By Aldus Santos

Johnoy Danao makes Johnoy Danao-sounding music. He is his own idiom. His sparse fretwork and pained phrasing are tied to his breath. Onstage and on record, there’s a pretty slim chance you can sing along to him and duplicate his syllabication successfully. The reason for this is simple: you are most probably not Johnoy Danao. 

Guys like him get typecast easily because he lugs around an acoustic guitar instead of a trendy offset electric. Often, “folk” is the appellation, and, yeah, that hardly ever gets challenged. But to my mind, after some consideration at least, what Johnoy and his ilk offer isn’t tethered to instrumentation but the yarns they proverbially spin (as well as the colors these yarns take on). And I’m not even talking lyric-writing but an entire discipline of topicality in song. 

There is balladry, for sure—the sheer number of weddings that use “Ikaw at Ako” should be sufficient proof—but framed from seasoned and weathered eyes. But apart from this, what the listener is treated to in all of Danao’s output—the now-mythical Dapithapon (2010), the richly textured Samu’t-Sari (2014), and the infinitely hummable Salubungan (2016)—is a grasp of narrative and conversational immediacy lacking in most modern pop.

The folk yarn gets challenged today with the release of his new single “Isang Umaga,” his first collaboration with celebrated producer crwn. It’s a curious union, for sure, and with the gaping divide in age and musical temperament between the two, we can see (or hear) deconstruction in motion. The track itself is a sweet bit of sagely advice in a world that sorely needs it, and in lieu of straight-up guitar-and-voice, we hear crwn do his thing. 

The pair took a full year to trade rewrites and rearrangements, and the end result is (naturally) a far cry from the teaser demo the folkie published in his socials some time back. Vocal and instrumental production were done from their respective home studios, while mixing and mastering was helmed by Cholo Hermosa of 15D Studios. 

We catch up with Johnoy below.

Are you making a full record with crwn?

No concrete plans yet, but I’m [seriously] considering pursuing that direction. Sobrang nagustuhan ko ‘yung naging outcome nitong first-ever collaboration namin, so I’m hoping we can work on maybe three more songs. Ang dali niyang katrabaho, and sa unang demo pa lang, solid na agad.

How did that collaboration come about? And how did you feel coming into it, being a guy long known for, really, self-accompaniment: having your own cadence, your own pulse? Now that’s all gone, to an extent.

We played a gig in Siargao and I instantly became a fan of his music. Side anecdote: nakuwento din niya nu’n na dati daw, sinasama siya ng tatay niyang manood ng Johnoy and Kakoy [gigs]. [laughs]

[Anyway,] it was a conscious decision to inject a new sound into my music, and crwn was a no-brainer choice.

Sa tagal ko nang tumutugtog mag-isa, napapansin ko minsan, may tendency na akong mag-recycle ng arrangement. Naging apparent ito sa akin last year nu’ng nagkaroon ako ng panahong mag-isip-isip.

I mean, it’s super-lovely, but also a total about-face in sonics.

I agree; gitara lang din ang tinugtog ko dito. I also took it as a challenge na—although medyo malayo ito sa nakasanayang tunog ko—kung paano ko mapapalabas na ako pa rin ‘to: ‘yun bang, ‘pag narinig nila, alam pa rin nilang ako ‘yun, something like that. 

Amusingly, it’s still, topically, in the folk realm. Care to talk about this? In my head, there are certain topics made for certain genres or sounds, and it’s interesting how you sort of transplanted your folk into this, what, electro-pop arrangement: a sound typically used in songs other than what you have now.

I guess ganu’n talaga ako magkuwento. For me, okay ‘yun na I sort of broke the rules or stereotypes na, ‘pag ganitong theme, folk rock [na] Bob Dylan-ish na agad ang default sound. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but I just really wanted to veer away from it this time. Pero babalik at babalik rin ako sa pagiging traditional folk musician, I’m sure, kasi ‘yun talaga ako.

Your previous collaborations were with singers, and they mostly play the role of being, along with you, “conversationalists” recounting a story. This time, with crwn, you’re working, on some level, with faith and letting go: you have to relegate decisions you usually make to another producer. Was that unnerving? Or more exciting?

A bit unnerving but more exciting, really. May napuntahan ‘yung kanta na hindi ko pa napuntahan before kung ako lang at gitara ko ang involved sa production. Nakuha niya ‘yung fresh take that I’m after.

I’m so used to taking the lead, whether it’s producing music for or by myself or for others, so it’s refreshing to have someone take the lead, production-wise, this time around.