Nick Johnston - Child of Bliss // Review and Interview with Nick

A review of guitarist and pianist Nick Johnston's new album Child of Bliss, followed by an interview about the record and his process!

a month ago

Quick intro to kick us off! My first exposure to Nick Johnston involved coming across "Gemini" on a playlist, a tune that's since become perhaps one of my favourite instrumental tracks altogether. Above all, I was struck by Nick's sense of restraint – despite being more than capable of shredding like a madman (as he does later in the song), he initially uses his lead work to emphasize the melody and colour in the song's Opeth-like progressions, and layers the track with lots of excellent piano work to boot. Finding out that Nick also lives in Toronto like myself was a pleasant surprise, and I've since had the good fortune to see him live at a guitar clinic held in the city by Sheet Happens Publishing, who he's otherwise put out some physical media with. Nick is a fully independent guitar player without label backing, but he has still managed to carve out a prolific career spanning over ten years and seven solo albums.

Below is my review of Nick's new record, Child of Bliss, followed immediately by my conversation with Nick transcribed in full. Nick is a joy to talk to, full of energy and excitement, and my initially structured question format quickly gave way to a great free-flowing conversation that went every which way. We discussed the new album and everything that led up to it, exploring various aspects of Nick's path as an independent artist, both from a creative and a professional perspective. But first, some words about the album itself!

I’ve always found Nick Johnston to be a singular figure in the instrumental guitar scene. Even though the man can shred with with the best of them and then some, it seems like Johnston has spent each of his last few albums looking for ways to not do that — whether it’s building around simple but memorable lead motifs (Remarkably Human), letting piano work occupy more of a ‘lead’ role (Wide Eyes in the Dark), or even Johnston taking a turn on the mic for some vocal work (Young Language). Despite perhaps falling under this ‘virtuoso shred’ umbrella if you were to try to find a box to put it into, Johnston’s work increasingly emphasises restraint above all. The other common thread differentiating his work is his increasing nods to bands like Opeth and Porcupine Tree more than solo virtuoso guitarist acts (not to mention Gavin Harrison himself plays drums on Remarkably Human). This has, in turn, been consistently been reflected in Johnston’s propensity to structure songs a bit differently from most instrumental guitar players — opting to set up more standard verse-chorus structures over emphasizing guitar heroics.

Child of Bliss continues in this vein. Returning fully to an all-instrumental sound after Young Language, the record seems to resemble the melodic approach of Remarkably Human most, but with that additional piano work that made Wide Eyes so special (and this time with Johnston himself on the keys, no less). But a key difference here versus previous records is in the overall tone of Child of Bliss: where albums like Wide Eyes felt profoundly melancholy at times, Child of Bliss is vibrant and often upbeat. The music has as many synth and string layers as it does guitar work, accentuating the lush sound Johnston is aiming for with this record beyond just what acoustic guitar or piano alone can provide. Through it all, the lead guitar remains ever-present, but Johnston still maintains his incredible ear for timing and restraint, using it more to set up motifs and melodies than to flex his legato abilities.

This means that where Johnston’s past records might have drawn more from the darker sounds of early 2000s Porcupine Tree, tunes like “Through the Golden Forest” instead have a major 80s vibe to them (think Tears for Fears) with a driving beat — courtesy of Thomas Lang — coupled with synth layers setting up the song well before any guitars come in. Johnston’s guitar lines are then shadowed on occasion with brass and synth instrumentation alike, and there’s a warm, analog quality to the whole thing. It’s hard not to feel like you’re sitting in the room as the music plays, and that’s exactly the kind of production music like this needs to really land. Meanwhile, the title track starts out a cinematic jazz tune in the vein of pianist Lee Pardini, with a gradual buildup to the central motifs Johnston builds the song around. Closer “Voice on the Wind” is another highlight — Johnston’s last few records have consistently had incredible, grandiose closers (”Lockbox”, “Wide Eyes in the Dark”) and this one doesn’t disappoint in being one of the darker, jazzier tunes on the record. It’s refreshing to see Johnston explore jazz more generally on this record overall, and the end result is all the better for it.

One thing to note though — at a brisk 37 minutes, Child of Bliss is just over half the length of Johnston’s previous releases. This is partially by design (we discuss further in our interview!) but it’s hard not to want a bit more at the end of things. Still, what’s here is densely packed and excellently put together, and the vibrancy of the record adds another welcome dimension to Johnston’s body of work. Child of Bliss may be an album one can leave on in the background for some pleasant listening – but doing so might be a disservice to just how well-crafted it is. Instead, it’s best enjoyed with an attentive ear for all the meticulous details that make up its eight tracks, and the stories that they tell.

Here begins the interview with Nick. Unfortunately, given some tech/connection issues, the recording of the first part of this interview had major sound artifacts that repeatedly cut into Nick’s answers. The best I can do is loosely paraphrase what was actually said between the distorted parts (thanks, Zoom). First, just to get the gears turning, I asked Nick how he’d describe his own music genre-wise, as an artist with a ton of variability in his work. Nick responded by explaining that he sees it as falling under the umbrella of progressive rock, but that it’s hard to define given the size of and variation within his discography.

I then asked how it was navigating being on the edge of the progressive metal world given that, such as with guesting on records by Periphery and early Polyphia early in his career. Nick responded by saying that there was a real boom in that sort of sound back in the early 2010s, and he found himself joining along to some extent. At some point, while at NAMM in that era, he recalled an anecdote of having a bunch of attendees come up to him for autographs… on their copies of Periphery’s Clear! Finally, he wrapped up by mentioning that it was a good time to be around while everyone was just trying to figure out what they were doing — and that doing so remained an ongoing process. And that’s where the clearer, fully transcribed part of the interview resumes below:

Ahmed Hasan: So more on the process, and how it never ends: obviously you've had a heck of a discography, from Public Display of Infection till today, and each record kind of explored various things. And the way I want to introduce this question is from the perspective of a more recent album like Wide Eyes [in the Dark], which is pretty melancholy in a way. But with this new album, Child of Bliss — I feel like there's a real vibrancy to it. It's very upbeat, very percussive at times. So what I’m getting at in a million words is, what’s different about the new album for you?

Nick Johnston: Yeah, I suppose — I mean, also, too, if you look at pretty much anything post-Remarkably Human, everything is very dense. I think Remarkably Human, Wide Eyes, and Young Language are all around an hour of music, which is a lot of music. And I think you've seen this with a lot of bands sometimes where if you go so far in in one direction, at some point you kind of want to just switch it up.

Child of Bliss is just — it's really just all melody. And I got a little further down the path with piano and keyboard production because of the pandemic and having more time. And I mean, the music is always reflecting what was going on in my life. So just to go back to Remarkably Human — I mean, that record is about having a bunch of health stuff that came up. You know, truly, I felt, for the first time in my life, human and fragile — and that things weren't around for infinity. And then with Wide Eyes in the Dark, more stuff happened, and that was about keeping my eyes open during a very dark time, truly — which is why that music has that kind of feel to it. Then Young Language was sort of like trying to figure who I was post all that.

And then with Child of Bliss — I met my wife. Her name, Sachiko, translates from Japanese to English as 'child of bliss', so it's kind of about her in a lot of ways. And that music's a little sweeter. Every instrument on the album is a real organic instrument, which also might play into why it sounds the way it does. And when using new instruments and different arrangements, I hold back a level of control on that because I'm using other musicians, and I can only arrange so much when I'm using other people's specialties. So the music starts to sound different, and is shaped by other people and their performances on the record. And I think when you do that, everything comes into play as like the sum of all parts. But there is a level of control I have to let go of, whereas with previous records, I had so much control of everything. It’s probably the new way to do things, you know, using other people — I can't play strings, I can't play saxophone, so there's only so much that the MIDI versions… well, they can only do so much.

[Laughter] Yeah, it's pretty limited.

Plus, you know, I had songs on previous records like "In the Mouth of the Wolf", which is like a nine minute song. That or these two parter songs—

Like the "Every Drop of Blood" songs.

Yeah! Or a song like "Young Language", which is just every conceivable time signature or technique I had at the time being used in that. You want to maybe rebel against that a little bit. But with that being said, I think the new music is more focused on this kind of jazz thing, focusing more on the performances and the arrangements — which I'd never really done before — plus playing all the piano and stuff. You just start to rethink, you just you shuffle stuff around a little bit. But the music's so old now too, I mean, I recorded that music two Decembers ago, so whatever that was. And there’s a certain timestamp on that stuff, and I think at this point, it just needs to come out. I'm ready to move on, and have fun again.

Yeah, it’s just sitting on your hard drive otherwise. But that's great to hear, and I mean, it touches on a lot of things that I wanted to talk more about. One interesting contrast that I just noticed from what you mentioned was there's a song on the new album called "Memento Vivere" which I believe translates to "remember you are alive," if I'm not wrong.

Yeah, exactly. So that one, we have, my wife and I — in our old place, we had this big flower backdrop at the house with “momento mori” which is “remember you have to die”. And I just remember staring at that for so long, and just thinking like — you know, we both deal with a lot of stuff, everyone deals a lot of stuff, and at some point it's like, yeah! You're gonna die, but just remember you gotta live, too! It all just kind of seeped in into that title.

...[I] think there's something really special about having spent your life, maybe 20 plus years playing the instrument, but respecting restraint to an extent.

No, I love that. That's one of my favorites in the album too. And, you know, it really speaks to how like the original story, I believe, “memento mori” was something that was told to Roman emperors, like, hey, don't let the power get to your head. But it sounds like you're coming at this from the opposite perspective, building yourself back up and you want to remember you're alive. And I love that. Letting go of some ego as well too, I think in there.

Yeah, and I think that because I still do care so much, and I do put everything into sitting here and writing music, that you can get bogged down with that sort of mindset. Like, okay, yeah, all things are decaying and your cells are dividing… but it's also, man, life's pretty long when you think about it! And there's a token of like, remember you have to still get some shit done. But it all kind of plays into that sort of slight mystery I like to have all my song titles. They're specific but also vague and you can kind of put your own thing into it. I have a list on my phone, always, of song titles, or something that catches my ear.

Yeah – as a listener it’s been fun to wonder where they come from.

Yeah I mean, like: books, music, stuff people say, or I overhear stuff on an airplane or in a cafe or something. I just write that down.

Right – I know Tosin Abasi has something similar going with Animals as Leaders song titles. I love hearing about the stories behind instrumental song titles, cause you don’t get as much insight into it otherwise.

Oh yeah, they all have something. But I think at the end of the day, it's just however you're feeling at that time or at that moment. I mean, like I said, that music's from an era right now that was a little bit leftover from all that lockdown stuff. So, you know, I'm a few years older now, and I can kind of reflect on that stuff, but it still feels right. It still feels valid.

Especially with "Child of Bliss", I mean, that song, it seems to be getting a positive reaction. So I was on, there's something that I think still kind of holds up with that piece, and there's a certain level of restraint, maybe sometimes with the guitar playing that we, especially — you know, I still follow the guitar scene closely, but from a distance. And I tend to see a lot of techniques still being the king of things. And I think there's something really special about having spent your life, maybe 20 plus years playing the instrument, but respecting restraint to an extent.

I mean, you have killer solos in the same half of that song still, so there's a time and place!

[Laughter] Yeah, there’s a time and place, totally.

And so another thing about the new album — you mentioned it's more collaborative in that way, and there's an elephant in the room here I've been waiting to ask about: Thomas Lang. How’d that pan out, and what was that experience like?

Oh yeah. I talked to him. I've been very fortunate with pretty much everything since Remarkably Human or Atomic Mind. All the drummers I've worked with have been monster musicians. I always have a working list of people I want to work with. I reached out to Thomas a couple of years ago when I was pretty much done with the demos, and I didn't hear anything for a long time. In fact, I'd kind of forgotten about it. But I was on tour somewhere — I think I was in Asia somewhere in Korea maybe and I saw an email from him saying, "Sorry for the delay. I’d love to play on it!" And it was sort of like scrambling from there, because I had a set of dates when I wanted to have everything finished, and he was able to do it when I was on the road.

So you know it just — I suppose there's a level of preparedness you have to have when you're approaching somebody just in case they say yes. And I learned that lesson a long time ago when I did Remarkably Human. I approached my favourite drummer, not expecting him to ever agree, but Gavin Harrison. But yeah, I had to have everything [ready]. He was like, okay, I have time between, you know, a Porcupine Tree thing and a King Crimson thing. I was like, okay, I have to have this stuff ready. So anytime I ask a drummer or musician, everything's already all done, so I can just kind of send it off.

But yeah, he was into it, and it took him maybe just a few days, maybe a week to do everything. It was just kind of first takes of everything. I don't tend to edit or overproduce the drumming, or the drumming perspective of things — it's just whatever they give me, because I can only do so much, I'm just a guitar player. I'm not a drummer and I'm not gonna tell Thomas Lang what to do, you know?

Oh yeah, I think he's got some some chops under his belt. Knows a thing or two about drumming. But that’s awesome, and I mean, Gavin Harrison — that's an incredible thing to have in your discography, his work.

Yeah, it's exciting.

I mean sometimes I — geez, I'll go weeks sometimes without even picking my guitar up. I just want to sit here and work on keyboards. It's just so inspiring. So it's like, finding that balance.

Yeah, I also want to ask – so in this sort of collaborative process, obviously you've worked with different drummers in the past. You mentioned [that] this time, there was a lot of pulling back on other people, filling the gaps a little bit. What do you think was the hardest song to put together on the new album? What took the most work?

Hmm — I think because they're all such simple songs in a lot of ways, just in terms of the melody being the really big focus of everything, it was just sort of trying to rein in all the external production, like the strings and the brass and the piano. It was just sort of attempting to keep things so nothing was maybe stepping on each other or overcrowding.

Like separation?

Yeah, yeah, separation. And that's been something I've been battling with for years, and having a mix that doesn't sound too dense, so it kind of sounds like it's breathing or it sounds like a band live in a room. I think, you know, probably the hardest song could have been “Memento”. There is a bunch of movements in that. There's a whole middle section where it goes to this other thing. “Voice on the Wind” has an outro that was really big. But I think because I used pretty much all analog gear, like all the synths — I have a Moog over here that I use, and I still use real amps and everything just — everything is very organic and sine-wavy, for lack of a better term, so that even when it is crowded, it still sounds like it's living together in the same room.

So I think It was just kind of like mitigating all of the instruments I wanted, and having them not step all over each other. And that is a one hundred percent ‘producer’ role that I've learned over making not just my solo records, but the records I have with Archival, my other band, and the band I have with my wife, Osmanthus. It's just sort of something I've developed an ear for. But because a lot of it is keyboard and synth bass now, it's just sort of like, what's the right balance of still keeping that guitar thing that I've developed and become known for — and not betraying that, I guess. 'Cause I could easily betray that now! [laughter] I mean sometimes I — geez, I'll go weeks sometimes without even picking my guitar up. I just want to sit here and work on keyboards. It's just so inspiring. So it's like, finding that balance.

And that's something I noticed in the "Child Of Bliss" video too, like very prominent shots of you playing the keys there. It's like this is the era of Nick Johnston, the keyboard player.

[Laughter] Yeah! We're at that point and I think it's good, I think it's healthy. I don't know if — especially if you're sort of a lifer, or if you're into an instrument for your whole entire existence and put everything into it, or if everything can just be funneled through guitar — I think you need other ways of expressing yourself. At least I do. And the piano is not only from a compositional standpoint, but a crucial part of executing the ideas, I think.

Yeah, I mean, it's a very beautiful, versatile instrument — all the notes laid out end to end, and it's great.

That's it, that's it, man, yeah.

Yeah, that actually segues nicely too into another question I had. So, different ways of expressing yourself — now on Young Language, and also the Archival albums, you explored vocals for the first time, and then on a solo record.

Yeah, yeah.

But this album [Child of Bliss] doesn't have that. So is there sort of a retrospective feeling of like, these songs just didn't fit like a vocal direction, or they didn't have room for vocals? What was the decision making process there?

Yeah, I mean, the Young Language stuff, I think it was just a decision based on what I wrote. And I was writing a lot of music with Ben, the other guy in Archival, where twice a week we were getting together. As someone in their mid-30s, still doing a band practice twice a week is pretty remarkable, and you just end up kind of in that mindset of like, this is what I'm working on or expressing right now. And that, of course, was gonna bleed over into the more like, personal aspect of it. But those songs were all written over the pandemic, and that was a time where we just had — I mean, at least I had — I lived in a very small town at the time called Rockwood, and I had no contact with humanity. [Laughter]

So it was just, I was just like in this room writing and working on stuff. And I just got bold and curious, and I just was like, hey, why don't I — I wrote specifically these four songs with vocals that I don't think fit anywhere else. And I still have something to say, and I'm going to try it. The drummer I worked at the time, Aaron Sterling, I kind of asked him, like, “What do you think of these?” And he bolstered my confidence — he's like, just do it.

And you know, those songs all to me feel kind of like somewhere between Opeth and Toto. That’s kind of what I was really trying for. But, you know, it's like anything. You just — you do it and then you move on. I mean, there's no other reason than just I think that was something that I wanted to try and I'm not on a label or have any ‘thing’ I'm beholden to. So it's just like if it feels good, I'm going to do my best. Especially because I do this so much that I have to just follow the thing, the voice or whatever it is.

Yeah, like the inner creative… spirit.

Yeah! That thing, yeah.

No, that's great. I did hear the Opeth influence and I feel vindicated there.

Oh, big time. Yeah, oh yeah, big time.

A bit Watershed-y at times. And then on the new album, there's like slight moments that sound like Tears for Fears a little bit, especially on “Through the Golden Forest”.

Yeah, oh yeah, actually. My wife's a big fan of all that: Tears for Fears, Depeche Mode, Erasure, Siouxsie Sioux, all this stuff. So there's like some of those synth moments, I suppose. But again, it's just when you spend eight hours a day every day just like, immersed in sounds. It has to change or I don’t know what I’d be doing. So yeah, that's cool that you heard that — that's really interesting.

Yeah, I like that I just that listening closely to it, and I mean I'm a guitar player too, right. I try to learn as much as I can from what I'm listening to actively, and there's definitely this percussive synth-y thing going on that could go right into the middle of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” at one point.

Oh yeah, oh yeah! Plus, this will be the last sort of, the last album I do for a while where it's gonna follow this almost like more song structure format. I have the next one done — it's far more experimental and progressive, so it was like, I wanted to do one more record that followed that sort of verse-chorus with hooks, and solos, and a couple bridges. But having a record where I went back to maybe the Atomic Mind or the Remarkably Human format, but introducing new elements with a maturity where I could sort of express that stuff. But I think I kind of got that out of my system. So it's like all these new elements came together in the right way. And if there's an 80's new wave influence a little bit, I think that's cool. But it'll be the last time! So it's kind of like just getting this out properly with all the new stuff in it [laughter]

I mean, I'm shell shocked to hear you've got another album finished and this one isn’t even out.

Oh yeah, it's done. Yeah, yeah, I never stop, I guess [laughter]

But yeah, it's great. You just have to get over this sort of little hump where you develop, I mean — it's taking the time. It's taken me, you know... I put out Public Display I think in 2010 or something like that, 2011. It just takes time. It's just, it's being okay with the journey.

It just means people like me are eating good when it comes to instrumental guitar music. But I want to ask — you mentioned you're not on a label. I know you're affiliated with Sheet Happens [Publishing] in some capacity, but just generally, what's it been like being an independent guitarist and making it this far, like in the prog rock and the instrumental guitar scene? You're going to NAMM every year, you're doing guest solos — what's that journey been like, and how is it currently treating you, to still be independent?

NJ: It's, yeah, it's — there's always the wonder, you know, is this the right way to do it, or what are other people doing, or the people in my sort of ‘graduating class’, whether it's, what Aaron is doing, Aaron from Intervals, or what Plini’s doing… and how are they getting their stuff out, or, you know, who are they working with. But, you know, I've managed to develop a fanbase over — I've been releasing records for 13 or 14 years, and I've always been very true to what I believe in. So I've developed a fan base, and they're very supportive, and I have a guitar with a guitar company that still does well. I think there's just something to the consistency, maybe. And I have a Patreon platform, I have this Homework thing I've been doing for five years now, which is crazy — every week.

It's good. I think you can still do it without a label. It just depends on what you wanna do. I don't do a ton of touring, I just do what I'm capable of. I also don't have huge, lofty, crazy goals. I just, I really enjoy sitting, I like composing and producing music, so I don't really need anybody else to do that. Sheet Happens has always been very supportive with that, and I actually have a really big project with them coming out this year too. It's a whole new thing — I don't want to spoil that, but that's gonna take up a lot of time. But yeah, it's great. You just have to get over this sort of little hump where you develop, I mean — it's taking the time. It's taken me, you know, I put out Public Display I think in 2010 or something like that, 2011. It just takes time. It's just, it's being okay with the journey.

I had a really good conversation — I’m lucky enough to live up the street from my favourite musician in the world, this guy named John Southworth. Shout out to John, he put a record out that everybody should listen called Niagara a couple years ago. It's kind of a double folk-prog record. It's something else. But we had a long talk and he's been doing — he's in his 50s, you know. We had this kind of like cauterizing conversation about music, and just how important it is to and just continuously follow the art, and why you're doing it. And people do resonate. At some point, you find your fans. And yeah, I don't know what I would do with a label. I'm not sure what I would get out of it, maybe more tour support or something or more promotion. But it's been fine.

I mean, I guess I — I am a workaholic. Maybe that plays into it a little bit. I don't know. But no, it's fine — I've never known anything else. Whatever success I've had came later in my career and I don't know anything else. It's all good. It's all good.

That's great. That's also a good recommendation. I'll check John out. I'd never heard the name before.

Oh, yeah. Yeah, I'll send you some links later or something.

I can put them up on the article as well for the public to enjoy.

Please do. Check out Niagara!

Yeah, I was going to say that actually reminds me of a quote from Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age. Someone asked him like, oh, how do you approach like, you know, fame, and being successful, and he responded that the only way to truly “enjoy making music” or something along those lines – I'm heavily paraphrasing – but it's to never expect anything from it. That as soon as you put expectations into it, then everything goes out the window. You just commit to the art and whatever happens happens. What you're saying just now that made that part of my brain just fire up, of doing it for the love of the art.

Well, yeah, I mean, especially if you really, really, like genuinely care about it, like to the point where it's like it's a matter of you being not even just happy, but satisfied, satiated even — you know, like I sit here. I sit here all day, every day, that's what I do, and I'm okay because of it, you know. And I think if you start to put too many expectations, or too much sort of unreasonable projections onto it, I think it does kill it a little bit — but then you still gotta pay the bills, you still gotta pay the mortgage, and we live in Toronto, you know, so it's like... you know how it goes. So there's always a balance, but I think it does come down to just letting yourself — there's this whole thing where everything needs to be instant now, and I think I'm, I'm getting close to 40 now! I'm 37 this year. Like there is a level of development that needs to happen, and I think it's important for that to still be somewhere here, like in the front — development is still very important.

Yeah, like a very pragmatic outlook. Awesome, thanks so much for that. I have one last question and this is going to be completely unrelated to music, but it's a Heavy Blog staple. We always ask this to wrap up an interview.

Oh, I love it.

How do you like your eggs?

Oh! What do I usually do? I mean, that's a tough one. Okay. Cause like, there's many ways. I think it depends what you're doing. I think one of the staples is you go omelette — it's safe. If you're in a, if you're in a diner and you're not maybe too sure of the sanitation you go scramby — you do a scramble. But if you're at home, what I do depends. Sometimes over medium, because you get the dip. But typically at the house, I do some sort of butchered scramble, especially if I'm doing everything in one pan. But I'm not one of these guys that likes the sunny side. I feel like that's some Vietnam vet stuff. Like sunny side eggs with a black coffee. I don't know if I can, that's some real man stuff.

Dang! Dude, you just came straight for my breakfast. Every morning! Now I’m questioning myself…

[Laughter] Well, that's a strong man. That's a powerful man right there, powerful man. But I also like, if I can, I’d love to do a poached egg, but it's got a lot of — you need time sometimes to perfect the poached egg, especially with the water, the right heat, and needing the right time and the patience. But I'm pretty good with usually, I'll go on with it. I'm pretty happy with the omelette.

That's a solid answer.

That's a great question!

Yeah. I mean, that was one of the best answers that I've heard so far. We've heard everything, really, like I think Todd Jones from Nails said the equivalent of like, “Come on, that's a stupid question”. That's somewhere there in the Heavy Blog archives.

Yeah, it's a real answer. It's an honest answer.

I know it's from the heart because I don't think you logged on this interview thinking you'd talk about eggs.

Nick Johnston's Child of Bliss releases on March 8, 2024, and can be pre-ordered via Sheet Happens Publishing.

Ahmed Hasan

Published a month ago