On March 3, 2017, Nicholas Johnson and the Unrefined release their debut EP with a launch party at Square Cat Vinyl. One of the many Fountain Square First Friday celebrations, the free show will be sponsored by Indy’s Flat12 Bierworks. The Unrefined’s unique brand of alt-country blends traditional folk and Americana with flourishes of classical and jazz mastery.
Nicholas Johnson is a professor of music history at Butler University specializing in classical music of the Renaissance period. Johnson believes that in his capacity as a teacher, it’s important to lend credibility to his craft by working as a practicing musician. His students, he thinks, will take him more seriously if they know he’s actually out there playing music himself. Of course, some students have a closer look at Johnson’s music career than others. For instance, the members of The Unrefined.
As he explains, the band name “The Unrefined” is a bit of a joke, because they are anything but. All of the band members are graduate students pursuing degrees in music performance. The Unrefined are Chloe Boelter on vocals, Louie Hehman on keys and accordion, George Pryor on the upright bass, and Rob Funkhouser on percussion. Johnson, both as a teacher and a bandleader, seeks to help fellow musicians “harness their gifts.” And harness, they do. With masterfully proficient musicians at the helm, their brand of alt-country transcends its genre. Audience members are equally at home stomping and clapping along as they are quietly appreciating the greater intricacies of the compositions.
Johnson’s influences hail from childhood car ride exposures to Bob Dylan, which was practically all he heard growing up, as well as contemporary groups such as Shovels & Rope. Prior to Nicholas Johnson and the Unrefined, he spent many years playing in bluegrass bands as well as playing saxophone for funk groups. His experienced musical background introduces jazz influenced chord progressions for a unique spin on simple country songs.
Five of the six songs on the EP were composed by Johnson and consist of reflections on his second divorce two years ago. He sees the album as part of the process of rebuilding himself as he finds himself single in his mid-30s. The track “Clothes She Bought Me” recalls the experience of packing up his belongings in a soon-to-be empty home. The tune “Magical Digital Age” describes a bad Tinder date and part of his attempt of “trying to show in these sad songs a humorous side to the plight of loneliness.” As Johnson states in the song, “what a time to be alive, what a time to die alone.” Even though there are no happy songs on the record, it’s music a listener can clap along to, sounding consistently joyful.
Vocalist Chloe Boelter composed a song on the EP called “Martyr” about her time in an Italian opera program, detailing her experiences of being young and independent and running into romantic troubles. It was a time, as she says, of “not accepting who I was as my own person.” Boelter holds a degree in vocal performance for classical music, but her voice is at home in jazz. The Unrefined is country music one can scat to.
Nicholas Johnson and the Unrefined is a new Indianapolis band that’s not to be missed. Between the crisp country harmonies, upright bass breakdown grooves, and popping electric organ, no audience member is left unengaged. When the thump of the drum kit kicks in, grins spread across the room. Nicholas Johnson makes sense when he states that he’s “honored to play with these talented musicians.” Catch Nicholas Johnson and the Unrefined at Square Cat Vinyl on March 3 and listen to their Tiny Desk Concert Contest submission “Magical Digital Age” below.
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