When you talk to 32-year-old Zachary Scot Johnson, it’s tempting to think of that old Rodgers and Hart tune, “With a Song in My Heart.”
But, as it turns out, the Wisconsin-born singer-songwriter — who will return June 11-13 for a gig at The Waterfront Tavern — has a lot more than one song is very big heart. He has thousands.
“I have no other skills outside of music,” Johnson said.
It was said lightheartedly, mostly because the Lawrence University graduate had majors in both music and theater as well as psychology, but it was always the music that was his Plan A.
Luckily for him, Johnson was able to start touring professionally right out of college, and since 2001 the collection of artists he has been able to collaborate with is impressive, most notably Grammy-winning musician Shawn Colvin.
“I always think of that as my first really big gig,” Johnson said.
Back in 2003, and under the influence of Colvin’s music, he was brave enough to ask whether he could open for her, and she said yes.
“That opened a lot of doors for me,” he said.
And those doors have remained wide open. Or, rather, Johnson has kept them open, in part by launching an ambitious song-a-day project on YouTube, which reaches its 1,000 uploaded song on Tuesday.
Even though he’ll be in La Crosse just after the big day, he can’t help seeing his gig at The Waterfront as a celebration, in some way, of his achievement. But every moment is a celebration for Johnson, who said he doesn’t take any of it for granted.
“I feel lucky every single day,” he said.
When he started uploading songs on YouTube — both covers and originals — he started asking other artists who were touring near him to join in. Almost everyone said yes, so now, 1,000 song later, the music is an epic list.
“I didn’t imagine that social media was going to be this giant thing,” he said.
But that sort of variety is why Johnson, who was born in Racine but now lives in St. Peter, Minn., loves to tour, and it’s why he loves playing at The Waterfront, a place he has been returning to for the past two years.
“I don’t play any other place like it,” Johnson said. “Every night is different. That’s why I keep coming back.”
He never plans a set list, although he almost always starts out with an old Donovan song, “Catch the Wind.”
“There’s no great story behind it,” he said. “It’s just a really comfortable song to start out with.”
Making the audience comfortable — whether on YouTube or at The Waterfront — is important to Johnson. So is his music, and while he loves sharing his original work, Johnson always has been big at honoring his influences.
Take his pending six-disc tribute to Tom Waits: Recorded in 2011, Johnson had just completed a disc of original material, and while he mulled other new tunes, Waits’ music called to him. He started recording, and ended up with 135 songs, only 10 of which he felt he could leave off the compilation (which he’s now trying to figure out the logistics of releasing). It could almost be a metaphor for his own career.
He started recorded, and ended up with 135 songs, only 10 of which he thought could leave off the compilation, which he’s now trying to figure out the logistics of releasing. It could almost be a metaphor for his own career.
“I was loving it so much I didn’t realize how big it was becoming,” Johnson said.
Libby (Weber) Spirer, who keeps booking Johnson for his Waterfront gigs, said the area is filled with talented musicians.
“We are fortunate to be a central location for additional artists who are either based around the region, or passing through between shows in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and Minneapolis,” Spirer said. “We are fortunate to provide a venue for a small sample of these artists. In my opinion, La Crosse could use more venues for all the great music talent to be showcased.”
But, even she admits, Johnson is a special case.
“We get several requests from musicians to play (The Waterfront), few are selected to perform,” she said. “Zach was one of these artists that was able to demonstrate his talent and a good fit for our guests’ expectations.”
Spirer said he’s a great guitar player, and Johnson’s song selection and energy level compliments the atmosphere.
“I have him booked throughout this summer,” she said.