Leslie Johnson, bassist and producer: Something Else! Interview
Producer, bass player, composer and multi-instrumentalist Leslie Johnson garnered stateside attention with the 2012 release of Bass & Beyond, featuring guest turns by the likes of Nikki Glaspie (Beyonce, Jay-Z), Alvaro Lopez (Abraham Laboriel) and Eric Boseman (Brian Mcknight, Whitney Houston).
The Guatemala City native has been professionally active since the age of 20, appearing on more than 50 albums as a sideman and producer. That puts Johnson in a unique position to capitalize on his newfound attention. He’s followed Bass & Beyond with the new The Leslie Johnson Project, which features performances by Philip Lassiter, Frank McComb, Adam Nitti, Philip Lassiter and others.
Preston Frazier caught up with Leslie Johnson, in this exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, to discuss his journey — both musical and personal …
PRESTON FRAZIER: Leslie please tell me about your background. I understand you were born In Guatemala City.
LESLIE JOHNSON: Yes, I was born and raised in Guatemala City. I lived there for 24 years until I moved to Mexico to be a part of [Grammy Award-nominee] Alvaro Lopez’s production team, and at the same time I worked as his bass player. After being with Lopez for almost two years, I started to work on many productions by myself as producer/musician — and little by little I started to know more people in the industry and in 2012 I moved to Texas. I have been working there since then.
PRESTON FRAZIER: When did you take up an instrument?
LESLIE JOHNSON: It was at my local church, back when I was 15 years old. It was a small church, so they only had four or five musicians. At first, drums was what caught my attention, but I was a little intimidated by the drummer, so I decided to go for the keys. I started to play keys, but I guess I wasn’t as good as the other musicians wanted me to be, so — in a very not-subtle way, at all — they decided to put me on bass. Coming from keys, bass felt natural and in some way easier than keys. So, I haven’t looked back ever since, even when I found out the bass isn’t easier than keys at all.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Is there a vibrant jazz, funk scene in Guatemala?
LESLIE JOHNSON: When I was there, it was a small scene with a few great, talented musicians that were the ones that opened the way for all of us young cats. Nowadays, Guatemala is full of many amazing musicians — and when I say “amazing,” I really mean it. Every time I have the opportunity to go to Guatemala, I notice that the scene has grown so much, compared to the last time I was there. So, I know for sure that it’s growing at a very fast pace.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You started performing at an early age. Are you self-taught or did you study at a music university?
LESLIE JOHNSON: As I mentioned before, I started with piano when I was 15 years old, and then switched to bass at age 18. By the time I decided for the bass, I already had some basic harmony and theory knowledge — the usual stuff you have to know to play at church — and, at that age, I realized I wanted to play bass for the rest of my life. Somehow, my parents saw my potential and decided to support me 100 percent, with the only condition that I had to go to college too and study something else besides music. So, I went to college to study graphic design and, at the same time, I started studying music at a music academy called Poliritmos. They have the same education system as MI [Musicians Institute] in Hollywood, California. Long story short, in two years I completed the four-year program at Poliritmos. Don’t ask about college…
PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you become involve with the band Vertical?
LESLIE JOHNSON: It all started when the label [Integrity Music] made an album called Vertical back in 2002 or 2003 — I don’t remember exactly. The album was a huge success in Latin America, so they decided to make a band out of that album. Usually, it is the other way around. During that time, the singer of the band and I — we didn’t knew each other then — decided to attend to the same church. So, we ended up meeting on our first day at that church. He then invited me over to a rehearsal to try it out and see if that was something that might interest me — and, as we say, the rest is history. I had the opportunity to travel all around the world with them for four and a half years.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You are obviously a phenomenal bass player. What other instruments do you play?
LESLIE JOHNSON: As I mentioned before, I started on keys then moved to the bass. While I was in high school, I had a lot of friends that played guitar, so I started playing guitar with them. Back in church, there was a time that we didn’t have many musicians, so I started playing everything there — everything from drums to singing. You’ll never see me singing ever again … for your own good.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell me about your musical influences, regarding your style of playing and writing.
LESLIE JOHNSON: As a church bassist, my first main influence ever was Abraham Laboriel. Then, as I started to grow in the instrument, my friends introduced me to Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Jaco [Pastorius], and all those monsters. Back then, we were literally just starting to know all about this internet thing — I know; I sound like an old guy — so, there was no YouTube or Spotify. I had a lot of recordings, on cassettes, where I didn’t know who the bass players on those recordings were. As time went by, I started to listen to a lot of drummers, guitarists and pianists until I realized I should study music itself, not just bass. So that concept of not studying only bass forced me to start listening to music not just as a bass player but as a musician, which opened the door to the production side of me. My first experience in the studio as producer is just hilarious. It came just two years after I started playing bass. A preacher from Nicaragua hired me and my buddy to produce these songs he had written some time ago — they were more like poems — and I had no idea about how I was supposed to make a record. I just had these ideas of grooves, bass lines, harmony and my buddy was a drummer, so he was in charge of the percussion and rhythms. We got to the studio and started layering instruments. I recorded everything but drums and percussion, and the interesting part of this is that I had no idea what the click was for. So, I didn’t use a click track. I didn’t think I’d need it. Long story short: It was a total disaster. But I fell in love with the idea that I could make music from zero and on top of that get paid for it. So, from that moment on, I decided I wanted to be a producer. I started to buy production books and study all the great producers — pop, R&B, gospel, rock, it didn’t matter. If I liked how it sounded, I wanted to know everything about it. For some reason, the preacher loved what we did to his songs! He never thought his songs could sound so beautiful. Those were his words, not mine!
PRESTON FRAZIER: 2012 saw the release of your acclaimed album Bass & Beyond. How did this project come about?
LESLIE JOHNSON: Originally, I wasn’t thinking of making a record. I just decided I wanted to work on some instrumental stuff for my personal use. I just wanted to write some new songs and make some tracks so I could use them in clinics. When I finished writing the songs and recording all the keys and bass tracks, I had Nikki Glaspie — an amazing drummer — cut the drums and a friend from Guatemala [Walter Monterroso] on guitar. I then decided to mix the album, despite the fact that at this point of my life I had never done any mixing at all. As we’ve learned from my first production story, however, that wouldn’t stop me from doing it. I guess that when I heard how every song was developing, I got excited and decided to make a seven-track album and put it on iTunes. I didn’t do any promotion for that; it just happened.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You have emerged as an accomplished touring artist and record producer. What have you been involved with since the release of Bass & Beyond, leading to The Leslie Johnson Project?
LESLIE JOHNSON: I’ve been blessed to cover so many different aspects of music itself. I love every side of it, as different and unique as it may be. So, I’ve been doing a lot of production, recording, touring, etc. As producer, most of the albums I work on are pop/rock albums that have nothing to do with jazz, slap, ninth chords or even sixteenth notes — believe it or not! There’s the occasional gospel album — which I love — but sadly, that’s the minority. I love to do a lot of bass recording, because I never know what I’ll get to do. I’ve done everything from pop to hard rock to R&B, and even some Latin stuff. As far as touring, every time I go on tour I just remind myself how blessed I am to do this for a living. I get to know different places and people. And wherever I go, I know for sure that I’m not there because of my talent or influence; it’s all by the Grace of God, so I don’t take it for granted. When I get to do clinics, it’s the same. I always learn a lot from the questions I’m asked in every clinic.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How does your latest release, The Leslie Johnson Project differ from Bass & Beyond?
LESLIE JOHNSON: This time, I really planned to make an album. Some people know me as a musician and some other people know me as producer, and with this album I wanted to present a little bit of both to everybody — plus introduce a new area that maybe some people didn’t even know about me, and that is as composer/arranger.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You have quite an impressive list of talent on The Leslie Johnson Project. Tell me about how some of them became involved and their contributions.
LESLIE JOHNSON: I’ve had the opportunity to work with most of them in other projects for other musicians/artists, so when the time came to start working on this project, I knew exactly who to call.
The fact that they are from all over the world makes each one of them so unique, and I wanted that uniqueness to be a fundamental part for this album. There are so many guests in The Leslie Johnson Project that it would take me several days to talk about each one of them, so for that reason I feel like I shouldn’t say anything about any of them in specific. The only thing I’ll say is: You have to check them all out. Look for any of these names on YouTube, Google or Facebook and you’ll see why I say each one of them is amazing — Larry Belton, Cleverson Silva, Frank McComb, Jermaine Morgan, Vahagn Stepanyan, Chris Carver, Jason Palmer, Adam Nitti, Philip Lassiter, Weerachat Premananda Jr., Carlton Whitfield, Felipe Praino, Nikki Glaspie, Eric Boseman and Hedras Ramos Jr.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What’s next in your plans for 2015?
LESLIE JOHNSON: I always have new ideas jumping around inside my head, so we’ll see if any of all those ideas come to life this year. This year, I have several projects I’m in charge of as producer. I’m also touring as musical director for Christian artist Marcela Gandara. I’m doing my best to promote my album and do some clinics as well. I’m the kind of person that is always trying to stay busy so, if I think of something new I could do, believe me when I say that I’ll find the way to squeeze that into my schedule. I just want to keep doing what I’ve been blessed to do, and make an impact on as much people as I can wherever I go.