Chadwick Johnson

Raising his voice, raising hope


Spend even a little bit of time with Hartland-born singer/songwriter Chadwick Johnson and you’ll discover the versatile vocalist has an ironclad motto: “We’re better together.”

Johnson applies the credo to his music, collaborating with a tightknit circle of singers and songwriters who are also his close friends — and with the famous names with whom he’s shared a stage or a recording studio. People like mega-producer David Foster, Oscar- and Grammy-nominated songwriters Allan Rich and Jud Friedman (Whitney Houston’s “Run to You”) and actress/chanteuse Susan Anton.

But Johnson also applies it to life as a whole, and the intense power of people connecting through music — whether they’re on the stage, in the audience or at home with the stereo on.

On this bright, early September afternoon, Johnson sits in the kitchen of his father and stepmother’s home on a picturesque horse farm on Lake Five Road. Both house and property are testaments to the Johnson family’s love of all things equine — a lifestyle that led the teenage Chadwick to forgo public school in favor of being homeschooled while earning championship status as a team roper on the national rodeo circuit. Taught to sing as a little boy by his musically gifted grandmother, Johnson did double duty at one competition, performing the national anthem for an approving crowd.

“I remember coming down from the announcer’s stand where I had just sung, and there was an emotional response from a few people that I walked up to right away,” he recalls. “At that moment, it just dawned on me, even in my innocence, that there’s something powerful about the effect that music has on someone. Whether it’s a patriotic song or a religious song or a song about love — it does something to you in your soul. I’ve never seen anything else in life that touches people that way. That’s the moment that I knew that it was important. That it was something that I had to do.”

Johnson spent a few years training with Milwaukee-based vocal coach Janice Beutin, who taught him to find, commit to and nurture his own powerful sound. Then, at 19 and with his family’s support, he made the move to Hollywood. “I took a three-month program at a music school there, so I had something to do, and I just jumped in,” Johnson says. “It was a wild ride from there. I made so many mistakes, signed with managers who had bad intentions — but it’s my journey and it’s a cool journey. From that, I met a friend singing in a karaoke bar that had great singers and a good sound system. Six months later, he had me singing for Bill Clinton at a big party.”

Not long after that, Johnson met a woman at an open-mic night in Beverly Hills. She asked for his demo tape.

And then? Crickets.

“Months later, she called,” Johnson recalls. “I had just woken up and she’s saying, ‘David Foster wants to record some demos with you. How soon can you be there?’ For my style of music, he’s a dream producer. He’s an icon. So I ran down to his studio in Santa Monica and recorded four songs for him. … He was just a cool guy. He sat at a keyboard right in front of me and taught me the songs. We went back and forth and spent the whole day [together].”

Eventually, Johnson tired of Los Angeles and moved to Las Vegas, where myriad theaters and casinos offered ample opportunities for his preferred style of music and performance. The surrounding countryside also allowed him to buy a horse and get back into rodeo in his downtime. And he delved deeper into songwriting, especially with his close friend, “Fear the Walking Dead” and “Jamestown” actor Kalani Queypo. One day, their efforts took a deeply personal turn.

At the time, Queypo’s grandfather was battling Alzheimer’s disease, which also impacted Johnson’s great-grandmother. Her son, Johnson’s grandfather, soon showed signs of dementia himself. “We wanted to write about something important,” Johnson explains. “Music can make such a difference and touch people’s hearts or help them heal from something. So we started Googling statistics and the best way to be with someone who is struggling with the loss of memory. We really put our research in and then married that with our own personal experiences. In L.A., a friend of mine was an activities director for senior living facilities, and she would invite me to come in and sing for people who couldn’t remember much of anything — but when you showed them love, and you are loving with someone, everyone responds to that affection, no matter where they were in their process.”

Johnson and Queypo knew they were onto something.

“We realized that was the key — remember love. ‘You remember love, so you remember me, because I love you,’” Johnson says of composing “Remember Love.” “We wrote most of it that first day, and then we’d come back to it. That was where our heart was, and we were so proud of it. I recorded it and released it, and then I started to sing it live.

Photo by Michelle Majors

“I had no idea the response that I would get from people,” Johnson continues. “People who had come to see my shows many times, and I’d had no idea they had someone in their life who was struggling with the loss of memory, would come up afterward weeping. People feel like their loved one is losing their dignity because they’re losing who they are, and I think it’s really hard for people to talk about. When someone’s being a caregiver, they have all they can do just to accomplish that, so they’re not always sharing their story. They’re carrying so much weight. So once I started performing this song, and people would open up about it, I realized that it was way more powerful than we knew when we wrote it, the healing connection people would have to it. It’s a love letter from a loved one or a caregiver to someone struggling with the loss of memory.”

Johnson performed the moving ballad (just try to make it through a listen without tearing up, even if you don’t know someone living with dementia) frequently, on stage and on Las Vegas television, which led to an introduction to Dr. Jeffrey Cummings and other specialists at the local Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Moved by their investment in memory loss and the patients and families who suffer its impact, Johnson and Queypo chose to donate proceeds from “Remember Love” to the clinic and its ongoing efforts.

“It’s who I am, it’s what I’m meant to do — sing and connect to other people through music,” says Johnson, who balances charitable performances with a hectic schedule of writing and recording new music and performing as a popular solo artist and as part of the collaborations he treasures. “I think the most special, important thing about live music is that you bring all different types of people from different walks of life together for that performance, and we all have a connection that is never duplicated again. When you understand the power of music and if you have a heart for people who are struggling with something, who are less fortunate than you are, it’s your duty to use this loving music to put a dent into making a difference. Every person, no matter what it is they love to do in their life, can — and should — strive to make a difference with what they have. I have music. That’s what I have to give.

“Everything happens through connections,” adds Johnson, who, the following evening, would perform at a gala and fundraiser supporting Jackson, Wisconsin-based Lacey’s Hope Project, which raises awareness of Wisconsin’s shockingly prolific local sex trafficking trade and supports its survivors. “No one’s an island unto themselves, we all need each other,” he smiles. “Like I said — we’re better together.” MKE

You’re on the outside looking in
Not quite sure of where you’ve been
Unnamed faces, familiar places
Will you connect it all again?

Can’t hold the moments that made you mine
We’re losing who and how and when
Missing traces, time erases
Won’t lose who you are, just where you’ve been

You remember love, so you remember me
In the darkness of the night
Let me be the light you see
Oh, you remember me

There was a time when I lost my way
Was so confused, until you said
Our mind deceives us, but our heart redeems us
Follow your heart, it’ll show you the way

Tonight let’s both forget the past
Our moment’s now, let’s make it last
Time, it binds us. Love, it finds us
With open hearts, we’ll hold today

You remember love, so you remember me
In the darkness of the night
Let me be the light you see
Say you remember me

I’ll be your breath, I’ll be your sound
When no one hears you, and there’s no one around
I’ll be your song, I’ll be your bright light
When every star in the sky goes out

You remember love, so you remember me
In the darkness of the night
Let me be the light you see
I know you remember me