Jeff Johnson, the singer, guitarist, and creator of folk project Ok Vancouver Ok, is a real, bona-fide folk musician. His work isn’t commercial. The production is lo-fi. The lyrics are profound yet clear. The composition is simple; the band consists of Jeff, his wife and drummer Laura, and their friend Liza. The product is a musical discography that shuns capitalism, discards excess, and embraces the basics in life. In a world where all we need to survive—food, water, heating, shelter, medication- is provided to us, do we really appreciate what keeps us alive?
The band’s house is as out of place as a clown at a funeral. It’s a bright pink building with a small budding garden in the front lawn and the imprint of a heart in one of the top windows. The only sign of the neighbourhood around it is a heavily locked gate at the front. When singer and guitarist Jeff Johnson greets me, he’s all smiles. It’s his birthday. We sit down, and the interview starts.
What’s going on with Ok Vancouver Ok right now?
Jeff: Well, right now—as in yesterday—we finished work on a new album.
What’s it looking like? What can we expect?
Jeff: I want to keep it as a surprise for now. But I’m really proud of it and looking forward to it and being able to speak more about it, but for now it’s under wraps.
Food. Shelter. Water is more or less a read on the Downtown Eastside and economic disparity. What was that writing process like?
Jeff: It’s a process I suppose that took a few years to really concentrate on what I felt I needed to survive. Especially today, especially for someone at young age, people feel that in order to be someone in society they must have or do work or some kind of job in that society. And when I realized that many of my options were something that I couldn’t morally support, I stopped working. Around that same time, I had met with Laura as well, and long story short, we had taken up an internship in urban farming here in the city. But it didn’t really pay- I think it worked out to a dollar or a dollar-twenty an hour. So we realized that working 50 hours a week on that, we couldn’t afford to pay rent in Vancouver. We had just gotten back from a tour, and we didn’t have a place to live, so we decided to take the internship and just live in our minivan. So that’s what we did. We moved a bed inside, took the internship, and parked over near Strathcona Community Centre. We just found that things that almost all of friends take for granted like heat, toilets, showers- these were things that we didn’t have. So we had to depend on the city to find these things. We started figuring out where we could get showers, where we could use a toilet after dark- that kind of thing. We lived like that for almost three years.
Laura: We were homeless for two years and eleven months.
Jeff: That’s what kept the focus of the album. Food. Shelter. Water. How come there isn’t food growing around? If someone’s hungry, why has it all been taken away and people are forced to buy it back, even though so many foods can grow here? So in something like “Capitalism is the Reason,” which wasn’t on the LP, I’m trying to ask, “Who’s been teaching us?”
Especially since we see so much disparity in Vancouver—you said the name Ok Vancouver Ok was originally part of the frustration you felt with the city.
Jeff: Well initially it was on taking on the city. At that time I was starting to meet new friends and starting new with trying to reinvent myself from who I was in previous years.
Laura, prior to Food. Shelter. Water, Jeff had been playing by himself exclusively. What was it like coming into the writing process?
Laura: I married into Ok Vancouver Ok, so I had only known Jeff for a few months before we decided to get married, and then two days after our wedding we left on a 7 month tour, and I had never played in a band or played an instrument before except for a piano recital when I was a very small girl. So just playing was very shocking. We just went through the process of recording a new album, and it was interesting because we were working with the same people again and they were saying how much better the writing and recording was. Food.Shelter.Water was the first time I had ever been recorded. So basically, I’m fakin it till I make it. [Laughter.] I have no idea what I’m doing so I’m really just making it up. On Food. Shelter. Water I had only been playing the drums for about three months before recording that album.
One thing that really struck me about the album is the album artwork of the photos staring out at you. How’d that happen?
Jeff: I took those photographs—over a hundred of them. I wish I could have taken more. Those are kind of the “thank you” to those people who helped a lot and encouraged us leading up to this album.
What is something you think should be done to improve the situation for people living on the streets here? Especially for people who are in your former position.
Laura: Can I say one thing? Bathrooms. There’s not enough public restrooms. People don’t think about it, because you have your own washroom at home, but in a lot of places you need to purchase your membership to the place to use their washroom. Like, if you want ot use a restaurant at a cafe, a lot of restaurants expect you to pay and be a part of the cafe, so you can only use the washroom or the outlets or the cutlery if you’ve been paying. So for people who don’t have enough money to afford a coffee or a juice…like I find I can blend in and get the washroom key without paying, but some people can’t do that, which means a lot of residents in Vancouver literally don’t have anywhere to go poo. That makes you really uncomfortable, and that’s just one little small thing.
What was the worst name you’ve ever had or considered before you became Ok Vancouver Ok?
Jeff: I don’t know about that.
Laura: I think Ok Vancouver Ok would be the worst one you’ve ever thought of, actually.
Jeff: Yeah, I guess so. It wasn’t even really a name that I had thought of. A roommate invited me to play something in his room and I had to come up with a name and couldn’t think of anything else to choose and I thought “Ok, let’s just do this” because I was really pretty scared to perform these songs at that time. I kinda felt like it wouldn’t matter. As for a different band name, I suppose I just stuck with this one.
Laura: For over 10 years, and sometimes I feel that Jeff feels that he’s stuck with it. It’ll be like “Oh, this ideas different! I should try a new name or start a new project!” ….
Jeff: But I never really came up with a different name. I do think about doing something like a side project. Names are hard, it can mean so much.
Laura: It’s kinda hard to change your name once you have a website and have booked tours and all that. It would take a lot of effort
Do you have anything to say to the fans out there?
Laura: We’re having a birthday party tonight.
Jeff: Yep, turning 36… and Zak, you should stay for it and have a piece of cake with us.