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Eric Johnson: Past, Present, and Future

Nicholas Cho

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Eric Johnson spoke to the Academy Chronicle on topics ranging from his early career to his goals for the future.

Eric Johnson spoke to the Academy Chronicle on topics ranging from his early career to his goals for the future.

Grammy-Award winning musician, Eric Johnson, is one of the world’s most-revered guitarists. His unique style of playing, which consists of chord melodies and fast licks, along with his violin-like guitar tone have made Johnson stand out as one of the guitar greats.

Born on August 17, 1954 in Austin, Texas, Eric Johnson has had many notable feats in his career. In his early days he played in a psychedelic group called Mariani as well as in a jazz fusion group called the Electromagnets. He even gave Kathy Valentine guitar lessons and did session work for Carole King, Cat Stevens, and Christopher Cross, appearing on his 5x Platinum debut album.

In 1986, Eric Johnson released his first album, Tones, which launched his solo career with songs such as “Friends” and “Zap.” He garnered commercial success with his next album, Ah Via Musicom, released in 1990. The album contained his most well-known hit, “Cliffs of Dover,” for which he won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance in 1992.

He later released Venus Isle in 1997, which contained ethereal songs such as “When the Sun Meets the Sky” and another staple of his, “Manhattan.” Later in 2002, he released Souvenir, which was solely released online, featuring a cover of the Beatles’ classic, “Paperback Writer.”

Bloom, his fifth studio album, was released in 2005 and contained tracks such as “Tribute to Jerry Reed” and “Your Sweet Eyes.” His most recent release, Up Close, was released in 2010 featuring songs such as “Gem” with guest appearances by Malford Malligan, Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan, Jonny Lang, and Sonny Landreth.

During his career, Eric Johnson has toured with many renowned guitarists as well. He appeared on the original G3 tour in 1996, which also featured guitarists Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. He has also played with Chet Atkins, and he appeared at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2004.

This summer, Eric Johnson has been touring the Northeast coast with jazz-fusion guitarist Mike Stern, and this writer for BCA’s Academy Chronicle had the unique opportunity to interview Eric Johnson before one of his shows at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City.

ACADEMY CHRONICLE: How has the tour with Mike Stern been so far?
Oh it’s been great- I’ve been really enjoying playing with him. He’s wonderful, and there’s a good complementary thing between our playing and having Chris Maresh on bass and Anton Fig on drums. It’s a really good band. We’re having a lot of fun.

I saw on Doyle Dykes’ Facebook page that he said he was working on a project with you as well. Can you share some details on that? 
Well we’ve done one track together before. I think he’s doing a Christmas record, and I’m going to play on a Christmas song- I’m not sure what it’s going to be- but he has this song that he wants me to play on. He’s been recording a Christmas record, and I heard a little bit of it, and it sounded awesome.

That’s great. Is it similar to “The First Nowell” track that you did? Something like that? 
Yeah sort of. And it’s him doing solo acoustic and solo electric guitar. I love his playing. He’s great.

Yeah, he’s a phenomenal player. 
He really is.

You recently digitally released three singles: “Tidal,” “Wonder,” and “Wind Cries Mary.” Is there a full album in the works or does the singles approach seem more practical with today’s state of the music industry? 
Kind of both. I want to try to put stuff on you know, iTunes and Amazon. I just want to try to get stuff up hopefully every month or six weeks or so, just getting something new up but at the same time I want to work on a CD as well. But I figured well even the ones that I put on iTunes once I get 15 things up I can decide which ones I want to put together to put on a CD.

The great part about releasing the singles is that there is no delay in releasing a whole work. You just get the music out when it’s ready. 
Yeah, exactly. And I think it seems to work pretty well because then I don’t get bogged down with having to create a whole album at once.

There are many songs you’ve played live but haven’t recorded yet such as “Soundtrack Life,” “Imagination of You,” and “Once Upon a Time in Texas.” Are there any plans to record these sometime soon? 
Yeah actually “Imagination of You” I’ve already finished, and that’s going to be the 4th piece that goes up on iTunes which will be in early September. Yeah, and then “Soundtrack Life,” yeah I definitely want to record that soon. And “Once Upon a Time in Texas”- I’ve got like 3 or 4 songs started on an acoustic record, so I want to return to that and get an acoustic CD ready and that’s one of them I want to put on that.

Oh sounds good. Over the past few years I heard you say you’ve been trying to let loose a little and break from perfectionism in your recordings and guitar playing in general. What made you want to make that switch, and how did you go about doing it? 
Well I think that’s kind of, you know, like trying to put more songs up on iTunes and get more recording done. I think maybe the best way to get better at what you do is just do what you do and do it enough to where you just naturally get better at it rather than trying to sit and belabor over every little single note on every little single song.

I’ve just been trying to take a different philosophy like if you don’t hit the ultimate thing on one song rather than sitting there doing it over, over, and over just go “hey, you know, it is what it is- I’ll move on to the next song, and the next song will be better.” You know what I mean? It’s kind of like looking forward and just kind of keep moving, and I think with that philosophy the more you do that the songs will just naturally get better rather than trying to, you know, force them. And I just think that it would end up making better music than the habit I’ve had of just stressing over one piece of music.

How were you exposed to the guitar and just music in general? 
When I was really really young I heard The Ventures, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. I just got exposed to guitar. You know, that time in the 60s, it was like a really new thing- it wasn’t really household like it is now. It was a very kind of a rare, kind of a new sound and stuff. I was really just attracted to it. I kind of enjoyed any kind of music that had guitar in it, so I kind of tried to listen to everything.

People always seem to focus on your guitar playing abilities, but you’re a great pianist and singer as well. When did you start learning how to play piano and sing? 
Well I actually played piano first. I took lessons when I was a kid, and then I switched to guitar when I was like 11 years old. I kind of dropped the piano, and I’ve just over the last few years tried to reacquaint myself with the piano. I’ve always wrote songs on piano, but I’m just trying to learn how to play it a little bit again now so that I can, you know, maybe on acoustic guitar tours and stuff I’ll play a couple of songs on piano.

Early on you played in bands like Mariani and The Electromagnets and did some session work too, but what made you want to pursue a solo career? 
I’m not sure. I just kind of got into just playing- I got into maybe trying to learn how to sing and write songs, and I guess once you start trying to play, sing, write, and do your thing, then it kind of just gets focused on whatever deal you’re trying to do yourself.

What were the early days of your solo career like? Were they difficult? 
Yeah, they were. You know, everything continues- you always just have to negotiate in the business. I mean, I guess certain people, if they get so successful, then everybody just says, “Yeah whatever you want to do.” But I mean when starting out we had continuous doors slammed in our face or people telling us that it’s not going to work. And it’s always interesting stuff when you kind of look back on it- some of the songs that I had the most success with, a couple of years prior to that those same songs people would tell me that I could never record them because they weren’t good, so there’s that irony. And there’s the irony of I remember being told by people when I was trying to record instrumental songs they said, “That’s never going to work. You’ve got to do vocals. These songs will never work.”

Point being, I think anybody gets scolded at as they go through their career, and then it’s somebody with insight who hears the potential. You’re continuously being told by people, “no it’s not going to work,” or “no we don’t want to book you here,” or “you can’t do this.” You just have to kind of keep rallying yourself and keep working on what you do and believe in what you do and find that joy in what you do or find that type of music that you uniquely can play and that turns you on, and you just go out and try to develop it.

I’ve got turned down by every record label in the business, and so I said, “well I love playing so I’m just going to go out and play for people.” Well we put groups together, and we played to five people- the next week it’d be 10, and then six months later it was 100, and a year later we had 200-300 people seeing us. And also that’s how you learn how to get better at what you do because you kind of learn to edit yourself by the way the audience responds.

And now fast forward to today- you’re turning 59 Saturday. What gives you the drive and inspiration to continue to go onstage and perform? 
I think trying to just stay true and focused on that heartbeat of whatever it is you do or enjoy doing. We’re always modulating and certain things will get us back in touch with where our spirit is and where we really enjoy doing what we do. If you don’t check that or get back in focus with that then you can drift. If you drift too much then you can lose that passion or misplace it at least.

I’m doing this gig with Mike [Stern], and it’s been a really good wake up call for me in certain areas of playing where it’s like it reintroduced me to just get out there and play as a band and just have fun. It reminds me a lot of The Electromagnets days when it was just blowing out fusion. There’s a lot of me in that, so I can’t drift too far away from that, and I think sometimes I have drifted and then maybe the passion goes down a little bit because you’re doing everything by the book too much and that can kind of quell it a little bit. Maybe it’s kind of staying open to whatever it is that sparks the muse.

Personally I find music to have this mystic ability to weave emotions and to connect and heal people, so I’m going to be doing an internship as a music therapist in the fall. Do you believe that music has some special power as well, both as a performer and as a listener? 
Absolutely, I do. Well yeah definitely, and I think that some of the music that has never been played probably has the most healing, mystical quality. I think when it filters through our minds, it probably gets diluted down but even so, there are certain individuals that can make it pretty sublime and pretty awesome, and it can be really inspiring.

I’ll actually be going to the show Saturday with my 12 year old brother. How does it feel to look out into the audience and sometimes see younger fans coming out to your shows? 
I like it- it’s great. It’s a really special thing to me to have kids come out.

Looking back on your life have you received any pieces of advice that really impacted you? 
Well I think you know like how you say, what you’re pursuing, trying to find a stream of contribution where you can get into some kind of healing or thing that’s beneficial I think that’s probably one of the best things you can do because then you’re joining in on a vein of consciousness that can be nothing but good. In this world of pandemonium, we have plenty of worry, complication, stress, and ambiguity, and I think that if there is an opportunity to infuse that with a little bit of magic, that’s too valuable of an opportunity to miss, so I think the more just kind of staying on that. It’s a win-win really.

Are there any goals that you have that you would still like to accomplish? 
I think one is just, you know, become freer with the music where it’s less about what I do or my vocabulary and more about just the potential of what could happen if I step out of the way. I think it’s learning through school or studying or whatever and however you want to do it or just sitting down and practicing- learning more about the mechanics but ultimately, once you learn them, have them become like breathing through you until you don’t think about them anymore.

And the beautiful thing about learning music is that it’s a never-ending journey. 
Yeah, it really is.

My favorite song is “When the Sun Meets the Sky.” I was just wondering what the inspiration behind that song was. 
Kind of just getting back to your heart-center and getting back to that spirit within you. It’s like when the sun meets the sky- it’s kind of like when you have those moments of epiphany or when you feel you’re more awake, and a little more aware of that moment.

Do you find melodies appearing in your head all the time, and do you carry a recorder with you if so? 
Not really. Most of my melodies come from sitting down and just kind of jamming around on guitar or piano and playing some chord changes and then hearing the melody within that.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not touring? 
I like to go out into the country and hike or do watersports and stuff.

Do you find it important to take these breaks from music and just relax? 
Yeah, I pretty much do music all the time although I do take a few breaks now and then. I’m getting ready to take one. Yeah, I think it is good to get away from it and have a fresh perspective and get a little detached to where you can see the forest through the trees.

After this tour with Mike Stern are there any touring plans for the future? 
Yeah definitely, though right now there’s not. I’m going to try to keep things open for a while. I want to go home and just make some headway on a bunch of new records and stuff so hopefully I’ll just get home and start recording and see how much I can get done. But I’m sure early next year we’ll be doing something.

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Eric Johnson: Past, Present, and Future