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| “Eric Johnson-Biographical Career Retrospective”|
By Arlene R. Weiss
©Copyright Arlene R. Weiss, January 7, 1999 and January 8, 1999, July 26, 2017-2060 And In Perpetuity, All Rights Reserved
On January 7, 1999 and January 8, 1999, I was blessed and honored to interview ®Grammy Award winning Austin, Texas guitar virtuoso, singer, songwriter, composer, Eric Johnson in 2 very in depth lengthy interview sessions. Most of those 2 sessions resulted in a very detailed biographical career retrospective that was published in edited form in the October 22, 1999 issue of “Goldmine Magazine”. Some of the more guitar related discussion in the remaining text where we discussed Eric Johnson’s guitar playing was published also in edited form, as the July 1999 Cover Story in the UK’s “Guitarist Magazine”.
At the time that I interviewed Eric Johnson, Eric was joyful because he had just finally seen the October 1998 release of his never before released 1978 debut album, “Seven Worlds”. Back in 1978, the album had been caught up in an entanglement of business and legal wrangling, and it was shelved, leaving it in an unreleased status for twenty years until it was finally released on ARK 21 Records in the fall of 1998.
Johnson was also enjoying critical and commercial acclaim for his 4th and most recently released studio record at the time, which would prove to be his magnum opus album, 1996’s ethereal, profound, meaningful, and uplifting, epic musical odyssey, the ®Grammy nominated “Venus Isle”.
Here’s a fond look back with Eric Johnson with his very in depth, UNEDITED BIOGRAPHICAL CAREER RETROSPECTIVE INTERVIEW that he conducted with me on January 7, 1999 and January 8, 1999. We discuss Eric’s beginnings as a music artist, all four of his studio albums to date at the time, “Seven Worlds”, “Tones”, “Ah Via Musicom”, and “Venus Isle”, Eric’s songwriting, producing, his music influences, scoring an episode of PBS’s “Nova”, mixing “Seven Worlds” at London’s Air Studios and meeting Sir George Martin, Eric’s poetry writing, his first bands including The Electromagnets, how Eric embarked on a solo career and built and broke out to a national audience, and alot of discussion about metaphysical, philosophical perspectives as to the role of music artists and the music that they make in people’s lives as both a negative force….and especially as a positive force of inspiration and light (the path that Eric has always taken!), which I just adore.
Arlene R. Weiss-July 26, 2017
1998 marked the reissue of one of the most highly anticipated and heralded music treasures of the 1970’s, “Seven Worlds”, the debut album from Eric Johnson. Revered by fans, the music industry, and musical peers, Johnson has captured the collective imagination by virtue of his unparalleled celestial brilliance as a guitarist, singer, songwriter, and composer. Charting new frontiers and breaking down barriers in his ceaseless quest to push the musical envelope, Johnson possesses an intuitive, ethereal gift for creating musical tones, melody, compositions, and arrangements of sublime majesty and exquisite beauty.
But what truly elevates and places Johnson in the musical firmament, is his genuine sense of purpose in implementing music as a spiritual, guiding life force meant to heal and inspire. Realizing the consequential impact music possesses and its influence on the hearts and minds that so often look to its comforting solace in the chaotic void of the times that we live in, Johnson has taken a personal stance of choosing to create music in a joyful and uplifting manner. Significantly, he has maintained an inspiring and radiant light in his music most exemplified by the title and meaning of his 1990 landmark album, “Ah Via Musicom” (“A celebration by way of the communication of music, as a festival of life”.)
Eric Johnson was born August 17, 1954 in Austin , Texas , the youngest child among three sisters and a brother. Johnson embraced music from the start. Classical music and the piano would become one of the greatest influences in blueprinting Johnson’s luxurious musical palette when he began taking piano lessons at the age of five. To this day, Johnson considers the piano his first love.
But Johnson first began cutting the musical cloth at the tender age of three, when he heard the music of Elvis Presley. From there, the impressionable youth was dividing his time between his music lessons playing classical sonatas, and writing his first “silly stuff” as he affectionately relates, by age eight.
Johnson had already gotten hooked on the distinctive rocking surf and twang sound of Nokie Edwards and The Ventures. Then Johnson came home one day to find a recreation of that very awe inspiring sound emanating from his own home when he walked into a jam session being held by the band his brother had formed.
Within the year, Johnson got his first guitar and by age 13, he was in his first band, The Id. From there, his passion for the guitar displaced everything; the piano lessons, homework, and he found himself navigating a course through several bands including Mariani, whose founder, Vince Mariani, established a musical union with Johnson that has endured to this day. By age 15, the prolific Johnson was blossoming into a multifaceted artist overflowing with creative fires and he began composing and arranging his first major works.
In 1967, Jimi Hendrix was the imperial mana of guitar. Every budding guitarist looked to Hendrix as the six stringed prophet and Johnson counted himself among those inspired and influenced by Hendrix. But Johnson was set on imprinting and defining his own musical landscape, artistic voice, and vision, one that would become renowned for its lyricism and poetic narrative.
In 1973, Johnson heard the scorching jazz rock of Chick Corea and Return To Forever with their release, “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy”. The record played a definitive role in charting Johnson’s music sensibilities. Hearing this scorching fusion affirmed his lifelong love of jazz music. Johnson became an ardent student of jazz records once more, listening to them, learning from them, and allowing their texture to inform him.
Johnson’s deep-rooted love of jazz implanted itself in his musical development, leading to the next chapter in his career, as a member of the eclectic fusion band The Electromagnets. Though their life span was brief, the band released a self-titled independent album in 1975 which was reissued for the first time on CD in 1998 on Rhino Records.
Johnson’s days with the Electromagnets came to an end in 1977. After enjoying a modestly successful run, he decided to strike out on his own after recording his own solo material in the studio a year earlier.
1977 saw Johnson sign an exclusive six-year contract with his first manager and the production company that would implement the production of what would be Johnson’s debut album, “Seven Worlds”. Johnson poured his heart and creative fires into the album, exhilarated to have his first opportunity to go into the recording studio and cut his own material. The album, produced and engineered by Jay Aaron Podolnick, one of the owners of Odyssey Sound and Pecan Street Studios in Austin, was a personal labor of love for Johnson and took nearly eight months over the course of 1976-1978 to complete.
With “Seven Worlds”, Johnson was ready to show the world that while his love for the guitar was still ever present, at the core, he yearned to showcase his multiple musical talents and continually evolve as a multifaceted and profound artist. Performing lead vocals for the very first time, playing piano, lap steel, guitar, and composing and arranging, “Seven Worlds” was fraught with sublimely orchestrated vocal love ballads and a striking multi-colored prism of the many music styles and influences that had so lovingly been embraced by Johnson. The album was meant to introduce Johnson and his music to the world, but as fate would have it, the business and legal wranglings attached to Johnson’s management contract stalemated “Seven Worlds’” release, which left the master tapes destined to sit stored in a vault un-mastered and unreleased, for some two decades.
Johnson’s first manager, Bill Ham who also represented ZZ Top, failed to foresee and develop the bright, burgeoning talent radiating in Johnson and so it would be that Johnson’s career was literally benched for six years as he waited out his contract. The provisions of management even blocked Johnson from performing live in the major clubs which had first established him. Disillusioned and frustrated, he waited out the six years until the sun’s light finally broke through the clouds and shined on him at last.
In 1984, Johnson’s first management contract terminated. He was then offered a slot on PBS’s prestigious “Austin City Limits”, the award winning internationally televised live music series devoted to showcasing some of music’s most esteemed artists. Seizing the opportunity, Johnson made his mark at last, performing three songs including an early version of “Cliffs of Dover” and “Soulful Terrain”.
Executives from Warner Brothers Records were taken with Johnson’s stellar performance on “Austin City Limits” and signed him to their subsidiary label Reprise. There’s also been talk that Prince saw Johnson’s ACL performance and put in a good word at his record label for Johnson.
Thrilled to finally be signed to a major label, Johnson, however, had reservations about who would produce the album. The label had already rejected his initial desire to produce his own record and he understandably questioned handing over the artistic reins of his vision, particularly after observing that most of the producers that both he and Warner Brothers brought in, wanted to mold him into their pre-existing mindset of guitarists already established in the music industry.
But Johnson was his own man and determinedly wanted to create his own original musical style and persona. Split Enz’s Producer David Tickle caught Johnson’s admiration and ultimately landed the job of producing Johnson’s first major release, with Johnson and Reprise in mutual agreement. With that, in two months, Johnson recorded and completed “Tones”, in time for its release in 1986.
Imbued with Johnson’s intense depth of emotion and reverence for music, the album became Johnson’s first long awaited chance to dazzle the world with his beautiful vocals and his sublime eloquence as a gifted musician, composer, and arranger. But, a wonderful process was also taking place. The artist as a young man was beginning to evolve. From the pop vocal stylist of “Seven Worlds”, emerged a contemplative and resolute artist on “Tones”. Lyrically, his progression as a songwriter strengthened and elevated the dynamic of his music. Johnson also began experimenting with World Music and significantly, he was determinedly implementing music as a responsible means. On “Tones”, that took the shape of a reverential social commentary, addressing our nation’s Native American Heritage.
But, the dream fulfilled of having a major release would not coincide with the label’s shortcomings when it came to promoting “Tones”. Though himself stalwartly touring in promotion of the album, Johnson found that fans would praise his performances but inform him of their dissatisfaction and concern regarding “Tones” unavailability in record stores. The record label unfortunately, failed to develop their new artist and his release.
“Tones” received sterling reviews and thankfully brought Johnson the long deserved acclaim and recognition he had worked so hard for, but “Tones” sold approximately 50,000 units and Reprise let Johnson’s recording contract expire.
And so once more, Johnson found himself fighting for his music again. But he would not be discouraged. Facing yet another obstacle, the perseverant Johnson remained steadfast in believing in his music and in himself. Johnson held firmly to the fore and re-strategized. He went shopping for a new record deal and Independent Record label Cinema Records came through, offering him complete artistic control on his next album.
Filled with joy at the thought of total artistic control on the album, Johnson started the recording sessions only to find that Cinema Records had lost their distribution deal with their distributor, Capitol Records. However, Capitol optioned his contract and concluded that Johnson could continue production on the album.
Capitol held true to Cinema’s promise to let Johnson steer his own musical ship and for the first time, Johnson took on the coveted role of Producer, a role which would sharply chisel his aesthetic vision and the beauty of the work that was yet to come. “Ah Via Musicom” was released in 1990 and at last, Johnson saw his music attain both commercial and artistic success.
The album received generous airplay, particularly on classic rock radio, via “Cliffs of Dover” which won the 1992 ®Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, as well as “Righteous”, “Trademark”, and “High Landrons”. Reaching platinum status, “Ah Via Musicom” also served as a catalyst in “Tones’” subsequent, overdue recognition, sending “Tones’” sales soaring to gold status.
After almost two decades, Johnson received his long overdue place in the sun. The world finally knew that Johnson was a uniquely gifted musician of brilliance and artistry. The accolades overflowed with fans clamoring for the two albums and voting Johnson as the “Best Overall Guitarist” in Guitar Player Magazine’s readers poll four years in a row from 1990-1993. Johnson was also voted one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century by Musician Magazine.
Johnson also toured non-stop with many of the luminaries who had inspired him, including B.B. King and Buddy Guy.
But, Johnson knew in this industry, you strike while the iron is hot. Rather than resting on his laurels, he began working on his fourth album, “Venus Isle”. Tentatively titled “Longpath Meadow”, which was taken from a self-penned poem in the liner notes in “Ah Via Musicom” and subsequently changed to “Travel One Hope”, a title born of Johnson’s unwavering faith and glittering optimism, the album for Johnson’s part, “was meant to be a healing, sublime personal gift” to his fans.
His intention was to create an understated, purposeful concept album that would artistically depart from “Ah Via Musicom” and break new ground. Always the musical visionary, Johnson took nearly six years and implemented the same relentless dedication he had applied to “Ah Via Musicom”, to “Venus Isle”. As Producer once again, he was able to intuitively chart his own musical horizons on “Venus Isle”. By this point in time in his life, Johnson’s artistic evolution had radiantly matured. The grace and emotional depth so prevalent throughout his poetic lyric narrative and music had now reached a personal heightened state of spiritual awareness, illuminating into the epiphany which took ethereal shape and form as “Venus Isle”.
Singing, composing, arranging, orchestrating, and playing many of the instruments on the album, Johnson created an inspiring tapestry of his World Music, classical, rock, jazz,
and blues influences to create lush orchestral vocal suites and instrumental rock fanfares, as well as detailed, elegant jazz and blues pieces. “Venus Isle” was released in 1996 with a national tour in its support.
Perhaps the industry and fans had in their adoration of Johnson after the tremendous spotlight placed on him from “Ah Via Musicom”, placed their own expectations upon him, forgetting in the process, that what made them admire Johnson, was his individuality and free expression as an artist. In any event, industry people attempted to do the very thing Johnson had so valiantly fought throughout his career. They tried to mold his musical vision into what they now wanted and expected, rather than being surprised at the wonder and uniqueness of each of his albums taken for their own individual merit. They then promoted both Johnson and the
album as a repeat of the straight ahead rock guitar laden “Ah Via Musicom”. Both fans and the industry unreasonably questioned the album’s validity and it sold modestly.
Over time, “Venus Isle” slowly has gained its well-deserved artistic and commercial recognition, reaching sales of over 200,000 and garnering two Grammy nominations. “Venus Isle” will always be true to its original title, “Travel One Hope” in ideal. For Johnson, a man of higher ideals at heart, “The idea of the record to me was hope, of having hope.”
And so, once more, for Johnson, the sun’s light is again casting its glow on him, as now, after twenty years, his true initial album and first labor of love, “Seven Worlds”, has been reissued and released on CD for the very first time, on Ark 21 Records. One of the most praised and highly sought after unreleased musical treasures, “Seven Worlds” contains the original exuberant versions of “Zap” and “Emerald Eyes” which would later be reworked and released on “Tones”. The original master tapes have been mastered to completion and released in all of their luminous majesty showcasing Johnson as he first sought out and embraced music, not solely as a guitarist, but as a musician, bright with ever present promise and sublime ability.
“Seven Worlds” offers the first insight into one of music’s most esteemed, timeless, and gifted artists, whose stunning vocals, lustrous songwriting craftsmanship, gifts at arrangement, production, and a diverse array of many musical instruments, hold him ever so high in the musical pantheon.
And so, for Eric Johnson, his life and music have come full circle. Often there have been obstacles that like a storm’s gale, made the effort difficult, but Johnson is a fighter and not likely to stop having hope in his musical vision and in life. So, on the dawning of a new and brighter day, Eric Johnson, always joyful and of a faith filled heart, reflects on making, mapping, and celebrating music.
Arlene R. Weiss: After twenty years, you have finally released “Seven Worlds”, your debut solo album. Many have applauded “Seven Worlds” as a stunning work showcasing and offering insight into your burgeoning talent in its earliest stages. 20/20 being hindsight,
what were your artistic impressions of “Seven Worlds” in 1978, and your current impressions in 1998?
Eric Johnson: It was somewhat of a personal traumatic thing for me. I had spent a lot of time, eight months or so, putting that record together….and then it just got shelved. I really wanted it to come out then. I think in hindsight now when I listen to it, I think about half of it still holds up real well and I think the other half obviously, 20 years later, shows the wear for time. There’s certain songs on there…they’re not necessarily embarrassing, they’re just not quite what I would do now. It was a long time ago. It’s a truthful package. It was not remixed, not one note or one mix was changed. The way people hear it is the way it was from 1978 and so it’s just an honest thing and we opted “No, we’re not going to change any of the songs, we’re not going to remix it, nothing. We’ll just put it out verbatim like it was originally going to come out in 1978.” Part of that is just that you have to go “Well, some of it is going to be a little dated and not really applicable”, but there’s songs like “I Promise I Will Try”, “By Your Side”, and “Winter Came”…”Missing Key” perhaps…I still like those.
Arlene R. Weiss: Explain how you decided on the title “Seven Worlds”.
Eric Johnson: Honestly, I wish it was some lofty thing but it wasn’t. I remember reading in “Time Magazine” an article about third world countries and I just kind of dug the third world thing. I thought that sounded like a neat term, and I thought well, five worlds, fifth world, sixth world, and I just thought seven worlds sounded neat. It really wasn’t much to do with anything else. I liked the way seven worlds sounded. Later I started trying to put a meaning to it like maybe there’s seven different types of music, kind of read into it, but really I just liked the way it sounded.
Arlene R. Weiss: How was the album initially conceived?
Eric Johnson: I had been in the “Electromagnets” and decided to do some different music. I wanted to go off and do a different thing. I had been doing a lot of session work for this studio called Pecan Street Studios-Odyssey Sound was the original name of it. Jay Aaron (Podolnick-“Seven Worlds’” Producer) was one of the owners and one of the Producers there as well as a musician and I had done session work for him. After I’d done enough session work, he told me “You’ve done a lot of work so I will return the favor and let you come in and cut a few songs in the studio.” which was like, this is an incredible deal. You go in and use a 24 Track machine and actually do some of your own music. That was the first time that I ever had a chance to do that. It was really exciting. I went in and cut four tunes. That was in the end of 1976.
Arlene R. Weiss: So were you actually doing your own mixing and engineering?
Eric Johnson: No, Jay Aaron did. He produced and engineered it and we cut four tunes, “A Song For Life”, “Winter Came”, “Showdown”, and “Turn The Page”. After that, I shopped those songs trying to get something going, so that I could go back in and finish the rest of it.
Arlene R. Weiss: On “Seven Worlds” your vocals are showcased exhibiting a beautiful ethereal quality. Did you train your voice to master your exquisite interpretation, phrasing, and timing?
Eric Johnson: No, not really. That was the first time I ever sang. Jay Aaron helped me a lot on that. He coached me through a lot of the vocal stuff.
Arlene R. Weiss: Your vocals have become more polished throughout your career and releases. How do you continue to craft them?
Eric Johnson: It’s just practice, which I don’t do enough of. I find that if I do discipline myself and practice, that they get better and the more you do it, if you constantly practice, you stay good at it. Sometimes I’ll just get in a thing where I’m practicing guitar but then I don’t sing for a month and then there’s no mystery if… you’re not singing great. You’ve got to work at it every day.
Arlene R. Weiss: What singers most influenced you?
Eric Johnson: Vocally the people I like would be Stevie Wonder and Allison Krauss. I probably don’t sing as well as any of the people I admire. I like Paul Rodgers.
Arlene R. Weiss: Of all your works, “Seven Worlds” has a uniquely subtle approach and your guitar work is sublimely understated. In return, your gifts on vocals, piano, interpretation, songwriting craftsmanship and arrangement shine through, just as they continue to do so on all of your releases. Was this your intent, to hold back on guitar to allow your other talents to fully blossom?
Eric Johnson: No, not really. It was my first time in the studio so I was trying to figure a way to put it all together.
Arlene R. Weiss: “Missing Key” and “I Promise I Will Try” are just sublime songs. Can you elaborate on their creative process?
Eric Johnson: They were just songs I wrote and then went in and cut them. “Missing Key” is about a lost love. “I Promise I Will Try” is about trying to become a better person and not just talking about it, but doing something where you will really make a difference in life.
Arlene R. Weiss: You added an elegant classical element on “Missing Key”, adding a Viola Da Gamba in the instrumentation. What sparked your arrangement in this direction?
Eric Johnson: We would be in the studio and we would think, “It would be nice to put this here or there.”. There’s an accordion on there as well. Linda Wetherby is an actress here in town who plays Viola Da Gamba. We knew her at the time and she would just come in. We’d try anything, see what happens.
Arlene R. Weiss: You also incorporated lush production values with multilayers of reverb and detailed orchestration. How did you create this?
Eric Johnson: A lot of that Jay did. He handled all the engineering and production.
Arlene R. Weiss: Years before you began playing the guitar, as a child you studied classical piano.
Eric Johnson: Yes, I did.
Arlene R. Weiss: You also have expressed your desire to professionally play both classical piano and the violin.
Eric Johnson: Yes, piano. I think the violin because of the solo lines. It’s just a beautiful sounding instrument. The tone is pretty consistent. Piano is my first love. I still love piano a lot.
Arlene R. Weiss: Has your love of the violin been the catalyst for your stunning violin like tones that you have developed and mastered on the guitar?
Eric Johnson: Yes, it definitely has been an influence.
Arlene R. Weiss: With your classically trained background, have you ever considered composing symphonic music?
Eric Johnson: I would like to someday. You would probably write a few pieces that you would have to throw away because you would be learning how to do it, but I can hear it in my head if I concentrate. Let’s see what happens. I think though, that the struggle for me would be learning all the registers. Each instrument has a certain register that you can play in from the lowest note to the highest note and then it has a certain way that it’s written out on paper, certain keys that it would be written in. You have to learn all the mechanics of how all the instruments…where their limitations are and where they can exceed. That requires a lot of studying to be able to do that very well, and trial and error as well.
Arlene R. Weiss: When did you begin composing and arranging?
Eric Johnson: I started writing when I was a kid but it was all just silly stuff. I started getting more serious about it when I was about seventeen, maybe fifteen actually.
Arlene R. Weiss: What were some of the earliest works that you composed?
Eric Johnson: Some of the first works that I composed were with the group Mariani, where Vince and I were composing together.
Arlene R. Weiss: What thoughts and experiences inspire the lyrics that you write?
Eric Johnson: I like it to be something inspiring, something with a purpose where it can point something out that is revelatory. I like to write about human emotional things and reach some higher ideal.
Arlene R. Weiss: What images or thoughts inspire you when you write music?
Eric Johnson: It can change all the time. I don’t know if I could say any one thing or two things. It could be anything. A lot of the time the music that you play and certain notes will evoke a certain vibe and that will spark a certain lyric and idea. That’s usually the way it happens with me. I rarely write lyrics first. I do have a couple of songs where that’s happened, but usually I’ll get an idea for a song and then a certain atmosphere or mood or energy towards a certain way, and that will possibly depict the theme of the lyrics.
Arlene R. Weiss: How do you determine which songs you want to remain instrumental and which ones you want to add a lyric narrative to?
Eric Johnson: They just spell themselves out for themselves, if you just listen to see what’s going on.
Arlene R. Weiss: You also produced “Ah Via Musicom” and “Venus Isle”. While the creative control these roles afford are great, do you ever feel pressure from so much responsibility to your musical vision?
Eric Johnson: Yes, somewhat. If you do a lot yourself…it’s one of the reasons my records take an exorbitant amount of time. I’m writing, playing, producing, and arranging. There’s pros and cons to it, to both sides. I think that in the future there will be records that at the very least, I co-produce with other people. It’s finding the right chemistry and the right balance with who you work with. A lot of times in my formative years, when I was trying to get record deals, and I worked with various different producers,…I don’t know if I ever met the particular people that I could tandemly produce my music with, where I felt like “ Here’s something that I can really let go more on.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with letting go and delegating responsibility, but it should be somebody that…
Arlene R. Weiss: Understands your vision.
Eric Johnson: Understands…
Arlene R. Weiss: And doesn’t try to change it.
Eric Johnson: Right. And also, what they add or what they want to put in, should be cognizant of the level of integrity that not only can you match, but that you are striving to match. Otherwise, it’s like they’re saying “Oh that’s fine.” and you’re going “no, no…it’s not quite”…and that can go both ways. Sometimes relationships are wrong, but…
Arlene R. Weiss: Either way it’s still your record so it should encapsulate your vision, not theirs.
Eric Johnson: Yes. Even people who make movies. It would be hard for somebody to say, “I want to direct, star, and do everything.” I’m not locked into having to do it all if the situation arose to where I felt somebody truly related to what I did and was interested in working with me. If I thought it was a good match, I would be happy to try a few songs. There are a lot of records that I listen to that I admire, and what people do, and there are a lot of great producers out there; better producers than me, engineers, what have you. I think as far as me knowing what I can do and what I can’t do, I’ve got a pretty good line on that. It’s just a double-edged thing.
Arlene R. Weiss: As an artist, you labor to assure that every nuance of your vision is perfect. “Venus Isle” originally had two different working titles. The first, “Longpath Meadow” was taken from a poem in the liner notes in “Ah Via Musicom” and then later on you changed it to “Travel One Hope”. Why the changes to the title “Venus Isle” and what does the title refer to?
Eric Johnson: I actually liked the other titles better. I changed the other titles because I was told by numerous people, “No, no, the title, no you need something that will hit people.” Several people told me that they thought it was too obtuse, which is kind of silly because…
Arlene R. Weiss: But “Travel One Hope” sounds so meaningful and “Longpath Meadow” came from the poem.
Eric Johnson: If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t have changed the title. I know, “Venus Isle” to me is too, “Hey! “Venus Isle”! It sounds like Vegas or something. You get the point. But the whole meaning of the record, I’ve never had it truly imparted to people. There’s a whole meaning behind “Venus Isle” being the body of love which the human body is and there’s a whole conceptual thing regarding the record. People break it into this second or that second, and ask “Why is it so Mary Poppins here, why is it this way here?” But there was a point to the whole thing which maybe was a little too subtle. The point was…
Arlene R. Weiss: That’s why things that are commercial, that often don’t have much integrity, fly off the shelves and artistic things don’t necessarily…
Eric Johnson: Yes, and the whole idea was the opening of the consciousness. The droning at the beginning goes into this piece that was purposely a little bit dainty and everything’s fine and we’re all just sitting around doing this picnic thing, but not really. Then Eve, who could have been any sage, it just happened to be in the impersonation of a woman this time and had nothing to do with Adam and Eve, comes along and tries to shake everybody up. They’re just sitting around and that’s the whole purpose of why I sang that song…a little bit dainty. I wanted it to be that way so there would be that contrast of where, “Everything’s fine, we’re all asleep.”, and somebody comes and they shake you and say “No, you’re in this “Venus Isle”, you’re in this body of love. Don’t be asleep; wake up while you have this seventy years or so. Take this opportunity. Wake up and try to be better to yourself and to everybody else because you won’t always be here”. Then, as you awake, you see this tumultuous state we are in and that’s what the song “Battle We Have Won” is all about. But at the same time, regardless of how it all ends, no matter what, it’s in the struggle and the effort that you can win that battle. It’s not a question of whether you fail or succeed, you win anyhow through your effort. But the whole thing was a little … too metaphoric.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you come up with the title “Travel One Hope”? It’s very meaningful.
Eric Johnson: The idea of the record to me was hope, of having hope. There was going to be a Volume One and a Volume Two. I was talking with a friend and we thought, “Is there a different way to say Volume One? How about Log 1 or Visit 1?” Then we thought Travel 1, Travel 2, would be how you would call Volume 1 and Volume 2. Originally, it was going to be called “Hope, Travel One” and then it was “Travel One Hope”.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you conceive “Tones”?
Eric Johnson: It was really just songs that I had been working on for years. When you do your first record like I did, you have this cluster of songs that you have been playing in clubs for years.
Arlene R. Weiss: In the nearly ten years that had elapsed between “Seven Worlds” and “Tones”, in what ways had you evolved as a musician?
Eric Johnson: I think just playing a lot. I played a lot of clubs and went all over the place, honing my thing. I developed an audience and then when I got in to do the record, I chose the songs that were working best at the time.
Arlene R. Weiss: You are renowned for your relentless quest at developing and perfecting luminous tones and melody on the guitar. Do you often feel like an explorer of sorts?
Eric Johnson: Yes, definitely. That’s part of it and figuring out different ways to make something as magnified or profound as you can, to do the best that you can. I don’t look at it as trying to be perfect. That word has gotten me into a lot of trouble in the last few years. If you are trying to aspire and transcend and improve what you’re doing, I don’t think it necessarily means you’re neurotically trying to be perfect. That word opens for a lot of interpretation that makes people say, “What’s that about”?
Arlene R. Weiss: But isn’t that just like when you were relating what goes with being a Producer and it being a double-edged sword as well, because both the music industry and your musical peers revere you for setting the standard for tone and melody, and developing that on the guitar?
Eric Johnson: There are plenty of people that came before me musically who have set the standard. I’m just trying to be a part of continuing it. It depends on what the end all, what you are trying to present, is. You look at a lot of classical musicians and jazz musicians. They practice day in, day out, trying to get the right tone with the right passage. That’s very important, to do a very powerful, eloquent job at what they’re doing. I hardly think you can say, “They’re trying to be perfect”. That’s not what music is about. It’s about trying to do the best that you can and to play as well as you can. Just because that particular strategy or effort does not immediately apply to a lot of pop music, does not mean that it’s not a viable intent. It just depends on how you end up with it. If it’s simply to go wild and intentionally play difficult things, saying, “I’m trying to climb another rung on the ladder to be perfect”, then, yes, you’ve lost the purpose. That’s a bit of a strange concept.
Arlene R. Weiss: Yes, you do it for the right reasons, not because you’re trying to best anybody else, but just because you are trying to do the best that you can.
Eric Johnson: Sure, and if we really get hard lined about this “trying to be perfect”, well then we would still be playing with square wheels and big clubs. Thank goodness people are trying to strive a little bit.
Arlene R. Weiss: Trying to shake things up so to speak.
Eric Johnson: Yes. It has to be for the right reasons though. There’s no question about that.
Arlene R. Weiss: Your follow-up album, “Ah Via Musicom”, has been praised on every musical level. As a concept album, what were you hoping to achieve as you set about creating the album?
Eric Johnson: I just set out to make a really honking guitar record. That’s all, and then I put in some tunes as well that just happened. Pop tunes like “Nothing Can Keep Me From You” just happened to be stuff I was working on at the time. “East Wes” is something that happened at the very last minute that I wrote while we were in the studio. I was just trying to make a guitar record, because I had gotten a lot of constructive criticism that “Tones” didn’t have enough guitar blown up on it, so I thought, “ Ok, I’ll go in and I’ll try to really blow it up”.
Arlene R. Weiss: The song “Cliffs of Dover” conjures up a vision of elegance and nobility. Explain how you named the piece.
Eric Johnson: It’s a song I had a long time, and then a friend of mine, actually Vince, who you know I played with in “Mariani”, said “You ought to call that the “Cliffs of Dover””, so I named it that. It had a little bit of an English, Scottish thing to it.
Arlene R. Weiss: Describe the emotions you felt winning the ®Grammy Award for “Cliffs of Dover”.
Eric Johnson: I was really surprised. I really wasn’t expecting that. It was funny, because I had been to the ®Grammy’s a couple of times before and that was the one I chose not to go to.
Arlene R. Weiss: You didn’t go to that one?
Eric Johnson: No, I didn’t go.
Arlene R. Weiss: Forget all that pomp and circumstance!
Eric Johnson: Well, it’s cool to go to. It was great fun. I went a couple of times and it’s neat, but after you’ve been a couple of times…
Arlene R. Weiss: So it must have been good luck not going!
Eric Johnson: Yes, I think so. If I had been there, of course I’d have been on the stage screaming, “That’s my ®Grammy, that’s my ®Grammy! Give it to me!” (laughing) No, just kidding!
Arlene R. Weiss: Did you feel a sense of validation from the music industry?
Eric Johnson: Yes, it was really, really nice. I was pretty surprised. It is quite a nice feeling.
Arlene R. Weiss: Prior to “Seven Worlds”, you were a prominent musical force, well established in the local Austin , Texas music scene. Tell me about your beginnings as an artist in Austin, the gigs that you played, and how you first established yourself regionally.
Eric Johnson: The tack that Joe, my Manager and I had was, we were just not able to get record deals or anything going, so the whole thing was, “Let’s do what we can to take our own steps, and because we’re not at step #10, let’s not get hung up. Let’s just take it at step #1.” So you would go out and play and thirty people would show up and next week it would be thirty five. It took years and we finally built up a following. We got asked to do the “Austin City Limits” show, which is a worldwide thing, and there was a lot of response from that. After we had gotten this built in thing going, the record company called us, but before that, it was difficult.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you wind up on “Austin City Limits”? How did PBS and you wind up collaborating together so to speak?
Eric Johnson: We had been trying to get on there for years and finally they consented.
Arlene R. Weiss: What were some of the first bands that you were in and which ones most influenced you?
Eric Johnson: Mariani and the Electromagnets, probably, but before that, the first band that I was ever in was called The Id and I didn’t even know what the word meant (laughing). They had an older bass player and he said, “We’ll call this thing The Id and go out and play coffee houses”, and I’m thinking, “Yeah whatever, as long as I can get home to play with the hoola hoop in time!”
Arlene R. Weiss: How old were you then?
Eric Johnson: I was twelve.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did your influences and experiences with jazz affect your musical direction?
Eric Johnson: It’s teaching me to learn better chord changes and how to play through the changes. That’s what I’m trying to learn how to do.
Arlene R. Weiss: When did you embark on a solo career?
Eric Johnson: I started on that right after The Electromagnets, which would have been 1976.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did they come up with that title?
Eric Johnson: Kyle Brock started that group. He and Bill Maddox came up with it. I’m not sure though. They were going before I was ever a part of it. But it was just like “magnetizing” music, Electromagnets. He had read some kind of science thing about it or something.
Arlene R. Weiss: You crossed paths with many of the great musicians who also came from the area. It must have been a nurturing and exciting environment to be involved in, having so many musical peers following their dreams while in support of one another.
Eric Johnson: Yes, and there were all styles of music. It was a time when the country thing was real big, but there were all sorts of jazz bands.
Arlene R. Weiss: Why do you think that Texas, particularly Austin, has for decades, spawned such an immense and diverse amount of gifted musicians?
Eric Johnson: It was one of the centers of the South, like you have St. Louis and Chicago which had done the same, maybe in different eras, but they definitely had done the same.
Of course, New Orleans with the French influence and Cajun music, and Austin similarly, was a collection point for a lot of culture and a lot of people.
Arlene R. Weiss: You included some up and coming talent on “Seven Worlds” including Kim Wilson of The Fabulous Thunderbirds and Christopher Cross. Was there a camaraderie amongst you and your peers, sharing and contributing to each other’s musical aspirations and dreams on this record?
Eric Johnson: Yes, there was.
Arlene R. Weiss: How did you come about mixing the album at George Martin’s Air Studios in London?
Eric Johnson: The engineer and producer I was working with, Jay Aaron, suggested that
we go to England to mix. We originally went to Trident Studios, in London, but it didn’t
quite work out for us. While we were there, we thought, “Let’s go to Air”. They had some open time, so we went in, in the middle of the night. We were doing the graveyard shift, recorded there, and got to meet George Martin, which was the highlight.
Arlene R. Weiss: It must have been exciting to be that young and travel to London to work in such an esteemed studio.
Eric Johnson: Yes, it was great. I loved it!
Arlene R. Weiss: What were your impressions of Sir George Martin?
Eric Johnson: I only got to talk to him for a few minutes, so I wouldn’t be able to say that I really know him by a stretch, but he’s very elegant, very nice, just a real gentleman. And it was interesting, because here’s George Martin, and he’s asking us, “Are you all ok, do you need anything, is everything alright, are you happy here?” He’s just a very nice person.
Arlene R. Weiss: Two songs on “Seven Worlds”, “Zap” and “Emerald Eyes” were later reworked and released on 1986’s Reprise release “Tones”. Tell me about the differences between the 1978 and 1986 versions, why they were reworked for “Tones”, and which versions you feel are better?
Eric Johnson: To be honest with you, to me, I like the original versions better. I like the original “Emerald Eyes” better because I like the swing of it. It’s got a nice groove.
Arlene R. Weiss: It’s jazzy, especially when it first starts out.
Eric Johnson: Yes, I like it better. I like both “Zaps”. The “Tones’” “Zap” is a little more blown up, but I like the original “Zap”. I like the solo that I did and I especially like the harp solo that Kim (Wilson) did.
Arlene R. Weiss: On “Alone With You”, you attain a bell like chime harmonic tone often associated with a Gibson. Did you create this on a Gibson, or on a Fender?
Eric Johnson: It’s probably a Fender guitar.
Arlene R. Weiss: What was the first guitar that you ever owned and played?
Eric Johnson: A Fender white MusicMaster.
Arlene R. Weiss: What acoustic guitars do you use?
Eric Johnson: I have a couple of Martin’s. Oh, I also have a Takamine classical that I use. Actually, it’s kind of a funky little guitar, but it records real well!
Arlene R. Weiss: Have you ever studied classical flamenco?
Eric Johnson: Yes, I love Sabicas.
Arlene R. Weiss: When did you start playing lap steel?
Eric Johnson: David Dennard, who played bass on some of the “Seven Worlds” material turned me on to lap steel. That was probably 1977. I got this old Oahu steel. He had a lap steel and he showed me some stuff and how to do it. I never got crazy on it, but I like it a lot.
Arlene R. Weiss: Have you ever played Dobro?
Eric Johnson: Yes, I have a Dobro.
Arlene R. Weiss: There are many non-musical creative facets that express your extraordinary talents. You are a prolific poet. When did you first start writing poetry?
Eric Johnson: I started that in High School or even before. I started that pretty early.
Arlene R. Weiss: Are you still writing poetry?
Eric Johnson: Yes, I still am. I have a bunch of boxes full of different poetry.
Arlene R. Weiss: How do you decide which poems you wish to transform into song lyrics and which ones you wish to keep in their original non-musical context?
Eric Johnson: If I’m writing lyrics, then I write it all out and if something seems to work in the song, I’ll take it into the song, but usually I write the songs first. That’s usually the way that goes.
Arlene R. Weiss: As lyrical as your writing is, have you ever considered publishing your poems and sharing them with the world?
Eric Johnson: I’ve thought about that recently because I’ve got a big collection of them and I thought, someday, I might do that. Actually, some of the poems are better than the lyrics that I do for the songs. So I’ve actually thought about that. Maybe when I get a little bit more of it where there would be enough to make a book out of it.
Arlene R. Weiss: What about film scoring? I know that you want to do that.
Eric Johnson: I would love to do that.
Arlene R. Weiss: What type of film do you think would best compliment and in turn, be complimented by your talents?
Eric Johnson: I would like to be involved in a film that would transport someone, no matter if it’s heavy in certain ways. I would be open to whatever it was, as long as it had someway where I would feel that I could contribute something that would really lift and cause emotion in people; that would take them to where they felt as if they had lived a lifetime after they finished watching the movie.
Arlene R. Weiss: What about theater? Ever thought about that, either a musical or a non-musical, where you would do the score for that?
Eric Johnson: Yes, if I got asked to do any of that, I would consider it, if I thought I could do a decent job at it.
Arlene R. Weiss: Didn’t you score an episode of “Nova” for PBS?
Eric Johnson: Yes, one that Steve Barber and I did together.
Arlene R. Weiss: Which episode was that?
Eric Johnson: It’s one called “Nautilus: 500 Million Years Under The Sea-“The Chambered Nautilus”.
Arlene R. Weiss: What year did it come out?
Eric Johnson: 1987.
Arlene R. Weiss: So that was before you got your first record deal.
Eric Johnson: Yes.
Arlene R. Weiss: So when you wound up on “Austin City Limits”, seeing as how both are part of PBS, do you think “Nova” spurred them to put you on “Austin City Limits”?
Eric Johnson: I’m not sure what spurred them to do that. We just asked them a lot and were trying to get things going on that, and they finally said, “Let’s give it a shot”.
Arlene R. Weiss: “Austin City Limits” you mean.
Eric Johnson: Yes, “ Austin City Limits”. The “Nova” episode was done by a friend of Steve’s that is an Oceanographic photographer. He wanted to do that with us, and give us a shot at doing that.
Arlene R. Weiss: So what is that episode about, something in the way of Jacques Cousteau?
Eric Johnson: Yes, it is. The nautilus is a shell creature that has not changed for five hundred million years. It’s totally escaped evolution. The theme of the show was; how interesting, here’s this creature that lives so deep in the sea that it never evolved. It’s just the same as it was. It’s pretty amazing.
Arlene R. Weiss: What other creative areas would you like to explore?
Eric Johnson: I really think I’m just happy doing what I do. I just want to get better at what I’m doing, get to be a better musician and a better writer. I wouldn’t mind producing other acts, eventually, if I found the right band to work with; playing some on their records and helping get their work out, or being involved with other people making music together.
Arlene R. Weiss: I know you have contributed to a lot of compilations too.
Eric Johnson: Yes, I have.
Arlene R. Weiss: What other things and interests spark your imagination?
Eric Johnson: Just getting out in the country or going water skiing. I love to do that. Traveling.
Arlene R. Weiss: Where have you traveled?
Eric Johnson: Pretty much all over the U.S. many times and all sorts of remote places and canyons. I’ve also traveled all over the world. I’ve been to Canada, Mexico, Japan, and different countries in Europe and Africa.
Arlene R. Weiss: You are admired for divining music as a healing, inspirational life force. Why do you think that so many of today’s musicians not only use their music to express anger and pain, but more so, why do they create music so filled with soulless nihilism?
Eric Johnson: I think it’s a sign of the times. If you take a boomerang and you throw it up in the air, when it comes back to you, there shouldn’t be any mystery or shock in that, “My God, what’s this thing coming back at me? Why is this”? If we go back, we see why. There’s no mystery why that’s happening. It’s a social comment on life. By the way that we’ve changed and pushed the envelope as far as the negative polarity in movies and TV, and our own concept of wanting to try to satiate our sensationalism and shock value, we’ve thrown out a lot of boomerangs. When they come back, people have a lot that they need to vent, so it’s quite natural. We’ve tried to sell this apple pie image and nobody buys it anymore. All the preachers get busted and all the leaders are not…it’s not the vision everybody projects behind the curtains, so if the boomerang comes back and people are mad and frustrated, it’s only natural.
Arlene R. Weiss: “Ah Via Musicom” was named for, “a celebration by way of the communication of music, as a festival of life”, and for you, music is a spiritual guiding force. You derive a great sense of joy and light from its essence. Can you elaborate upon this, and what feelings pass through you knowing that you are instilling this light in those inspired by your music?
Eric Johnson: That makes me feel…that’s more important to me than anything. Sometimes I get letters from people or somebody tells me that. I would just like to say, that that is really important to me, and I would like to know if I’m not doing that, because then I’d like to get readjusted and tune into what’s happening, so that I can do that. To me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about how many records I can sell, how much more famous I can get, how many amps and guitars I can collect, or how I can impress people with my antics on guitar. It’s about how I can make people feel and if I can offer something that gives them repose or an oasis. I believe in that and I’ll always believe in that. I don’t ever want to not believe in that and I want to go see a movie that lifts me up. But, you can’t take the tack of, “We’ve got to censor everybody, we’re going to turn it into this McCarthy era”. But you can take the tack of being open minded and of being positively responsible. And if you take that tack, there’s no need for censors, no need for any of that, but you can be a little bigger than that. You can say, “Well yes, we can do anything we want, so why should we choose to make “Natural Born Killers”?
Arlene R. Weiss: Right, music and all forms of entertainment have a certain responsibility. You don’t have to censor it. But where do entertainers and performers now have a sense of responsibility not just to themselves, but to the people who look up to their work as a role model?
Eric Johnson: I’ll go on the record for saying this. It’s real convenient when we as artists, whether we make movies or whether we make records, no matter what we do. It’s very convenient for us to want to go pursue any kind of shock value to any extent, or any subliminal negative message, but then when anybody might interview us and say, “Do you think that you might have anything to do with this person feeling this way”?, we say, “What are you talking about. I’m just doing my own creative thing. I’m expressing my free views. It doesn’t have anything to do with that.” I don’t believe in that at all and I never will, because you have certain people…the eyes and ears of the world who are looking to you. They’re only nine years old or twelve or fourteen. These people haven’t had a lot of blueprinting in their brain yet. They’re searching like innocent tentacles out into the stars, looking for some kind of inspiration. It’s convenient for us so we can make our money to say that we have no affect on them, and then we put out all this polarity wise material and don’t want to take any credit for it when somebody asks us a question. I don’t agree with that. It’s a cheap shot and it’s part of the boomerang thing that’s coming back at us. I don’t believe in censorship, but I believe in taking responsibility. And if you have the eyes of the world watching you, what are you going to say, what are you going to play…what’s going to be your stance, because you do affect people. If I have a chance to walk outside, I can swear at every car coming by or I can raise my chin three inches higher and think, “Did you see the way that leaf bounded through the air”? …it’s all about your attitude. What are you going to impart, what are you going to put back?
Arlene R. Weiss: That’s why I appreciate a lot of the music of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. It was different. There were bad things always going on in the world. You had the Vietnam War, political problems and Watergate, but you had people like Crosby, Stills, and Nash and The Jefferson Airplane who wrote music that said, “No, it’s not all rosy and great, we’re not saying it is, but try and make a difference and do something positive about it.
Eric Johnson: But, there are people like Sarah McLachlan, she’s got a great thing. Loreena McKennitt. Even some of the material Alanis Morissette does…there’s a positive overtone to it…The Verve, they have some interesting things to say. I don’t know if it’s old versus new. There’s a lot of new material that’s hip.
Arlene R. Weiss: Of all the many instruments that you play, and creative hats that you wear from musician, to composer, to producer; which instrument do you most enjoy playing and which creative role do you find most satisfying?
Eric Johnson: Playing the guitar and trying to do the best that I can. It’s the most satisfying when I hear it back and it sounds really good.
Arlene R. Weiss: With your prolific, creative outflow, can we look forward to more unreleased treasures, and significantly, to new material from the enigmatic, beautiful imagination of this profound guitar gypsy and musician?
Eric Johnson: Yes. I hope to get a lot more efficient at putting records out too. I want to try to get faster at it without sacrificing the quality, but I want to try to do as much as I can and without taking too long.
By Arlene R. Weiss
©Copyright Arlene R. Weiss, January 7, 1999 and January 8, 1999, July 26, 2017-2060 And In Perpetuity, All Rights Reserved
[Edited on 7/27/2017 by ArleneWeiss]
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| posted on 7/28/2017 at 02:22 PM|
|Eric Johnson - "Cliffs of Dover" from 1990 album "Ah Via Musicom" performed live here on an episode of "Austin City Limits in 1988. This Live version released on "Eric Johnson Live from Austin, TX". December 14, 1988|
"When The Sun Meets The Sky" from 1996's album, "Venus Isle".
"Friends" from 1986's album "Tones".
"Manhattan" from 1996's album "Venus Isle"
[Edited on 7/28/2017 by ArleneWeiss]
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