Self-taught guitarist launches career in Switzerland
Finalist in Swiss talent contest prepares to release first album
Nick Johnson's career as a musician began with a broken heart.
But don't look for soppy sentimentality in Johnson's music, which has been compared to John Mayer and namesake Jack Johnson.
Johnson -- Nick, not Jack -- will be releasing his first album, "We Are Blind," in the not-too-distant future.
Meanwhile, he's been performing in Switzerland and has a growing following in Europe, thanks to a Swiss new talent contest. Johnson, a 2003 graduate of Amador High, was selected earlier this year as one of eight finalists in the Caprices talent contest. While his band wasn't chosen to play in the annual festival, it placed fourth in votes out of 360 bands.
Not bad for someone who only started playing guitar in 2008.
"As a kid growing up, I was really into sports," Johnson said. "I didn't do anything musically. I was a jock. I played basketball."
He played both JV and varsity basketball in high school and didn't even pick up the guitar until he was alone overseas after breaking up with the young woman he'd moved 7,000 miles from home to be with.
There were some twists and turns along the way, including a stint at Diablo Valley College that led Johnson to his new career as musician.
"I went to DVC and went to their culinary program," he said. "During that time when I was in school, I met a girl that was half Swiss and half Brazilian ... That was the reason I ended up going to Switzerland in the first place."
One thing led to another until Johnson found himself working as a chef in the resort town of St. Moritz, living in a small room with a great view but without close friends and little to do to occupy his time.
"That's when I started teaching myself how to sing as well as play," he said. "When I first got here, I didn't have much to do. We didn't have much money. I got a cheap little guitar -- it took my mind off the fact that I was hungry a lot of the time."
Johnson, like the Beatles, never took lessons or learned to read music.
"I taught myself how to play. It was just one of those things, I picked it up and knew how to play it. I don't know why, it was just so natural and easy," Johnson said. "I literally played guitar from when I awoke until 1, 2 o'clock. I don't know chords, I just play from my ear."
His relationship with the young woman ended a year ago, when Johnson decided to make a go as a professional musician.
"I wanted to take it more seriously," he said. "I didn't know this wasn't normal, people learning to play guitar in just a short amount of time. People started telling me I should do this."
Two separate families have adopted Johnson.
"I met a family when I first got here," he said, explaining that he would baby sit for Bernhard and Monique Pfenninger's son Braxton while the couple worked. When Bernhard died suddenly in 2009, Johnson promised to visit the family at least twice a month from St. Moritz, three hours away. "I did that for almost two years until I decided to leave my ex and move to Zurich."
"Monique is the one who encouraged me to pursue my passion for music," he added. "She believed in me and my talent and opened her home to me so I could focus on finding someone to help me record my music. It also gave me a chance to be with them and focus on being Braxton's male role model. We are family now and I still live with them."
Monique Pfenninger also introduced him to his new musical family -- father Bill Day, who plays lead guitar, while son Stevie handles keyboards and Mike plays drums.
Johnson's music prompted Bill to create a label, Day One records, and fund Johnson's first album, "We Are Blind," due to be released soon. He made his professional debut just last year.
"My first gig was for a foundation called Rainbows 4 Children. They have a school in Ethiopia," Johnson said. "I played for like 35 minutes. We kind of shocked the room. Everyone really enjoyed it and it just took off from there."
While Johnson and the Days have performed a handful of times since then, the bulk of their time has been spent putting the album together. Johnson said a tour to promote the album will follow its release.
"We're planning on going probably within Switzerland and then probably Germany. Basically you have to see where your music is popping up," he said. "I would love actually to come home and do a show in Pleasanton. We actually may be going to New York as well, but we're going to be mainly in Europe."
Johnson said his life as a professional musician came as a surprise to his friends.
"None of my friends back home know," he said. "When it came out on Facebook, it was this whole big thing, like, 'I didn't know you could play.' It was this whole big secret."
Johnson's career path also shocked his family in Pleasanton, who were mostly worried for him.
"My parents in the beginning, when I first started, they were a little uneasy about the whole thing, they were worried that it's a pretty tough business," he said. "As they saw thing progressing, they saw that I was serious. It was one of the first thing they saw that I was good at."
He said his younger sister, like Braxton, is one of his biggest fans.
Trying to describe his music is a difficult task for Johnson.
"Some people say it reminds them of a nice summer day. They like to sit back and see where the music takes them," he said. "You'll understand what I'm going through in my life if you listen to my album."
It seems that the language barrier is not much of a barrier in Zurich, which Johnson described as a "very English-speaking city."
"All the music they listen to here comes from the U.S. or the U.K.," he said, adding, "Even non speakers enjoy it."