2009 CD release of Frio Suite made a splendid introduction
to the collaborative duo of keyboardist Jeff Johnson and rock-fusion
guitar hero Phil Keaggy and in 2012 Jeff and Phil return again
with their CD release entitled WaterSky. Meeting
serendipitously at the Laity Lodge in Texas a few years back, the
two once again reunite and in recording WaterSky they revitalize
state of the art 21st century instrumental music with a brilliant
musical collaboration that combines a number of instrumental music
genres including electronic and neoclassical jazz fusion. Johnsons
early works, including time on the Windham Hill label established
him as a contender way back in the early 1980s while for guitar fans,
pop and instrumental rock followers, Phil Keaggy hardly needs any
introduction. Combining Johnsons reverential approach to spiritual
music and his fondness for ethereal Celtic style fusion with Keaggys
spacey and angular guitar prowess, WaterSky is clearly a modern
masterpiece of meditative and introspective instrumental music magic.
mwe3.com presents an interview with
Jeff Johnson & Phil Keaggy
mwe3: Its been 3 years just about to the day that the Frio
Suite album came out on Ark Records. What a great surprise to
see you recording with Phil Keaggy again on the new WaterSky
CD. What were some of the circumstances involved in writing and recording
this new album?
Johnson: Making Frio Suite was one of the most enjoyable creative
experiences that Ive ever experienced. I think that its
safe to say that it was for Phil, too. One of the main reasons for
this was that we didnt really set out to make a record together
but to rather just try some things for the sheer enjoyment of making
music together. As you may recall, the entire record was made by Phil
and myself sending tracks back and forth via the internet and then
me creating the final mixes in my studio. It wasnt until the
third or fourth composition was completed that we realized that we
were making a record!
So, while we werent in a rush to make
a follow-up recording, I think we both had in the back of our minds
that it would be fun to try when the time seemed right. I started
getting a couple of ideas in the early part of 2011 and sent a few
of them to Phil. The process of us sending tracks back and forth started
up again but it took a bit longer since we were both quite busy with
other projects and touring. But I can tell you that the making of
WaterSky was pretty enjoyable too!
mwe3: How would you compare Water Sky with the Frio Suite
album? Were you face to face with Phil during the various steps along
the way? How was the music approached and recorded this time?
JJ: As I already previously stated, we made
WaterSky the same way that we created Frio Suite - by
sending tracks back and forth via the internet and then me mixing
the finals in my studio.
I would describe WaterSky as being a bit more piano-oriented
since I initiated most of the compositions. But all in all, it represents
a nice continuation of the kind of music Phil and I started making
with Frio Suite. Both albums take listeners on these multi-sectioned,
instrumental, musical journeys that are fairly lengthy, 5 to 8 minutes.
What did Phil say about the WaterSky album? Do you keep in
touch with Phil and are you planning anything with him about the new
album? Its such a big country we live in so its hard to
get some live shows in. Have you had interest in the two albums with
Phil in other countries? I could see a big interest in instrumental
music in countries that dont speak English! Whats your
overall impression of Phil as both a guitarist and a singer-songwriter
/ multi-instrumentalist? Hes such an iconic figure in rock history.
JJ: Phil is truly one of the great guitar instrumentalists
of our day. Hes a wonderful person, too, and we have a great
friendship developing. I think both of us were pleasantly surprised
when WaterSky was completed. We knew that Frio Suite
was a really special recording and I believe that we followed it up
with another one in WaterSky.
There has been talk of a short tour in 2013 of selected venues around
the country. It will require some organization as well as adding a
few really good musicians to join us. Well have to see if it
all works out, but Im quite interested in doing it.
Our music is distributed in Germany and is available everywhere through
iTunes. Being all instrumental, it does have the capacity to work
in many cultures.
You and Phil both mention the Laity Lodge and its surroundings as
a big inspiration behind both Frio Suite and the WaterSky
album. How would you describe the chemistry between you and Phil Keaggy
while writing and recording WaterSky and why did you call it
WaterSky? There still seems to be such a fascination with nature
and natural beauty in New Age music and music in general and what
do you think about the whole New Age / instrumental music scene these
JJ: The best way for folks to get a sense of
the connection between our music with the Frio River at Laity Lodge
in the Texas hill country is to view a really cool short film that
was made about this very subject (https://vimeo.com/49259461).
If you see this, theres really not much I need to explain about
the inspiration behind this music!
The specific title comes from the experience Ive had floating
in a canoe down the Frio in the middle of a moonless night. Instead
of looking up at all of the stars, you can just look down at the water
and you literally feel like youre floating in the sky!
Regarding Phils and my musical chemistry, its
very special. We both have great admiration and respect for one anothers
music and talent and there is a tremendous trust in our relationship
that carries over into the ideas that we send back and forth to one
mwe3: How long did it take to complete WaterSky and what other
projects and things have you been working on musically since the Frio
Suite album came out and how does the WaterSky album fit
in with what youve been working on musically these past few
WaterSky took about 9 months to make only because we both were
fairly busy during some of that time with other commitments. There
was a point during the last couple of months that we decided to really
concentrate on finishing the project so that we could have it ready
for the Fall of 2012. But again, the process that we have is fairly
easy going and we try not to put too much pressure on one another
to keep it enjoyable.
With regards to this music fitting into other musical projects of
mine, I love and thrive on a good collaboration. Ive been very
fortunate to work with such great musicians as Irish flutist Brian
Dunning; soprano Janet Chvatal; violinist Wendy Goodwin and cellist
Josef Luptak. I spend a lot time alone making and rehearsing my music,
too, which makes the process of working with some of these other folks
even more special. All to say that Phils and my collaboration
is just another piece in the tapestry of the music that I create.
mwe3: What are your reflections on your 2010 Christmas season release
Under The Wonder Sky album. How was that album received by
your fans and are you planning any other seasonal releases or other
conceptual releases in the future?
Thats a funny question. I had gone quite a ways with this new
CD being titled WaterSky before I realized that it sounded
a lot like the title of that Christmas recording, Under The
Wonder Sky! The Wonder Sky CD was very well received
and the three of us - Brian Dunning, Wendy Goodwin and myself - will
do another Celtic Christmas tour this December in the Pacific NW as
well as a few dates in Texas.
Ive made three full length Celtic Christmas CDs as well
as all of the Windham Hill Celtic Christmas and Winter Solstice
CDs that Brian and I were featured on. I dont really have any
immediate plans to make another for a while.
mwe3: Can you give some background into your early musical upbringing
and early studies and your first recordings and performances and how
has your overall musical style evolved over the years?
The answer would take a while! Ive been making music since I
was a young teenager and releasing in since 1977 on my Ark Records
/ ArkMusic label (47 CDs and counting!). There are quite a lot of
musical twists and turns that have happened over the years which include
recordings featuring vocals as well as instrumentals. Probably the
best way to hear this, if youre really that interested, is to
go to the ArkMusic.com website and hear the samples.
I will say that I had many opportunities to compose, perform and record
my music via church, school and home from an early age. Both my parents
were quite encouraging to me and I married my wife, Susie, at a very
young age and she has been a great supporter and encourager for me
over the years. Along the way, I have had opportunities to not only
work with great musicians, but also great people in the music industry
in my business relationships with Sparrow Records, Windham Hill Records
and Hearts of Space. People have been very gracious to me and I feel
When did you start the Ark label, what were some of the early releases
like, and how has the label philosophy changed over time. What are
a few of your favorite albums on Ark Records?
JJ: I started the label and a small studio in
our house with a friend back in 1977. Most of my music has been released
on that label with the exception of just a couple of recordings. I
have either licensed or distributed my recordings along the way to
other labels but these days everything is handled through ArkMusic
directly to my listeners via our website, iTunes and Amazon.
The early releases were just that: early! Yet, theres a nice
progression of maturity with them and Im not embarrassed by
that. I view the music that Im making now as some of the best
music of my career but some of the standouts would be Shadow Play,
Great Romantics, Born Of Water, No Shadow Of Turning, Byzantium, A
Quiet Knowing, Vespers, Benediction, Antiphon and the two that
weve been talking about in this interview!
What kind of music markets are you and Phil Keaggy hoping to reach
with the new WaterSky CD? It seems very hard to categorize
the album as it covers a number of genres, New Age, Neoclassical,
electronic music to name a few. Do you think people will be open to
such an expansive type of sound in a world that seems to be moving
way too fast! It seems highly reflective. Whats been your experience
as an instrumental music recording artist?
JJ: Yes, categorization of this music is tricky.
I guess its most akin to New Age but what does that title really
mean anymore? We would hope to reach a fairly diverse group of listeners
since I think the music is fairly approachable and yet has a subtle,
sophistication as well. The trick of course is to get folks to spend
a few bucks on our music rather than spend it on those two cups of
overpriced coffees at Starbucks!
mwe3: What other interests do you have outside of music and what are
some of your plans for the remainder of 2012 and beyond? Do you have
some words of advice or encouragement for those still searching
for the truth and the true meaning of life these days?
JJ: Whoa!, theres an interesting combination
of questions! Well, the older I get, the more contemplative Ive
become. The beauty and wonder in the world around me sometimes overwhelms
and I find myself acknowledging and thanking God for it all. As many
of my listeners know, I am a follower of Jesus Christ, so I would
encourage anyone to take the time, if they havent already, to
read the account of this story in the Bible and ask God to show them
the truth. Im a big believer in that process and hope that the
music that I make reflects that wonder and truth.
Thanks to Jeff Johnson @ www.ArkMusic.com
Pt.2 Phil Keaggy discusses WaterSky
mwe3: The new WaterSky album is excellent and your fans
will love it. Can you say something about the album and how and when
you started working with Jeff Johnson?
Collaborating with Jeff Johnson on both Frio Suite and WaterSky
has been a great experience in my musical career! My musical roots
are rock and I've been a singer-songwriter / guitarist for over 40
years now. I've been influenced by many genres as well over this long
period of time and some of these influences are evident on many of
I first became aquatinted with Jeff Johnson's music and style in the
80s. I heard him through the music of David Friesen, a fine bassist.
Jeff provided amazing atmosphere to David's music and it had a wonderful
meditative and calming effect on my soul. Later on I discovered Jeff's
own music, and his gift for other forms of creative composition.
mwe3: Theres a great story, and in the video, about you
and Jeff meeting up at the Laity Lodge. How did that inspire the album
and how did it take off from there?
PK: We connected
at a Laity Lodge retreat in eastern Texas around 2009. We were both
inspired by the beauty of this region and began to speak of creating
something new musically. Jeff and I exchanged musical tracks and we
each added to the other's inspirations at our respective recording
studios. Not unlike exploring a forest trail or a canyon of immense
beauty, the pieces were taking form. I provided guitars and bass and
Jeff played various keys and created percussion parts. Frio Suite
is an album that doesn't demand one's attention but offers much as
the listener yields to what lies within. I have rediscovered much
joy and pleasure in further listenings at certain times since its
release. Headphones preferable!
mwe3: Can you compare the sound of WaterSky with Frio
Suite and what does the music signify to you?
WaterSky, our follow up collaboration is a continuing journey
of musical exploration. I find this new project to be as fulfilling
as our first. It has hidden gems throughout and I invite the listener
to just give it a chance to settle in to the heart. The world is a
busy, fast paced and often times chaotic place. I appreciate words
in music but I also see the value of music without words, and especially
music that allows one to contemplate meditate or simply dream.
There are many types of musical fabric woven within these tracks,
many colors and shapes of things as well. Since these two projects
have been released, I am pleased with the uniformity and cohesiveness
which are contained therein. The tracks may at first listen to be
simplistic but there are layers of depth and it's not all musical
notes and rhythms. There is spirit within as well. I think these projects
may stir the heart in different ways. I love when music does that!
Both Frio Suite and WaterSky are among my favorite recordings
and I am grateful Jeff invited me on the journey.
Thanks to Phil Keaggy @ www.PhilKeaggy.com