Interview: Johnny Houx

Johnny Houx - Photo by Jesse Finley Reed

Johnny Houx - Photo by Jesse Finley Reed

Over the course of the past two decades, 27-year-old Johnny Houx has written close to – if not more than – 500 songs.

“[But] not all good,” he clarified with a laugh. “Not all ever saw the light of day.”

And during that time, the folk singer-songwriter played through various genres as well, the path of his music sometimes diverging, other times aligning, with the course of his life.

Although he currently resides in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem (which is located within the Manhattan borough), Houx’s origins go back a handful of years and thousands of miles to a little town in Humboldt County, Calif. He first began playing music at the age of seven, dabbling in piano, recorder and drums. But a few years later, a chance discovery changed his musical path.

“I found a guitar in a barn on a walnut farm [and] had some strings put on it,” he said. “A friend’s dad taught me a couple chords, and then I never put it down.”

Having grown up in the country, it might be easy for listeners to understand why Houx plays the kind of music he does. However, he admitted that for years, he was resistant to his roots and the musical expectations that accompanied growing up in what was, essentially, the middle of nowhere.

“Anything that had any sort of a tint of, like, country-ism…anything that seems possibly kind of hick-ish to me, was out,” he said.

But it was only a matter of time before he overcame that personal struggle with his origins.

“Some things you can’t avoid,” he said with a shrug.

Still, for Houx, coming full circle with his music was a lengthy process, especially since he once was more concerned with being avant garde.

“For a long time I played, like, really, sort of complicated rock stuff,” he said. “[I was] always trying to find, like, the most interesting chords.”

His policy even extended to avoiding repeating chords, something which arose out of his attempt to be unique and non-conventional.

Eventually, however, he got tired of trying to impress people, and stepped down a notch.

“Suddenly, after years of, like, not liking folk music, suddenly, I just got it,” he shared. “I decided I was gonna learn how to write good songs with three chords, [and] ‘simple as possible’ became my new [mantra].”

So four years ago, he moved to New York City – a mecca for the anti-folk scene – and began writing acoustic-y, folk songs that were minimal and honest.

“Now I’ve really stopped caring about writing to impress people,” he explained. “The shift to simplicity made it a lot more easy to be calm and confident.”

And it was Houx’s initiation into the New York-based anti-folk scene that put him in touch with the players in Berlin’s anti-folk circles, and eventually brought him here.

His first excursion to Berlin – and Europe – was two years ago, when he hung out on the continent for a month and played a handful of shows, which were organized by Four Track on Stage.

This summer, Houx returned to Germany to perform at the third annual Down By The River Festival and to tour Germany more extensively.

Performing for new crowds is something that gives Houx a lot of perspective, particularly in regards to his music, which he tends not to test out with friends or family members. And even his own opinion of what makes a song “good” can sometimes be skewed, which is why he likes to rely on that instantaneous feedback.

“A lot of the time, a song you write in, like, five minutes, something that just pops into your head, you put very little work into and so you sort of feel like, ‘well, it’s probably not very good.’ Like you don’t feel that invested in it,” he said. “But then you’ll play it for an audience, and that’ll be like the one song that they’re like, ‘hey that one was awesome.’ So your own judgement of what is and isn’t a good song is pretty off sometimes.”

Even so, he said his feelings about what he does come in waves.

“The best and worst part are sort of the same thing,” he said. “This is my life and there’s no separation between what I do and who I am…which makes it great in the high points…but at the low points…if you don’t feel good about your music, you see no value in yourself anymore.”

And it’s when he gets to feeling down and out that Houx returns to those roots that he used to brush off, sharing that returning home to Humboldt and spending time walking in the woods renews him, so that he can start again.

Four Track on Stage hosts its October event tonight at Madame Claude in Berlin. The show begins at 21.30.

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