From the moment Toronto roots rock band Johnson Crook played together, they knew they not only had harmony in their voices, but a deep personal connection that made the idea of forming a group a foregone conclusion.
What the quartet—Noel Johnson (rhythm guitars/vocals), brothers Nathan (lead guitar/mandolin/vocals) and Trevor Crook (drums/vocals) and Jared Craig (bass/vocals)—share is a love of pure, honest music stemming from their small-town backgrounds. Drawing inspiration from groups like the Eagles and the Avett Brothers, each member of Johnson Crook contributes equally, injecting their unique personalities into the overall sound.
That special chemistry is heard on their self-titled debut EP released through Coalition Records, to be followed by a full-length album later in 2017. Both encapsulate a whirlwind initial two years of live gigs and recording sessions that began almost immediately after that first encounter. “We had already been getting to know each other when Noel and Jared invited Trevor and I to sit in at a show they had at [Toronto’s] Cameron House,” Nathan Crook says. “We ended up doing the whole show, and when we sang four-part harmony, it was one of those lightning strike moments where everybody, our friends included, knew that this is what we should be doing.”
Soon after, the band was introduced to acclaimed producer Bill Bell who began shaping a collection of songs laid down at his home studio and at Metalworks near Toronto. The first taste, the single “Minnedosa,” came out in the summer of 2016, coinciding with the band’s multiple festival appearances. Named after the Crook brothers’ Manitoba hometown, it deftly displays the group’s intention to stand apart from crowded field of contemporary country artists.
“That was one of the first songs we recorded, and we were excited to put it out right away because it really captured how we wanted to present ourselves,” Nathan says. “We’re not a band that was formed around a singer/songwriter. We found each other, and the focus is never on one specific individual. What we’re really just trying to do is play music that’s as real to us as possible, and that’s what I love about ‘Minnedosa.’ It’s a country song that doesn’t follow any formula.”
Other tracks on the EP came about just as naturally. “Canada Heartbreak” was the result of Johnson and Craig taking part in VIA Rail’s Artists On Board series, written as a reflection of their journey. Another highlight, the plaintive ballad “Mr. Nobody,” was given a boost in the studio through the participation of Bell’s close friend Tom Cochrane, whose voice fit in seamlessly. Perhaps it’s because he’s a proud Manitoban as well.
On the other hand, it’s almost impossible not to feel a connection to Johnson Crook’s music after first hearing it. Audiences across Canada can attest to that as well, something the band acknowledges has been crucial to their development. As Nathan explains, “A big revelation came soon after we started working with Bill, when he came to another show and afterward said, that’s what we have to get on the record. We’ve played across the Prairies, two straight years at the Boots & Hearts Festival, and different places in Toronto, including the Grey Cup festival. The response has been overwhelmingly positive everywhere. Playing live is really how we found our sound.”
Expect to see Johnson Crook in your town at some point in the wake of the EP and forthcoming album. Every stop brings with it a story that could become a new song, and as a group founded on the principles of equality, Johnson Crook’s creative potential is limitless.
Canada: Paquin Entertainment Group