John Heino – Rockin’ Music and Photography in Duluth, Minnesota

John Heino is a freelance photographer and long-time piano player. As a photographer, he describes himself as “a wide-eyed explorer trying to see the world again the way I saw it as a child.” As a keyboardist, he’s been playing live with rock, blues and jazz bands for decades. Former CEO of a successful company, Como Oil and Propane…now a wandering creative, making magic wherever he goes!!!

In This Episode

  • 00:09 – Cirina introduces John Heino, a freelance photographer, and long-time piano player.
  • 07:19 – John talks about his photography mentor, who once told him, “Don’t take the picture. Let the picture take you.”
  • 14:38 – John tells the story of when his guidance counselor advised him to switch his major and keep his art as a minor in college.
  • 23:40 – What are the tips and tricks when starting HDR photography?
  • 31:42 – Cirina and John share their experiences when they felt like they missed a beautiful shot because they didn’t have their camera with them.
  • 38:23 – Where to find John’s photography? What are John’s upcoming adventures to look out for?
  • 45:56 – Who are the members of the band Centerville All Stars? 
  • 52:41 – John talks about the Centerville All Stars’ journey both on the road and as a band.
  • 61:45 – Cirina talks about the impact of inspiring people and beautiful places to have a creative and fantastic life.
  • 66:33 – Visit John Heino’s Facebook page to check out his photography, and check out Centerville All Stars’ album on Amazon, iTunes, and CDbaby.

Jump to Links and Resources


John Heino is a freelance photographer and an incredibly creative man that I met when I was in Duluth, Minnesota, recently. He’s also been a piano player for decades. He does rock, blues, jazz and plays with bands. This guy’s got a really interesting history and an amazing creative presence. And I really wanted to bring him on the show. So John, where are you and what’s happening today?

Well, Cirina, I am in my photo editing studio in Duluth, Minnesota. Once I’m done speaking with you, I have a scrabble game with my 91-year-old mother. 

Oh, that’s so sweet. That’s very sweet. So, John, you were CEO of a very successful company, I believe it was called Como Oil & Propane, and now you’re this wandering, creative, making magic wherever you go. I’ve seen a lot of your photography, and I’m very inspired by it. So first of all, why Duluth? And what in Duluth breeds these crazy creative people everywhere? They’re walking the streets in Duluth. Why Duluth?

Well, yeah, for me, it was the luck of the draw. I was born here. And I don’t know if I’m, like most people. Duluth is not a huge city. It’s a nice community and everything, but it’s not a big city. And as much as it was a great place to grow up. I couldn’t wait to get out. I mean, I’m like, I’m thinking about New York and LA and all these exciting but even Minneapolis, St. Paul seems like a mecca to me.

man holding camera
Photography doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful, but interesting from one angle or another.

Well, doesn’t every young person want to get away, right? Every young person goes, “I’ve got to move away,” and then you come back.

I think so. I had the wanderlust anyway. So I couldn’t wait to get out. I graduated from high school, and a week later, I was in Seattle, Washington, with the band and never looked back. And it took me like seven years on the road in a band before eventually, it got to the point where I felt like coming back to Duluth and going to college. But it was a fantastic seven years. But the funny thing happened when I did come back to Duluth, even though it was kind of partially to go to school and partially to marry my wife.

Why Duluth? What about Duluth is creating so many amazing creative people. They’re walking the streets.

Well, for me, it really was just being born here. And in fact, when I was younger, growing up, I couldn’t wait to get out. It’s a fairly small community, and thinking about places like New York and Los Angeles, and I couldn’t wait to grow up and get out. So I guess I didn’t really appreciate it when I was growing up. But then, I graduated from high school, and a week later, I was in Seattle, along the road with the band. And I spent about seven years doing that. And when I came back to Duluth to go to school and marry my wife, all of a sudden, I started to realize. I guess, personally, because I was older and partially because I’d seen a lot of the country, good and bad, and got back and realized this is a pretty cool place to live. And as far as the other creative people in this area, I think a lot of it has to do with the natural beauty. You’ve been here recently, you saw, for instance, at Jay Cooke State Park, what a beauty.

It’s gorgeous. 

Yeah. And Lake Superior. I mean, amazing that the whole North Shore from Duluth up to the Canadian borders, just a gorgeous place. I think whether people are actually painting the North Shore of Lake Superior or photographing or just whatever their creative interest is sitting by the weight of inspiring things for most humans. And so I think the number of creative people here has a lot to do with the environment and what it offers to them.

Absolutely. I mean, I was on Lake Superior at sunrise, and the lake was like glass, and the seagulls or whatever were flying over, and the lighthouses were slowly being illuminated by the sun coming up. It was one of those precious moments. I can understand why you’re there. So we’re going to talk about both photography and your music, and what you do and how you do both of those. And I want to pause for just a second thought and thank OWC for sponsoring this show. Thanks to them, I can talk to amazing creative people like you. So thank you, Other World Computing, you rock. And speaking of rock, back to John Heino. So why photography? You’ve been called by one person who interviewed a master of light and lens. And I thought, what that is so true, because your stuff just really caught my eye and you go all over Duluth, and you’re everywhere. Your photography is everywhere. People love it. So why did you choose photography?

Well, it’s kind of interesting how things evolved. I actually started out drawing and some oil painting but mostly drawing with everything from colored pencils to pastels to Indian ink. And I was at a time period where I was very influenced by Peter Max. And so I did that more towards High School and a little bit into college. And I was an art major when I started college. The photography piece came in college, where I don’t know, there was something that said try this. And I was very fortunate. I had an amazing photography professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, a guy named Joe Boudreau. And he came here from New York City where he was a fairly big-time photographer, and he had covers of magazines, he did a lot of commercial work. Joe was here because he said, “I think I’m gonna see if I can find a place somewhere in a quieter city, and maybe teach college at least for a year, just to take a break.” And I think his year became probably five or ten years, but I was fortunate to have him, and he just inspired everybody. And I wound up picking every possible photography glass I could during my undergraduate degree, and in fact, when I had some independent study credits I could do, I get into photography, and it just lit a fire for me.

It’s amazing to me how a good mentor or somebody that encourages creative people can make a whole difference in their life. Did you have people when you were younger that said, “No, you need to go into business, you need to?” Because you did go into business.

For a while in the beginning, I was frustrated. And here’s what was happening, I would have some kind of a category assignment for the photography class, and I didn’t think about it. So I get this image in my mind, and then I go and look for it. And, of course, I never found it. Right. And, Joe asked me and said, “You know, you seem a little bit uptight. Is there anything I can help you with?” And so I shared with him, I said, “Well, you know what, I get these great ideas when you have a photo assignment. And I can see it in my head, and I know exactly what I want. I can’t find it out there.” He kind of chuckled a little bit. He looked at me and said, “Oh, well, here’s the deal. Don’t take the picture. Let the picture take you.” And that simple advice made me a better photographer. And years later, I realized it applied to human relations and the business world, right? So here’s the thing, and I instantly realized that if you’ve got this image in your mind of something you’re looking for, it’s preventing you from seeing, or it’s developing before your eyes in real-time. You’re not present. You’re not part of the environment that’s unfolding. And as soon as I got that preconceived image out of my mind, and here’s what he says, it goes somewhere like, “Have your camera handy but don’t start looking. Just sit there for a while.” He said, “Now, if you do meditation, or if you can know how to breathe yourself in a relaxed state, I guarantee you, five minutes tops, you’ll start seeing images shot from everywhere.” And he was right. Apart from photography, which was huge, it completely changed me. Apart from photography, here’s what it was on a life basis. Now, if you think about it for a minute, because I worked my way up in the corporate world, supervisor, middle manager, vice president, eventually CEO. But along the way, when you are having a meeting, ostensibly, if you’re in a decent company, and you’re halfway smart, if you’re having a meeting, there’s a purpose to that meeting, right? You’re not just getting a bunch of people together, although that happens. And in the beginning, when you’re a first-line supervisor, and maybe you haven’t learned that, let the picture take your concept. You organize your meeting, you put on an agenda, and then you design that agenda to get the group to come to the outcome that you think is the best, which is still better than an organized meeting. But once I realized that that lesson applied to human relations in the corporate world, it made me a better manager and a better teammate. If you give the people the tools, the information they needed in advance, and explained that a decision had to be made, but not having pre-made it yourself and trying to get them to come to what you think is right. Then you have your meeting, and it’s structured, they’ve got the information they need, there’s a dialogue. And guess what, the old story 99% of the time two heads are better than one, it’s true. But you had to let the picture take you; you had to let the dialogue happen and let the solution you got from the group. And if you think about it, even for a minute, you can see whether you’re in a formal business environment or any human interaction whatsoever. In formal church families, the lesson applies. And so I had that experience with my photography professor that changed my creative life, and it changed my life.

In photography, there's a famous phrase, "don't take the picture. Let the picture take you." Click To Tweet

What an amazing gift. I believe in mentors, and I don’t think young people, or at least this generation, have enough of them. So I’m hoping that they’re gonna listen to this and learn from you as well. This is great advice. You were lucky to have him, and I’m sure he thinks back about you. And he was lucky to have you too.

Oh, yeah. Well, here’s the thing. I was lucky to have another one in a guy named Leif Brush, who was my sculpture painting professor, who was every bit inspiring but in a different way. He was the true renaissance man. I mean, he’s a guy who wired trees for the sounds that trees make and then ran the wires at the time, because he didn’t have wireless technology, from the trees where the sensors were implanted into his basement to a recording studio and recorded like symphonies of tree songs. And its leaf brush was his name. He was way ahead of his time because this is many, many, many years ago, but I think it might have been his MFA project. He had people in an auditorium in Germany, I think it might have been Berlin, and he was in Greenland. Because in his mind, no one ever heard a thunderstorm the way it sounds in Greenland, where there’s nothing but snow to push and everything. He set up a pattern of microphones in the same dimensions as the perimeter of the hallway. They were seated in and live; they were listening to him bring a recording of a thunderstorm happening in Greenland to this auditorium in Germany. That is inspiring.

When did you first realize you were this amazing, creative person? I mean, when you’re five years old, did you sit on the floor and draw pictures? What was going on for you when you were a little boy? And did you have people that encouraged you or said no?

Yeah, well, I, of course, didn’t realize I was a creative person. I was just doing what was fun. But yeah, my mom used to have to come and check on me once in a while. She’d be worried if she didn’t hear anything. If I had some paper and crayons, you probably wouldn’t hear anything from me for a couple of hours. Because I just enjoyed that. And I guess I was encouraged, and I certainly wasn’t discouraged. Looking back at I suppose every child who scribbles something on a piece of paper, their parents, “Oh, Johnny, that’s really cute.” How much of that was mom and how much of it was genuine but later on, I didn’t get encouraged. And I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when we still had an art teacher in high school. And she was such an amazing person. She had a class curriculum or an outline for the class, but she just allowed you to be you. And so she gave me the freedom to go off on tangents. And I was, at the time, doing stuff that was kind of reminiscent of Peter Max, or something like that, lots of color, lots of mines, India ink, colored pencil, chalk, whatever. So I was very encouraged. I still, at the time, didn’t say. “Hey, I’m a creative person.” I’m just exploring the world. I may have realized it for the first time when I got into college, and my guidance counselor took me aside a couple of years into the program and said, “John, you are doing fabulous. you’re lighting up the art department.” He said, “You don’t have to take this too seriously, but I just want to point this out. If you stay on this course, you may have trouble finding a job.” So he said, “I would like you to consider switching majors to something that will make you more employable when you graduate and keep your art as a minor” 

It's incredible how a good mentor who encourages creative people can make a major difference in their life. Click To Tweet

Oh, my gosh. I’m sorry, I just think that’s almost criminal. My theory about creativity is if it’s really fun, that’s your gift, right? Some people love doing spreadsheets, and you love to draw. So what did you do after that?

Well, I thought it over, and I took his advice, actually, because I was at the point where I was married and at some point soon would be having children. And I just said, “I’m going to need a job.” Because if you put it in context, that comes out of seven years on the road with the rock and roll band, get into a situation, or I’m thinking about marriage, children, and go back to college so I can get a degree and get a job, right? That was the mantra back then. And so it was in that context that I was trying to make a transition from a very unstable income stream to something that was more reliable to raise a family with. So it did. It persuaded me, and I switched. I went to get that communication degree and later a master’s in management. And did the whole business world thing for, like, 31 years. Never stopped art, never stopped music, because I was always playing and weekend warrior bands and things like that. Certainly, my life would have been different if I stayed with the art major because I would have probably gone and got an MFA and so on. And I don’t know if I’d be teaching or what I’d be doing, but it would have been different. So it was a life-changing thing, but I can’t blame the guy. I think he meant well, especially when he said, “Look, this is just my opinion. I’m not saying you should do this, but you should consider it because you might have a tough time finding a job, especially around here.” So that’s the other downside of being in Duluth. If you’re creative here, sometimes you gotta do something else to pay your bills to allow you to do what you want to do because there are so many creatives here and not a huge market right in town. Now, the world has changed so much with social media, and I imagine a lot of the folks that are living here are probably doing just fine enjoying their morning sunrises on Lake Superior and still making a lot of money selling their stuff or their services elsewhere.

I have a theory, John, and this is why I travel so much around the world because I love meeting amazing creative people. And I find them in the smallest of towns, and I find them of course in the larger cities. And I think you could say the same thing about LA. I’m in San Diego, it’s the same thing in New York or Chicago. The big cities are full of creative people, and everybody’s competing for jobs, and everybody is having to wonder where their next job is going to come from. I mean, even if you’re a major star, you’re still always worried about that, right? And so I love encouraging people in small towns to just feel the joy of going out and creating something absolutely wonderful. And I do meet people like you, and your stuff is intimidating to me in some ways because I look at your work and art styles are so different. You have an amazing style, and people love it. So you do a lot of HDR, right?

I guess there are some things, like landscapes. For instance, when I shoot an old farmstead with falling down buildings and rusty pickups, I find that HDR just gives you a high degree of detail and rich color reproduction that’s really difficult to do with a single frame. But it’s a funny thing; it’s like any other tool; when I first learned how to do it, I overdid it. And I think I found that for a lot of my photographer friends, they got into this very grungy looking otherworldly. It didn’t look natural at all. It shouted HDR. Fortunately, it only took me a few months to realize that if your image shows HDR, you haven’t done it very well. So I started to compensate by being very careful. Most of the sliders in Photomatix, they’re infinitely variable from zero to infinity. So I’d always be very, very light, just very light. And after a while, I got to the point where I think most people, unless they’re photographers with experience of HDR if they look at an image, it looks pretty normal to them and doesn’t look like it’s been really doctored up. And sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I mean, you know yourself, the whole thing was digital. In the beginning, I was skeptical because I cut my teeth on film and shooting black and white. And I said digital would never be as good as film.

Oh, I agree with that. I’m starting to film again, and I miss it so much.

But every generation in digital kept getting better and to the point now, where using HDR, I can take any image or any scene that I’ve shot. And if I do like a three bracket, and then blend them with Photomatix, you can get literally fine detail in the darkest shadows, and fine detail in the brightest highlights have the whole thing perfectly exposed and pretty much reveal just about all the information that your camera captured. And you can show people things that you never could before, even if you spent a day in a dark room working on, compensating for dark shadows or blowing highlights or whatever. But the problem is, it’s introduced a whole another set of decisions because the human eye doesn’t see like that. And some of the greatest pictures in the history of photography did have some bulletproof shadows, or they did have some blown-out highlights. But it was the contrast. It was the tonal range. And oftentimes, it was just the strength of the image itself and the composition of the photographer. But that’s the way the eye is used to seeing art and photography. And when all of a sudden you show them an HDR image where everything has been done to capture every bit of data that your camera did and get it on to the final product, it looks odd to some people to see it in perfect detail in the whole frame, close, near, dark, light. So now you have to make your decisions. Do I process the image? Do I edit the image, so it looks like that? And then decide how I am going to sharpen the shadows or so. So you have to remember the world before you did HDR. And then you have to understand how you can get the benefits you would like to get from HDR without overdoing it or offending the sensibility of the human eye as people are used to seeing things.

So if somebody wanted to get more into doing HDR, what are some tricks or tips you can tell them? Like what would you guide them on if they’re getting started?

Well, it depends on which camera you’re using. I happen to be using the Canon 5D Mark IV, which allows me to set up for HDR sequences, anywhere from three to seven. I used to do seven, but then I realized if you’re doing seven images in a bracket, you’re fighting against yourself on sharp images. So when I cut down to three, it made a huge difference because I got the benefits of HDR. I still had a sharp image. If you’re fooling around with it, you can decide for yourself, but I like to go -20 and +2 on exposures on the bracket.

And that’s gonna be my next question.

Yeah, that seems to cover even the most dynamic range images. And then I’ll set that upright in the camera for three. And once I click the button and hold the shutter of the cable release down, it takes three shots. Of course, you get the sharpest picture if you got the fastest shutter speeds. HDR is difficult if you have to have like a minute exposure on something. And then I use Photomatix. There’s a number of programs that you can use to blend these images, but Photomatix and I hit it off right away. Because I was kind of intimidated when I was trying to learn HDR, but a friend of mine turned me on to Photomatix. And it’s intuitive for me, and I just went to work on it. So what happens is there are decisions to make along the way, but you upload your bracket of three, and in Photomatix, first, they blend the images, and then it gives you an opportunity if you need to do something called deghosting. And what that is, of course, is when you’re taking an HDR exposure, even things that look perfectly still sometimes are moving.

Yeah, I’m talking about wind in the leaves or something.

Yeah, that’s the extreme example where if you don’t do some deghosting, you’re gonna have fuzzy leaves and branches. So again, it’s one of those things you got to use because if you go all the right on deghosting, then all of a sudden, you get some weird stuff happening that’s unnatural. But again, I go like maybe between 20 and 30% deghosting. It seems to get rid of a few edges where the branch had moved from one exposure to the next. And yet, still, it looks like a pretty sharp image. So anyway, once you’ve blended the deghosted image, then Photomatix gives you really infinite control over bringing out shadows, highlights, color range. It’s an incredible piece of it. And then the weird fanatic that I am, once I finished with Photomatix, then I still bring it back to photoshop and put some finishing touches on whether it’s a color adjustment, or whatever the last few things I need to do. So some of my favorite images, I hate to admit this, but I might spend 50-60 minutes in two software programs to get an image ready. So it’s not something for people that are in a hurry. Like everything else I do in photography, I guess it kind of sucked me in, and I don’t mind the time. It just evaporates when I’m doing it, you know?

man on cliff holding camera
Just go out and shoot. Be in a forever journey to any place where magic has potential.

Well, that kind of perfectionism and that artistic ability is what sets you apart from other people. When you look for a great image like we were walking through the park, and when we first got there, it was kind of foggy, and the light wasn’t all that great. And then we kept walking, and we kept walking, and we got back to this little cove. And you, all of a sudden, you were like a retriever. So funny watching you because I can tell you were inspired. And I’m looking at it as a documentary-style photographer, and I know what you’re looking at. What was going on in your mind? Because that was in your mind at that moment going to be a great image, and it actually turned out that way. So what are the elements of a great image for you?

Well, it starts with where you are. And I guess I’m on to the point now where I can go into just about any environment and find something that’s interesting. Not necessarily beautiful, but interesting from one angle or another. So you have to be someplace where magic has potential. And as you saw Jay Cooke State Park and the river crashing through these Precambrian jagged rocks, It’s a natural beauty. You can go in there with a cell phone and get a great shot. It’s just that kind of place. 

Well, you know what, no, I disagree with you. Not everybody could get the kind of shot you get.

Well, that’s a little different, but you learn after a while, I guess. And I think the moment you were speaking of when it dawned on me that it was going to be a decent sunset after all. And, of course, what you’re looking at for a sunset shot in a natural environment is something besides a clear sky. You need some clouds to bounce that color off of.

So how do you get a good sunset?

Well, again, the first thing is you need to be in an environment where you’ve got some beauty, and you saw we’ve got in Jay Cooke state park there you’ve got this beautiful river crashing through Precambrian jagged rocks, I mean, it’s a beautiful image in itself. And then the question is, is this going to be totally cloudy gray because gray sunsets are non-starters. Or if it’s a perfectly clear sky, you have no clouds to bounce that color up when the sun’s at the lower angle. And when we were there, it was pretty cloudy, and I’m thinking, Man, maybe we’re not even gonna get sunshine.

Well, you said that to me. At one point you said, “I hope the weather clears up for you.” Because you were so kind to show me this park so that I could also shoot, and I appreciate that, but yeah, there was a moment there where we were both thinking, “Hmm, let’s see what happens with the weather.”

Yeah, I thought it must have been you. You must have had some magic.

I ordered the sunset.

We’ve just got that little sliver towards the horizon enough to let some light and color through. And then the bonus in the sunset, not only do we have clouds to bounce the color, and we’re in a beautiful place, but then the phenomenon of the rays of light are picking up into the air. That doesn’t happen every sunset or sunrise. It’s not uncommon, and yet if you’re not out there every day, you might not see it. And so, yeah, it was like, first of all, we’re in the right place. Second of all, we got a huge break at sunset with a little opening on the horizon, and bang, it just popped.

So I think part of the advice to people is to get out there and keep shooting. Just shoot. Have you ever been someplace and you haven’t had your camera with you? Years later, I still remember this one shot that I missed because I had left my camera in the car, and I didn’t have it with me, and I missed the shot. It still haunts me years later. Do you have anything like that in your life?

Oh, yeah, I mean, tons of it, especially the time that I was in the business world because when you’ve already got a car full of briefcases and whatever. I didn’t carry a camera with me when I was going to work and stuff. I live in Lake Superior, there was a number of mornings I was driving into work, and I do a stopover at Lake Superior. I know that I’ve had that experience over and over again. And since I’ve retired from the business world, I try to have my camera with me as much as possible, but I’ve still had times because you just don’t know when it’s gonna happen. And I don’t know, I shouldn’t be afraid, I get so afraid, but here in Duluth, it’s a pretty crime-free community, but I just don’t like to carry $25000 worth of bags on my back seat. But I paid for it. I’ve regretted it.

I carry a little Sony RX 10 with me as my little tourist camera. And I keep it with me wherever I am so I can grab it really quick. And it’s got a zoom on it, a digital zoom that goes to 600. So I can usually get something, but you still miss those shots. So do you have favorite images?

Favorite images.

Isn’t that terrible? That’s like asking somebody to choose between their children. But when you think about your body of work, are there categories that you love the most? Because you have a lot of landscapes, you have people, and you have a lot of different types of pictures, what’s your favorite?

I think I have a real soft spot for Lake Superior. And the things that occur on and around it, and it’s ever-changing. It has such a wide range of moods from what you experienced that calm glass morning, the waves crashing. You saw those lighthouses; we’ve had waves going over the tops of those lighthouses and everything in between. Lake superior is, I don’t know, I’m spiritually connected to that somehow. And so that’s probably my favorite body of work just because it’s not just photography, it’s the whole experience. I mean, when I’m out there as you were, and you experienced that magic period, like a half-hour before sunrise until dawn, I mean, there’s nothing like it. And so that’s probably fair. And I don’t know if this is right or wrong. I’m guessing a lot of artists have to make this decision on a regular basis. You don’t just make it once. You’re making it all your life, but I’ve had people from different points of view that say, “you should specialize in this,” or “you’re so good at this, you should specialize in that.” And I don’t know what it is. I cannot force myself to do that. I’m interested in too many different things. I didn’t shoot much wildlife at all until, I don’t know, 5, 6, 7 years ago, I guess. And then, I met another photographer through this Capture Minnesota website that was sponsored by Twin Cities Public Television. And at that time, I was the landscape guy. He was the wildlife guy. And we shot together enough that we’ve elevated each other’s games to have these photo of the day awards on Capture Minnesota. And after the two of us have been shooting together for, I don’t know, six months, one week, he got a photo of the day in the landscape, and later that week, I got the photo of the day in a bird picture. We knew we had transferred the skill set.

Oh, I think it’s wonderful when you can meet other creative people and collaborate.

It’s what it’s all about.

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. I have a group of friends that I dearly miss when I moved from LA to San Diego. We used to go out whenever I was in town, there would be four or five of us, and we would either fly or drive to a little place nearby. And we would just spend a few hours shooting and then come back, and we would all compare our pictures and help each other. And isn’t it amazing when you can get a group of people, and they can look at the same thing? And it all comes out different. Everything’s different. It’s amazing to me.

And it’s fun. I guess number one, and I can’t lie, I love fun. I love having fun. So number one, the time you spend there is fun as it’s happening. But when you put creative types together having fun, it’s the most painless way in the world to learn. And you just do it. I don’t know how some people perceive us that are not in the process. And some people think that and there probably are some artists or photographers or whatever, that are very secretive about what they do and you don’t want to give away any magic. Either I haven’t met those people, or I just by luck, don’t hang around with them. From the very beginning, the other photographers and artists that I’ve met had been more than happy to do stuff together to share. Well, this is how I do this. What do you think? And I am a big collection of all the influences I’ve rubbed up against. If there’s somewhere in there is my vision of what excites me. But it’s been molded by so many different people with their skills and talents. And I can look in my kit. I can look at a certain lens, or I can look at a certain filter or whatever. And I can put somebody’s name to it. Well, that’s one John Alexander Kate showed me or, you know, whatever. And it just wouldn’t be anywhere near what I am if it wasn’t for all these people I’ve rubbed up against.

You’ve got your pictures everywhere, where can we go to find some of your photography?

Well, in the digital world or online world, I guess the best place to see a variety of my stuff is to go to the John Heino Photography Page on Facebook. Because I’ve got most of the images I’ve ever shot since social media came around that I felt were any good or in various categories on that page.

So that’s John Heino on Facebook. I’ve been there. It’s a great sight. Oh, and I want to ask you one more question, too. You talked about Duluth being one of your favorite places to shoot, but where are you going next?

Well, my next big adventure, mid-September, I’m headed with one of my best photo buddies out to the Grand Tetons for a couple of weeks. 

Ooh, that’s a beautiful place to shoot. Oh, I can see some gorgeous pictures coming out of that.

Yeah, well, we’ve had some great trips already. We had an epic trip to Glacier National Park and one to Yellowstone. And generally, every fall, we try to put together a week or two agenda somewhere in this great country of ours. And a lot of times, it involves a national park. And let me add my thanks to the intelligent people years and years ago who said let’s put the stuff aside.

Yeah, it’s beautiful. Okay, so I want to move on. Because you are an amazing musician, and you talk about fun. I mean, you played me some of your music and went, “Oh my goodness, this is pretty amazing.” You’re a keyboardist, how long have you played the piano? Well, you don’t have to say how long? How old were you when you started to play the piano?

I started taking lessons when I was seven. 


I got to credit my mom for that. I mean, a seven-year-old kid doesn’t say, “Hey, I want to learn how to play.” She got me started, and then I took it from there.

And did you want to quit at one point, and she pushed you, or did you just love it?

No, I did quit at one point. And she didn’t push me, which I think was great. I took lessons for three years, and I was getting into some fairly complex classical stuff. And I was ten years old at the time, and I was doing some sports and stuff. A 10-year-old kid, though not all 10-year-old kids, at least me, I did not appreciate classical music at the time. And I told my mom, “I really kind of want to not do this anymore,” and she said, “Fine.” And she said, “I just wanted to give you that opportunity.” And I mean, obviously, it was huge, it was a big spark. I didn’t do anything music for about three or four years, and then all of a sudden, The Beatles hit. All of a sudden, everybody and their brother was starting a band. And it seemed to me there were guitar players and bass players all over, not so many drummers because it was a lot of stuff to haul and it was expensive. And same for the keyboard, so not many keyboard players. So I scraped some money together from odd jobs and stuff, and then my parents gave me some, and I got a Farfisa Mini Compact Organ and little kits and amplifiers, and I was in business. And so I started playing in a band, I think, when I was 15. And you can play in sock hops and only small things. But by the time I graduated from high school, I was bringing in pretty decent money and allowing me to go places I wouldn’t have been otherwise. And then the whole seven years thing from Seattle to Los Angeles. And then we did a lot of stuff out West Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and some of it was great, and some of it was a little challenging, but wonderful experiences to see in the country and meeting people. 

So what kind of music do you play now, and who do you play it with?

Well, I’ve got two things going right now. And the main thing is the Centerville All Stars, and that’s classic rock. And we are celebrating our 41st year together.

Oh, my goodness. And you still talk to each other?

Oh, yeah. We told each other if it ever stops being fun, we’re done. And we’re still doing it. We had chemistry from the beginning. I don’t know, I’ve played with a lot of bands and a lot of great musicians, but I’ve never seen chemistry made. It’s just like we were born to play together. It’s like musically, we can complete each other’s sentences kind of thing. And I think the people can tell we’re having that much fun because I think that’s where the energy comes from.

It radiates into the audience, and they can play and have fun, of course, absolutely. 

And it’s a big cycle because the more the crowd gets into it, the more we’ll get into it. And then I’m also doing a jazz trio, which a lot of times there’s four of us in the trio. But the point is there’s a female vocalist who’s really really marvelous jazz singer and great standards and stuff and a great bass player, and sometimes we have a drummer, sometimes we don’t. But that’s a whole nother dimension. Some of that music is mellower. It’s certainly more complicated. And sometimes it is more room for improv, like, and we were doing the jazzy stuff. But here’s the common denominator, I am so fortunate. All of those people in both of those bands are wonderful people to work with. The guys in the Centerville All Stars I’m an only child, never had a sibling, but I feel like I’ve got the best you could ever have out of having a brother without any of the downsides.

The downside of being places that don't have major art scenes is if you're a creative person, sometimes you need to do something else to pay the bills. Click To Tweet

So tell me their names and what they play.

Alright, well, George Zissos is our guitarist, one of the best guitarists, and I’m talking about people who have recorded contracts and have been major stars. He is one of the best guitarists that ever came out of Minnesota. And I think there are other people that will share that opinion. And for instance, he played for a while in Twin Cities with a really great blues musician, a guy named Big John Dickerson. He wrote music with Big John Dickerson and did a great job. So we’re fortunate to have him. He’s a great guy, a fun guy to get along with. And then Kyle Inforzato is our bass player. Kyle and I actually go back the longest. When I first was playing in a band, it was with Kyle. And when I was a junior in high school, and he was a senior, my lasting impression with Kyle was we had these things called sock hops, at eight-thirty in the morning at a school I went to, and they’d have us come in and play for like an hour thinking maybe it would calm the kids down if they burst some energy.

Well, that’s a fallacy but go ahead.

Anyway, my lasting impression of Kyle, for whatever reason, he didn’t have a car to get his gear from Morgan Park, which is quite a ways from Proctor here. And he had an amplifier and a case with a bass in it that he had to carry. And, of course, he was working all the way to the center on a football team. So he’s like a Rocky Balboa kind of physique. But even then, I look out my window, and he’s coming down the driveway; it’s a blizzard. He hitchhiked in a blizzard, and they dropped them off about two blocks from my house, and his glasses were covered with snow. He’s looking over, trudging in like two feet of snow, carrying an amplifier in one hand, and his bass in the other. And I’ll just never forget that. I mean, that’s what he is about. He was like a hard charger. And when you see him on stage, he looks like he’s going to explode. And I have never seen anybody pound the bass guitar as he does. And then our drummer is the only non-original member because our original drummer, I don’t know, ten years ago or so said, “I hope you guys don’t take this wrong, but I’m getting old. If I have to play Honky Tonk Woman one more time, I think I’ll fall off my drum stool. So I’m gonna ride into the sunset, boys.” And he’s still around, and we get a chance to talk to him and whatever. But he had, I guess I’d call it an understudy, right? The guitarist’s younger brother John Zissos who drums with us now, had been playing in different bands over the years and was a very good drummer. And every now and then, Chuck had something to do–that was our original drummer. And whether he had to be somewhere and he couldn’t do the gig, or maybe he was sick or whatever. So Johnny used to fill-in for him. It’s a natural thing like Chuck left one week and the next week, John sat on that stool, and it was like, he didn’t have to learn anything. He already knew it. And plus, I think there was a little fresh energy. John is a little younger than the other guy, and of all the things you can think of playing like I wonder how Charlie Watts plays a two-hour show with The Rolling Stones. I mean, in his 70s. Because that means physically, they’re exerting the most effort. But anyway, Johnny stepped in, he brought a little fresh energy, and we barely missed a beat. See what I did there?

Yeah, there you go. No pun intended. So talk to me about your jazz group; who is in the jazz group?

The jazz group it’s fronted by just a very lovely talented woman by the name of Maxi Childs. And everybody loves her. I think they would love her if she couldn’t sing a note just because she’s a bundle of positive energy. She’s so friendly, and she spends all of our breaks in that band just talking to people, and everybody wants to talk with Maxi and stuff. And she’s got a great voice, great versatility, everything from Melissa Etheridge to Maria Muldaur, and Beth Midler, and you name it. And she’s such a nice person and does such a great job. And then her significant other is the bass player, Steve Netzel, and rock solid. Like I said, sometimes we have a drummer, or sometimes we don’t. And that’s when I appreciate Steve the most is when we’re not playing with the drummer because he is such a solid bass player that we can do it on tempo jams tune without the drummer, just bass and piano. And it’s like you don’t really miss the drums. I mean, it’s a whole different thing. When you’ve got a great drummer laying it down, it’s much more relaxed, just a lot easier to let them do some of the work, but we don’t need a drummer. And that’s an odd thing, really. And that’s all, Steve. And then, when we do have a drummer, a guy named Jeff Peabody, he’s the drummer of drummers for jazz standards, rock, having him play anything. He’s like a metronome tempo-wise right in the pocket all the time. What I really like about him is, he’s also a hell of a photographer. So we are kind of kindred spirits in that way when he’s not playing drums, he’s shooting.

Wow, that’s pretty amazing. So where do you guys play both groups and who have you opened for, and where do you travel?

Well, Centerville All Stars. We have opened for, I don’t know, gosh, I’m kind of thinking of it. You got to go back a ways headies.

Didn’t you tell me, Lynyrd Skynyrd at one point?

Yeah, just so I don’t overtax my memory on a Monday morning. Most recently, we did a thing called Moondance Jam, which is an annual thing out here in Minnesota. I can’t remember if this is the 28th or whatever. It’s held at a beautiful big outdoor place in Walker, Minnesota. They have beautiful places to camp with motorhomes whatever. It’s a three-day roster of classic rock bands. This year, we opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd. That was, I think, the second time. In the past, we opened for Gin Blossoms, Big Head Todd, and the Monsters. It’s been a fun ride. Nowadays, we primarily play in Duluth, or the Twin Cities Minneapolis, St. Paul, and we talked about the I-35 tour. We’re either in Duluth or Minneapolis or somewhere along Interstate 35 in between. But every now and then, we’ve got a promoter out in the North Dakota, Montana area that puts together a little tour for us. And so, like last spring, we did a few days in North Dakota and Montana. And, yeah, it was a riot. It brought us back to the old days because whatever else you could say about being on the road with the band, it was fun. 

It is always fun, isn’t it? 

Yeah, we learned that when it comes to things like alcohol consumption, you don’t want to try to keep up with the way you were passed. It took about one good hangover to say, “Okay, we don’t do that anymore.” But we still had fun. You don’t need mass quantities of alcohol to have fun. But anyway, it was kind of interesting because we were sitting with one of the bar owners in Montana after a show one night, and this guy said, his praise, “I’m so glad I got you guys,” and our promoters sitting there with us, right? And you gotta appreciate the guy because he’s a little bit of a character. Anyway, at some point, he said, “Well, you know what, the people out here are starved for entertainment.”

Oh, thanks a lot. You know what? There’s a lot of gearheads that listen to this show. Can you talk about what kind of gear you take with you when you’re out on the road and what you use in the studio?

You know what, as little as possible.

There you go. I think that’s part of the secret. But I’m looking at a picture of you at Moondance Jam. You’ve got a Marshall behind you and Korg in front of you. And so talk about what you take with you to these things. 

Yeah, well, you know what, that was a great setup, but that was their backline and their keyboard.


That’s one of the things I like about Moondance is if you don’t want to haul a ton of gear, you can use what they’ve got there. Nowadays, I bring my own keyboard, and I use their amplifier because I like playing a Nord stage piano, which I love so much that I don’t want to take a risk that they don’t have something that good.

What do you like about Nord?

Well, the Nord has got such fantastic piano patches, for one thing, everything from a Rhodes sound to a classic piano sound to Wurlitzer and then clavinet, it’s just very versatile. It’s got great weighted action, it’s got a Hammond Organ B3 kind of set with drawbars, and simulated Leslie Speaker, simulated overdrive. And if you know what you’re doing, you can dial up something that sounds like those 500 pound B3 in Leslie’s we used to haul around. And then I’m using an electro voice-powered monitor, which is just amazing. I mean, I used to haul around stack amps and buy keyboards and all that, and then somewhere along the line, I think just because you get older and we didn’t have roadies all of a sudden. When we were younger, we had roadies, we had truckloads of stuff, right? Because somebody else carried it. I used to just step on stage, everything was turned on, and then when I was done, I left. I didn’t know what happened in between that and the next gig.

God bless the roadies in our lives, right? God bless the roadies. We love you.

But now, when you get to sort of a mature stage of life, and you’re hauling your own gear, all of a sudden, it’s all about how little can you haul and still sound great. And so that’s what I’m carrying now. I’ve replaced all the stacks amps and the five keyboards with the Nord stage piano, and I’ve got an electro voice-powered speaker, which I can still lift with one hand, and it’s got a really powerful 15-inch crossover with a high range horn, and it’ll take up to 2000 watts. So it’s a beautiful life, now I can be set up in like 15 minutes.

man teaching
We need mentors to guide us into discovering who we want to be. Young people don’t have enough of them.

That’s great. So when you’re in Duluth, how do you mix and record? Where are you, and who does that for you?

Well, like the stuff you’ve listened to is Not Dead Yet, was recorded up at a place called Sacred Heart Music Center, which is actually a deconsecrated Catholic Church. It’s a beautiful building, which, thank god, people pulled together and saved it from the wrecking ball. It’s the recording studio, and it’s also a live music venue. But there’s a guy there, an engineer named Eric Swanson, who I couldn’t even tell you all the major band sees he’s done. I mean, he just loved Duluth and settled here. But I mean, he did things like at Sacred Heart–Sacred Heart, the interior space is known for a superb reverb, natural reverb. And sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad, you have to always deal with it. But the Crash Test Dummies sent him music that they were recording and asked him to run it in that room and record it in that room so they could have the reverb.

Oh, that’s fun. I’d like to hear that track.

Yeah. And he did it. He did it, and they loved it. Anyway, Eric is a great guy. He actually mixes live songs. I was for a while involved in a 10-piece show band, it was like a 50s and 60s rock band with a big horn section and three singers out front, it was called the Cherry Cola. And then he did our live songs for several years, and he’s marvelous at live songs too. But the thing with Centerville, we found over the years, we had a devil of a time finding a sound engineer who could capture what we were about in a studio setting. Number one, you don’t have the audience there, so that piece of the energy is missing. And number two, when you first plug everything in, as I’m sure you’re aware, everything’s kind of dry and sterile sounding. And to get from that to something that sounded like we did when we played live was not something every engineer could do. And Eric did that. When you listen to Not Dead Yet, that particular one, or even Party With the Band, you have a good feel for what we sound like live. The energy came through. And that, I think, was his number one achievement. But he records all kinds of bands; local, national bands have come here just because of the reverb of the studio. He’s a genius. And to have that resource in the loop, I mean, how cool is that? You know the size of this market, and here, we’ve got this, the consecrated church, which is a historic building, I think it was 1896 when it was built. And it’s still got all of that, the stained glass windows and the magic. Only it’s got this great recording studio and an engineer that happens to be one of the best ones ever anywhere who decided he want to live in Duluth. So how lucky is that?

So inspiration is everything for creatives. If you’re in a beautiful place with people that you care about, and who let you just be who you are, and you can just jam with them. What an amazing life. So think about not dead yet, are there some favorite tracks on that album you can think of? 

They’re like children, right? Especially the first CD. Like that’s a compilation of stuff, I’d written over the years. Some of those songs were written back when we were on the road. But one of my favorites, for sure, is the title track, Not Dead Yet. Because it kind of encapsulates the attitude that we have right now. We’re not young guys, and we show up for a place that they’ve never seen us before. They’re not sure if we’re the roadies or we’re there to clean up the stage. We’re not young-looking guys; it’s amazing how long this ride has gone. Like the Grateful Dead got the line, what a long strange trip it has been, well, we just have to add long, strange, and fun.

There you go. So I, as you know, firmly believe in amazing talent that you find when you travel the world, and how do you define success? I don’t believe it’s being in LA or being in New York. How do you define success?

Other than the fact that my bucket list is bigger than my wallet, and I can never have enough gear. I would define success as it applies to a creative type. Whether it’s art or music, it would be something that you created. That first of all gave you joy where you said, that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I love it. And I’ll be honest with you, with my photography, I’m happy whenever somebody says, I want to buy something, or I want you to decorate my offices, whatever it might be. But I would do that I would do the photography thing, whether I ever earned a penny on it or not. Because I get a strong sense of satisfaction when I look at an image and say, “Was it my amazing art standing at that spot at that moment in time,” and that’s kind of what the sunset that was about, in my mind, that was a gorgeous moment. And the other thing I think about success is when something you’ve created is able to bring joy to other people. And it’s a brief little story here, three, four years ago, I had an opportunity to submit some art for a new hospital in Twin Cities, the University of Minnesota Surgery Center. And in their call for submissions, they were saying it should be beautiful, calming images because we’re putting these in waiting rooms where people are in there for some pretty serious stuff, maybe life-threatening, very Difficult stuff to deal with. And we would like to use art as a means of helping them be in a calming environment. And I thought about that for a minute. I said, “If my photography, in a waiting room at the surgery center, could be something that would take somebody’s mind off a bad situation even for a few seconds.” It turned out I got 57 pieces in a deal that are all over the surgery center in waiting rooms. And at the time, it was the biggest commercial deal I had done. I didn’t have to print anything or hang it or whatever. They just paid me for the images to use. And it was a very lucrative deal. But what actually, over time, has been much more interesting than the money it produced. About once or twice a month, I get an email or a Facebook message from someone who was in one of those rooms, either they’re there for something or one of their relatives. And I’ve gotten some just inspiring messages. And I realized, first of all, I realized the University of Minnesota medical people were on the right page in terms of what you should put in those rooms because I have gotten confirmation from the person that, yeah, this is beautiful. I love it. I’m glad it’s here. And that’s a success, that’s probably more success than anything else.

Yeah, what a gift. That’s amazing. So where can we go online to get some of your music, and where can we go to get some of your photography?

Well, let’s take the music first. I think CD Baby still actually has some CDs track by track. It’s available on iTunes, and I think you just took your vantage of that this morning. 

I actually went on Amazon and searched for you, and I bought the Not Dead Yet album, and I’m loving it. I’m having fun with it. I encourage people to go to Amazon.

Yeah, I guess everything that’s ever been produced is available on Amazon.

Yeah, I hope you’re getting the money off of it. So Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby for the music.

And there are actually two CDs besides Not Dead Yet, that was our first one. And then we did one called Party With the Band, which in its own right, I think, has as many interesting tracks on it as Not Dead Yet. But it’s not quite as precious to me because it wasn’t our first one. As far as images, I do a lot of onesies and twosies with people right through my Facebook page. And I got a warning for the people that are conditioned to an e-commerce site where you go in and give a credit card and bang everything is magical. It’s not like it. If you deal with me through my Facebook photography page, it’s one on one. It’s you and me, and you tell me I like this image. And I’ll ask you what you got in mind, a canvas, Giclée, metal, what size, and I’ll get them a price quote, we figure out what it is. I either produce it myself. So it’s a print, or if it’s metal or a canvas gallery wrap, I have vendors who do that. I send them the piece if they liked it, they send me a check. So it’s kind of old school.

Oh, I like that, though. I like that.

I do too. And I like interacting with people. And I’ve actually made some great friends among the clients that buy my images.

So for the people listening, if you want to get music from John Heino, go to iTunes, Amazon, or CD Baby. And if you’re interested in his photography, go directly to John Heino on Facebook. And you can take a look at what he’s got there, and you will be amazed. I’ve been speaking with John Heino, who is a photographer and musician, making magic for the entire world out of Duluth, Minnesota. We’re gonna close today’s show with a little bit from the Not Dead Yet album, and it’s the title track, Not Dead Yet.


  1. Hone your creativity by taking photography classes. Learning the basic techniques will help you sharpen your skills until you can find the style you like best.
  2. Invest in a good quality camera. Do some research before purchasing your gear. Write down what you want to achieve with your camera and compare the available brands and specs. 
  3. Find a community of like-minded people. Talk to other photographers and share your work with them to learn a few useful pointers.  
  4. Explore and experiment. Don’t just stick to one style of photography. Observe how other talented photographers do it and see if you can incorporate them into your own art.
  5. Do everything with feelings. Use photography as a means of self-expression. Let your art communicate and connect with your audience. 
  6. Have fun! Keep doing what you love and spend time on what you want to do the most. Hobbies can turn into business ideas in the end.
  7. Hustle. Seek exposure from larger crowds by sharing and selling your work. Creativity can become a way to make a living.
  8. Master your composition. Let every print you make speak a thousand words.
  9. Practice constantly. Go out and shoot, and keep creating art. 
  10. Check out John Heino’s artwork when you visit his Facebook page.

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