Noel Johnson is the kind of songwriter whose music and lyrics cover the sonic territory of several decades of rock ’n’ roll, folk and alternative, all the while remaining wholly original and a breath of fresh air. Having released albums with the White Oaks and his solo outing, Noel, Johnson founded Jet Stream Lights, a “somewhere between Dawes and Foals, Alabama Shakes and My Morning Jacket” group that has already had some initial success, opening for Third Eye Blind in Tennessee last fall. Anchored by Johnson’s baritone vocal delivery, the songs drift from organ-laden guitar heroics to subtle acoustic picking.
We talked with Johnson about the formation of Jet Stream Lights, middle-school band days and the evolution of the Birmingham music scene.
Weld: When and how did you get involved with the Birmingham music scene?
Noel Johnson: I first got into the Birmingham scene with my first band when I was still in middle school, which eventually evolved into the band Decay Debate Street. This was years before Birmingham had any kind of a scene at all, so we had shows at house parties, church youth rooms, and in venues like Joy’s Coffee House in Alabaster, the original Rockin’ Horse (at the Colonnade), the Crush Warehouse and even Frankie’s Underground in Southside. We played a battle of the bands at Five Points South Music Hall. We were all kids, and we had a good following for a while, the whole thing was very underground. It was like the Birmingham pre-scene. We were too young to play the Nick or Zydeco, but any place that would let us have an all-ages show, we were there, and we’d have 150 to 300 of our friends show up. We had an album release show at Alan’s Discount Music and there were 700-800 kids that showed up. It was really something else.
Weld: You’ve fronted the White Oaks and had your own solo project. How does the songwriting process for you in the different formations?
Johnson: I have songs and musical ideas that I’m working on all the time, but usually I start writing for the people i’m working with in a particular project, keeping in mind the players and the sounds that I would have available. That shapes the process a lot and gives it a focus.
Weld: Describe your latest project, Jet Stream Lights.
Johnson: Jet Stream Lights was born as I started working with some guys who were a bit younger than me — and hungry. I had a few new songs and some older guitar songs that had never seen the proper treatment so it all just came together nicely over a couple of months of rehearsals last summer. At this point it’s really just down to me and Anderson Gore, re-imagining the music. But we are looking for some other folks to join us.
Weld: What were some of the first songs that jump started everything?
Johnson: Over at Boutwell Studios, I got together with some great friends and made some demos of some of the new songs, and the guys learned from those. My friend Daniel Long had a big influence on those demos he put some great work in. They were “Pleasuremania,” “Year One” and “Take It With You,” plus one or two others.
Weld: What are the recording plans for this project?
Johnson: We completed 11 songs about a month or so ago, recorded over in Oxford, Mississippi, at Tweed’s. It took a while to finish it because I did all the overdubs and the mixing myself.
Weld: Some bands continue to release full records every few years and others release a song every month. Do you feel like you’ve adjusted your own approach over the last few years?
Johnson: That’s actually what we are dealing with right now, trying to decide what approach will work best to release this music to the public. It really depends on what kind of budget you’ve got for promotion. I’m leaning toward putting out one song at a time, accompanied by a video, or a few short collections maybe. We’ll see!
Weld: How have you seen the Birmingham music scene grow and change over the last several years?
Johnson: Well, it certainly has been great to see the national respect come back out into the open for the talent here. Alabama has such a legendary role in American music, and I think with some of the big acts breaking out, especially St. Paul and The Broken Bones being from right here in Birmingham, I think there’s a greater level of self-respect and a greater awareness of the history of Muscle Shoals and all that. But the Birmingham scene has always been eclectic. There’s no one trying to copy any sound they’ve heard elsewhere, you always hear bands that want to be original. I think that’s really valuable.
Noel Johnson will play an acoustic set at Cahaba Brewing from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, September 15. The free, 21-and-up event is part of Birmingham Mountain Radio’s Local Mash Music Series.