Former Physicist Keith Johns Hopes to Start a Folk Revolution in Miami

If, perhaps on Family Feud one day, you find yourself face to face with the category "Former jobs of folk musicians," you might yell at Steve Harvey things like English teacher, health food store cashier, or, most likely the number one answer, pot dealer.

But Keith Johns, a former physicist, would prove you wrong. "If there's math rock, there could be physics folk," the 27-year-old Palmetto High and University of Miami grad jokes. But you don't need any sort of understanding of algebra to understand his lyrics, which often linger on topics like love and life without a reference to Einstein or Isaac Newton in sight. "I dropped working in science because the ivory tower distance got to me. I wanted to do something more human than stare at numbers [on] a page."

For two years after earning his physics degree, Johns worked at a carbon-dating lab with a machine the size of an entire room. At the time, he thought of music as just a hobby, whether he was playing piano at his parents house or strumming the guitar he picked up in college. But he started hanging around with two friends who encouraged him to make music a full-time thing. "Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta started Audiocastle Studios at the same time. They really encouraged me to go for it," Johns says. "I ended up living at their studio for a while. Thanks to technology, we could do things on our own, and we could approach recording slowly. We could be more artistic about things and not worry about having to pay for studio time."

Johns' second album, which he's scheduled to release in October, is called Grateful Fool. Its sound, he said, was influenced by Gregory Alan Isakov and Josh Garrels, and if you've never heard of either of those two, don't sweat it. "It sounds like I just said random names nobody knows," Johns admits. "But that's what is kind of cool about labels not having their hands on who you listen to any more. You can find your own niche music to listen to. Both guys build each song up. I really respect their processes. What they do is masterful."
Though he never intended for the album to have a theme, Johns said he noticed one popping up as he finished. "There's that ominous wheel of death that reminds you of the magnificence that you get to choose how you're going to live," Johns says, the physicist in him clearly giving way to the folk singer. One of those lifestyle choices, in his mind, is to live responsibly. And so he will donate all proceeds from sales of the album Grateful Fool directly to the poverty fighting charity, the Hunger Project.

Before that, though, he will celebrate the release of the album's first single "We're Alive" with a September 10 show at Lagniappe House, where he will be joined by Robl on guitar, Sutta on keyboard, drummer Matt Davis, and bassist Taylor Byrd. "It will be the first time we play the song live as a band. I'm going to try to get some horns out there to have a marching-band feel. It's a celebratory song about how even a single blade of grass is amazing. It's joyous."

The joy will continue October 21 at the Wynwood Yard, where Johns is going to organize a folk festival to help celebrate his album's release. "The Americana scene — the folk scene — is growing so much in Miami the last two years. We're going to have five or six bands play, and then my band is going to play the full album live, front to back."

With the album and the festival on the horizon, it seems like Johns really was able to drop science cold turkey. But were there any residual effects of going from the world of logic to the world of creativity? Does he wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty and out of breath, to write down equations? "I still try to link those two parts of me together," he admits. "It's like two people that don't know each other living together."

Keith Johns. 9 p.m. Saturday, September 10, at Lagniappe House, 3425 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-576-0108; Admission is free.
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David Rolland is a freelance music writer for Miami New Times. His novels, The End of the Century and Yo-Yo, are available at many fine booksellers.
Contact: David Rolland