All Over The Board

Gena Johnson is dialing in a production career alongside some of America’s best songwriters.

And the award for Best Father’s Day Gift of 2019 goes to Gena Johnson. On that day, her father received a phone-shot video of Gena and her sister wishing him a happy day, although doing the talking was a man in between the two siblings. The man was John Prine, a longtime favorite of their father’s and most fans of timeless, breathtaking American songwriting.

This scene took place in Prine’s living room in Nashville during a recording session with fellow singer/songwriter Jason Isbell. Johnson was there to record them for the flipside to a single she had recorded earlier of Prine and Margo Price teaming up on Prine’s “Unwed Fathers.”

If these names are a bit jaw-dropping – and there are more to come – welcome to the working world of Gena Johnson, the 2012 Minnesota State Mankato music grad living and working in Nashville as a recording engineer and producer. It’s great timing – there’s a resurgence of the strong singer-songwriter genre going on in Nashville. And Johnson is not only immersed in it, but responsible for how a lot of it sounds.

ROOTS ROCK

Growing up in Mankato, Johnson connected with the University early when she was accepted at age 12 for vocal lessons from Music Professor Dr. Diana Moxness.

In 2008, entering the University on a scholarship after high school, Johnson aimed her music major toward the music industry track, which ultimately spurred her interest in the recording process.

Gena with friend and client, John Prine

“I remember Gena as an exceptional student,” said Dale Haefner, Johnson’s instructor in music Industry studies. “She was willing to do the hard work necessary to satisfy the rigor of my classes.” Johnson’s work also included performing in three choirs and waitressing at the local Red Lobster.

In a joint program with the University and Hennepin Technical College, Gena was soon splitting her time between the Mankato campus and Eden Prairie’s recording facilities.

“That whole experience of constantly moving all the time and barely having any spare time helped  prepare me for the lifestyle I had when I moved to Nashville,” she said.

MUSIC CITY NEWS

After graduating, Johnson moved to Nashville in 2013 to begin a three-month, unpaid internship with Chris Mara, an engineer whose specialty is restoring old MCI analog tape machines, on which any hit record in the pre-digital age was likely recorded. The name of his all-analog studio is Welcome to 1979.

In RCA Studio A

“I was there every single day,” she said. “I learned how to solder really, really well and refurbish old MCI consoles and tape machines … It was so fascinating to me. Understanding what each component did in the circuit. How to quickly fix something or create a work-around is so valuable. Often there isn’t much time to solve issues in a recording session. I’m so thankful for the skillset I developed while I was there.”

Proficient in the mechanical as well as the creative side of a recording studio, Johnson’s professional career in Nashville began when her internship ended — and Mara offered her a job as house assistant.

“As an intern, it’s the trajectory that you hope for, that the employer will see you to be worthwhile and not want to lose you,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t wait to call my parents and celebrate.”

In the years ahead, there would be much to celebrate.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

Johnson’s work engineering in Nashville has put her in the studio with some of the most acclaimed American music in recent years. John Prine, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile are just a few of the singer/songwriters Johnson has recorded since moving to the city in 2013. Toss in Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as well for the “Star is Born” soundtrack, and you have an Elton John lyric come to life – the weird and wonderful.

“It’s been weird and difficult at times, not always knowing what the next job is going to be but staying positive and trusting in the process, knowing there’s a beautiful, supportive community around me. It’s been wonderful,” she said.

After her internship Johnson worked for one of the most well-known rock and metal producers, Michael Wagener (Ozzy Ozborne, Alice Cooper, Metallica.) Much of her engineering work took off in one of Nashville’s most beloved studios, RCA Studio A, where songs such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” Waylon Jennings’ album “Honky Tonk Heroes” and Elvis Presley’s gospel music were recorded. From 2001 to 2015 the studio was being leased by singer and composer Ben Folds (with whom Johnson worked frequently and calls “…a huge champion of mine, believing in my potential and expecting only the best.”)

Going over a recording with singer/songwriter Kelsey Waldon.

In 2014 the historic building was targeted for demolition, but an intervention took place – with millions donated to save it – and Folds handed the reins over to producer Dave Cobb, who during the transition had been in Studio A recording Chris Stapleton’s solo debut album “Traveller,” with Johnson assisting.

Stapleton’s album contained the mega-hit “Tennessee Whiskey” and earned a number of Grammys and CMA awards for Stapleton as well as Cobb for Best Producer.

When Folds handed over the studio to Cobb, Johnson first felt she’d be moving on, and felt ready to do so. But Cobb hired her to inventory his equipment, organize each piece and rewire the studio. Johnson did it with such speed and know-how that Cobb asked her to stay on and help engineer some recordings.

“Almost four years passed by, and I was still there,” Johnson recalled. Those years saw her working on more albums by Stapleton (“From A Room, Volumes I and II); Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (“The Nashville Sound”), Zac Brown, Kelly Clarkson, Brandi Carlile, The Oak Ridge Boys and Prine among others. (In later 2017, Stapleton’s “From A Room” albums as well as “Traveller” held three of Billboard’s top five country album positions. Only Garth Brooks had accomplished that.)

“She jumped right into the fire,” Haefner said. “I’m not at all surprised with her success as an engineer given her drive and work ethic.”

PERSONAL TOUCH

As assistant engineer, engineer or producer, Johnson brings to every session an insistence on creating a relaxed vibe in the studio.

Johnson at the dials with the Oak Ridge Boys.

“The biggest thing is comfort. The technical stuff is given, that has to be done, and done efficiently, but the extra stuff people don’t do all the time…it’s like opening the door for someone.”

To that end, she prepares for recording sessions by reaching out to management to learn details such as Kacey Musgraves’ favorite gluten-free snacks, or John Prine’s fondness for KFC – all of which makes a big difference in the studio.

“Gena is so easy to work with,” Prine said from his home office at Oh Boy Records. “I love singing for her in the studio. [My wife] Fiona and I are so happy to have her as part of the Prine/Oh Boy family.”

“It’s how you make people feel,” Johnson said. “My theory is that wherever I’m working, whether it’s my home studio, whether it’s RCA, whether it’s John Prine’s living room, wherever, I absolutely have to make this feel like it’s their home.”

Johnson recently finished up mixing the new album by Ashley Monroe, titled ROSEGOLD. The work was done in Johnson’s home studio, called Studio G.

FULL CIRCLE PRODUCTION

Despite – or perhaps because of – the experience with top-tier artists as engineer, Johnson is now producing more, and it’s bringing her full-circle with a friend and classmate from college days – singer songwriter Lee Henke.

“I started hearing all this music coming out of Nashville that I thought was revitalizing songwriting,” Henke said. “Even the country genre in general, and Jason Isbell, and Chris Stapleton. Then I saw Gena’s name on them and I’m like, you gotta be kidding me. This is amazing.

“I said to Gena “Hey, I want to make a record and I want to do it right. And you’re making all the music I love the most.”

The result is “Captain of the Ship,” produced, engineered and mixed by Johnson who declared it “one of my most favorite things I’ve ever worked on.” The album is finished and the two are working on release plans, including finding label support.  “I’m super thrilled to see what comes of that,” Johnson said, “because it’s too good for something not to.”

Henke’s studio time with Johnson as a producer was, he said, eye-opening.

“Gena is a force of nature in the studio,” Henke said. “She’s incredible. I’ve never seen someone – and I’ve worked with a lot of people in studios and stuff – so thoroughly respected by everyone. All the musicians she brought in to work on the record are A-list musicians who will pretty much drop everything to come work for her.”

Sure enough, Johnson also went to great lengths to secure an atmosphere of home – Henke’s favorite coffee and snacks and other amenities all made the experience extremely comfortable, he said.

 “It’s incredible how detail-oriented she is but at the same time very open-minded and concept-based,” he said. “As far as a vibe in the studio, you couldn’t ask for better. I think that’s why she’s getting so many calls. She takes care of people.”