Ira Johnson’s Journey Strikes Deeper than Lyrics and Chords

By Lindsay Campbell
Photo by Darren McChristie

Ira Johnson’s life has been a winding road, but throughout all his 62 years, music has always stayed with him. He grew up with the sounds of Buddy Holly rumbling through his childhood home. He recalls many afternoons sitting under a tree, riffing on an acoustic guitar with missing strings as his cousin pounded on the snare drum. At age 20, he started his first band and he’s been playing for crowds ever since.

“Music brings me life,” he says, adding that songwriting especially has pulled him out of hard times when he struggled with purpose. “Music has allowed me to connect with myself, but I see it as a language—a language that connects me to other people, too. It’s what I need.”

Johnson, a member of Seine River First Nation, describes his sound as a blend of hard rock, blues, and country. Those who have heard him play before likely remember his hearty covers of ZZ Top, John Mellencamp, Status Quo, and Waylon Jennings, peppered with deeply personal pieces about his own life.

Since COVID-19 has put a damper on performing for live audiences, Johnson (pending pandemic precautions) hopes to make a 2022 debut. His upcoming show at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 5 is scheduled for January 15 from 8 to 11 pm. The Ira Johnson Band features Johnson on lead vocals and guitar, joined by his cousin Bryan Kabatay on the drums and friend Josh Shebiget on the bass.

“It’s going to be a high-energy show. And the music is very, very upbeat,” he says, explaining he intends to include many familiar rock covers on his set list. “I want to bring that excitement for people—songs they can sing along to—but I also want to experiment with the emotional dynamics of volume, creating space in sound.” The intimacy of a live show is something Johnson feels would benefit local residents who have been subjected to spurts of isolation throughout the last two years. He aims to fill a small part of that void through his music.

Even when he’s not strumming and belting on stage, he tries to stay true to that vision. In the past, he’s played at seniors’ homes in Fort Frances and Thunder Bay. More recently, Johnson, who is an elder at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School, can often be found with guitar in hand, using song and sound to build relationships with students.

“I like to talk to them about what Anishinaabe people have contributed to music,” he says. “Indigenous music is basically blues. Charley Patton, one of the forerunners of blues music, was doing chants on guitar. It’s not a whole lot different than the chants you hear at a pow wow.”

The parallel he draws has been a reminder of what he’s striving for. In the future, Johnson says he would like to incorporate Anishinaabe teachings and perspectives into his songs. And while he is well aware of many Indigenous musicians and artists who paved the way before him, he hopes to inspire Indigenous youth to follow their own passion, value connection, and stay true to themselves—even if that isn’t in music.

Tickets to see the Ira Johnson Band can be purchased at the door of the Port Arthur Legion for $10 or in advance for $8.