It’s been 30 years since Eric Johnson released his breakthrough solo album Tones, the electric-fueled debut that singled him out as the latest guitarist to watch. Johnson spent the decades since steadily building his reputation as a musician with skill and soft-spoken wisdom, almost always accompanied by the shredding and fingerpicking that listeners came to expect from his studio recordings and live performances. On his new album EJ, released October 7 through the Mascot Label Group, Johnson changes all that: instead of plugging in, he goes acoustic, recording most songs live in an effort to reconnect with his lifelong love of folk music and record in a way that’s new to him.
After reaching a tour stop in Annapolis MD earlier this week, Johnson spoke with Blues Rock Review about the craving he felt to record simply, his childhood love of Simon and Garfunkel and the possibility of releasing a second volume of acoustic work. Johnson is a thoughtful speaker: he chose his words carefully as he reflected on the creative process behind one of his riskiest albums to date. He spoke of Emily Dickinson, sacred geometry and his interest in instruments not often seen in American rock ‘n roll, demonstrating the curiosity in art and culture that propels his own artistic reach. “It’s hard to have that same new energy,” Johnson said of keeping inspiration alive. “You have to keep yourself alive, and passionate, and open and available, to see what’s already around you.”
Your new album EJ was released just last week. How’s your tour going so far?
It’s good. We’ve been out for about a week, and people seem to enjoy it. It’s kind of different for me, doing solo acoustic, so it’s different than usual. I think some people are coming out and going, “What’s he gonna do?” [Laughs] And then they go, “Well, this is cool.”
Over the years you’ve recorded electric, acoustic and live albums. Which do you find most challenging?
I think they have different challenges. There’s an interesting challenge with this because it’s just stripped down. Just single guitar, piano and vocals. There’s more of an immediacy that you have to bring out, some kind of substance to it without all the extra things that you can add to it. So that’s a challenge. Playing acoustic guitar is a little bit of a challenge for me, because it’s a whole different technique of fingerpicking. The electric thing does, too, but it’s a different set of challenges. But I think that playing by yourself and having to have the piece of music work, just a single instrument…it’s got to be decent or it just doesn’t work. I did everything live. I tried to perform it live as much as possible. That was a new approach for me, to keep it more spontaneous.
When you first began writing songs for EJ, did you know that it would be an acoustic album?
I’ve been wanting to for years. There are three songs on the record that I recorded five, six years ago, and they just kind of sat there. The rest of them I did in the last six months or so. But it was all with the intention of having an acoustic record.
EJ opens with a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” and includes three other covers, including Les Paul’s 1951 song “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Can you tell me about your cover song selection process for EJ?
When I was a kid, I always used to love to listen to Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor, Joni Mitchell. I’ve always liked listening to folk music, even though I almost only played electric rock and rock fusion, but I always enjoyed playing it at home and listening to it. It’s part of the soundtrack to my life. I enjoy the Simon and Garfunkel tunes; I thought I needed to do some songs that were always in mind growing up when I was a kid, but I tried to do them a little differently. The songs are so good; they can be done any way you want to.
Les Paul was somebody I had the fortune of getting to know a little bit, and a lot of his guitar playing taught me stuff about guitar. He was such a trailblazer. I wanted to pay tribute to him.
Both of those covers are also among the tracks recorded without vocals. The songs feel complete as they are; lyrics don’t seem needed to tell their stories. Why did you decide to record without vocals?
I think there are certain things that wouldn’t fit my voice anyhow, so it would be better if I didn’t try to mimic somebody that’s already done a great job. “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” is an up-tempo song, kind of a Chet Atkins thing. Doyle Dykes [the track’s featured guitarist], he’s such a great player. He really added magic to it. It seemed like it worked. A lot of the Les tune is actually an instrumental. Mary Ford sings on it, but a lot of it is just Les playing really cool guitar.
I was trying to think of a way to start the record. I was looking for an up-tempo piece. I have a song on the record called “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” but I didn’t want to start the record with it, and I didn’t really want to start the record with a Les Paul tune. I was fooling around on [“Mrs. Robinson”] one day and I thought, “Wow, maybe I could make an arrangement of that instrumental.” I was actually thinking, “I just need an overture tune to start the record with,” and that’s how it came about.
“Once Upon a Time in Texas” is another song without lyrics or vocals that feels full of narrative. What was the inspiration behind it?
The first part was just this riff I had, and then it started with a thought about West Texas. I was thinking about that movie, Once Upon a Time in the West. I thought that was a cool title, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just steal the title and change it to Texas.” It’s just kind of western. I was originally going to do something weird, like have a tabla player on that song, but I ended up cutting it solo. That would have been strange, a western song with tabla.
Are there any instruments you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to bring into the studio on future projects?
I’m a big fan of dobro players, and the mandolin’s great. I’m hoping to do a volume two acoustic record. Maybe I could get a dobro or mandolin on there or something. And maybe some violin and fiddle.
After decades of recording and performing, do you ever find it difficult to invent new lyrics or melodies?
If you leave yourself open to letting something happen, they kind of just come out. You can be a vehicle for it. But sometimes you have to monitor that, because some stuff can be not very good, or it can sound too much like something you’ve already done, or something somebody else has already done. But just letting it happen and trying not to judge it, letting it take its own way of maturation so it can go wherever it’s going to go and turn into what it can. It can maybe start not as great, and sometimes, if you let it gestate, it might turn into something really cool. Sometimes it starts real simple and you let it naturally develop.
Have your sources of inspiration changed over the years?
Yeah. I think that, as you get older, after you’ve done something a bunch of times, it’s hard to have that same first, new energy. You have to do whatever work it is on yourself to keep yourself alive, and passionate, and open and available, to see what’s already around you.
All this stuff is flowing around us 24/7, it’s just whether we stay liquid or we become brittle. I think sometimes it’s a matter of looking at yourself and trying to stay open-minded and liquid. Not childish, but childlike, where you keep that little bit of wonderment and passion alive. I think in some ways it gets hard, because it’s not like you pick up an instrument and play one chord and go, “Oh, that sounds great!” Because you’ve heard it five million times.
What does inspire you?
Making my stuff available to hear new songs or new sounds, conversations with friends. I’m interested in self-realization and becoming more aware, realizing there’s a lot of reality that we don’t see. There’s a space between the atoms or something, and when you realize that’s reality, it kind of opens up a big question mark. “Maybe I’m the one wearing the filtered glasses.”
I think it’s just staying open and allowing stuff to enter your consciousness: conversations, or hanging out in a beautiful place. Allowing yourself to come up with something different than you did before, not just to be the retelling of whatever your legacy or history is. I’m thankful for that, but I don’t want to lean on that or use that as my only alphabet to do whatever I do now and tomorrow.
I was struck by EJ’s cover art. It’s so serene, so peaceful. Who designed it?
Someone named Max Crace. I knew that I would love to have a tree, some kind of interesting tree picture on the front. To me, that was symbolic of living energy and growth, but in a very simple, humble way. Not in a boisterous or complicated way.
There’s an interesting thing: in sacred geometry, there’s a tree that my girlfriend showed me that was really incredible. I didn’t even know about it when I did the tree thing. Maybe this is the tree of life.
I was recently discussing that special quality that some musicians have with a friend, that magical ability to connect with an audience and share a message in an inspiring way. I don’t know where it comes from, or if there’s even an answer to that question.
I don’t know if there is. There’s an Emily Dickinson poem, “Split the Lark – and You’ll Find the Music.” The person wanted to saw the bird in half to see how, “What makes it sing so beautifully?” And they can’t figure it out; it is what it is.
You’ll be on this tour for most of November. Have you thought about what comes next?
I have another Western U.S. tour to do in January and February, and then I’d like to maybe make that Volume Two record.
Are there any other stories you’d like to share about the recording process for this album, any unusual or favorite moments?
I just enjoyed cutting it live. It made it much more fun to me. It wasn’t like piecing a record together. I was just sitting down playing music, and we happened to record it. That was the premise for doing it. It made it more fun, just being involved in the flow of music. Sometimes, if I got out of the way, things would happen. I opted not to obsess if the vocals were perfect or whatever, because they were actually cut live. I was looking for vibes, and every once in a while we got into this vibe that felt real magical. That was nice to be a part of.
Interview by Meghan Roos