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.
How do you handle the logistics and legalities of getting so many performers involved?
The whole thing has to be about giving before you’re getting. So all the musicians are paid at an economy of scale that’s appropriate for where they live in the world, and featured artists are given equity and royalties. Revenues from all the materials are given to our charity, the Playing For Change Foundation to build music schools. So there’s a lot of really tangible things that these musicians get. They get paid for being involved in the moment, they get paid in any success that comes from it. All music publishing, if it’s an original song, is all given to the musicians. When we show up, we try to find a music guide, who is someone familiar with the area, with the culture, preferably a musician themselves. That person can do a lot of the dialogue with the musicians we’re finding, because we don’t even speak the same language. We just say to them, “We want each musician to walk away from today saying it’s the best day of their life—what does that mean to them?” And then we just see what we can do. They tell us a number, we pay that amount. That takes care of that initial experience. We can’t give royalties to every musician because some songs have 75 people on it, so what we do is we say any featured artist—so a lead vocalist and oftentimes a lead soloist—we will then give them equal royalties on the album. Maybe in some cases I spend a little more than I wanted, and other places you save a little more, but this whole thing is about making people have a great experience, because that’s something you can’t buy, and also something you can’t take away.
Some of the songs also feature more high-profile participants like Keb’ Mo’ and Bono.
Yeah, we just got back from filming Keith Richards for our next album. He said to me: “Playing For Change? That’s the way music was meant to be.” All those guys have such great spirit, such great soul, and are true musicians. Any true musician is going to love this, because it’s just connecting hearts, which is what music is all about.
Your recordings are an order of magnitude more complicated than mine. Do you find yourself actively arranging or orchestrating all those overdubs with an eye toward the final product?
Definitely. I sit down with the musician, and the very first thing I do is let them play what comes out of their hearts. I don’t want to put any filter in there. But then maybe we can define their parts, and we start to figure out how can I best make use of this musician, their energy, and their sound to make this whole thing I’m trying to create bigger and better. And also I always travel with more than one song, so I have more options. We started doing a version of “Come As You Are” in Morocco. If I had brought “Stand By Me” to Morocco, the instruments wouldn’t have worked as well, but you bring them “Come As You Are,” they’d never heard of Nirvana, but they were killing it. It was a song that they could easily groove on, and the sound worked for them.
Does this ever lead to tangles with microtonal scales, like if you’re trying to fit Gamelan and sitars and guitars next to one another?
A tuner is our best friend, that’s for sure. Especially outside with the temperature changing and the heat and the wind, and things go out of tune anyway. Combining all these styles so they can be in tune is definitely a challenge. You end up finding a lot of these instruments are related in ways you don’t hear until you put them together.
What’s the toughest recording you’ve had to do yet?
We were recording and filming in Cairo shortly after the bombing of the Israeli embassy, and there was just so much tension and we weren’t sure if we’d be able to record outside and if it’d be safe. And also we were recording a song where we wanted to combine a female singer in Arabic with a female singer in Hebrew and there was a lot of confrontation about that concept amongst the musicians, and it did seem to be a lot more of a struggle than we were hoping. But at the end, we ended up getting this unbelievable female singer to sing on the song—outside, safe, and she just sang her heart out.
How on earth do you fund this?
Individuals who believe in this thing. That’s how we built the business. And then also, all over the world we have people sending donations and individuals supporting the charity. We had a bunch of kids from Europe send us money from their birthday parties; instead of presents, they wanted to help build a school.
You’ve probably found musicians in some pretty dire circumstances.
Our newest music school is in a village called Karina in Mali. Mali, I believe, is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is a thousand year old village made up entirely of musicians that average 80 generations in the same hut, father to son. Eighty generations! They live in little huts with no electricity, no running water, but so much soul and so much happiness—I’ve never seen people so happy. They remind you that it’s not what you have in life, but it’s what you do with what you have. One of the guys told me, “We play music here to stay as far away from the grave as possible.” That’s the kind of stuff that the world needs to be hearing right now.
How about in here the U.S.?
Grandpa Elliott, who’s traveling in our band, he’s one of my heroes. He’s been performing on the streets of New Orleans for sixty years. In New Orleans, many of the best musicians play on the street because they can make more money that way. So Grandpa, he had been making a living—a good living, a decent living—for sixty years on the streets in New Orleans. I mean, it’s amazing, every day he’s out there at 4am just to hold his spot so he can play from 12pm to midnight, sleep for four hours, and do it again. Grandpa has been playing on the same street corner of Toulouse and Royal for probably 25 years. New Orleans is one of the best music cities I’ve ever been to. When I first went there, one of the street musicians said, “You want to see why all these musicians play so well? Let me take you out to the Ninth Ward.” And he drove me out to the Ninth Ward, which looked like a third world country. I mean, it was beyond ghetto, run down shacks and little houses, and I couldn’t believe people could live like that in America. But then you also realize that these people, music is their way out, music is their refuge and music is their tool to persevere through this.
So what are your other favorite destinations?
Barcelona is another amazing city, because it’s got a lot of the same similarities to New York City where it’s a melting pot of music. Mali is the greatest music country that I’ve ever been to, and it’s also the roots of all the blues, so it’s very familiar to Western music. You can hear the pentatonic scale, you can hear a lot of these beautiful melodies, and you can see where the drum kit comes from, where the banjo comes from, you can kind of trace back the roots of our music. And the entire country of Brazil. We just brought the band there, and we played a couple of festivals for over 15,000 people, and they treat Grandpa Elliott like Elvis when he comes on the stage. Best moment of my life.
Playing For Change perform at the Concert Hall at the New York Society For Ethical Culture tonight.