Interview conducted by email, August 28th & 29th, 2008
It's considered a matter of faith among fans that the blues are everywhere. Like an all-pervasive force of nature, blues music touches everybody, and every facet of life. Never has this been more apparent than it is in the digital age, where you can even find blues artists working the virtual juke joints of cyberspace.
Blues artist Von Johin is the alter-ego of musician Mike Lawson, the entity that he uses to perform his own unique brand of country blues music in the virtual world of Second Life. Although Lawson has unassailable musical credentials in the "real world," which include performing and recording with such legendary musicians as Jorma Kaukonen, Merl Saunders, and Joe Louis Walker, his sold-out performances in the world of Second Life as Von Johin have earned him a worldwide audience and, surprisingly, the first real world record deal offered to an avatar.
We interviewed Von Johin by email, sending the bluesman several questions that he answered at length. To find out more about Von Johin's fresh perspective on the blues and to hear his music, check out the artist's website.
What is your musical background? How did you get interested in blues music?
I've been playing music since I was a little kid. Got my first guitar at 9 years old, learned to play the blues when I was about 11 or so from some little pocket books that showed basic blues progressions and chords. I loved the blues as a kid, and always had a fascination with the people who would inspire whoever the big act was everyone else was listening to then.
So while I loved Elvis, once I found out he didn't write those songs, and that a lot of this stuff was from black artists played on "race records" and "colored radio stations," to be polite about it, I had to know what the original stuff sounded like. It was a real eye opener as a little kid to find out that there were versions of songs before the big hits, and that white folks cleaned them up a lot.
I love what they did, and love rock and roll, but the originals took me to another place. I had to hear Big Mama Thornton sing "Hound Dog" when I found out there was a version before Elvis. And since then, when I'd buy a record, I'd go straight to looking at the writer's names and starting asking around the record shop if there was another version. Sometimes there was, sometimes there wasn't. Didn't have no Internets back then to go find out, had to ask you older friends, the guys at the guitar shop, the guys at the record shop.
The first blues album I got was a compilation put out in the sixties that I got at a garage sale, and it had some great stuff on it, but most of it was "safe" blues, not the down and dirty, old-school country blues. But it had Bessie Smith on it, and once I heard her, I was just hooked. That said, I also became interested in American folk and bluegrass music at the same time, and got my only "formal" training as a guitarist during eight weeks of lessons at a community college in a non-credit course I took at 12 years old. My guitar style today is really a fusion of bluegrass and blues licks, which I've adapted to my own style of country blues interpretations.
Yes, the means, (HERETIC ALERT!) that I'm doing flat-picking arrangements of some finger-style compositions. I do finger-style some as well, but frankly I'm just not as good as it as I am with a flat pick, so I just do my own thing, play the songs the way the feel to me, and so far folks seem to like. Jorma said it was OK, that's all I needed to hear. I think the Rev Gary Davis will give me his forgiveness when we meet in heaven. :)
When did you get involved with Second Life and what attracted you to this virtual world?
I was introduced to performing in SL by Cypress Rosewood (musician Tony Gerber). By coincidence, or serendipity, we ran into each other at the grocery store outside of Nashville the very day after I first installed SL and took a peak at it. I asked him if he was playing out much, and said he's doing mostly shows in Second Life. That floored me. I had been in and look at it, but didn't get very far past the newbie island training grounds. It didn't occur to me people were doing what he was doing.
He had me to his show that night and showed me around, introduced me, etc. Within a couple of weeks, I bought my own land, built a club, and decided I would play once a week as a lark. I never dreamed it would explode into all this, especially not a record deal that would put me on the same label as Krokus, KC and the Sunshine Band and Marcy Playground. What an unlikely group of label mates, even without adding a cartoon bluesman to the mix.
What is the origin of the "Von Johin" name and when did your avatar begin performing in Second Life?
I suppose I could spin a big tale here about all that, but the truth is that Von Johin happened just by happenstance, nothing else. The system makes you pick a last name. I was fooling around with it like most folks do, and when I saw Johnin ("Yo-hen") I said, hmmmm, Jovi, Johin...Van Halen, Bon Jovi, uh, how about Von Johin? Ironically I don't listen to Bon Jovi or Van Halen, but that's the honest answer of how the name came about. It stuck. A lot of folks seem to have trouble reading the name, but after I spent a decade plus in California, pronouncing J's as Y's came naturally to me. Still, others mistakenly call me Von Jon, ignoring the "I" in-between the H and the N for Johin.
How often do you perform?
I perform a lot. Too often I think. I may scale back a little, but a year into this the demand is still there. I am playing five or six, sometimes seven nights a week.
Are there other blues artists in Second Life, as far as you know? What other Second Life musicians have you run across, and have you performed with them?
There are several blues artists in SL that play regularly. Some of them are exceptional musicians. I played with one of them, an Aussie who lives in Japan, live in a Ninjam concert we sold tickets for last May, which sold out in two days. We actually played together in real time, him in Japan, me in Nashville to a capacity crowd of just under 70.