Q&A: Playing For Change's Mark Johnson On Finding Fantastic Music On Streets All Over The World

The Playing For Change band.
Ten years ago, audio engineer Mark Johnson boldly decided to part ways with a career that had him recording the likes of Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, and Los Lobos. He decided to chase after a new pipe dream that must have seemed at once both wildly ambitious and thoroughly hare-brained. Spurred into action by his discovery of a Los Angeles street performer who could do a particularly mean version of Ben E. King's soul classic "Stand By Me," Johnson launched Playing For Change, in which he traveled around the globe with a portable recording setup in order to document the buskers and other musicians he happened upon—sort of like a worldwide and far more competent version of my NYC field recording series Cast In Concrete, which has been running in this space sporadically since last year.

The biggest difference: Johnson kept overdubbing each new performer into the same song as the previous ones, resulting in patchwork collaborations between disjunct musicians who would never meet, each one carrying nominally different implicit messages about lofty themes like faith, war, and interpersonal connectivity. The tracks are both sprawling and scattered, with rapid "We Are The World"-style transitions between the participants, but the masterful production sensibility eventually helped turn the project into the sort of sensation that can make an Internet star out of Grandpa Elliott, the captivating blind sexagenarian busker who takes the reins for the second verse on Johnson's jigsaw puzzle version of "Stand By Me."

After a string of popular videos illustrating his process and a handful of successful record releases—including what is likely the first top-ten Billboard 200 debut by a group of largely unknown street performers—Johnson decided to take the project on the road, assembling a band with Elliott and a few other choice singers at the center. They're visiting New York for a show at the New York Society For Ethical Culture tonight.

I understand that the idea for this project first came to you while you were riding the subway in New York about fourteen years back.

I was down in Union Square, and I was taking a train up to midtown. I was working at the Hit Factory recording studio, and there were two monks in the subway. Everybody stops, nobody gets on the train, everybody's watching this performance of this music they don't even understand in a language I'd imagine most people didn't know. And afterward I get on the train and it occurred to me that the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. And what New York City can teach you is that the best music and great art, it's just everywhere.

Yeah, I really just can't believe how excellent some of the stuff I've encountered on the street has been.

That's right, man. It's the best. People always say to me, "How do you find all these musicians?" And the truth is, by showing up. Great music is everywhere, so those people that show up are the ones that get to find it. Some days you turn left and you don't find it, but you'll find it the next day.

So you don't do any scouting beforehand? How do you pick your locations when you're buying the plane tickets?

I usually sort of just try to pick places that are very different from each other. Let's put musicians from India with New Orleans with Brazil with West Africa. But they all work, all different styles connected together.

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