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Jay Johnson’s surprise set at Secret Sessions Live

by Ella Gregg

(This story was originally published on 26th May 2017)

We took a risk at Secret Sessions Live, letting this unscheduled artist play… and we are so glad we did!

Every now and again something stops you in your tracks and makes you remember your all important ‘why’.

Saturday night. Secret Sessions Live. Our monthly gathering where our online community comes to life. A small but perfectly formed audience of 200 assemble for a night of music discovery in a space that has many stories to tell; the Hospital Club’s infamous Oak Room which was once Radiohead’s recording studio.

Unlike most gigs, our acts are kept secret until they take to the stage. We don’t have a headliner and all artists have the same opportunity to win over the crowd with their music.

In the run up to Secret Sessions Live, we work with music PRs, management and labels to curate a goosebump inducing line-up. This month was no different… or so we thought.

With two weeks to go, we had already selected our first two acts — dream folk artist and self-styled song-whisperer Haux (over from the USA) and a young singer-songwriter Soham De, selected by our fan community via the Secret Sessions Artist Accelerator program.

A PR friend of mine proposed a young artist called Jay Johnson — who had not even graduated his teenage years! Impressed with his videos, I enquired about his availability.

Meanwhile, another member of the Secret Sessions team had booked the dramatic 5 piece Quiet Boy to open the show. I messaged Jay’s team to say we were sorted and perhaps we could look to do something together in the future?

Saturday, the day of the show. I arrived at The Hospital Club to begin soundcheck with our 3 acts. 6:30pm. So far, so good! Soundcheck ran smoothly and after hearing “can I get a bit more in my wedge” 600 times, we were ready for doors. 7:00 pm, our audience starts to arrive and the familiar buzz of excitement, intrigue, and general happy vibes fills the air. Forty-five minutes until Soham De kicks things off.

Jay Johnson

Passing the bar area, I saw a young man standing with a guitar on strapped to his back: “Excuse me, please,’ I overheard, “Could you tell me who the organisers are?” I rushed off to introduce Soham to the stage before heading back outside to find the young musician.

It was Jay Johnson! (insert emoji of choice here).

Not only had he turned up to play the show, he’d bought his friends, some family and his girlfriend who were all hyped about his appearance.

How this miscommunication happened, we are still unsure. But this mistake resulted in a beautiful Secret Sessions moment that I or any of the audience will not forget.

Word had got to Jay that he hadn’t actually been booked to play. Embarrassed? Yep! Disappointed? Definitely. Upset? Time for some fresh air, son! He stood outside, flanked by a mate and his girlfriend, looking genuinely gutted
This was not sitting well with me. Secret Sessions exists to nurture young talent and to honour the effort. And here was Jay, exactly that; a promising artist at the beginning of his career surrounded by friends and family ready to play.

I headed inside to find Luke our front-of-house. He was behind the mixing desk, Soham De was mid set so he couldn’t hear me. I reached for my phone typed out a text.

‘An artist has turned up thinking he is playing tonight, can we stick him on to play a few tracks?’

Luke read the text, looked at me bemused before shrugging his shoulders and mouthing “Sure”.

Back outside I walked over to Jay. ‘Right, you’re on in 10 minutes!’ “Oh fuck! OK. Ummmm, shit… alright”, came the reply.

Time to tell the audience. “There has been some confusion. An artist who has not been booked has turned up to play. He’s brought his friends and family and I am not willing to turn him away! Would you mind if he played a few songs for you tonight?”

Secret Sessions brings together a special group of people. It’s a diverse bunch who don’t fit into any one demographic but are undeniably united by one thing — a love of music. Next followed a round of applause bigger than any I have heard at Secret Sessions Live and a nervous Jay Johnson took to the stage.

“Fuck, I am shaking like a leaf. I am so, so nervous. I hope you don’t mind, I am going to play a few songs for you.’

As Jay began to play, the audience moved forward, providing a protective shield engulfing the teenage artist. He played beautifully, shaky at first, but stunned the crowd to silence with an intense performance that channelled parts of Tracy Chapman, Newton Faulkner and Benjamin Clementine. He repeatedly glanced at his gf who stood in the front row wiping tears as she mouthed the words to his songs. Ah, young love!

After his three songs, he thanked the room for the amazing opportunity. Another huge cheer ensued and Jay Johnson left the stage.

Last weekend, as a team, we were faced with a challenging situation. What struck me was how the Secret Sessions community including staff, artists and audience embraced the uncertainty and the spontaneity and refused to let good music go to waste. A young, talented artist at this stage in their career is a fragile thing and should be nurtured. The current state of the music industry means the odds are stacked against Jay. He will more than likely be left to go it alone. At Secret Sessions we have created a community that discovers nurtures and builds new talent.

I am happy that on Saturday, without giving it a second thought, our community honoured the Secret Sessions ‘WHY’ — we believe craft, commitment and creativity should always prevail, and it’s our duty to nurture and develop the next generation of artists.

Harriet x

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