Will Johnson has wanted to play music and perform since he watched Amadeus in second grade.
Over the years, that desire to play music and perform has led him to become a well-known figure here in Eagle River and throughout Alaska as both a solo musician and as the front man for a band called “Chill Factor.” The band has performed at events like the Governor’s Ball this past year and at an annual party hosted by Martin Buser, a champion Iditarod musher.
At first, though, he wanted to play the violin.
“I didn’t really become interested in the guitar until I saw a performance on television with someone playing the national anthem with the guitar. I said, ‘Wow! That’s amazing.’”
So, he rummaged through his parents’ closet to find a guitar and learned how to play the national anthem. He rearranged his entire school schedule so he could take guitar lessons. Three months after starting, he played “Stairway to Heaven” at his first performance at a talent show in which he placed second.
“I was terrified,” Johnson says, “but I also knew this is what I wanted to do because I wanted to perform. All I remember is that the whole school was screaming because I was playing this guitar. It was such a cool feeling that I was hooked and I decided this is what I’m doing.”
His first live performance outside of school was at Jitters Coffee shop in Eagle River, where he played with his high school band for a few coffees and $20.
Johnson says, “We were just floored we could play in a public place.”
Now, he plays numerous cover songs ranging from pop to rock and roll with an acoustic twist. However, he also has a number of original songs of his own.
“On my most recent album [Highway of Souls] I have a song called ‘Chessman.’” He explains that for years he looked for ways to incorporate chess into his music and finally managed it. Johnson describes it as a “sparse” song without many musical instruments. “I was really proud of myself for the way I made all these strange chords work together. Some of my favorite acoustic guitar riffs were in this one [song].”
Johnson currently has two albums to his name, the most recent of which is titled Highway of Souls.
When he created this album, he describes how he had fallen on hard times while trying to find work. The album became a way for him to channel his thoughts creatively, though he writes on numerous themes. A recurring theme in his work is nostalgia.
Johnson explains, “Sometimes we don’t appreciate the good times as much as we do when we are remembering them.”
But, his real passion is performing music, not necessarily creating it. “Ultimately,” he says, “I’m a performer. I’m an entertainer. Do people want to hear pop tunes? They got it. Do they want to hear 70s rock? I’ll play it. I can get into the mood for anything depending on what the crowd wants.”
His style is a combination of blues and rock and roll with elements of pop music. With over 500 songs on his setlist, he has enough material to tap into any crowd’s mood.
He also enjoys teaching young students about music, going back to where it all started for him. Johnson gives lessons for guitar, piano, voice, and bass and has instructed students from age 8 to 50. In doing so, he combines his love of music and teaching, a trait he likely inherited from his mother who taught for many years.
“I enjoy playing music, but I also enjoy teaching,” Johnson says. “I think you can do both. It’s so rewarding to make a breakthrough and convey a piece of information to someone who didn’t understand it before. It’s so fulfilling.”
For more information about Will Johnson, visit his website at willhjohnson.com or check the Chill Factor Alaska Facebook page.
Jamin Goecker is a local writer who recently moved to Alaska. When he’s not writing about local events and personalities, he can be found hiking, running, skiing, or editing his manuscript for a novel. Email him at Jamin@echoak.com and follow him on Instagram at Jgoecker1 or Twitter at @jamin_goecker