Craig Hella Johnson has been immersed in the music world for many years. The artistic director of Conspirare, the Grammy-nominated and nationally-renowned music group, is constantly thinking of new ways to reach audiences through music and inspiring his fellow musicians. in the midst of preparing for the group’s holiday show, writing new music and planning future seasons, this preacher’s son spoke with us about Conspirare ’s upcoming performances in New York City, music’s transformational power and his deep love for Austin.
Tell me about Conspirare ’s performance in February that’s affiliated with Carnegie Hall.
We’re hoping it’s the beginning of a long relationship with Carnegie. It’s three events, in partnership with the Weill institute, their outreach arm. They were interested in the Big Sing that we do twice a year here, which is basically anybody who wants to make a sound, you just come and sing. They were intrigued in New York and they have a model there called a community Sing in all the boroughs. We’re doing one in Harlem at the Shomberg center, one in Queens and then a formal concert at the Jacobi center in the Bronx. They’re interested in tying ideas of wellness with music and the creative arts.
Why do you feel so connected to Austin?
It’s become home, despite some of my best efforts to leave. I find a lot of people here who are passionate about what they do–people who take their art very seriously, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. As a gay person here in Austin, it’s important for us that we’re here and that we’re passing on open-heartedness and those values. There are times that I relish being in the belly of the beast. I met my partner, the architect Philip Overbaugh, while I was living in San Francisco and he was there at the time. When we decided to make Austin home that was a significant reason, also, to build a home here with him.
What’s been your motivation or passion with Conspirare in terms of music being a vehicle for change?
Music has transformed me over and over again. It does for a lot of people. There’s a famous writer, Peter Drucker, he wrote about nonprofits and said once that the sole purpose of a nonprofit is to change lives. It feels important to just ask why we’re doing something. Music was a big part of what was moving through me. I think we do music because it does have the potential and power to change peoples’ lives and I love being a part of that. The idea of Conspirare means to breathe with or breathe together. We all have a deep desire to connect with one another and more simply to connect with life in a meaningful way.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a cd of spirituals with Conspirare two weeks ago, which is set for release in the fall. That was a really special project. A big focus in the next years is to do a good bit of recording. There’s something musically that I’ve been working on around Matthew Shepard (the openly gay college student who was brutally murdered in October 1998). I won’t say much about it, but it’s a musical project that I’m composing and gathering over time in response to that. I’m visting Laramie, Wyoming in January.
What else is top-of-mind for you?
We can all, right now, change the tone of the discourse in our culture and really be in a place of supporting one another more directly. There’s so much stuff that’s painful to see with all of this bullying that’s been going on. I think that anything each of us can do to reflect back to one another our value and our worth, that’s so critical. I feel quite hopeful about the potential and about an opening that’s possible.