Craig Hella Johnson

VAE Artistic Director: Craig Hella Johnson

Craig Hella Johnson is an incredibly accomplished musician, with accolades ranging from his 2015 Grammy for Best Choral Performance, to his lifetime achievement award from Chorus America, to being named the Texas State Musician in 2013 – a distinction also given to Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett. While music certainly makes Craig “tick,” what do the other hands on his proverbial “clock” point toward?

One points to home on the south side of Austin, Texas. Craig and his partner of twenty years Philip Overbaugh are residents of the eclectic Travis Heights neighborhood and enjoy the area’s easy access to the Colorado River, Ladybird Johnson’s Hike and Bike Trail, and Downtown Austin. The couple feel at home surrounded by the creativity in their community, and they reside in a two-story limestone that was completely redesigned by Philip, whose love of drawing and design led him to his own successful career as an architect. Craig particularly enjoys their long, narrow yard and the garden and landscaping which Phil tends to with great care.

Another consistent beat in Craig’s life is his love for animals, which manifests itself in myriad ways. Craig has been a vegan for many years, and he donates his time, talent, and treasure to organizations that strive to create a world in which animals are treated with dignity and respect. A particular favorite cause of his is Mercy for Animals, based in Los Angeles, and Craig has contributed not only financially, but also through his original compositions to support and amplify their good work.

At home, Craig’s love for animals recently resulted in the adoption of Charli, a Rottweiler-Border Collie mix who spent three years on the street before finding her forever home with Craig and Philip. The two have worked day in and day out to help Charli overcome her paralyzing fear and sensitivity to sound, even carrying her outside when she was too frightened to go on her own. Over the past three months, Charli has begun adjusting to a harness and is starting to feel relaxed enough to take walks to the dog park about a block away from home. She still has a way to go to being comfortable all the time, but she could not be in a better home to heal her heart and find joy in her new surroundings.

Craig and Philip not only heal their furbabies’ hearts, they also put a great deal of energy into helping humans overcome trauma too. Through their involvement with the Red Bird Foundation, Craig and Philip have been able to explore their own spirituality while fostering growth in others. Their compassion for every being in their midst is tangible.

Craig’s responsiveness to and engagement around justice and equality culminated in his creation of the powerful oratorio, “Considering Matthew Shepard.” The composition is a compassionate, heart-wrenching response to the young man’s vicious 1998 murder in Laramie, Wyoming. Craig describes the piece as his “richest, most enduring and meaningful work, with a long trajectory and personal relevance,” and though it means so much to Craig personally, it has also had a profound effect on our nation.

One of the most special days of Craig’s life occurred at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on October 26, 2018, when “Considering Matthew Shepard” was performed during the service to celebrate his life and inter his remains in our nation’s capital. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop, delivered the sermon on the topic of equality and self-love. Craig remembers it as a two-hour window to Heaven, a space of true security, where everyone present felt welcome and at home.

The Vocal Arts Ensemble is honored to have such a visionary, compassionate genius at the helm of our organization, and he happens to be a pretty good musician too.

Visit VAE’s Spotify channel to listen to Craig’s favorite songs, as well as Conspirare’s moving recording of “Considering Matthew Shepard.”