When Luke Johnson and Samuel Kim formed the recording collective Emergent Heart in 2009, it was as an answer to the problem every creative soul has dealt with: flaky collaborators.
“I was just a bonehead drummer who played in bands for years and years and years,” Johnson said. “A number of my projects would disintegrate before we released records. For multiple reasons, those bands fell apart. That’s how I conceived of the Emergent Heart project: if [the musicians] can only commit in a little way, that’s great, and we can still move forward with the project. People can become involved as little or as much as not.”
Johnson remains a constant through all Emergent Heart's productions, however, and his fingerprint can be heard on each track the recording collective creates.
"There’s a cohesive sound that permeates every single record, kind of an avant-garde or indie rock sound," Johnson said. "In advance I conceive of how I want a song to go and then surround myself with individuals much more talented than me. We love to write in the studio. It’s kind of like painting with sound"
But after producing such a novel concept—a stable of constantly rotating musicians, singers, songwriters and producers—Johnson, who is also currently pursuing his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Georgia, wanted to do more with Emergent Heart’s music than seek fame and fortune.
100 percent of the profits from Emergent Heart’s final products, which include its 2011 debut EP “One” and the 2013 full-length album “Transfigurations,” go to benefit Nuçi’s Space, the Athens-based charity focused on bringing low-cost mental health counseling to the music community.
“I don’t want to reveal too much because I don’t want to violate anybody’s privacy, but I’ll just say this: suicide and mental illness is something I’m familiar with on a very personal level,” Johnson said. “I fell on some hard times in 2008 and it became obvious to me once I had wrestled with my own demons and stabilized how much more one needed to do in order to take the stigma away from suicide prevention and mental illness, and be very proactive about opening up a conversation about it and connecting people to resources.”
While the conversation about mental health has reached national prominence lately, Johnson gears his efforts towards the creative community.
“I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that there’s something romantic about the tragic artist,” Johnson said. “I want to communicate a very hopeful message in that one doesn’t have to be tortured to create great art.”
When Johnson approached Bob Sleppy, the executive director of Nuçi’s Space, the organization was happy to work together.
“It was a no brainer for us,” Sleppy said, of Emergent Heart’s offer to work philanthropically with the charity. “Any time we can get some help we say ‘of course.’ It was a pretty unique idea, took me a little while to wrap my head around what they’re doing, but I think it’s a very good thing and very cool. I’m glad that we’re working with them.”
After Emergent Heart’s initial inception, Johnson was surprised by how many individuals wanted to work with the collective, either from a creative or philanthropic standpoint.
“I didn’t know if it would ever work, if it would ever get off the ground, and the really beautiful thing about doing the project is that people came out of the woodwork,” Johnson said. “Apparently I’m not the only person who has had to wrestle with these issues or has to care about these issues to a great extent.”
Emergent Heart counts amongst its members many musicians based in Athens and abroad, including Young Benjamin’s Matt Whitaker, Yesan Damen’s Daniel Kwak, The New Empires’ Elise Ziegenbien, and powerkompany’s Marie Davon.
The collective also includes many producers, graphic artists and videographers that were drawn to Emergent Heart’s collaborative approach.
“For the recording aspect, we gained visual artists as more and more people stepped up to do videos. It sort of became a natural extension of what we do as a real band,” Johnson said. “The only way we can reach people is to have those visual artifacts out there for people to tap into.”
On Wednesday, July 31, Ciné will host the release party for two videos for songs off their upcoming album, shot and produced by David Anthony Glenn, Mika Fengler, Nathan Walters and Ben Walters.
“The videos range from footage shot on iPhones to special effects galore, like something that was created in Hollywood or something like that. I think that’s what’s great about the Emergent Heart project: all the different influences,” Johnson said.
While Johnson is potentially looking at moving out of the Athens area to pursue a career in Washington, he hopes the nature of the digital age will allow him to continue to work with Emergent Heart well into the future.
There is no telling how much money the upcoming fundraiser will raise for Nuçi’s Space, but Johnson is extremely optimistic about what the tiniest amount can do for such an organization.
“Who knows how much money we’ll raise? We’ll probably be able to pay for somebody’s sessions for a month or two, and that might make the difference in somebody’s life,” Johnson said. “It might make their life.”
What:Emergent Heart music video premiere party
When: July 31 at 8 p.m.
Price: Suggested donation to Nuçi’s Space