One of the great things about doing this job for so long is to watch an artist find his own voice through trial and error. Thomas Johnston began his musical journey with his head down as half of the folk duo Beannact. He would be intent, concentrating on the frets of his acoustic guitar while his niece, Deirdre Forrest, captivated audience with her sweet yet powerful voice. When the duo disbanded, both responded with strong solo albums. Johnston’s Highway Signs and Highway Lines was a strong first effort (it made our Top 10 best album list last year) but his newest, Table For One, is a quantum leap in both quality and confidence.
Table for One opens with “This Close to Heaven,” which chronicles the building of the Empire State Building by Irish laborers “so high they could touch the hand of God.” Table for One vacillates between affairs of the heart and affairs of the history book without missing a beat. “No adversity can crush the Irish soul/the Irish brigade saved the day in the town of Gettysburg,” he sings on “Flag of Brilliant Green,” a track about an immigrant joining the Civil War.
Johnston’s conversational singing style, combined with news correspondent’s eye for detail and a fantastic poetic flow calls to mind “Lisdoonvarna” or any number of slice-of-life songs by Christy Moore.
"I've heard his name a number of times...I'm still trying to comprehend being mentioned in the same sentence as him,” he replies sheepishly during our interview. “For me, it's all about lyrics--it's so important,” Johnston says. “Some of the lyrics are the ‘dealing with life songs,’ or some are the ‘relationship songs’, to paint this imagery.”
He paints a bar full of characters on “Farragher’s Pub,” whose divergent and boisterous patrons are whipped into shape by the waitress Rosalie who would “drink you under the table or have her way with you on it.” In the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, the name of the pub has more of a passing resemblance to this writer’s name and you can hear yours truly adding a rockabilly bass line atop the track. Yes, it was just as fun as you can imagine!
On the contemplative “A Perfectly Imperfect Man, an album highlight, Johnston laments beautifully on a waning marriage. “You think by now, I’d get it right/with the lessons that have sunk in/your tears are flowing again/against the odds, doing the best that I can,” he sings.
With that insider’s view, I was able to see producer Brian Ostering work his studio magic on Johnston’s songs. Ostering fand his wife Alicia Van Sant fronts The Wag, a great folk rock band in the Asbury Park music scene. Van Sant adds some sweet, understated harmonies to Johnston’s no-frills vocals on most tracks.
Irish American storytellers are a dying breed, with bar owners opting for jukeboxes and DJs nowadays. Tom Johnston keeps that tradition alive in a mighty way and you’d be wise to make a reservation at Table For One by visiting www.thomas-johnston-music.com.
I spoke with Johnston about the making of Table for One and his songwriting process. Here’s how it went:
How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?
My style is what I call ‘Irish Americana,’ which would be a blend of traditional Irish with a blend of folk,” Johnston says. “I’m not afraid to delve into the personal and I'm really thrilled with how it turned out--my goal was to make a better record than "Highway Signs" and I think it was accomplished.” This being the second one, I strived to make an increasingly improved level of songwriting. There are similarities to the structure of it but wanted to have its own identity.
Is there a recurring theme on the album?
The songs address a personal journeys of life and yes, there will be some rough spots, but you can get through it if you have the right people in your corner.
The Irish brigade in the civil war, ‘Calling Your Name’ is the positive song--you always have the hope that you're going to have a happy day. I grew up in the era of albums--there wasn't just hits with some filler, there is a theme and a masterwork when the songs are stacked together in the right way. You're left feeling something at the end of the album and that's what I was striving.
You went from deriving your musical identity with a duo in Beannacht to now having your second album where you are front and center. How had that process been for you?
The Irish have persevered more than most. There is something in me that needs to do this. A lot has happened this year--I played 35 shows this summer! I am so happy and so at ease in front of a microphone in any gig and any time--I couldn’t have always said that. It's a good place to be. I've had shows where I've played 3 to 4 hours and people wonder how I can play so long. I don't feel the sense of time--I might feel it later in my hands and back but not at the time I’m up there.
A lot of your songs deal with Irish and Irish American history—do you feel a need to educate in your songs? What draws you to those stories?
I enjoy reading about Irish history--it's my heritage and I enjoy. "This Close to Heaven" is about the irish laborers building the Empire State. I found it an interesting article. I never try to write a song--I just let it happen. I was just reading about the topics and inside my mind. ‘Fair Winds and Full Sails’ was inspired by the voyages on The Jeannie Johnston. I boarded the replica ship in Bristol, Connecticut and I was inspired by the fact that no lives were lost on the voyages that ship took.
I know you put a lot of these songs into your gigs. Did the audience reaction shape the way you made this album?
Absolutely. ‘This Close to Heaven’ was not supposed to be the lead track on ‘Table for One’ and the response was so positive that I thought I would make it a great kickoff. What you hear on ‘Perdition Road’ was the 3rd version of the song I recorded. I changed the chord structure and vocals and when I played the new version out, it just went down better. I knew the song had gotten what it needed. The audiences definitely shape how the album came out.
I love the work Brian Ostering did with The Wag. How was he to work with as a producer?
What I love about Brian is his mindset to make the best album possible. I call him ‘The Professor:’ he taught me so much about how records get made and how to mix sounds, which is so important. I am comfortable with him because he is very upfront and honest with me. If he thinks something needs another take, he will let me know. He has this steady hand. I appreciate that to no end.
What is the strangest gig you’ve done?
I would say the farmers markets aren’t strange but they are the most interesting. The vendors would love it, the customers love it. People would buy the CDs and I'd come home with ears of corn in the process! It goes to show that people are hungry for original songwriting and good songs. I am finding that more and more.
Thomas Johnston will be playing at Luna Restaurant in Three Bridges, NJ on 12/19 and Stangl Factory Farmer’s Market in Flemington, NJ on 12/20, which lead up to a formal CD release party at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport on 1/30.