It takes a lot to get noticed these days, especially on the internet. But St. Paul musician Zachary Scot Johnson has managed to stick out rather nicely.
Nearly six years ago, Johnson set an ambitious goal for himself: record a song a day every day, each posted to his YouTube channel. He uploaded his first video on Sept. 6, 2012, a solo cover of “Catch the Wind” by Scottish-born folk artist Donovan. A few weeks ago, on Feb. 26, the 35-year-old uploaded his 2,000th consecutive daily song: a collaboration with Nashville musicians Gretchen Peters and Barry Walsh on Peters’ “Five Minutes.” Along the way, Johnson used the project to build an impressive playlist of singer-songwriter masterworks: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor, “2 Kool 2 Be 4gotten” by Lucinda Williams, plus a sprinkling of his own originals. His biggest hit (with nearly 320,000 YouTube views so far) was a cover of Shawn Colvin’s Grammy-winning “Sunny Came Home,” recorded by Johnson in his St. Paul home on Sept. 19, 2013.
“It’s a nice way of being welcomed by a community that sometimes I don’t feel I belong in,” said Johnson, explaining the motivations behind his song-a-day project. “I think that’s part of why I like doing it so much.”
As the project progressed, Johnson has racked up collaborations with about 200 guest artists, including some big-name national acts. He once recorded an original song with (and by) actor and musician Creed Bratton, best known these days from NBC’s “The Office.” Another time he recorded Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” with Colvin, someone he calls a “friend” and has opened for on tour. With country star Rosanne Cash he has covered Texas troubadour Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” and a version of her “Seven Year Ache.” He even partnered with beloved Minnesota songsmith Jeremy Messersmith on a cover of Sia’s “Chandelier.”
Johnson makes these pair-ups happen by reaching out to favorite musicians. About half the time, he said, the artist will agree. “It’s always exciting to get a yes from someone you admire.”
Johnson likes to sit in with his guests, letting them take the lead on their own music. He usually accompanies on mandolin or violin, adding layers to the daily song to “shine it up.” When performing a song called “Detroit Train” with musician and “Dumb and Dumber” actor Jeff Daniels, however, Johnson actually played a train whistle. That was Daniels’ idea.
Then there was the time last year when Donovan flew Johnson to an Irish festival, just to rerecord “Catch the Wind” in honor of the song-a-day project’s five-year anniversary. As usual, Johnson experienced awe while working with one of his musical heroes.
“It’s like being in the presence of greatness,” he said.
The future is YouTube
Johnson got the idea for the song-a-day project after he noticed declining CD sales for his own music. He also started fielding questions from people at his concerts — were his songs available on iTunes? Or Amazon? Where could they listen online?
He figured he could simply direct fans to YouTube, a platform that encourages creativity and discovery. That way he could really celebrate the songs.
For the first year, he focused on solos with little more than his acoustic guitar. Then he started inviting other musicians to participate in the project.
“It’s very flattering,” said Minneapolis songwriter Doug Collins, who recorded his song “Lesbian Wedding” with Johnson. “Here’s someone who’s looking for performers and songwriters so he can highlight their work.”
“As a songwriter it’s such a compliment when someone takes time to learn your song,” added Minnesota ukulele master Katy Vernon, who recorded her song “Lily” with Johnson on a park bench in St. Peter, Minn.
Recording the daily song usually takes, on average, about half an hour per day. And Johnson keeps a few ground rules to streamline the process: Most songs are learned quickly, with just one or two rehearsals (Johnson likes the performances to feel fresh). He doesn’t bother with overdubs or edits. And the prevailing venue is his low-key St. Paul home. Viewers have become familiar with the sound of his dogs, Velma and Calvin, wandering underfoot.
Johnson also keeps busy touring (with many stops in his hometown of Racine, Wis.) and manning two self-produced podcasts: “The Joni Mitchell Podcast” and “Meryl Streep and the Movies.” Still, he has no plans of abandoning his song-a-day project. After all, he never imagined making it this far, he said. “I thought it would last about a month.”
Christopher Shea is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.