‘The songs don’t care what you’re wearing’ — Brian Johannesen releases ‘Northern Town’ with a party at Big Grove

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Northern Town Album Release Party

Big Grove Iowa City — Saturday, May 6 at 9 p.m.

Brian Johannesen on stage at the Yacht Club. Thursday, April 8, 2017. — photo by Zak Neumann.

Iowa City’s Brian Johannesen celebrates the release of his first solo full-length album this weekend with an album release party Saturday, May 6 at Big Grove Brewery and Tap Room — Iowa City, which is quickly becoming a vibrant music venue, since its opening in March. Northern Town, which releases tomorrow, marks Johannesen’s second outing recording with Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studios, following his 2013 self-titled EP.

Johannesen, who spent the better part of the last several years in Nashville, returned to town in July of last year in part to record this record. “Recording and releasing Northern Town took about a year and a half because I was living in Nashville but wanted to record it at Flat Black Studios with Luke Tweedy and with a Midwestern band, specifically David Zollo & the Body Electric,” Johannesen wrote in an email.

The record echoes with that longing to return home. The songs, all written while Johannesen was still in Nashville (with the exception of “Cottonmouth,” a holdover from his previous Iowa City band Grand Tetons), are largely wistful — even when settling himself into an alternate point of view, Johannesen’s sense of being unmoored comes through.

“The whole record is mostly about two things – my Midwestern roots (and missing the places that nurtured me as a human and an artist) and my love/hate relationship with Nashville and the south,” Johannesen wrote. “It’s about leaving home, trying to fit in somewhere else, and realizing that I really belong back where I came from.”

Johannesen credits his time in Nashville for some intense artistic development — his understanding of the history of his genre, his playing and his songwriting all improved, he says, and all of that is evident on this album. However, he also clashed while there with the “phoniness” he saw on the scene.

“People try really hard to fit a mold — to wear the right hat, to play the right kind of guitar — and I am as guilty of that as anyone. It’s very easy to get caught up in it and unfortunately if you are more focused on what you’re wearing and who you know, your music will suffer immensely. There is some amazing music coming out of Nashville, but it is frequently lost in a sea of raw denim and Stetsons and business cards making intolerably boring songs about nothing, where the point is more the outfit than the content. There is nothing wrong with wearing those things, as long as the songs are there. The songs don’t care what you’re wearing.”

Johannesen is deep into his next album now, with six or seven songs already written, most of which he says “have been written since moving back to Iowa, so [the new record] will definitely have a different vibe.” His lyrical inspirations remain deeply rooted in storytelling, though, including literature. On the current album, for example, the track “Ross County” riffs off of thoughts inspired by Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, a collection of short stories about Appalachian Ohio.

“I started thinking about what some of the younger characters in that book would be like when they grew up. At the time, police brutality was all over the news. I think it was right around when the Ferguson protests happened and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining steam. I found myself thinking, ‘Where do these cops come from that makes them so violent and aggressive?’ Then it clicked: They come from places like Knockemstiff, Ohio. So that song came together right there.”

In between bouts of writing, Johannesen is working things out for a full tour in support of Northern Town this summer. He hopes to take it back down south, as well as out west and throughout the Midwest. While you’re waiting, you can check out his contribution to Flat Black’s covers series, a take of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lodi” caught while in the studio with Dave Zollo and the Body Electric. The show on Saturday starts at 9 p.m. and will feature a full performance of Northern Town along with a second set of older tunes and covers. The show is free.

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