Eric Johnson On His Most Revealing Album: 'Up Close'
GW It sounds like you had quite an epiphany. Was there a specific occurrence that brought this about?
JOHNSON Yeah, I just started to accept that whenever people had certain criticisms about the way I was making music, what they were giving me was a gift—they weren’t just getting on my case. If they didn’t think that I had talent or what I was doing wasn’t any good, they wouldn’t say anything at all. So a doorway started opening, and I stopped looking at what people were saying as, you know, just one giant bummer.
Trying to make better music and improve as a player and make something artistic…there’s no one recipe. I used to think there was. I thought, Well, this is how I’m supposed to do this, and this is how that’s gotta be done, and so on. Throwing out those notions has been very liberating. Of course, it’s taken me years to get to this place, but better late than never.
Something I want to add to that, and this might help illustrate my whole philosophy: I’m starting to think that people don’t really go out to listen to music. They might think they are, but what they’re really looking for is the spirit behind the music. They’re looking for something that moves them and touches them. But you can’t move people unless you’re inspired yourself. That’s something I’ve had to grapple with—inspiration versus craft. You can work on your craft and polish something and hone it, but if you’re just beating your head against the wall, what are you really doing? I used to think that I was making things better, but I’ve started to come around to the way of thinking that maybe things were coming out a little sterile.
GW So everything that you’re saying comes down to one thing: you had to stop fussing around so much. [laughs]
JOHNSON Well, sure. It’s like, a painter might make 100 paintings in his lifetime, but the world might only praise 10 of them. Does that mean that the other 90 are worthless? Of course not. So I had to… [pauses] I had to realize that myopically holding on to one song for so long wasn’t going to matter in the long run—because I’ve got 80 or 90 more songs to do! It’s like, if Jonny Lang can sing “Austin” better than me, then so be it. That means there’s another 40 I can try to sing myself. It’s all about trying to make better music, making that connection.
GW Did you have any kind of set schedule for recording Up Close? Because you have your own studio, are you always working in fits and starts, or did you have an actual date when you got the other musicians in and formally began sessions?
JOHNSON It kind of happened over time. Like you said, I’m pretty much always writing songs and getting ideas, so it wasn’t like I decided one day, All right, today’s the day when I start to make my new record. Being that I’m my own producer and work with Richard Mullen, who co-produces with me, I have the luxury to work when I want. But the writing process and the gathering of information never ends. I’m always writing things down on paper and making tapes and filing them away. I might call the guys up and say, “Hey, let’s try to do some recording today.” And if the song works out, great; if not, then I’ve got a good demo that I can resort to at some future date.
I do work on my own a lot, though. If I get an idea at home, I’ll go work on it and try to get it as definitive as possible. I’m proficient enough on most of the instruments I need to work with, although I’ll use a drum machine or a metronome for the rhythms. There were some times on this record where the band got together and we went for it.
GW In terms of subject matter, the state of Texas looms large on the album. You cover the Electric Flag song “Texas,” and of course you have “Austin” and the song “Vortexan”… Coincidence or intentional?
JOHNSON It just kind of happened, really. I was always going to put “Austin” on the record. As far as “Texas” goes, I had cut a blues track, and then Steve Miller came in and was going to sing, and he heard what we did and said, “Man, I’d love to sing ‘Texas’ over that.” It wasn’t necessarily supposed to be the Electric Flag song. Roscoe and Tommy and I had cut a first-take blues track, and it pretty much lent itself to what Steve wanted to do. It’s amazing, really, because I love that Electric Flag record [1968’s A Long Time Comin’]—I pretty much wore it out as a kid—but I didn’t think of covering anything from it. Yeah, that was a nice bit of spontaneity.
GW And it doesn’t hurt the Texas vibe that you have Jimmie Vaughan guesting on the track as well.
JOHNSON That’s pretty cool, huh? Jimmie’s amazing. He came in and overdubbed his parts. I didn’t have to give him any kind of direction or anything; he knew what to do. Man, I’m such a fan of his playing. I could listen to him all day and all night.
GW By the way, just what in the world is a “Vortexan”?
JOHNSON [laughs] Oh, that’s a funny name somebody called me. I was in Sedona, Arizona, and a friend of mine was talking about how spacey the place is and how there’s all these vortexes and stuff, and he looked at me and said, “And you’re the Vortexan!” I thought that was a great title. The song is a pretty cool blues, kind of like Robert Johnson’s “Cat’s Squirrel” and a little bit like my song “Righteous.” I like it a lot.