Behind the art and music of Ipswich artist, Damien Johnson
I first met Damien as part of the mentoring I’ve been doing this year with BEMAC (Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre). He’s a smart, curious guy whose creative practice is entwined in his emerging identity. His sketches and drawings of old colonial buildings are an examination of the past, but his music is a challenge to the societal and political structures that influence our culture today.
Damien said his new single, ‘Power’ is “a reminder that we don’t have to tolerate agendas that support the wealthy at the cost of the poor, marginalised and oppressed.”
The song has a heavy, industrial-metal meets electro vibe with a catchy chorus that I can see pub-goers chanting along with him. Plus, it also features the stunning voice of another Ipswich artist, Paulina.
What does being an “artist” mean to you? Do you consider yourself one?
I think that creativity is an essential part of being human, and that we all create. Perhaps for me, being an ‘artist’ about embracing that creativity and celebrating it as a central part of your identity.
What art do you create?
Creativity comes in many forms for me. Presently my primary creative outlet is music, but I also enjoy expressing my creativity through sketching, photography, videography and acting. For me, life is an expression of creativity and I enjoy playing with whatever I have I front of me.
Can you tell us about your style/process? What makes it meaningful or unique?
I can’t say that I deconstruct my process enough to be able to break it down for you. What makes it meaningful is that I don’t give too much consideration to conventions and rules. If I think something looks or sounds good, I run with it. I would say that I get overwhelmed easily by too much stimulus, so I like to work in wide-open spaces or in uncluttered environments, and enjoy building my work from ‘blank slates’.
How do you balance the need to promote/show/perform your work with creative time? Is it a struggle?
The performance is everything for me. All the work I invest in writing and creating music is about the performance. I want to be on stage making music and creating an atmosphere of explosive musical energy with others. The struggle comes from finding the energy and resources to promote myself in order to attract listeners and draw people to a show.
Marketing myself continues to be the most frustrating part of the creative process for me.
Do you have structure to your creative time? Or do you go with the flow?
I generally go with the flow. I try to live as uncluttered a life as possible, so as to provide myself with as much ‘empty space’ in my time to allow myself freedom to create when I feel like it.
Of course, I’m always thinking about ideas: ideas for songs, for music videos, for marketing, for performances…my brain is always light years ahead of my output.
One thing I have felt I have improved in in recent times is not feeling in a rush to complete projects. I used to try an ride my times of heightened creative bursts as far as I could, and try to complete a work before the burst ran out…and as a result would often create a lot of mediocre material.
Now I discipline myself to leave plenty left in the tank. This means that I a song writing session, I may now only write one line, or record one instrument before walking away, but I always walk away happy with what I have made in that time.
What do you struggle with most?
The hardest part for me is not buying into the ‘competitive market’ idea. I can get down on myself when I see another musician getting the radio play or the gigs or the exposure that I want. And I can begin to see other musicians as competitors to achieving significance with my music.
That sort of thinking leads me to depression, hopelessness, and anxiety. It can lead me to be resentful or jealous of others, and this is a really toxic place to work from.
Where are you from, and how do you think that has influenced you? If your art has cultural significance – can you tell me about its history?
I was born in Western Sydney, lived in Armidale until I was 15, spent nearly four years in Bundaberg, and then left home at 19 to live in Brisbane. Since then I have also lived in Toowoomba for several years, and now call Ipswich home.
In some ways, heritage and cultural identity is a huge void in my life. I find that who I am biologically doesn’t align with my spiritual sense of belonging.
My mother was from London, and despite only visiting the UK once, I do feel a powerful connection to English culture…but England is not home. Likewise, having been born in Australia, and growing up in rural towns, I feel a strong connection to this land, but I am not indigenous.
It is ironic that, as white male, I have been born into privilege, and can not begin to grasp the struggles and injustice that non-white males have experienced, and yet there is also a small degree of envy I have for those who have a strong cultural identity or sense of pride in who they are.
I think this angst, and perhaps even shame at being biologically connected to the most oppressive demographic of the past several hundred years has hugely influenced my music, and driven me towards becoming more of a humanist, who wants to right the wrongs of the past a create a world where we are all free and equal.
Racism is a huge issue across the world. As a white-male, I will probably never fully understand how much of what I take for granted as come as a result of privilege that came about due to injustices caused by racism.
There are huge gaps in our society in relation to health, education, wealth distribution etc, etc that have amounted due to racist attitudes, practices and policies.
To be honest, I am probably not fully aware how much these attitudes continue to shape prejudices that exist within my own unconscious mind, and so an individual I desire justice and fairness for all people, and in my life and art I seek to treat all people as my family.
I think artists have a unique opportunity to share their voice and/or show an alternative perspective – do you agree? Is this something that influences your work?
I completely agree. I think artists capture truth in ways that logic, science and reason can only ever hint at. So much of what makes life ‘real’ is beyond measure, I speak of love, justice, compassion, sorrow, pain, mercy, forgiveness, grief etc.
These are things that are so dynamic in their reality they can never be pinned down and so can only be spoken of in metaphor, which is where the arts excel. I also think art speaks to us at a level below the conscience, and so has the capacity to connect with us beyond our defences and move us at an emotional level.
We can say things in art that we could never say in argument or debate.
Who are your creative influences? What else inspires/drives you?
I draw inspiration from a lot of different sources. I read a lot and listen to a number of podcasts, which are usually spiritual, philosophical or psychological in nature. I listen to a broad variety of music, and have noticed that in recent years I have become more interested in local musicians rather than international acts. I am most driven by desire for purpose and significance.
What do you consider success in your industry/for you personally?
For me success is multifaceted. I am already successful because I largely have the capacity express myself creatively, and that for many is something they lack in life. I also believe I find success in the moments where I am content in the creating rather than worrying about the outcomes of the creation.
Success also hits me when I can look at something I have created and go, ‘Wow – I can’t believe I made THAT!’. Of course I have dreams of performing at major festivals, and having millions of streams on Spotify etc, but those things are mostly out of my control, and so I think true success is being content to create for creations sake.
Have you collaborated with/worked alongside anyone? What can you tell us about that process?
I have a friend, Lucy Korts, who is also a musician, and we have performed together a lot. She was featured on my last album. In this context the collaborations have always been friends doing favours for friends, and that is a beautiful way to work in my opinion.
Professionally I have worked with a PR Agent this year, and it is a new experience for me, as I’m used to doing all my own PR work. I admit I do struggle not being in control and trusting someone else to work on my behalf, especially when I am paying them to do so, but I am trusting that this may assist me in taking my music to a new level of audience reach and connection.
Is there anything you’ve done in the past that you wouldn’t do again? Or would? What advice would you give past you?
Yes! I’ve made heaps of mistakes, and wasted lots of money along the way…or perhaps not ‘wasted’ but the life lessons have been expensive. In my early 20’s I paid a producer a large sum of money to make a three-track record for a band I was in. I had no experience in music production, and was trusting this person to direct the ideas we had and turn them into amazing sounding songs…they didn’t. We walked away broke and with three shitty songs.
My next mistake was my first solo album. I wanted to get music ‘out there’ and so released a bunch of songs that were under-produced and fairly unrelated in terms of genre – the result is that my debut album is something I am more embarrassed about than proud of, but it’s out there now, and that’s part of life.
Mistake number three came when I tried producing, mixing and mastering my second album from home. The results were slightly better, but the polish was still a little lack lustre, and so whilst I am mostly happy with the songs on the album, it don’t think it sounds as good as it could have if had brought in professional mix engineer.
Now I do all my own producing and writing and use a professional mixing engineer to add the polish, and I’m happy with the results. And I can say I’m able to create the sort of music I want to create, and have it sound the way I want, and that’s pretty cool.
What is your philosophy?
‘Creativity doesn’t owe you a living.’ Ok, confession, I stole that from Elizabeth Gilbert, but I think it’s true. It’s a joy and privilege to create, and to take your ideas and give them life. I don’t think it is something that we should expect to provide us income. If it does that’s a bonus, and in some circumstances even a curse.
Money will never be the thing that motivates me to create, and a lack of money will never stop me from creating. The amount of blood and tears and time I put into my art can never be recompensed by any amount of money – my art is priceless to me. But ultimately, what it’s worth to someone else comes down to what they’re willing to pay for it, and if that’s not very much, so be it.
I will never let a lack of money rob me from the joy of creating or performing.
Follow Damien and check his work out here:
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