released April 20, 2015
All songs written by Penn Johnson
Produced by Mark Files Schwaller & Cal Brockie
Mixed and engineered by Cal Brockie
Mastering by Simon Katz
Recorded at Monkey Palace Studio, Jamaica Plain, MA
Vocals, guitar, and harmonica by Penn Johnson
Drums & Percussion by George Lernis
Bass by Greg Reinauer
Additional guitars & mandolin by Mark Files Schwaller
Banjo by ‘Sonny’ Jim Clifford
Fiddle and all strings by Zoé Rose de Paz
Trumpet by Cal Brockie
Piano by Stephen Lichota
Cover Art by Mike Bailey (baileyfineart.com/index.html
For The Trees © 2015 Penn Johnson Music.
All Rights Reserved
Special Thanks to:
Jess Illuzzi for teaching me the ropes of the music biz. Mark and Cal for providing a recording studio and for all the constructive criticism and guidance while recording and after. George, Greg, Mark, Sonny, Zoé, Cal, and Stephen for their dedication to their respective musical crafts. Mike Bailey for the best freehand album artwork I've ever seen. Everybody in Northeast Pennsylvania for their stories and resilience. Vera, Alex, Carol, Carolyn, Matt, Tammy, Gerri, Ray, Craig, Sunny, Whitey, Zeb, Paul, Otto, Allison, Rusty, Gian, Eric, Bemis, Alan, Rob, Tim, Tal, Ethan, Susan, Jerry, Kevin, Terry, Timm, Sarabeth, Sarah, Erik, Amanda, my other friends, and family in no particular order for supporting me, guiding me, and helping me through. Todd Snider, Townes Van Zandt, and Elliott Smith for being musical pioneers with a message worth listening to. Mother Earth for her endless wonders and gifts.
‘For The Trees’ Album Liner Notes
The album came together accidentally. I wasn’t playing professionally or anything like that. I was in Northeast Pennsylvania working with a non-profit and hanging out with this chick Jess who’d been on the music scene for about a decade or so. The night I met her, I played a couple songs and I guess we were into each other so we met at this festival a week later and we were together at her house on the lake a lot after that. I’d hop up at her gig breaks and play a few songs here and there. She taught me about the music biz and introduced me to Todd Snider’s music. Then we saw him live at the Sellersville Theatre one night after a last minute decision two-hour car ride.
Todd’s been my mentor in a way, though I haven’t met him yet. I admire his love for music and the idea of playing for the sake of playing. He and Townes Van Zandt have been inspiring to me because they both traveled the sofa circuit, lived the free spirit lifestyle, took all the criticism that went with it, struggled through alienation and addiction, and turned all their adventures into stories. That’s all I wanna do: write stories and travel.
I’ve got a part-time job to support me, but I wanna just keep playing, traveling, and experiencing this world as much as I can. I love meeting new people, visiting old friends, and being inspired by all the happy and sad things I see every day. It’s a lonely life, in a way, but it’s something I’ve fallen in love with. Maybe there’ll be time for true love later, but for now, it’s all about music, couches, weeknight bars, hookups, and long car rides.
I brought my guitar to Pennsylvania hoping maybe I’d have some time to play it. I used to go out to the creek behind our house off Silver Creek Road in Montrose, and sit with my guitar pretending I knew how to play. I’d written some songs, but none of them were as good as I wanted them to be. So one day I went out and started thinking about my story.
As far as I could tell, I was only there in northeast PA because there weren’t any other options after I graduated, despite the numerous organizations, professors, non-profit staff members, and people I’d connected with during my time as an undergrad at Franklin & Marshall College. None of that had helped me get a job. But unlike all the people I knew making big salaries and living in the city, I wanted more from life.
So there I was wandering through life, looking for something to be inspired by, looking for what I wanted to leave this world. I’d written a couple novels and self-published a book about my time abroad in Australia, but no one really cared. It’s hard to get people to read your book, nowadays.
I called that story ‘Wander.’ I played it around campfires and everyone asked when I was going to record it. I thought about the idea as a far-off possibility. I’d never recorded music before and had only started taking guitar seriously a month previous in July.
My housemate Charlotte––a union organizer and radically politicized poet––and I went to an open mic that ended up being a concert for an Irish rock band called The Mighty Stef, who’d been touring with the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly. They said we could play after them so we played a few songs I’d written and the lead singer, Stef, told us to come back. I played with them a few times, learning about the music business and being more and more inspired to play and spread my stories.
Eventually, Charlotte and I played ‘Wander’ at an open mic in Scranton, Pennsylvania at a dive bar called O’Leary’s Pub where my friend Trish heard it and told me I needed to record a demo. We tried to set up a time to record in Scranton, but I was too busy with organizing and all the dates we set fell through.
In New York, the day before the People’s Climate March, I played it for a group after a workshop about frontline resistance and some filmmakers asked me if they could record it. It seemed as though all points were leading to an album. It was sometime around here that the idea of ‘For The Trees’ came into my head: a new age hippie social justice album inspired by my time in Pennsylvania.
These liner notes aren’t written in order, but I hear they rarely are. If there were a single for the album, it would be ‘Sprouts.’ I’d written it a while back in college, near the end of my senior year. A combination of a children’s sing-a-long song and a radical tree hugger anthem, it was my attempt to describe the growth of my college’s Divestment campaign. It was catchy, vivid, and anyone could play along to it.
After my time in Pennsylvania, I took off to my parent’s condo in Marco Island, Florida to work on the album and attempt to drink myself to a place where some of the things happening in this world made sense to me. On the first day I got to Marco, a manmade conservative retirement hub in Southwest Florida, I was in line at an Ace Hardware store and the guy in front of me was talking in a cockney accent to one of the workers about playing guitar. His name was Tony Smith.
A couple days later, I went and played some songs for Tony at Tigertail Beach where he worked and we recorded Sprouts, which happens to be the video that’s gotten me a lot of gigs over the past couple months. He was supposed to come record it with me in Boston, but he got caught up in some stuff down in Marco. Tony will always be a part of this song and I’m glad I reached out to him when I did. He knows how much he inspired me and if he doesn’t, he should now.
This was another song I wrote a while back. It has undertones of resistance and sort of talks about the modern-day dystopia we’re living in. The title comes from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
I wrote it back in college because I saw people shoplifting at the local market, war vets in the streets asking for spare change, and people throwing themselves in front of the status quo to demand justice. I was, and I guess I am, one of those people, but I’ve been pretty removed from the activist organizing scene recently.
When I think of the faraway “American Dream” we always talk about, I think about ‘Telescreens.’ In reality, from what I’ve seen, people are struggling, people do bad things to other people, and the majority of people don’t care about their fellow human for one reason or another. We’ve gotta change that, stand up to the suits, risk arrest in the streets, all that 1960’s peace protest stuff.
Trusting Uncle Sam
I tried to come up with the words to what I thought the elements would say to me if they could talk. Since I’ve been writing for a while, I figured they’d tell me to keep writing, to tell my story to the people and the children, to tell everyone stories of how everything would eventually be okay. The choruses come from a place of desperation––the last of the cigarettes in a pack––that time you know you’re gonna need to get more to feed your addiction.
One Day It'll All Be Okay
After living in Pennsyvlania, I felt guilty about everything I have in my life. That sorta came together in this song, after a half a bottle of 100 proof whiskey and almost ended with me jumping into the Pacific Ocean and swimming as far away from shore as I could and letting myself sink.
The refrain ‘One Day It’ll All Be Okay,’ was the only thing I could tell myself to get away from that shoreline and away from the sad thoughts I’d been having. I do believe, deep down, one day things will be some form of okay. And till then that’s the only thing we can tell ourselves to stay above water.
I was at this Thriving Changemaker’s Conference in Washington D.C. and after the second day my friend Doug and I went into this café/bookstore to listen to this guy who was playing a guitar up on a balcony. We ended up listening for a while and at the table next to us was a group of people. This one girl caught my eye and I jumped into that conversation, mentioned I was a folksinger, and the only thing I found out was that she was an elementary school music teacher.
I guess at this point, I decided to write a song that detailed my struggle with writing about the earth and coupling it with writing a love song about this girl. It became the ‘Traveling Piano’ because I remember thinking that we’re both trying to inspire people with music it’s just two different angles inspiration. I started getting lost in this fantastical relationship, came in with a bridge that snapped back to reality for a second to talk about what’s happening in Pennsylvania, then went right back to this girl, whose name I forgot to ask.
This could be looked at as the comic relief of the album and closely resembles the kinds of sarcastic songs I’ve been focusing on since I finished the album. This is one of the songs that Todd inspired me to write. I figured some of the people listening to this, if they get anything out of it, it’s gonna be this song because it’s the life a lot of them are living.
The school I went to focuses a lot of its attention on business and I always found it funny because personally I think we should all wear loin clothes and live in the woods and migrate with the birds and smoke peace pipes and whatever else. This song caters mostly to the college students who study all day long to get good grades to get a high-paying job in hopes of climbing the corporate ladder. It affirms that as long as we get paid and laid the rest of the stuff we think about can be drowned out by alcohol or ‘firewater,’ as the native peoples called it.
For The Trees
The title track of the album came coincidentally and almost as an accident. I was walking the beach in Marco Island one day and I saw this dead bird with its eyes open and started writing about that. I was wondering what it was like to be that bird, with the tide washing over me, people walking by and doing nothing, saying nothing.
I transitioned to writing about myself once I realized that the night before, I was busking on the beach with my guitar case on the ground trying to get people to listen to what I was saying, the message of my lyrics, and they were doing the same thing they did to the bird, ignoring me. Some people threw change but most just laughed. I was that bird, or at least it felt that way. I was motionless, not reaching anybody, and getting more lost in the rising tide of my anxiety, depressive episodes, and worries.
At this time, I wasn’t making much money (not that I am now, either) and my parents were embarrassed and I felt like I was letting them down. All I wanted was for us to live in harmony and get back to telling stories, sitting in circles, like the natives used to do. I still think I might be writing these songs from a jail cell some day and I really don’t know where I can go to feel like I’m home because nowhere seems to feel right. Maybe someday I’ll know what home feels like again, but some day’s far away.
I’m here now and I’m doing my best to tell these stories. I know some people who like them and that’s enough for me. The weird thing is that I always feel like I need to be doing something, going somewhere. Even when I’m just sitting on a couch like I am right now, I feel like I should be on the road, traveling, getting away from everything.
PJ // 4/10/15 // Marion, MA