Australian born and New Zealand raised, Sammy Johnson, is an interesting person to describe. From homeless to a household name, his story is inspiring, and his passion for his art shows in every facet of his life. With wisdom beyond his years and an over the top personality to match, there are not many who meet him who do not immediately form a strong opinion of him, far more often good than bad. An extrovert, to say the least, he makes it his mission to make his audience feel the same love for music that he does.
“If they’re not entertained, then I’ve failed,” he told us after his set at this year’s Cali Roots festival. Truly committed to his fans, he strives to make every show unique and memorable. Whether he is performing on the biggest stage of one of the biggest music festivals in the country or sitting down to talk one on one, he makes strong interpersonal connections everywhere he goes.
Grateful Web met with Sammy Johnson after his set at Cali Roots to ask him about music and how his love for music, his perception of himself, and his experiences with fans who can sometimes be a little much.
Grateful Web: You've recently changed your stage name from “Sammy J” to “Sammy Johnson.” What prompted this rebranding?
Sammy Johnson: Ok, it’s money. There’s this comedian called “Sammy J,” and I’m not trying to make him any money. That’s it, nothing crazy, no life-changing story behind it.
GW: You have said you want to make every stop on your tour "a unique and interactive experience" what do you mean by that and how do you plan on following through?
SJ: Well, when I do shows, it all depends on the crowd. Whatever you’re giving me, I’m going to take that, recycle it, and give it back to you… But more so, there’s no point in going somewhere and giving the same show every time. I’m not going to say bands’ names, but you know there are bands out there where at four minutes and thirty-three seconds they’re going to jump, flip their hair, and smile. So my thing is I don’t have anything like that. I don’t play the tracks; I don’t have backing vocalists, just a three-piece and me. So with that comes a lot of “F-ups” and a lot can go wrong, but a lot of spontaneous in the moment things happen, and that’s where I like to live.
If I see someone in the crowd and they’re miserable, I’m going to call them on it, if people are getting their laughs in, I’ll acknowledge it and go extra long on a hook because they like it. It’s just having fun with people. That’s what I mean by unique. More tailored to the people, because at the end of the day, if they’re not entertained, then I’ve failed.
GW: Any memorable fans that have changed the experience of your show?
SJ: A lot of people jumping onstage, groping, it is what it is. Anything can happen, and usually, I allow it to happen. If you go on my Instagram, there is (a picture of) some lady crawling onstage and, yeah. It’s on my Instagram. If it’s genuine and they’re not creeping me out, I say why not?
GW: You have been described by your publicist as "Somewhere between the charisma of Frank Sinatra, (and) the empathetic tone of Bob Marley." Today before your set, while being introduced you were compared you to Jesus. Why did you believe you leave these tremendous impressions on people?
SJ: It’s because I was born without a filter, and I’ve lived a lot of lives and experienced a lot of things before this. With that comes a lot of life lessons and I’m good with people, and I know how to connect with people. I’ve been this, I’ve been that, you name it I’ve probably been it, well there’s a few things I haven’t been, but it is what it is, and with that I love people. Part of the reason I do what I do is that I love people. I’m always interested in what makes a person tick, and if I don’t like you, you know it really quick.
GW: Between acts like yourself, Ocean Alley, Tash Sultana and Xavier Rudd, Australia seems well represented at this year’s Cali Roots, how do you feel about this culture shift?
SJ: Well, New Zealand is home, but yes I am Australian born. In New Zealand in particular, there is so much talent, and it’s just amazing over there. I don’t know what it is, but I think living there on that end of the word, we look at America, we see artists like Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, and we’re like “if we don’t sound like those people, we’re shit.” And so, there’s a lot of amazing talent because the bar for us is (so high.) We look at Hollywood, and we just think that the standard is so high. Having anyone over here notice you all the way over there.
GW: How does it feel to be recognized over here then?
SJ: It means a lot. I’m a perfectionist, so I’m always going to downplay every accomplishment I’ve ever had, but it means a lot because I think the fan base here is outgrowing (the fan base) back home. Obviously, there are a lot more people in this country, but in New Zealand, obviously they’re my people, and automatically I got fans because of who I am and where I’m from, but over here you have some real die-hard followers who really creep me out, but I love them. That’s a new thing for me, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
GW: You have a large personality both on and offstage both in very different ways. How do you see the difference in your identity when you are or aren’t performing?
SJ: Offstage, I know that everything I say is passive and sarcastic, so I obviously can’t be like that onstage all the time because they just won’t catch it quick enough, but onstage, and when it comes to music, I know this (opportunity) is a gift, so when I use it correctly the blessings that come from it come ten fold.
GW: What’s next for Sammy Johnson?
SJ: Touring and promoting my latest EP “Sleepwalker.”