzy notes a la Nina Simone (OK, so she’s not Canadian, but she’s still cool) and that’s only half the album. This satisfyingly full-bodied disc jumps between rocking numbers and slow crooners with ease.
- Julia Coey
**** (METRO Review - Jan '05)
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MICHAEL JOHNSTON Curious Hearts Independent ****(out of five) Raised in Peterborough and now c...MICHAEL JOHNSTON
****(out of five)
Raised in Peterborough and now calling Winnipeg home, this songster and melodic keyboardist penetrated the T.O. scene in the 1990s as a member of Us And Wilbur. He later supported the Barenaked Ladies and Rheostatics, performed with the Skydiggers and collaborated with Bob Wiseman. As a solo artist, Johnston’s songcraft is pure. His melodic senses sniff out folk-centric soft rock, barrelhouse roots and traditional country, and he sings with a raspiness of a Danny Michel. And with friends like Reid Jamieson, Oh Susanna and Skydiggers’ Andy Maize able to take over the mic while the marquee name sits back in his musical director’s chair, Johnston’s treasure trove of time-defying tunes will find many homes. (Catch Johnston in his remaining January residency tonight and next Wednesday at the Rivoli Pool Hall.)
"beautiful" (Toronto Sun profile - Jan '05)
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Tue, January 25, 2005 Travelling minstrel MICHAEL JOHNSTON WRITES WHEREVER HE GOES AND HIS SO...Tue, January 25, 2005
MICHAEL JOHNSTON WRITES WHEREVER HE GOES AND HIS SONGS REFLECT WHERE HE'S BEEN
By MARY DICKIE, TORONTO SUN
MICHAEL JOHNSTON is a traveller by nature, and it comes out in his songs. Born and raised in Peterborough, Johnston moved to Toronto, Winnipeg and even Bratislava, Slovakia, while he was writing his delicately beautiful new album, Curious Heart, and in the liner notes each song's provenance is duly noted.
"I don't think it's good to conceptualize a theme for a record before you make it," he explains. "When it was finished I sent a copy to (singer/songwriter) Scott Merritt, and he was really taken by this overriding sense of home as a thematic link. That was the first time I thought about a theme, and I realized that there is a sense of home, and how I define what home is. I think putting those clues in, it's like a jigsaw puzzle of the last couple of years of my life, which have been quite transient."
Johnston says his time in Bratislava, where he taught English, helped his songwriting by removing him from the distractions of daily life.
"I'd gone there with lots of pieces of songs," he recalls. "I took this long bus ride three times a week from the old part of Bratislava, which is lovely, to the slum called Petrazalka, which is so bleak it nearly gave me heart failure when I first saw it. It's lines and lines of apartment buildings and no trees. But they have this 'culture house' with a movie theatre and recital hall and recreation centre, and I'd go into this sweaty cubicle with a piano and work on the songs for hours and hours.
"I got myself a weekly gig at a bar in the old town that had a piano but no PA system, so I'd really bang out the songs, and my pay was a bowl of cabbage. But it was a great chance to play and not think about who's doing what."
Interestingly, although he possesses a fine voice of his own, Johnston wrote some of the songs for others to sing. Two were written for a female voice, and indeed, when Oh Susanna sings, "I've been on my back for so long" in Sunday Afternoon, it seems clear that a male voice would give the line a whole other meaning.
"I like the play of that line, and it obviously has a different connotation when a woman sings it," Johnston says. "I was listening to a lot of music from the '20s, and I wanted to write a character piece that wasn't about me. I could imagine Susie singing it. So in that case it was knowing that a female voice would really pick up the record."
Others are sung by Reid Jamieson and the Skydiggers' Andy Maize.
"I realized that I'm a survivor of the mixed tape era," says Johnston. "In my youth I lived to make tapes for people, and I think maybe I have this inherent sense of making my record as if I was making a mixed tape."
Michael Johnston wraps up his Maple Lounge January residency at the Rivoli upstairs tomorrow night. Catch him before he moves on again.
"A true gem" (Soul Shine Review - Jan '05)
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Great musicians (in this case folk musicians) think alike, and at first listen to “Off Guard” Johnso...Great musicians (in this case folk musicians) think alike, and at first listen to “Off Guard” Johnson has elements of Toronto’s own Dave Celia, yet with his own crisp vocals to let his lyrics shine through. “Stars” is a true gem, the songwriting and melody line Johnston presents is a wonder, and makes you proud to be Canadian, with Mark Vallentine’s use of pennywhistle and Johnston’s raw vocal talent and a knack for story-telling. Don Kerr (of Ron Sexsmith and Rheostatics fame) assisted in producing the album with Johnston and his signature is not far off from his past works.
Brilliantly, Johnson has included a bevy of musical notations in the liner notes and even a powerful track, which he wrote with Juno-nominee Oh Susanna in mind, “Apology”, showcasing the vibrancy and versatility of his musical abilities. This album is for a relaxing afternoon of contemporary folk music and for the understanding of how great our Canadian songwriter’s really are when they go solo.
Writer: Lindsay Bloemink
"Seriously impressive" (EXCLAIM review - Jan '05)
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For his first solo album, Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Michael Johnston has assembled an A-list ...For his first solo album, Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter Michael Johnston has assembled an A-list of Canadian indie roots players and singers. The goodwill he engendered as part of the Toronto scene has paid off, as such admiring peers as Andy Maize, Oh Susanna, Reid Jamieson and Don Rooke lend a hand. The first three actually take the lead vocal role on four songs (Suzie on two), giving this already multi-faceted work further depth. Johnston is equally fleunt as a pianist and songwriter, and his unaffected vocal style is warmly ingratiating. Kudos to producer/drummer Don Kerr for this astute work. Instrumentation like Lewis Melville's steel guitar, mandolin and banjo adds a rotts-y feel, while trumpet, Rooke's kona and Kerr's cello help create some ethereal atmospheres. At heart, Johnston is a pop songsmith and tunes as melodic as "When You're In Love" deserve airplay. Curious Heart is one seriously impressive debut.
- Kerry Doole
"Superbly rounded" (Stylus Review - April '05)
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I grew up listening to simple, catchy pop music, so I have an unabashed affinity for a strong melody...I grew up listening to simple, catchy pop music, so I have an unabashed affinity for a strong melody. But as I grow older, I look for something that’s also intelligent and interesting, and a lyric that I can connect with. The same must be true for Michael Johnston, if his solo debut is any indication. It’s a collection of catchy, melodic pop influenced tunes ranging from the upbeat toe-tapping “Katie” to the gloriously laid back and jazzy “The Big Apple.” Through it all, Johnston writes with the soul of someone who has lived (“The Country North of Peterborough”), loved (“Stars”), and lost (“Apology”) but has come through it with a sense of optimism and some great stories to tell. Don’t get me wrong, this album is far from a downer, but there’s enough genuine insight and reflection in here to know that Johnston isn’t afraid to lay it all on the line for the listener and say the things that most of us are often unable to. Other than being a fine lyricist, Johnston masterfully works his piano with a zest and vigour, and presents some finely understated vocals of his own. But knowing that variety is the spice of life, Johnston’s invited some friends along to add their talents to a few of his songs, including Reid Jamieson, Oh Susanna, and Andy Maize of the Skydiggers. Most young singer/songwriters would invite guests to back them up, but Johnston is clever enough to learn from the masters and let them put their own spins on the songs, so it is he who sings and plays backup to them, and it works magically. All in all, this is a superbly rounded collection of songs and sounds from a singer/songwriter with a very bright future.
(Independent, www.michaeljohnston.ca, www.zunior.com )
- Jeff Robson
"A" (Uptown Review - March '05)
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Grade: A There can be only one swooning diva of the 88s in this country - and Rufus Wainwright i...Grade: A
There can be only one swooning diva of the 88s in this country - and Rufus Wainwright is it. Diana Krall has the torchy jazz thing sewn up. But Michael Johnston certainly sets himself up as this country's earnest pop/folk piano man with this recording. The former Torontonian runs in good company, too. Andy Maize (Skydiggers), Susie (O Susanna) Ungerleider and Reid Jamieson add their vocal talents to this projects while ex-Rheostatic Don Kerr co-produces. But Johnston doesn't necessarily need the help; he looks good, he plays very well and he sings expressively. He's also the sort of subtly nuanced songwriter whose sharpness doesn't reveal itself until after you've taken in everything else that's good. Suddenly here's a Stan Rogers reference, there's a nice turn of phrase on an age-old theme and, wait...is that a swelling blues ballad tugging at my heartstrings? It is indeed. Curious Heart is all that.
- John Kendle
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Saturday February 12, 2005 reviewed by David Reed Michael Johnston - Curious Heart I love thi...Saturday February 12, 2005
reviewed by David Reed
Michael Johnston - Curious Heart
I love this album. Everyone in the world should immediately purchase a copy. That said, we can proceed with the review.
Michael Johnston was born and raised in Peterborough, studied music at the University of Guelph, and moved to Toronto in 1999. In 2002 he became certified as an ESL teached and travelled Europe teaching English in Bratislava and Slovakia. He returned to Canada with many new songs and moved to Winnipeg in 2003.
Curious Heart was recorded by Don Kerr at the Gas Station Recording Studio on Toronto Island, with Kerr contributing his creative talents on drums, cello, xylophone and other percussion. The pair is joined by Reid Jamieson on guitar and Maury LaFoy on bass. Special guests include Sarah McElcheran (trumpet), Lewis Melville (pedal steel), Oh Susanna (vocal) and the Skydiggers’ Andy Maize (vocals).
The most prominent feature of this brilliant album is well-crafted melodies that crawl into your head and take up permanent residence for
weeks. The songs are infectious, contagious, compelling, addictive.
Johnston’s piano playing is colourful and tasteful, and is the cornerstone of the album.
The opening track, Off Guard, is a sentimental mid-tempo song about
love. The next track, Stars, is another shining example of a beautiful love song, and is reportedly sung each week by a grade 2/3 class at a public school in Winnipeg.
When You’re In Love has Johnston playing a Fender Rhodes, with a great trumpet solo and some delicate xylophone parts. Rich vocal harmony and well-crafted melody give the song a seventies vibe, and make it a contender for serious radio airplay.
Andy Maize sings the lead vocal on The Country North of Peterborough, and his character voice and subtle nuances give the song a special warmth. Sunday Afternoon features a lush lead vocal by Oh Susanna.
The most powerful and poignant piece on the album is an instrumental number entitled The Grandmother. In the liner notes of the album, Johnston tells of finding a piece of manuscript paper with a simple melody written by his late grandfather, who was an organist and piano teacher. Johnston decided to improvise on his grandfather’s theme, and the result is deeply moving.
As a musician who has heard thousands of recordings, I would describe this performance as one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever recorded.
For more information and to purchase the CD, visit www.michaeljohnston.ca.
All original material, with occasional covers by Richard Thompson, Sam Larkin, Lucinda Williams and Magnetic Fields.
45 minute - 1 hour sets; 2 sets as a headliner, 1 set as an opening act.
Show Me A Sign
When You're In Love
The Big Apple
Heart Turns Blue
The Country North of Peterborough
Petrazalka (Missin' Manitoba and You)
There are no upcoming dates at this time.