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Jay-Jay Johanson: ‘I was homeless while making my second album. I stole apples from the market’

The Swedish performer is presenting his fourteenth album, ‘Fetish,’ while he combines music with collaborations with Balenciaga and occasional forays onto the catwalk

Swedish singer-songwriter Jay-Jay Johanson
Swedish singer-songwriter Jay-Jay JohansonManu Morales

Once considered the epitome of cool, Jay-Jay Johanson, a stylishly dressed, blonde Scandinavian, gained popularity through deft marketing and devoted trend-trackers. His songs blended silky jazz and trip hop electronica, like So Tell The Girls... and On The Radio. But all that happened 20 years ago, and despite fashion collaborations with Balenciaga and 14 studio albums, Johanson seems to have faded from view. But the man keeps going and his 2023 album, Fetish, is set to be the highlight of his upcoming Spanish tour, which has already sold out in several cities.

“I want to thank all the amazing people in Spain, France, and Portugal for being some of the first places where I got my start,” said the always jovial and friendly musician from his home near Stockholm. “I’ve been resting here between concerts, relaxing with my wife and son.” Johanson married Belgian model Laura Delicata in 2008. The couple has a 16-year-old son, Roman, who aspires to be a chef. His father believes Roman’s exceptional sense of smell could lead to opportunities in the perfume industry.

But few know that Jay-Jay’s current domestic bliss obscures a Dickensian childhood and youth. “I come from a poor family. My mom had seven siblings and my grandma was alone at home with all of them while my grandpa was always out fishing. I remember my mom telling me that we only had one toothbrush for the whole family and we couldn’t afford shoes for everyone. I left home when I was 15; those times in the nineties were tough for me, financially speaking. Even when I released my first album, which did pretty well. Not sure if you know this, but when you sell records in another country, it can take like a year and a half for you to get the money. And you know where I sold the most records? France! I was actually homeless for about six months while I was making my second album. But luckily, I had a key to the place where I used to live, so I would sneak into the basement at night and crash on the floor. No shower or sheets, though. I had to rely on help from my friends and even stoop to stealing apples just to fill my stomach.” When his second album, Tattoo, was released in 1998, it reached number 16 on the French charts, marking Johanson’s biggest success. Everything changed after that.

Question: I heard your father ran a jazz club in Sweden?

Answer: Yes, that’s right. So, he had a printing business, but as a side gig, he ran a jazz club in Trolhättan. It’s this small city with around 50,000 people, but it’s in a great location between Gothenburg and Stockholm. A bunch of American jazz artists used to come to Sweden back in the fifties, all because they wanted to hang out with Swedish girls, who have that reputation, you know. Anyway, since these musicians had to drive between the two main cities, my dad and his buddies saw an opportunity. They decided to open up a jazz club and market it to North American promoters. That’s how they managed to get some of the jazz greats to make a stop there. I didn’t go to too many concerts myself because I was young and more into hard rock and punk, but I did catch a few.

Q: But then you saw Chet Baker and that’s when your life changed, right?

A: Yeah, back in 1984. I was 15 at the time, and it just felt right. You see, before that, I thought being a performer meant you had to be all outgoing, loud and proud. That’s what all the guys on MTV and Top Of The Pops seemed like. But then I saw Chet, and it hit me — you could be an introvert and still rock it. That gave me the courage to believe I could do it too. I wanted to be like Chet Baker. Sure, he wasn’t at his best and the concert wasn’t all that great, but it meant something special to me. Last year I met photographer Bruce Weber, who made that documentary about Baker, Let’s Get Lost. We had a chat about Chet, and I thanked him for making a film that reminded me of his magic.

Q: The other music genre that defined Jay-Jay Johanson was trip hop. What led you there?

A: Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I was spending a lot of time in London. The club scene there was on fire and trends were changing practically every week. Soul II Soul played in a club with this amazing sound system, and the DJs would perform with various vocalists jamming along. The Wild Bunch (who later formed Massive Attack) in Bristol was doing the same thing. But what really blew me away was Portishead. To make some cash, I was working weekends at this Swedish music magazine called Pop Magazine. We had this promo tape of Portishead’s album, Dummy, before it officially dropped. I played that tape nonstop during the summer of ‘94.

I used to arrange my songs with a jazz quartet in Stockholm, but I wasn’t feeling completely sold on it. It felt a bit old-fashioned and kind of boring. I wanted to bring in a more modern touch. That’s when Portishead came along and opened my eyes to a whole new way of arranging jazz. So, I ditched the jazz quartet, brought in some turntables to the studio, and started slowing down my hip hop singles, adding samples from jazz music, soundtracks, and even James Bond themes with hip hop beats. Portishead had such a profound influence on my first album, Whiskey (1996).

Jay-Jay Johanson begins a concert tour in Spain in February.
Jay-Jay Johanson begins a concert tour in Spain in February.Manu Morales

Q: Did studying at art school in Stockholm influence your multidisciplinary vision?

A: Yeah, so back then, I wasn’t exactly sure which art form I wanted to pursue. But I was determined to dedicate myself to some kind of artistic expression. Whether it was film, painting, architecture, magazines, photography or music, I wanted to soak up as much as I could from all these disciplines and see where it would take me. I actually spent some time at I-D magazine, collaborating with photographers and fashion folks. But then, music came into the picture and my career took a different path. I never went back to the publishing world, although I still have control over my album covers and liner notes.

Q: Your songs have often been featured in advertisements. Do you find that your music is effective for promoting products?

A: I don’t think it’s been used that much. I actually thought they were going to use it more. People often say my music has this cinematic vibe. It kind of goes in spurts, but it’s a great way to get people to discover my music. For instance, I never really made it big in North America, but the times when things got a bit exciting were when my songs appeared in ads, TV shows and even fashion shows. Ralph Lauren used several of my tracks at New York Fashion Week. Yeah, my music seems to work well in different formats. I was genuinely surprised when Apple used Heard Somebody Whistle last week.

Q: Do you consider advertising an art form?

A: Of course it is! It’s a collaboration between creative folks from various disciplines — filmmakers, set designers, architects, photographers... It may not be seen as a “true” art form since it’s not displayed on gallery walls, but there’s a ton of creativity involved. Same goes for fashion.

Q: Recently, you’ve been working with Balenciaga. Can you tell us more about your connection to the fashion industry?

A: When I was a kid, I was really into punk. I used to watch the Sex Pistols and realized that looking at their photos was just as important as listening to their music. And then in the 1980s, with the “new romantics” like Visage and Culture Club, what musicians wore became a big deal. Living in that era made me curious about clothes, style and fashion. But I never really felt like diving into it myself. It’s always been the fashion world that has invited me in. It’s funny, because I’ve been working a lot with Balenciaga in the past two or three years, and even 20 years ago when I collaborated with their designer Nicolas Ghesquière. Right now, I’m starting my Spanish concert tour in San Sebastián, and there’s a Balenciaga museum nearby, so I’m planning to visit it the day before.

Q: Have you also modeled fashions on the catwalk?

A: Yes. Last year, I was invited to walk in this campaign. I never saw myself as a model, but hey, I’ve been on stage for half my life, so it didn’t really make a big difference. It was actually pretty fun!

Q: You have many fans in Russia and Ukraine. How has the war affected you?

A: We used to play in Russia almost every year, and let me tell you, they paid us really well for the concerts compared to Western Europe. But many of the young and creative people in Russia had to leave the country as soon as the war started because they would be forced to fight. And it’s not just that, homosexuals there have always been attacked and harassed, so they’ve been fleeing the country for a long time. In the last two years, I’ve met so many Russian fans at concerts who had to go into exile in other countries. They shared with me these horrible stories, about how they can never go back to their country and may never see their families again. Of course, the situation for Ukrainians is even worse. I’ve heard so many sad stories from them too. They had to run for their lives, and many lost their parents or their homes. I’ve had to cancel quite a few concerts, but that’s nothing compared to what these people are going through.

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