Shawn Johnson saw his life change at age 20.
The Massachusetts native went camping with friends on Cape Cod, where he learned G-C-D on the guitar. He wrote a song that morning; it was a defining moment for Johnson who decided to pursue music for a living.
“I thought, wow, I can really do this,” Johnson says. “I don’t want to say it came easy, but it was definitely for me.”
It’s definitely for him. The Tempe resident has risen beyond the comparisons to Dave Matthews to define his own sound. He performs as the Johnson Twins with Jayson Johnson (no relation), as Shawn Johnson and the Foundation with a rotating group of musicians, and solo. He recently released his sixth album, Sunshine for Someone. It is available via digital outlets, and will be released on vinyl in March.
“I grew up on records,” Johnson says. “I always wanted to press a record. For me, records were bigger than life. I remember when I saw News of the World, the Queen album that ‘We Will Rock You’ is on. I saw the pictures inside and thought, ‘What is that?’ It already had my interest before I heard the record.”
Johnson explains he knew exactly what he wanted in Sunshine for Someone.
“The musicians came in without written parts,” he says. “I love to record that way. I invite great musicians, listen to the song and let them play what they feel. A lot of people think I’m crazy. They want the parts down so it saves money.”
Johnson hopes that listeners will see the diversity in his music. He plays blues, jazz and gypsy on the album. There’s even a track with just piano and vocals.
“I have all of my loves and passions for different kinds of music on one record,” Johnson says. “I think most people who love music love different kinds of music. Ten or 15 years ago, I was pigeonholed as a Dave Matthews cover band. Sure, I used to play a lot of Dave Matthews. But I don’t understand being pigeonholed. If you do a Zeppelin cover, I don’t call you a ‘Zeppelin guy.’”
Music is all Johnson has wanted to do. It’s been nearly 20 years since he had a “regular job.” Music afforded him the opportunity to watch his kids grow.
“A lot of people in their 20s want to be a musician, but they only give themselves a certain amount of time. If it doesn’t happen, the band members give up. Nothing else was ever an option for me.”
As for the local scene, Johnson feels honored to be a part of it. He calls peers like Ryan Sims and Blaine Long “brothers in arms, musically.”
But the roots of his success go back nearly 30 years to Cape Cod.
“We grew up in the city,” Johnson says. “Going to Cape Cod for the summer changed a lot of lives. When my friends went home, I stayed on the Cape and learned how to play guitar. I worked nights and sat on the beach and played all day. It absolutely changed my life.”
Shawn Johnson and the Foundation, Tempe Festival of the Arts, Hayden Square, downtown Tempe, tempefestivalofthearts.com, 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Friday, December 1, free.
Shawn Johnson, Phoenix Festival of the Arts, Soliloquies Acoustic Stage, Margaret T. Hance Park, 1202 N. Third Street, Phoenix, phoenixfestivalofthearts.org, 3 p.m. Friday, December 8, free.
Shawn Johnson, The Perch Brewery, 232 S. Wall Street, Chandler, 480.773.7688, perchpubbrewery.com, 8 to 10 p.m. Friday, December 8, and Saturday, December 16, free.
The Johnson Twins, Old Town Tavern, 7320 E. Scottsdale Mall, Scottsdale, 480.945.2882, oldtowntavernaz.com, 8:30 to 11:30 p.m. Thursdays, call for charge.