Even under the fuzz of a speakerphone, the voice of Zachary Scot Johnson was clear as a bell, full of more pep than I would except from someone who woke up at a hotel somewhere in Door County. He was there because because it was the weekend, and for Johnson, weekends are for touring.
“I graduated college in 2006 and that’s when I started hitting it really hard,” he says. “It” means touring, and “hard” means nearly 800 shows in eight years.
Stillwater is home, but “it’s rare that I get to be in the same place for three days or more,” he told me. Despite this grueling schedule, he sounds no worse for wear.
If and when he hits it “big,” no one will deem it an overnight success. For nearly two years now, Johnson has had a regimen. He’s not just constantly touring, he’s constantly recording. No matter where he is, he learns and records a cover song every day and posts it to YouTube.
The motivation for the Song a Day Project is two-fold. First, the videos generate exposure. The first couple months of the project Johnson only garnered a couple hundred views. After covering Elliott Smith’s “Waltz #2 (XO),” though, something clicked: 50,000 people, to be specific. It was then that Johnson decided to commit more than the original 100 days to the project. He’s now posted over 700 videos, and he shows no sign of stopping.
The second benefit of the project is the practice. Early in the project, Johnson could just pick one of the many, many cover songs he had in his repertoire from playing four-hour bar gigs. He quickly ran through those, though. Now, “I’m not just playing a new song every day,” he says. “I’m learning a new song every day.” Often this just means piecing together a simple chord progression, but there have been some notable challenges. Johnson spent a string of days—somewhere in the 500s, on his video count—covering Joni Mitchell’s entire debut album Song to a Seagull.
“It was really tough on me,” he said. “There was something about that that I liked, though, because doing this can feel routine or easy sometimes.”
In September, Johnson will celebrate the second anniversary of his project with a very special guest: Academy-Award-winning actor (and noted singer-songwriter) Jeff Daniels. Daniels will join a roster of other notable musicians—including Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, & Mary—to have joined Johnson in the daily videos.
“I’ve had some people who I couldn’t believe said yes,” he says.
The Song a Day Project has built a solid fan base for Johnson, who says he’s noticed greater attendance at his shows. Plus, the strict scheduled has helped push him to work more consistently on his original material.
“I’m a really slow writer. I write more frequently now,” he tells me, as if needing to prove he’s a hard worker. As if he didn’t record video #703 minutes before our interview.
Johnson’s next local gig is at Patrick’s Cabaret on Sept. 20.
Nina Slesinger is a student at Macalester College.