Austin, Texas native Eric Johnson has been wowing the world for two decades with his guitar greatness. He also plays keyboards, sings, writes and produces. He recently released "Bloom" (Favored Nations) and has been touring, but he took some time to talk with me about his life and work.
For the uninitiated, Johnson has done sessions work with artists such as Cat Stevens, Carole King and Christopher Cross and toured with Joe Satrini and Steve Vai. He has had several Grammy nominations and won "Best Rock Instrumental" for his song "Cliffs of Dover." During the 2005 Austin Music Awards, he won "Austin Musician of the Year," "Best Electric Guitarist" and "Best Acoustic Guitarist."
It's funny, but despite his long list of achievements, Johnson is better known for his devotion to his craft, which often leads to long time between albums.
"I put a live album out in 2000 and the last studio record I had was in '96," Johnson begins. "The live record wasn't just a live record of old material it was kind of a jammy thing, but it was all original music written for the live record, so it was like a regular record.
"I've been doing other things." Johnson continues about "Bloom," "The actual recording time on the record was a lot less than my record from before, but I just worked on it a little bit and then I wouldn't work on it for a while. So it went over a process of years. I started around the Alien Love Child thing and just worked on it a little bit here and there."
The tracks in "Bloom" seem to show where Johnson has been in his life.
"Yes," Johnson agrees. "It did and toward the end of it, as I was recording, it started becoming a little bit more performance and more organic. I think now I need to try to speed up my recording process a little bit so I can start putting out records a little more often than once every 30 years," he laughs. "I figured maybe that would be a good idea and I'm starting to get a lot of ideas for new songs and I think, 'God, I've got to get on the stick here.' I've already started on another record, it's solo acoustic and it's coming along good. It's got a bunch of jams on it and I'm working on that."
I note that he plays guitar and piano and has quite a nice vocal range.
"You call that singing? You're a singer and you call that singing?" Johnson replies.
"You have a very expressive range," I counter.
"I think you're taking medication. You live near a pharmacy or something? I'm not understanding why you're calling me a singer, but, hey, let's roll with it," Johnson shoots back. "Tony Bennett taught me most everything I know and then I studied at Julliard-- No, I'm just kidding. Thank you, I appreciate it. I'm working on it. I didn't take singing seriously, that I tried looking at the way I sing on this last record. I'm trying to work on it."
Johnson isn't studying voice currently, but is considering it, so we discuss coaches for a minute before I ask him about his childhood.
"My folks really loved music, they didn't really play much," Johnson tells me. "My dad sang a little bit and my mom played the piano. They just loved music and we were always going to concerts and listening to records. I guess I started with piano when I was about five, I started taking lessons. I was always around music."
He picked up guitar at age 11. I ask him if his background in piano provided a good foundation.
"I think so," Johnson answers. "It made me approach the guitar a little bit more like a piano, in other words, voicing chords and playing with my fingers. Trying to get some of the piano chords and concepts out of it. I still try to keep the guitar playing ideas not quite stock guitar stuff."
Johnson was in a band at 16 and was torn between going on to college or pursuing a music career.
"I've got three hours of (college) credit." Johnson explains, "I went to several music schools and auditioned to see what I wanted to do. I couldn't decide whether to go to music school or just join a band. In the interim I did take one course in college. I decided to join this jazz rock fusion band called the Electromagnet when I was 19. I just figured I would go on the road and study music, listen to records. I would teach myself and go out and play anywhere I could. I took that route instead and you know there are pluses and minuses to any route you take and I wish I knew more about theory, but I'm now trying to learn more of that."
And like the classic musician's joke, Johnson worked in a music store for a while.
"I've always been pretty blessed that I've been able to do music, but there was different periods. There was one when I just did solo acoustic guitar and nothing else because I was happy to go out and play any kind of gig and open up for people and make a few bucks." Johnson goes on, "There was a period when I worked in a music store, which was a little tough because I already played guitar for a while there and the owner of the music store told me that I really needed to sell these cheapo guitars to people and tell them they were really great. People would be coming in and they didn't want to spend a lot of money and I'd have to tell them, 'No, that's a great guitar' when it absolutely wouldn't tune up and it also strung up like, gosh, I can't sell them this thing. It was tough to do that, but then I taught guitar lessons for a little while."
So how does Johnson write his material?
"It's different all the time. The tunes, a lot of time come on piano or guitar or bass guitar. Usually I get the music idea first, then the melody comes out of that. That's usually how it works," Johnson says, adding that the lyrics come last.
With instrumentals, many artists work around a theme, so I query Johnson if he works from a theme when he writes.
"No, it can be whatever, but I think I tend to lean to topics that are more eye-opening or inspirational simply because I enjoy the opportunity of the moment to utilize for, what in my opinion, would be something worth utilizing it for. Also for something that would maybe be an alternative to whatever you get anyhow in everyday life.. It's a opportunity to say something," Johnson states.
The Austin and L.A. music scenes have their differences, as do the United States and the rest of the world, I prod Johnson for his perspective.
"I think there's a lot of great stuff going on," Johnson offers a general view. "I don't think anything needs to be changed, I think it's always good to have more options and have it dilated and have more versatility. So if there was anything, it would be nice to see pop culture embrace a little more open-mindedness. I think it's fine what's go on, I guess we could always add to it. You don't need to take anything away, but you could always just add to it. I don't think it's a question if pop music used to be good and it's not good any more, but I do think there's a reality that pop music used to be more open to different venues and styles and now it's become more like a designer thing. There's a more specific mandate for the designer."
He also is pro-Internet, "It's great. Obviously it's going to be the mainstream vehicle for all art eventually. I think that the old ways are slowly being replaced." Johnson often posts on his own site's forum and writes back to his fans when he has time.
In addition to working on another album, Johnson has just wrapped up a DVD that is due for release the end of this summer.
"I have an instructional DVD that we just finished." Johnson describes, "It's kind of an interesting thing in that it's got two different sides to it. It starts on DVD, but there's also eight pieces of music that nobody's ever heard, section that's just a performance section of us playing. It's like a performance DVD and an instruction DVD."
He's also touring, but he finds time to visit his favorite spot, Lake Travis, for some water skiing. Johnson enjoys going to the beach, traveling and relaxing. And ladies, he's single.
"I've been thinking about (having a family) a lot lately. I've been thinking about priorities and how you put your life together and that's something I definitely want to do." Johnson says.
We discuss how it's hard to be an artist and have a relationship.
"For me it's two things. It's hard to find somebody to accept it and then it's also important that somebody who is that way, that though they tend to be a little obsessed, it's their responsibility to figure out a way to make it work," Johnson tells me. "You just don't go, 'That's the way I am. I'm an artist so I've got carte blanche. I'll just disappear.' It's more that 'Well, this is the parameters, but because it's my life I have to figure out a responsibility to somehow make it work.'
"I know in the past that's what I did wrong with my relationship. You just can't go off and 'Wow, I'll just whatever.' It's a learning process." Johnson goes on, "I think sometimes if you put a little bit of governor on it, the irony is that sometimes your work will get better. Rather than you thinking, 'Oh, I won't be able to get it all done.'
Actually, if you put a lot of the right priorities you can still put a lot of time into it. You hold back a little bit and you'll probably do better work any how."
In closing, I ask Johnson if there's anything we haven't discussed.
"My blooming acting career," Johnson bubbles. "Just kidding. Let's talk about it and maybe a big producer will call me. They're going to discover me at the sody fountain, they're going to make me a star. I can leave this music business and be a real star."
Johnson shyly tells me that he hasn't slept much in the past two weeks and that makes him get a little silly. I find him charming with a great sense of humor.
"I'm on the path to find new ways to make music touch people. And I'm trying to speed up the process believe it or not. It's the eighth wonder of the world," Johnson laughs.
Find out where Johnson is touring, how things are going on his next album and more at www.ericjohnson.com
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