Beating The Devil

By JFP Artist, Penn Johnson

I’m recording my first album, For The Trees, tomorrow. It's about climate change, almost entirely. There’s a lot of personal experience in there too, from the frontlines of the fracking shalefields of Pennsylvania, but mostly that’s what it's about, climate change. I mean, what else would it be about? Climate change is the single most important thing happening right now.

It's funny because I only started playing guitar last summer. I guess I played before that, but not really. In order to really play the guitar you kinda need a few hours of practice a day and more than four chords––still working on the four chords thing...

So my friend Mark is helping me with the album. We went to this Changemaker's Conference in Washington, D.C. this past November and met up. He decided to turn his basement into a studio and I said I was gonna record an album. Two months later and here we are. I'll be heading into Boston tomorrow on the train to record for a week. I’ve never been inside a recording studio before.

To be honest, I never thought I’d be here, in this position, recording an album. Music sorta came into my life and eased my mind in a way that nothing else could. I used to meditate every day for twenty minutes. Recently, I’ve been playing music and writing songs instead. It seems to help me even more.

I’ve always been a singer. I've been doing plays and acting since I was young. And I did chorus in high school and all that. Maybe that’s why when I play guitar I focus on the words so much. I watched a documentary the other night called Be Here To Love Me about the 'songwriter's songwriter' Townes Van Zandt and he said something like: "I can’t say a song's done until every word is perfect." That really resonated with me. Later, he said he once wrote a song in his sleep and wrote it down in one sitting. I’ve done that a couple times, too, and it's one of the things that makes me keep coming back to music--it keeps me thinking, passionate––it keeps me alive.

I’m not diagnosed with depression, but the other night I was in a dark spot. I think I need therapy. That’s what one of my best friends said, anyway. But I’m only telling you this because music is the only thing that keeps me coming back. The next day, after one of those 'episodes' they call it, the only thing I can do is pick up my guitar and find some chords that match the feeling of my insides and scribble some words that seem to fit the strumming pattern.
I’m told a lot of musicians struggle with this doubt, with some of the stuff I've got. Makes sense because sometimes you’re someone and then you go become someone else and everyone is confused where it came from, what caused it. But they don’t know you’re more confused than they are, even, and you’re the one it's happening to.

I’m taking the album touring in a month. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t do it, that I’m not ready, that I’m not good enough. But I know that’s not the truth. It's like every time I write a song. There’s a period where I smile and think it's the best thing I’ve ever written. Then another one comes along and the same thing happens and I hate the previous song, everything about it. Eventually, I reach an equilibrium––both are good, both are different.

I honestly think this album's gonna change the world. I think I’m gonna change the world. Me and a bunch of others. The tide is rising but so are we. This movement is growing. And if I can help some people get involved then that’s what I'll do.

Here's a song that always gets me back in the game. It's by Kris Kristofferson and it's called 'To Beat The Devil.' If there's one person in a whole place and you inspire them and they reach out to you, you never know what's gonna happen because of it. That's been a huge lesson in my own music and I'll bet a lot of others would agree. There's always going to be one person. And those people add up. So keep playing. Cause someone's gonna hear.