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Johnny Questionmark: Writing a great song over a terrible beat isn't going to win people over

Johnny Questionmark: Writing a great song over a terrible beat isn't going to win people over
Photo by Rob Schmahl

It's hard to categorize John Haine, aka Johnny Questionmark. The performer has the heart of a hip-hop artist, yet creates backing tracks that invite the listener to take a quick breath and dive in. On his new album Falling in Like , Johnny cultivates songs that has the same wooziness as you'd feel after staying up all night to watch the sunrise.

Before his album release show at the Triple Rock on Friday evening, Haine took the time to talk to Gimme Noise about his collaborations with Mac Lethal and Lazerbeak and his struggles and experience with crowd funding his album.

Gimme Noise: You did a Kickstarter to fund this album, and I see it as something more and more artists are veering towards. Was it a difficult decision to crowdsource and not make it feel like you were asking for handouts?

Johnny Questionmark: It was a really tough decision, but in the end I knew it was going to be the only way I could make the record I wanted to make. If I was going to do this, I wanted to do it right. I wanted Joe Mabbott to mix the record. I wanted Bruce Templeton to master it. I wanted to press physical copies of the album and print T-shirts. Those things aren't cheap. I had no name recognition, a limited body of work, and no label behind me. What I did have was a group of people who believed in me and my music and were willing to vote with their wallets.

It's so tough, because while you're running the campaign, you have to walk a razor-thin line between asking people to support you and just straight-up begging. You try to stay on the right side of that by always being thankful, recognizing the people who supported you, and by making it worth their while by providing backer rewards and benefits that people actually want. In the end, we had enough people spreading the word that we were able to exceed our funding goal. It was a great learning experience, but stressful; I don't think I'll be doing it again. 

Tell me about your experience with the music community in the Cities. 

The album is basically full of contributions from local artists and friends. We have production from Lazerbeak, Caesar from Out of Bounds/Literati, Egypto Knuckles from the Background Noise Crew, MC Rentz from Bloody Boombox, and Professor Fresh from the Dead Bird Factory. All of them provided something amazing and unique for the record, which is something I'm really proud of.

Every song sounds different, which comes from working with lots of different, talented people. It was mixed locally, by Joe Mabbot at The Hideaway and mastered locally by Bruce Templeton at Magneto Mastering. These are all people who live here, work here, and contribute to the local music scene. We're so incredibly fortunate to have such a diverse collection of musicians here. We have artists who support each other and venues that don't treat hip hop like a disease.

On any given night you can catch at least one rap show in Minneapolis -- sometimes two or three. It's really incredible what we have. The other thing is that musicians here are so friendly, every time I'm at a show I meet a new person that I might work with in the future.

How did you meet Lazerbeak and Mac Lethal, and how did you come to working with them?

I first worked with Lazerbeak back in 2007 on a record with my previous group PLC. He produced two tracks on our record Hype Hop that we really liked. As soon as I started working on a solo record, I knew I wanted a contribution from him. The track he did for the record is actually an older beat of his that I loved and had been sitting on for a while -- just waiting for inspiration to strike. The beat was just begging for a call-and-response type drinking song, so that's what I ended up writing. He's the nicest guy in the world, super easy to work with, and his production is outstanding.

The song with Mac Lethal was actually orchestrated by a friend of mine, Matt Hill, who performs as Nobuddie and books shows at the Pourhouse. I knew he and Mac had worked together in the past and I was a huge fan, so I basically just shot him a text asking if he thought Mac would do a song. Matt got the two of us connected and it was easy from there. I got Mac a rough version the track when he was in town for a show at the Fine Line and he sent me his verse shortly after.

 

How do you feel your collaborators added to the pieces?

I think everybody brought something a little different, which is exactly what I was going for. My buddy Dood Computer (from Giant Gorilla Dog Thing/Pig Food Records) out of upstate New York came through and absolutely killed a verse on the Lazerbeak beat. Mac dropped a really fun party verse on an Egypto Knuckles beat. All the producers have such different styles and because of that, I think every song sounds unique.

Do you compose all of the tracks yourself?

I only write the words, vocal melodies, and harmonies. The producers of each track do the rest. I know what my strengths are and try to stay in my wheelhouse.
 

What do you feel is more important, a hook/melody or lyrics? 

I think it all depends on the song and what you're trying to say. Some songs are all about getting a message across. In those tracks, the lyrics need to stand out. Some songs are more about a vibe, getting people to feel a certain way, rather than sending a specific message. I think those are more important to have the right beat and the right hook. In the end, though, it's never one or the other. Writing a great song over a terrible beat isn't going to win people over. Writing a terrible song over a great beat isn't going to either. You have to have enough of both to catch people's interest and keep it.

Do you ever compose with those two elements (hook and lyrics) in mind, or is it really a stream of consciousness? 

Every song I write comes from a different place. For years I carried around a small notepad and wrote ideas I had for songs, funny lines, catchy hooks. Now I basically use my phone for the same purpose. It's even better, because if I get an idea for a melody, I'll sing it right into the audio recorder on my phone. Very few things are worse than having a great idea at one point and trying to remember it later.

The song "Heartbeat" actually started as a poem I wrote for a class at the University of Minnesota. I had no intentions to make it a song, but one day I heard this beat from Caesar and I immediately thought of that poem, years later. I made a few changes and it fit perfectly. Things just work out like that sometimes. Initially the entire album was going to be horn samples and drinking songs, and you can still hear that in "Written in Lights" and "Tony Clifton". For those I knew exactly what I wanted to write when I heard the beats for the first time.

Any standout tracks for you?

It's hard to say, by the time an album comes out, you hear it 500 times, so my favorites have changed a few times over. Right now I think "Written in Lights" and "6, 7, 8" are the ones I like the most, but ask me tomorrow and I might have a different opinion. The thing I like the most about the record is that there aren't any songs I don't like, nothing I wish I hadn't put on there.

What can we expect to see at your album release show?

High energy hip hop music. It's going to be a true record release party. Everyone who is playing this show contributed to the record in some way, which means a lot to me. It's a lot of fun because I got to book a show with a bunch of my friends at a venue I love. Tough to ask for more than that.

Johnny Questionmark will release Falling in Like at the Triple Rock Social Club with
PLC, Out of Bounds, MC Rentz, Professor Fresh, and Imperious Rex on Friday, March 21, 2014.
18+, $7 adv, $10 door, 8 pm
Purchase tickets here.

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