December/January 2023

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Finn Johansson: A Voyage Of Discovery

by Jemilah Ross-Hayes

Finn Johansson: A Voyage Of Discovery

Finn Johansson is a charismatic creative with an intriguing sound, and while studying, has embraced a fresh take on how to make music a career in an oddly sustainable way. His music has a subtle way of making you laugh and cry, and he is really all about bringing the fun and letting people feel the feelings if they want to on the side. Jemilah Ross-Hayes climbed into his creative portal.

Finn Johansson grew up mostly in Wellington and only recently made the move up to the big smoke of Tāmaki Makaurau.

“I’m in my first year of uni, doing a Bachelor of Game Programming. I also wanted to do music and it just kind of made sense. I think I have forgotten now why I wanted to come up, but it was a good idea, no matter what the impetus was for it in the first place!”

In terms of the music-making side of life, Finn has innovatively found a way to support himself, actually make music, and get all his admin done, all while keeping his procrastination in check – with a blinking webcam.

“So it’s a whole thing called Finn Johansson’s Nine To Five. It’s hopefully going to serve as an answer to ‘how do you be a non-famous working musician in NZ?’. I think probably less than 1% of musicians in NZ are doing that, having a sustainable thing going on without a whole bunch of side hustles.”

Diving into the elevator pitch for his model, Finn unravels what at first sounds a bit nuts, into what turns out to be a remarkably sustainable workflow.

“So it’s a Patreon and I work in seasons. Each season is a month of 40-hour work weeks. So I get up at 9, I turn on the webcam and I’m making music. I’ve got about 40 songs in the pipeline so this is the way of putting them on the production line and doing the production, writing, filling in the gaps with lyrics, and also boring shit like admin. Because that is also part of the 9-5.”

Amongst the ‘boring shit’ it sounds like there is a lot of creativity being poured into his 8-hour days. Patrons are welcome to tune in and do the admin alongside him, or just pop in for the wacky stuff, like releasing a bunch of hilarious snippets.

“I released 700 voice memos from my phone of fragments of songs and lyrics and drunken-walking-home-from-the-party voice notes for the patrons. So they can scroll through this demented list of 20-second ideas of songs, and then maybe see where the idea for a song that they really like came from. I’m always looking for things like that, the weird content that I’d like to see from all of my favourite creators.”

This does all kind of seem like a life hack, something that is essentially super simple but takes a lot of commitment and courage to jump into full-time. Finn has been on and off Patreon since 2014, and this leap has been in the works for a while.

“I’m just always on the lookout, maybe to my detriment, for how to make things sustainable with as little upkeep effort as possible. If I get to wake up and work on the music and then finish the day at a reasonable hour, then I’ll feel pretty happy. Like I’m doing my best, and this is giving me the opportunity to do my best and see if I can make the music that I want to make.”

He admits it can be difficult staying focused for such long periods, especially when it comes to turning on his ‘content brain’, but finds ways to remember that not every day is going to be the one that brings a hit single.

“You’ve got to tell yourself that it doesn’t matter whether you have a day full of nothing accomplished, so long as you sit there and show up.”

His most recent release is a four-track EP, ‘What A Way To Make A Living’, which Finn had been working on under this nine-to-five model for six weeks. The first song on this mixtape is called You Look Down At Me.

“I wrote the verses maybe three years ago, just alone at home, and recorded it, and I just thought it was so beautiful. Then it took ages and ages to get the chorus!”

Fortunately, his natural writing process fits nicely into an organised approach to making music.

“I write down anything that comes to mind on my phone and then I chuck it in Evernote. And then after every year, I print out my favourites and that goes in a big folder, and that’s what I look through when I’m stuck with a lyric.

“Say the song is about me and my life… I’ll find lyrics that fit and suit the flow, but if I do that a bunch in a song it gives you these little glimpses from different directions of me. And then after you have heard all the lyrics, you get the weird photograph of the person who’s singing the song from these distinct unrelated glimpses.

“You might have songwriters who are like, ‘this song is about this topic and this and this happened to me,’ but I wouldn’t say this song is polemic or like an essay [in that way].

“However, there is one thing that happened to me. There is this lyric ‘heard your voice in the sound of the piss in the bowl’, and late at night I was doing a wee and I was like, ‘Who’s that!’ and then I wrote that down and it got in there!

He admits that he doesn’t yet know if he can sing it with a straight face, or expect listeners to commit to it.

“I’d find that harder if it wasn’t something that actually happened to me! Funny lyrics or non sequitur things serve to bring people deeper into the feelings for me. Because they snap you and make you pay attention a little bit more. I like putting in just a couple of little waypoints. People don’t get snapped out of it, but it’s almost as if they get snapped further in hopefully.

“Clichés are clichés because they are really true. But if you hear them all without interruption, all these deep fundamental true things, you can stop taking them in, I guess.

“Like Courtney Barnett or Frankie Cosmos as examples. They do these things when they write these songs, probably with similar feelings that I might have about relationships or life, and they’ll get those gigantic points across by being quite domesticating or immediate, and mundane. I guess everyone’s got their own ‘piss in the bowl’ moment.”

In another surprise, the artwork for You Look Down At Me was created by an AI text-to-image generator called Dall-e. It works by typing in a sentence of specific words about the length of a tweet, describing the envisioned image.

“I wrote: A white man with a Ned Flanders’ moustache lying in bed with his arm over his eyes, his clothes are singing with a hundred mouths, light like Lorde ‘Melodrama‘ cover, melancholy and yellow, digital art.

“It gave me four different ideas. The other three are good, but they’re not album covers. But this one, A, looks like me. B is beautiful and painterly and sort of organic looking, and C was the exact first one that came up. It was wild! I guess I got the words right.”

This is the first long-form project Finn has taken on since his 2015 album ‘Two Thousand And Fourteen’. And it’s clear that the nine-to-five approach has really created time and consistency for him to be creative within.

“I feel like I’m going to be way less stagnant with the releases now. I know what I want and how to accomplish it, and I’ve got this amazing well of time. And more confidence.”

Second song, There Were Things That I Forgot, was partially created in collaboration with Oliver Devlin from Hans Pucket. Finn is honest about how sometimes it can be hard to let someone else into your creative process.

“Beforehand it’s been a conscious effort to let people into that level of the creative process. It’s that age-old story of getting better at that kind of stuff and realising it’s valuable, and trusting people.

“Also Jono Nott [Hans Pucket, Onono, Broods]. He’s been the catalyst for me opening up to collaboration on deeper levels. He did my song Love Bomb with me back in 2018, and that was a real reflection point for my confidence in working with other people. He’s one of the most generous and exciting people to work with. I was so excited coming off a session with him once that I head-butted this mug and concussed myself!

“And Dick Whyte [DKYT], my best friend, is mixing this stuff. I’m getting less precious, and I think it’s going to lead to better music.”

The music videos alongside this body of work match the wacky lyrics and out-there visual personality of Finn Johansson.

“My friend Jay did a VFX course, so the You Look Down At Me music video has lots of singing mouths projected onto my dancing clothing. And for There Were Things That I Forgot, my friend Jammy is a car person, so I want to get a bunch of cars and do a bunch of… well, he probably won’t let me do burnouts or wheelies or things like that, but I want to do all these stunts. I’m picturing a blazing sun, cruising around in cool cars, and maybe I could do a Dukes of Hazzard slide across the bonnet!”