Interview: John Cehowski -By: Niki Kaos

Written by on January 6, 2023

If you’ve been out and about in the local music scene, you’ve probably seen John Cehowski – playing his 12-string guitar or in the audience supporting the musicians. John’s full guitar sound perfectly accompanies his thoughtful songwriting and rich voice. His lyrics and melodies take you on a visual and emotional journey that is touching and entertaining. But there’s more than just music in John’s toolbox. He’s a true craftsman, whose attention to detail is shown in all the work he does. I wanted to learn more about what inspires him.

RRX: As a songwriter, your songs have a relaxed, effortless feel to them. Can you tell me a little bit about your process? And has it changed over the years?

JC: First off, thank you for the kind words, Niki! I was quite surprised when you asked me to participate but thank you for that as well!  I wish I had a defined process for writing a song.  If so, I might have written more songs over the years. If my songs seem relaxed, it is probably because I tend to write simple songs. Typically though, on guitar, I start with a rhythm, and try to develop a vocal melody that I can sing easily over that rhythm. If using a keyboard, I build a simple chord foundation, and then devise melodies to play over them.  The only process change was when I first started using a keyboard and sequencer, to create songs.  I have limited playing skills, so the ability to use tools to build an arrangement was a great help. In general, I follow two mottos; “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid), and another, credited to several musicians, “three chords and the truth”.

Lyrics will often start with one line that, for some reason, resonates with me. They don’t always flow easily from mind to paper, though a few do.  I am bad at hearing song lyrics, and one recent song of mine, was born from mishearing a lyric. When I found out they weren’t singing what I thought they were singing, I used my line as the foundation for a new song. 

RRX: You’ve worked with different musicians through the years. Can you tell us about some of your favorite musical partners and why?

JC: Honestly, I have not played with a great number of people over the years. For most of my musical life (50+ years), I played with my friend Jim Billings. Jim was a great singer and songwriter, and we were lifelong best friends, and musical partners. Sadly, Jim passed away a few years ago. For a very brief time, a lifetime ago, I was in a ‘band’ with Mark Emanation, Tom Dolan, Jim, and others. We played at a friend’s wedding, but not much else. In ’89-90′, Jim and I were in a band, The Storm, doing original songs.  There are some videos on YouTube from that time. From 2000-2005, Jim and I played as a duo, Release. It was then that I met your publisher Art Fredette, through the open mic he held at his River Street Bar. That open mic was hosted at various times by Sean Rowe and Erin Harkes, both excellent performers/writers and two of my favorite locals.

More recently, at various open mics, especially the Rustic Barn’s, I’ve had a chance to have some of my favorite players and people join in on some of my original songs. One night, it was Jeff Prescott (drums), Jeremy Walz (guitar) and Patrick McNulty (Bass). All-Stars all!  It was a real thrill.  Most recently, in a duo context, it’s been a pleasure to play with Nick Antoinette (I’m older than his dad!), and Arya Chowdhury, both of whom are excellent musicians who fill out my songs. In general, over the years, the open mic has been my outlet for music, and my avenue for meeting people and making friends. I highly recommend open mics to anyone who wants to express their art and meet people.  Locally, networking within the music community is a great way to stay connected to people. I equate an open mic to being like a bowling league for musicians. You get out once or twice a week, share a fun activity with people of varying skill levels, and if inclined, maybe imbibe a beverage or too.  

RRX: During your recent performance at the 518 Homegrown open mic, I remember a beautiful song, and I especially enjoyed the chorus. “Riding Out the Storm” – tell us a little more about your inspiration for that.

JC: So glad you liked it! That song was a Christmas wish, for my friend Jim and I.  It was written at the end of a tumultuous year, and as the season approached, I wished us both “some peace to be found”, for “riding out the storm”.

RRX: I see you out a lot in the local music scene – especially for up-and-coming artists. How many nights a week do you go out to see music? Tell us about some of your favorite venues.

JC: It varies based on the season, I guess. I am out and about more in the summer.  Three to four days a week may be about average. My favorite venues tend to be places where I go to open mics, or that are friendly to original music. The Rustic Barn, Moon & River Cafe, Black Bear, Nanola, Eden Cafe… Recently, you know I’ve been a fan of Matt and Jean and their space at 344 Second Street. I love new music and new artists. This area is fantastic though, for local musicians that dedicate their time and energy to people in need, and causes they care about.  That is what always impressed me most about this community. I do try to get to as many of these benefits as I can. “Rock For Scott”, “Jam For Josh”, “Mundo Fest”, “Food Stock”, “Dustin Mele Suicide Prevention” and many, many others.  Many are held at the Hangar, and the Rustic Barn. The Mele benefit at Revolution Hall is always inspiring. At the certain risk of leaving out a thousand names, I will mention Mark Emanation, Bob Gamache, the Mele/Quade family and Art Fredette, Brian Gilchrist and Jody and Jason Brehnenstuhl as being inspirations in this regard.

RRX: In addition to your guitar work, you are a visual artist. I’ve seen your paintings, and they’re amazing. How long have you been into painting, and do you show in galleries often?

JC: My paintings have never been in a gallery, but they have been publicly displayed at the Moon & River Cafe!  I took several lessons about five years ago, from my neighbor Patricia Carrol-Trudeau. So, I would say that is when I started. I was always inspired by my sisters JoAnn and Sandra, and artist friends, David Manny and Robilee McIntire, and Maureen Sausa.   I received some very nice feedback from that show, and I hope to do it again!

RRX: I remember seeing a video of you playing in front of this beautiful stone fireplace. And hearing that you were involved in restoring it? Did I get that right?

JC: Not quite. The fireplace was new, though I did build the wood mantle and surrounding panels. I have always liked to try to create a vintage look with woodworking, and it is a compliment when someone thinks it is old!

RRX: What other types of craft or restoration work do you do? Is this a hobby, or have you done it professionally? 

JC: I have never done woodwork as a profession, though I have done woodworking, and built bars, in three Troy locations. I’ll connect this question/answer to my comments about open mics. I met Art Fredette at his River Street bar’s open mic. Later, through that connection, I was a partner with Art Fredette in the P4th bar, near Fulton Street. During that time, I built the bar, back bar and paneled walls of the barroom (including a hidden door!). This was part of my investment. I hoped it might serve as a calling card, and it did. It led to the opportunity to create the bar/barroom that is now Bootleggers on Broadway, and later, do the custom woodwork in the lobby of the same Hendrick Hudson building. Bootleggers was mostly a one-person job, and it was my Sistine Chapel! The last project I did was the bar and back bar at Footsy Magoos, in collaboration with my friend Robilee McIntire, and carpenter Paul Dellarocca. I am most proud of these woodworking projects, because I think they all brought a unique beauty to public spaces, and it is a kick to know they are enjoyable!

RRX: Thanks so much for the interview! It was great to get to know more about the man behind the music! Maybe you can give me a woodworking lesson sometime? Look forward to seeing you out at the local shows!

JC: Thank you Niki!  My woodworking lesson: Measure twice, cut once; and 

build a box, and you can build anything!

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