Alaskan-born Argentine Kevin Johansen undoubtedly stands as one of the most popular and important Latin American musicians today. Having collaborated with artists such as Lisando Aristimuno, Jorge Drexler and cartoonist Liniers, Johansen is firmly placed among some of Argentina’s best.
The son of an Argentine mother and a father from Colorado, Johansen’s bilateral and often bipolar cultural identities collide in his music. With such oppositions, you are as likely to hear the sound of North American country music as you are a 2/4 milonga beat.
Musical influences defined by a singular cultural identity are replaced by a continual oscillation between Latin and North American styles, themes and influences. Self-defining and inescapable, Johansen’s central feature of duality has never been more evident than on his upcoming studio album, ‘Bi’, which came out at the end of June.
A double album, part baroque-pop and part folkloric, the album is the meeting point of two separate music projects that Johansen had been working on. Spending each day on both, Johansen lived months of parallel existence, “doble jornada”, in his own words. “Both of these albums came to fruition at the same time, I’d take my bike over to the studio in Parque Centenario and stay there for three hours, and do the folk thing then do the pop thing in the afternoon.”
After finding portraits of his parents, each with their own notions of cultural identity, Johansen began to play with the different connotations associated with the word “bi”; bisexual, bipolar, and on a more personal level of course, bicultural, bilateral and bilingual. “You start thinking about the bisexual part, and mum and dad, and we all come from a mum and a dad, so you know that has the bi element. I bought into bi.”
Relevant to almost everything we talk about, the notion of bi comes up time and time again, and with its every mention, a self-aware and slightly nervous laugh escapes.
With complete control over both Spanish and English, Johansen is famous for his impeccable word play, and language is undoubtedly the musician’s greatest tool. Even outside his lyrics, the singer seems to search for the most poetic or interesting way to express himself; his dialogue is a constant game of words, each successful manipulation of language met with a coy smile. His lyrics seamlessly alternate between Spanish and English, so fluidly that the two languages are often used as though they are the same entity.
“That comes up real naturally, I guess because of the way that it just happened,” says Johansen, in his famously deep and booming voice. “Growing up in the States, I came [to Buenos Aires] when I was around 12, then going to New York when I was 25, and after almost a decade of experience in New York, English and Spanish are almost like one language to me.”
Due surely to his bi-cultural upbringing and the influences it created, Johansen is never restricted to any particular style. A play on the word “genre”, the musician defines himself as a “degenerate”.
“I always say I’m a degenerate regarding the genre… It was a good way to just kind of say I enjoy learning different styles of music and my style is the song, song writing is the style, so that can take you to a country song or a chacarera or a milonga, and you go this way or that way, but the song is what’s important.”
Getting to know his Argentina
After spending his childhood in the States, Johansen arrived Buenos Aires in 1976, significantly at the start of the last military dictatorship, a violent period that saw thousands of Argentines killed and ‘disappeared’ by state forces. As such, Johansen’s first experience of Argentina was during a time of anguish and uncertainty.
In an era where politically left-leaning figures were being arrested, disappeared and killed, Johansen can still remember what he calls a “traumatic” time.
“I was aware, my mum would tell me things about acquaintances being arrested. You’d hear things, you were aware it was happening.” As a socialist and feminist, his own mother should have been a target, but he notes that the junta “luckily had no register of her goings on after years away from Argentina”.
Although musically and linguistically he had always been connected to Argentina while growing up, it was with the restoration of democracy in 1983 that Johansen was really able to discover his Argentine heritage.
“After the Falklands or Malvinas war, democracy came in, and being a kid and teenager and growing up and connecting with the Argentine part of my background was really good, it was natural in a way.” With the sense of euphoria that followed the end of the dictatorship, Johansen discovered his own sense of pride for Argentina: “I was walking along the street, feeling like it was finally happening that this country deserved it, in a quite patriotic way. I was really happy.”
Moving to New York at 25 finally offered Johansen the chance to unite his two cultures and languages in his music. There he met Hilly Kristal, owner of CBGBs music club. Nicknamed by Johansen as his “mentor-tormentor,” Kristal encouraged the musician to bring together the two aspects of his heritage, and while not all of his advice was taken on (singing tango songs in English for example), Kristal helped Johansen bridge his own divides. “Yeah he helped me with a lot of that, I was a little bit shy to sing when I was over there in Spanish but he just said sing four or five [songs], explain and tell the people about yourself.”
It was actually because of Kristal that ‘Guacamole’– one of Johansen’s most famous and popular songs – came about. As with many of his creations, the song is comical, playing with words and language, with a heavy tone of irony. “Guacamole came out because of his insistence on mixing,” he comments, laughing. “I was probably drunk and eating guacamole or something.”
And while Guacamole may not be the most profound song you’ll ever here, it’s hugely entertaining, and a perfect example of the strongly ironic aspect of Johansen’s music, just as much of a defining feature as his dual upbringing.
Often named anti-canciones by Johansen, his songs tell stories, and allow him to poke fun at his own surroundings. ‘Puerto Madero’ for instance offers a hilarious mockery of tourists in Buenos Aires, with Johansen affecting a strong US accent. “Oh I love the obselico,” the tourist says, while observing the “Argenteenagers”. Nonetheless, beneath the irony a sense of local disillusionment escapes: “And all the people that aren’t from here would like to come and stay / And all the people that are from here just want to go to Spain,” sings Johansen. Meanwhile, ‘Desde que te perdi’ turns its ironic tone on the Argentine love song. The song claims “Since I lost you, everyone is falling in love with me.” The song aims to subvert our expectations of typical lyrics to be found in the traditional Argentine love song, often a self-indulgent expression of despair or loss.
But where does the irony come from? Perhaps, coming from two separate cultures Johansen has a certain distance, meaning he can see certain elements of a country, or a city in its every day life, and poke fun at it. But he notes that the strong presence of irony does not solely serve to entertain, its roots lying deeper than simply playing with language.
“I always say that irony is kind of like a disguised sadness, you laugh it off because there’s no other alternative. I think there is a bit of defence mechanism in there, but also I guess an aspect of feeling that you’re not the only one in the world who’s having a hard time.”
Johansen also admits that irony acts as a form of self-defence; a way of veiling the truth of his own emotions to protect himself. He cites ‘Anoche Soñe Contigo’, from his most recent 2007 album, ‘Logo’, a song that exposes a rare honesty. Without the reassuring guise of irony, he found performing and presenting the song a challenge.
“I guess there is an element of cowardice in that irony.” He pauses, considering his words. “I think there is an aspect of singing your heart out, you have to be very sure of yourself and sometimes I’m not that sure of myself I guess… there’s always a thin line because there’s a beautiful aspect of releasing your heart, and being transparent and you have to be really brave for that.”
A tour of Latin America now lies ahead of Johansen, and musicians he has often collaborated with will join him. After this album it’s unknown what will happen next, but in a world where more and more of us experience our own collision of cultures, Johansen’s music is sure to stay relevant. With one last laugh, he notes: “We started something, and [audiences] are jumping on everything we offer them… There’s something to that, maybe it’s because the bicultural population has increased.
“I’m not that much of an oddball anymore.”