Zachary Scot Johnson ’06 was just days into his first year at Lawrence in the fall of 2001 when he began to tease out what would become a career path.
A theatre arts and violin performance double major (he later added psychology as a third major), Johnson had secret aspirations to be a singer-songwriter, à la his idols, Joni Mitchell and Shawn Colvin. When the manager of a campus coffee shop located in what was then Memorial Union agreed to let him perform, it launched Zach and Friends, a monthly series of songs and stories.
That gig—it continued for much of the next five years—spurred a love of singing and performing that 20 years later has Johnson in the spotlight for a seemingly gargantuan undertaking. In September 2012, 11 years after he made that debut in the Lawrence coffee shop, he began posting videos of himself singing a different song every day on YouTube, part of what he dubbed thesongadayproject. He expected it might last a month or two, but it has now reached a whopping 10 years and counting.
A new song. Every. Single. Day. For 3,652 days—as of the anniversary on Sept. 6.
And along the way his project has included duets with the likes of Colvin, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Marc Cohn, Donovan, Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, Jeff Daniels, Noel Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow from the trio Peter, Paul and Mary, and actor Creed Bratton from The Office fame.
The 10-year milestone was recently featured in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Johnson’s hometown newspaper, the Racine Journal Times.
“It took me a long time to get up the courage to do it,” Johnson said of launching thesongadayproject. “I’m a pretty sensitive person, so putting your music up for people to say whatever they want about it was tough. A lot of time the internet just feels a little overwhelmingly negative to me. I wasn’t sure it was for me.”
But he took the leap of faith on Sept. 6, 2012, posting a video of himself singing Donovan’s Catch the Wind.
Over the course of the first few months, the songadayproject videos were drawing no more than 100 or so views a day. Then he posted his rendition of Elliott Smith’s Waltz #2 on Day 128, and something happened that Johnson still can’t explain. It went viral, garnering more than 50,000 views.
From that point on, Johnson—he and his wife were living in Arizona at the time but have since settled in St. Paul, Minnesota—was rolling. The thesongadayproject became his signature as he continued to grow his audience.
“It became part of my identity as a singer-songwriter. That’s who I am, that’s what I do. This is now the thing people know me for.”
“It became part of my identity as a singer-songwriter,” Johnson said. “That’s who I am, that’s what I do. This is now the thing people know me for.”
He plays upwards of 100 shows a year. He returns to Lawrence every few years to perform, often with invites to speak to students in the Conservatory about the varied paths music can take you.
Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory, said he loves to bring Johnson into the classroom any chance he gets because of his experiences along a truly creative path. With a growing emphasis in the Conservatory on the entrepreneurial possibilities in the world of music, Johnson's experiences resonate with students.
“Zach is the perfect example of the creative, innovative, adaptable musician that our rapidly changing world demands,” Pertl said. “When he comes back to campus to work with our current students, he inspires them to dream big and fully embrace their creative, entrepreneurial selves.”
10 years and beyond
Among Johnson’s growing playlist are more than 200 original songs that have been shared as part of thesongadayproject.
But it’s tough to beat the thrill of the collaborations, Johnson said. As his audience has grown—he now has more than 10,000 subscribers on YouTube—it’s gotten easier to get musicians to join in.
“Now that I’ve been doing it for 10 years and there’s this long list of 300 other artists who have said yes, there’s some legitimacy to it,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel weird about reaching out anymore.”
The guest artists usually pick which of their songs they’d like to sing; Johnson does his homework and comes ready to perform and record.
His favorite story, he said, is the connection with Donovan. The legendary folk singer was so impressed that Johnson launched his project with Catch the Wind that he reached out with a special invitation: Come to Ireland to perform with him and record a duet for the project. He would cover the costs.
“He reached out to me completely cold,” Johnson said.
After being assured this was legit, Johnson headed to Ireland, and he and Donovan collaborated on a version of Catch the Wind on stage at the Cork Folk Festival.
That’s a little more glamorous than most of the other duets. Usually, they are recorded when the artist’s tour lands in the Twin Cities, often backstage between soundcheck and showtime, Johnson said.
“Most of the time the collaborations are recorded in five to 10 minutes; 98 percent of them have been done in one take," he said. "Unless it’s someone who really wants perfection.”
Johnson says it was his experiences at Lawrence that prepped him for the creativity and flexibility needed to make this thing go. From the time spent on stage in the coffee shop—senior year, he got then-President Rik Warch to join him for a duet—to an improv comedy troupe he helped start, he grew comfortable on stage.
“I always tell a Lawrence story at my shows,” he said. “There are Lawrence connections everywhere.”
Songs from thesongadayproject
We asked Johnson if he would curate 10 songs from thesongadayproject for us. He obliged. Here they are, with commentary from Johnson:
“This goes almost all the way back to the beginning—or the first year at least. And it was a turning point. This is day 128 and an Elliott Smith cover called Waltz #2. The reason this was significant is because it's the first one that got big numbers. Most of the videos before this one averaged about 300 views. This one clicked somehow and had more than 30,000 within a couple of days.”
“One of my first collaborations was with Noel Paul Stookey, aka "Paul" from Peter, Paul, and Mary. He and Peter Yarrow (whom I later recorded with as well) were playing a duo show in Arizona and I reached out on a whim and was shocked that Noel emailed me directly hours later expressing an interest. We did a lot of takes of this song and I remember laughing a lot. After the show, I couldn't speak for a while, stunned that I'd been so lucky to be around them.”
“This is a collaboration with my friend Creed Bratton, who many know from The Office or the band The Grass Roots. I'd opened a couple of shows for him, and we hit it off immediately. I lived in Arizona at the time, and he invited me to drive over to L.A. to play some music at his house. He's as low-key and down to earth as they come.”
“This is a collaboration with movie star and underrated musician Jeff Daniels. While people know him from movies and TV, he's really a singer/songwriter buff and a great writer. We'd made plans to record a song in Minneapolis for the two-year anniversary, and then he was nominated for an Emmy and had to cancel. But he suggested I come over to his show in Oshkosh, and I never mind being back in the LU neighborhood. He seemed delighted when I mentioned that my senior project at Lawrence for my acting degree was mounting one of his plays—Boomtown.”
“This was the song that was posted for day 1,000. It's a collaboration with Twin Cities artist Jeremy Messersmith, whose work I really admire. This is another one that we did a lot of takes of, and I remember feeling like we had a nice blend to our voices and the song (a Sia cover he suggested that I hadn't heard before) is a banger. But the best part is the end—still the greatest unplanned ending of any song I've done for this thing—as his cat jumped up and decided to play the last few notes on the piano. It was perfect and we knew that was the one immediately.”
“The two primary reasons I'm a singer/songwriter are Joni Mitchell (would never have become one without her) and Shawn Colvin (not sure I'd still be one without her). This is a collaboration with Shawn, who was the first person I was ever asked to open for, back in 2005 or so, while I was still at Lawrence. It threw me off big time that my first opening act slot was one of my biggest heroes, but Shawn was great. I've opened for her more than anyone else, all over the country. This was during a run of shows we were doing, and I knew she was tired and probably wanted the time to catch a nap before the show, but she indulged me anyway.”
“Another big songwriting influence is Rosanne Cash, who is featured in this one. Whenever I'm asked to name a favorite guest, I usually decline to answer, as I've had over 300 guests and it feels rude to pick one. But Rosanne would be top tier at the very least. She took a lot of time with me and we got to chat at length. I really got the impression that she's invested in the next crop of artists and encourages us all. Most remarkably, after we did one song, she said, "Want to do another, then you can pick whichever you want to use?" A generous offer and I posted them both, even though I'd made mistakes in both.”
“This is a big one. Donovan heard, somehow, that I had this thing going, decided to check it out and was delighted that I'd started it with a cover of his song, Catch the Wind, and wrote me to tell me so. He included a fateful line at the end, asking me if I ever recorded these things in Ireland. I didn't believe it was him, so I didn't respond at all. But his manager called, told me Donovan wanted to fly me over to play a gig with him at the Cork Folk Festival in Ireland and re-record the song, this time as a duet, to post for my five-year anniversary. I really feared this whole thing was a scam, but they sent me a plane ticket and I flew over there to find...Donovan! Couldn't believe it. Had a great eight or nine days in Ireland and he encouraged me to stay longer if I wanted. He's a fantastic, generous soul and a lot of fun. This one was life-changing and gives me the best story for my live shows.”
“Another big surprise was receiving a video introduction from Cal Ripken Jr. I grew up (and still am) a big baseball fan, and though the Brewers have always been my team, I admired Cal Ripken Jr. greatly, alongside the other MLB greats of my childhood. He sent me a video congratulating me for making it to day 2,131, which was the same number of games he played to break the Iron Man streak. What made it even more ironic was that I received it while at a Baltimore Orioles spring training game. Pretty surreal moment all around for me. Classy gesture from a legend.”
“This is a more recent original song that I wrote. I was doing a songwriting workshop with Dar Williams, whose work I've always loved. The title is a prompt that she gave, and at first I kind of balked at it, thinking it'd lead to a pretty generic love song. On the way to take my first ever COVID test, I started thinking about how strange the current situation was and how hard it must be to explain this all to a kid. Thinking of my nieces and nephews, I flipped the concept of a song to be about making sense of COVID and the insanity of the political wars that are raging. I hope this song isn't relevant in a few years, but fear at this point it might always be.”