Johnny West has a sound unlike any other. Every instrument is available in West’s enormous music collection and every song is something you have never heard before. It is pretty easy to get lost in West’s experimental, eclectic music, but no matter how lost you get, West will always snap you back to reality with some off-kilter noise or startling lyric.
Falling in love with music at a young age, West spent his early years producing music with his father and writing songs as early as ten years old. Despite forcing his non-musically inclined father to assist, the sound West now produces is truly all his own, and he took the time to learn every instrument and perfect every obscure noise he wanted to use.
West joined the Windsor music scene as a solo artist, but did partake with friends in some local bands. Papa Ghostface and Guys with Dicks were solid bands with short lives, neither of which really broke-up, but rather just faded out. His time spent working with Gord Thompson and Tyson Taylor, however, gave West the opportunity to explore his own talents with the freedom of his imagination.
In September 1998 history was formed in West’s high school English class when West was given an open-ended project, he immediately knew he wanted to perform it to the class. His suggestion didn’t fly very far with his teacher, but it stuck with one other classmate – Gord Thompson a “long-haired stranger” who turned to West and said, “hey man – I play guitar.” From then on, Papa Ghostface was formed.
Papa Ghostface was a band which ruthlessly experimented with wild, eccentric styles. West explored his sound and practiced his musical abilities, including with his guitar and keyboard, and toyed around with different producing methods, from simple tape-recorders to mixer/digital workstations. They aimed for brutal nastiness, where oddball guitar solos met with screams, distorted vocals and instrumentals. It was a time of development and exploration for the two creating 9 albums in three years (1999-2002) and rekindling their friendship in 2015 to record another album.
In July 2000 Thompson and West invited Tyson Taylor over to jam with them one day. The three created wild songs with Taylor adding dissonant vocals to the track. West credits Taylor as a major influencing factor for his growth – he pushed West out of his boundaries to experiment with new techniques. From then the trio emerged into their new band, Guys With Dicks, with which they explored sound and style, wrote several albums, and eventually all went their own way in 2003.
West focused on his own material for a while and in 2009 ended his self-imposed hiatus. He began to collaborate with other Windsor-native artists on their songs, offering his music talents as a session musician beginning with Tara Watts on her album About Love. West played string-banjo on almost every track in the collection, as well as singing harmonies on “Camels in Canada.” This is one of West’s favourite collaborations thus far, although Watts has apparently successfully buried this album from the public ears.
West contributed to numerous local artists’ work such as Field Assembly’s Broadsides & Ephemera (2009), Travis Reitsma’s Outside the Factory Gates (2010), Tire Swing Co.’s Inamorata (2014) and Teenage Geese’s Cat & Cormorant (2016) singing backup and playing various instruments including acoustic and electric guitars, piano, drums, bass, organ, harmonica, banjo, ukulele and Wurlitzer.
He was approached to work with Ron Leary, a Windsor folk artist, and played piano for the track “Tattooed Lady” on his 2016 album Tobacco Fields – Leary credited West for recording his piano in his own studio, something other artists had failed to do in the past. West went on to collaborate with Steven (Oltean-Lepp) O-L in 2013 to contribute musical ideas, along with sharing the lead singing and writing. Together they formed Tire Swing Co., a project in which the songs were O-L’s with the help of West.
In the past number of years, West has been creating music, for himself and for other artists in the living room of the home he shares with his father. The room is filled floor to ceiling with guitars, pianos, drums, etc., he releases his own music to his fans for free and he pays the bills by working with a multitude of artists in the Windsor scene as a producer , or as West calls it:“kinda-sorta producer and/or recording engineer.” On his blog, West describes his producing style as “organic, rough-around-the-edges, and pretty much the antithesis of anything that’s going to show up on mainstream radio.” West started recording and producing in the late 1990s, while still in high school. He recorded for other young musicians and bands that were looking for demo tapes that they could show people.
His first stab at producing was with Jesse Topliffe, first in 1999 and again in 2002. Topliffe and West had different approaches to music, Topliffe was focused on mainstream appeal that he thought would bring him recognition, where West saw this as stripping the music of its potential. In this case, West was probably right considering how difficult it is to track down Topliffe online, suggesting he’s no longer in the music scene.
Between producing Topliffe’s two albums, West worked with the band Soul Crossing throughout 2000. According to West’s website, Soul Crossing was made up of “Christian Masotti (guitar/vocals), Anna Atkinson (violin/vocals), Ryan Masotti (drums/percussion), and Brian, whose last name [West] can’t remember (bass).” West produced four mixes for them: The Chris-Anna Express, Overdubs Are Evil, Four Songs in July, and Prepare for Fall. There’s a clear progression through these mixes as West’s skills as a producer, and the quality of his equipment, improved over the course of the year. While as a band Soul Crossing no longer exists, Anna Atkins is still producing music – though based out of Toronto and Montreal she’s no longer in the Windsor Scene.
After this period of producing West focused on his own music for a number of years before returning to producing in 2010. Before meeting Travis Reitsma, who goes by Travis Laver in the music scene, West didn’t think anyone would be interested in recording with him as he is more concerned with recording “something interesting and honest, as opposed to something that’s technically ‘better’ but not as compelling” which often “flies in the face of what a lot of people are after when it comes to recording an album”. Laver’s album, Outside the Factory Gates, is a mix of alt-folk and protest-alt folk. Laver is now part of the band Diane Motel which is active in Windsor, performing at venues throughout the city.
Other bands and artists that West has recently produced for are also still active in the scene, including Tire Swing Co., Zarasutra, and Teenage Geese. The latest being Zarasutra’s 2017 album The Forest for the Trees, which was still “raw and stripped down” but with a few ukulele tracks. In regards to both albums, West has said “with a voice as dynamic as Zara’s, the best thing you can do is try to stay out of the way and let the magic come through”. This seems to be a trend in West’s producing, taking someone from the Windsor scene and letting the magic happen.
West is not the only Windsor musician who has worked with and remains connected to a variety of other artists in the scene. In Windsor, artists are are often linked in unexpected ways – bands and artists come together to collaborate, play gigs together, or to make whole new bands. Tom Lucier, owner of the Phog Lounge, once helped create a map that categorizes and connects almost 100 Windsor bands from 2004-2015 and their musical endeavours. The chart came into being a few years ago by the encyclopedic desire of an unknown CJAM veteran to document the great and strange musical feats of the Windsor Scene. Thanks to a sponsorship from the Ontario government, this map became the Windsor Music Tangle – a community driven project that archives the interconnectivity of bands and artists in Windsor music scene. Generally, the Windsor scene seems to be organized around a few small but active hubs that includes a half dozen venues, a student radio show, shared videographers, and two lively independent magazines – these are the fascinating local mediums through which multiple genres of music make themselves available to local and digital audiences.
While the shutter and close of distinctive bars like the Rondo and Milk Café saddened many local artists, there is still a large and notable output of live music at other venues throughout the city. The artistry that has been historically mostly centered in the downtown core has been dispersing into the interior of the city. The Windsor Beer Exchange , on the outskirts of downtown, hosts bands and rappers that might not fit the bill at Villain’s or Phog. While in Walkerville the Talulah Cafe hosts softer music that often finishes earlier in the night, and The Orwell often hosts interesting and original music like Soul Brother Stef on Saturdays. Walkerville’s Krusty’s Pizza also recently hosted a punk festival in their minuscule parking lot.
That is not to say that the Windsor Scene is some utopian hub of shared artistry. Music that falls under the label “Windsor Scene” is distinct from the larger scope of music that might come from Windsor. West speaks to this in the beginning of our interview when he says that for a while he “wasn’t really given the time of day,” the community did not seem to accept him until he pushed into local radio with a large discography and the right people connected with him . If we use The Windsor Scene CJAM show for good measure then we are limited to a specific sort of music. Shania Twain, the Esma Redzepova cover band that plays at Balkan weddings, and generally speaking, local rappers, do not seem to fall under the umbrella of “Windsor Scene.”
Rather, the Windsor Scene is an eclectic selection of alternative/pop-punk/emo/hardcore bands, genre-melding outliers like West, a few DJs, and folk artists that all run in similar social circles and art-house venues. The outskirts are hard to define, but there is a clear distinction between rapper Mush the Hippy, and the guitar orientated artists that get wider play. This is not because some sort of malicious ideological bent, but instead it is a characteristic of the blue-collar roots shared in the Windsor Scene. That is to say, bands like The Rowley Estate deserve every second of a listening audience they get. The Windsor Scene is different in its unabashed love for the local working culture, which has in turn given this genre of music a kind and fostering outlet. There are places bigger than Windsor/Essex that would kill for the longstanding purveyors and supporters of creative output that lets music in this city be a great and desirable trade.
Though West may not be on all the headlines, he is certainly part of this trade and one of its most influential sounds. And while he’s collaborated with almost everyone who makes music in Windsor, he has never lost his own musical flare. The obscurities in West’s music is an expression of self. Every song title, lyric, and sound display the insanely creative mind of this Windsorite. Microsoft paint album covers, titles that seemingly come from nowhere, and a section on his website dedicated to internet searches leading people to his site, West has never abandoned his personal creativity.
Anyone interested in learning more about West and his music should visit his blog, https://johnnywestmusic.wordpress.com. His music is not available for purchase, but you can email a request for any of his CDs or music and West is willing to ship worldwide, expenses on him.
If you want to learn more about local venues and shows, check out the Live Shows section of this blog.
Here is our interview with the one and only Johnny West!