Matt Johnson, Jamiroquai’s seasoned jazz-funk keyboardist, talks about his new live solo album and recalls the highs of his twenty-one years in one of the world’s best-known bands.
“The first thing I encountered when I got out of my car was two massive German Shepherds running at me and barking their heads off.” So says keyboard wizard Matt Johnson, recalling the time in 2002 when he drove from his home in North London to audition for Jamiroquai at frontman Jay Kay’s hard-to-find rural retreat. “Jay was there in an anorak looking really moody,” continues Johnson. “I thought shit, what have I got into here?”
Johnson, who had been recommended by Simon Katz who left the band in 2000, wasn’t nervous but nevertheless felt a slight sense of trepidation, perhaps tuning into Kay’s anxiety about finding a replacement for the recently departed Toby Smith, who had been with Jamiroaqui since their inception and was a valuable and trusted co-writer. But Kay’s mood noticeably lightened when Johnson showed what he could do on his keyboards. “When I started playing he immediately flipped into being super happy and enthusiastic so I knew I had done well,” laughs Johnson. “I think I played ‘Cosmic Girl,’ ‘Lovefool,’ and maybe ‘Deeper Underground’ and bust a few solos.”
Johnson rapidly became an integral member of the band, making his debut on their 2005 LP, Dynamite, for which he co-wrote eight of the set’s twelve tracks. He recalls that time with affection. “It took a long time to make but we had so much fun,” he reveals. “We spent one month in LA and one month in New York, and that just felt incredible to me at the time. Me and Jay drove to Mallorca in his Roll Royce Phantom and wrote ‘Seven Days In Sunny June’ on the last day after partying for a week. They were carefree days.”
Fast forwarding to the present day, the 54-year-old keyboardist, who is still with Jamiroquai but has just released a second solo album, an in-concert offering called At PizzaExpress Live In London. Recorded during a performance in November last year, the impeccably recorded album has just been released by the restaurant chain’s new PX Records label.
“It really came about quite by chance,” explains Johnson. “I asked them to multitrack the show as they have the facility there and I was filming, so I thought it would be great to capture the sound well. Because the gig went down so well, they approached me about releasing it which I was very happy about.”
The seven-track album blends well-crafted original material with two jazz-funk classics: vibraphonist Roy Ayers’ ‘Our Time Is Coming’ and pianist Lonnie Liston Smith’s club anthem, ‘Expansions.’ “Roy is really the king of jazz-funk and that track is very influential in the original Jamiroquai sound,” says Johnson, explaining why the tune resonates with him. “I love that it’s so open, it’s perfect to jam on. With ‘Expansions,’ I’m a big fan of Lonnie Liston Smith; his dreamy Rhodes sound is a huge influence for me.”
Johnson is supported by an impressively super-tight band comprising London-based musicians and singers. “I have some of my bandmates from Jamiroquai with me; long-term drummer Derrick Mckenzie plus Valerie Etienne and Hazel Fernandes who sing backup for Jay,” he discloses. “Then I have Ernie Mckone on bass and Andrew Smith on guitar, who are both amazing musicians. We are all deep into the funk.”
The group’s energetic, turbo-charged take on Smith’s ‘Expansions’ is particularly striking; so too, is an original number called ‘Interstellar Love,’ Johnson’s version of a single he recorded in 2021 for the Italian Groove Culture label with fellow Jamiroquai member Derrick McKenzie and singer Tanya Johnson. “Derrick wanted to do a club track so I really did it for him,” says Johnson, explaining the song’s genesis. “He had a beat and I wrote that song over it and got my wife Tanya to sing it, as she has a heavenly voice. I love that studio version. With Hazel (Fernandes, who sings on the live version), it takes on a more old-school soul vibe which I also love.”
Four of the album’s tracks – the gorgeously dreamy groove ballads ‘Laluna’ and ‘Venus Rising,’ the mid-tempo ‘Goddess,’ and more upbeat disco-funk burner ‘With The Music’ featuring vocoder – originally featured on Johnson’s debut studio album, 2020’s With The Music, released by Incognito main man Bluey Maunick’s Splash Blue label. “It was very liberating,” enthuses Johnson, recalling how he felt about cutting his first album. “I didn’t know if anyone would be interested but the timing was right with the pandemic happening. Normally I’m too busy and I take pride in earning money from my craft so I never did my own thing.” He adds: “I think a lot of people had unexpected outcomes from the pandemic that could sometimes be positive.”
Originally from the Hampshire seaside town of Bournemouth, Johnson was born into a highly musical family. “My dad was a musician and there was always a piano at home,” he says. “I actually was good at the trumpet as a kid and was in the national youth orchestra but when I hit my teens I dropped that and kind of taught myself the piano. There’s a lot of gaps in my knowledge but I think that helps me be a bit distinctive as a player.”
Given his heavy jazz-funk leanings, his early musical influences were surprising ones. “The first were (Jimi) Hendrix, the Beatles, Bowie, and Japan,” he reveals. “The first three because of my older brothers having those records and Japan just really captured my imagination at the time, they were so weird and otherwordly. It wasn’t until later that I really got into black American funk music.”
Another of his musical heroes is Stevie Wonder. He cites the blind Motown genius’ 1973 LP Innervisions as one of his best-loved albums. “I love this era of Stevie when he had great analogue synth sounds coupled with amazing and very original tunes,” he says. Johnson’s unique approach to keyboards was shaped by Moon Safari, the 1998 debut album by the influential French electronic group Air. “The synth sounds are so nostalgic and the sound of that album is like a big warm hug,” enthuses Johnson.
Johnson was also profoundly touched by the music of the Pat Metheny Group on the 1987 album Still Life (Talking). “I love the Brazillian influence and Lyle Mays is one of my favourite piano players. I would say he was influenced by Bill Evans, who I also love. The album marries jazz with great compositions, something which is quite rare in my opinion.”
Johnson’s debut professional engagement playing keyboards was more memorable than most musicians, landing a well-paid gig in an exotic foreign location. “The first proper one was playing in Dubai for two weeks over Christmas,” he states. “I was only 18 and suddenly playing in this luxury hotel and lying by the pool in the day. I thought, this is the life for me!”
In the late ‘90s, Johnson cut his teeth writing music and cutting house and garage records with producer Charles Hope for the UK acts Sunray and Nu Hope. “We were a production duo trying to break through,” explains Johnson. Though he wasn’t fully comfortable in that role, he says it helped him grow as a musician. “It wasn’t really where my heart lay, I just wanted to make it like any other young person. I did learn a lot from Charles though, initially about production but also about how to deal with people effectively.”
After successfully passing his Jamiroquai audition in 2002, Johnson became Jay Kay’s main songwriting partner, co-writing the band’s hits ‘Seven Days In Sunny June,’ ‘(Don’t) Give Hate A Chance,’ and ‘White Knuckle Ride.’ Explaining the songwriting process he has developed with Kay over the years, he says: “Jay has interesting thought patterns so it’s always a challenge writing with him but I love it. He always has a starting point for an idea and then we develop it. He can’t play so he hums his ideas. Sometimes it will end up going somewhere completely different.”
In the tabloid media, Kay is often portrayed as a petrol-headed party animal with a love for fast cars and even faster women but Johnson says his friend and collaborator has matured and is very different away from the glare of the spotlight. “He used to be super crazy, could be great fun, and could be a nightmare,” he laughs. “These days he’s much more calm, having had a couple of kids and mellowed with age. He’s always been good to me though and I definitely regard him as a friend. He’s not obsessed with fame and actually just likes a peaceful life which I can relate to.”
Johnson has spent 21 years with Jamiroquai, describing the band as “my second family.” He says the experience of being a member has taught him many things, one of which is “about always trying to raise the bar of what you do and never stopping growing as an artist.” He says he also learned that “the sum is greater than the parts. Being in a great band is about working in harmony. Also, it’s not enough to be a great player, you have to have great songs to truly wow a crowd. Jamiroquai is special in that regard. There are great tunes, it’s not all about showing off technical skills. I’m grateful that I could travel the world and that in turn has broadened my outlook massively.”
Away from Jamiroquai, which has released just three albums in the last twenty years (Dynamite, Rock Dust Light Star, and Autmoton), Johnson has amassed some impressive credits. He’s played keyboards in studio sessions for pop acts Will Young, Newton Faulkner, and Duffy, and produced records for Julian Perretta and Dizzee Rascal. “It was very satisfying developing Julian as he was just 18 when we met and had barely written any songs,” says Johnson. “We found a direction and he got a major deal and he’s had a great career since, which is great to see. Working with Dizzee was really easy and a lot of fun, he’s a bundle of energy!”
Reflecting on his long career, the amiable keyboardist says he has experienced many highlights but three in particular are extremely noteworthy. “Playing to 130,000 people in Rio De Janeiro stands out as an amazing highlight,” he divulges. “Also playing at the Nobel Peace Prize with a full orchestra. Then releasing the first Jamiroquai album that I played on, Dynamite. That was a proud moment.”
Looking beyond his live album into the future, Matt Johnson reveals he has several irons in the fire. “I’m currently working on another solo album, hopefully out next year,” he says. “We are also looking at starting a new Jamiroquai record. I’m constantly busy with many things, including running my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/MattJohnsonJamiroquai, whose focus is keyboard tutorials and demonstrations), which has become very popular.”
As far as unfulfilled ambitions, musical or otherwise go, he confesses he has none left. He’s blissfully content and just grateful that he is in a position to continue doing what he loves. “I’m very thankful just to still be doing it … and making my own music as a solo artist has really made me feel very fulfilled as a musician,” he says.
Matt Johnson’s At PizzaExpress Live In London Is Out Now Via PX Records. Vinyl Copies Will Be Released On November 24th.