Eric Johnson On His Most Revealing Album: 'Up Close'
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2011
He’s famous for his perfectionism, but Eric Johnson presents the most spontaneous and revealing music of his career on his latest album, Up Close. The Austin powerhouse talks about loosening up, discovering his signature tone and performing on the latest Experience Hendrix tour.
Contrary to popular belief, Eric Johnson does watch the clock. The venerated guitarist, known for his leisurely pace in the studio, is sitting in the conference room of the Guitar World offices, digging into a bowl of soup and wolfing down a sandwich. In just under 90 minutes he’s expected uptown at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, where he’s appearing with other six-string notables in the latest edition of the Experience Hendrix tour. Time is tight, but Johnson nonetheless provides thoughtful and unhurried explanations on a variety of topics. Chief among them is his reputation as a perfectionist. The guitarist is acutely aware of the issue, and in a soft, easygoing Texas drawl says, “The truth is, it kind of bothers me. I mean, let’s be honest, the term ‘perfectionist’ is usually said with this negative connotation. Part of me understands why people attach that word to me. But on the other hand, I listen to some of my favorite artists, people like Stevie Wonder and Hendrix and so many others, and I’d be willing to bet—no, I’m sure—that they all aimed pretty high when they did their best work. Not that I’m putting myself on their level, but I do set the bar high with what I do. If you want to shoot for the moon, you shoot for the moon. The end justifies the means.”
He thinks for a second, swallows a mouthful of soup, and adds, “Well, I guess you can take things a little too far, and I could plead guilty to that. But I’m getting better. This new album didn’t take nearly as long as my others ones.”
True and not true. Although Johnson claims to have “gone more with the flow and allowed things to happen naturally” while recording his new CD, Up Close, it comes a full five years after his last disc, 2005’s Bloom, which is pretty much par for the course where his recordings are concerned. In all, he has issued only five studio albums since he debuted 32 years ago with 1978’s Seven Worlds, not counting 2002’s Souvenir, a collection of cuts recorded over the preceding 25 years.
Universally praised by peers and fans as one of the few musicians to achieve that rarity in music—a signature sound and style—Johnson has won a boatload of “greatest guitarist” and other such awards, including a Grammy for the jubilant, radio-friendly “Cliffs of Dover” (from 1990’s Platinum-plus Ah Via Musicom). That famed “Eric Johnson sound”—a unique combination of clean and dirty tones coupled with a piercing yet joyous violin-like finger vibrato—is very much in evidence on Up Close’s 15 mesmerizing tracks. It was recorded in Johnson’s hometown of Austin with his longtime engineer and co-producer, Richard Mullen, along with the tight core of musicians he’s worked with over the years (C. Roscoe Beck on bass, drummers Tommy Taylor and Barry “Frosty” Smith, and keyboardist Red Young). The album is almost an even split of vocal songs (Johnson sings three of them) and instrumentals, and it features appearances by guitar masters Sonny Landreth and fellow Austinite Jimmie Vaughan, along with vocals by Jonny Lang, Malford Milligan and the Joker himself, Steve Miller.
Johnson, Miller and Vaughan tear it up in true Lone Star fashion on a raucous cover of the Electric Flag song “Texas.” But the heart and soul of Up Close can be heard in Johnson’s original compositions. They are among his most deeply personal to date, inspired by self-reflection, epiphanies and affection for friends and family members. There’s the brisk yet moody pop rocker “Brilliant Room,” on which Austin blues veteran Milligan turns in a sparkling, soulful performance. Then there’s the shimmering, twinkling “Gem,” an ameliorating ride into the subconscious which is bound to join the ranks of Johnson’s pantheon of instrumental masterpieces. On the gutsy, blues rock stomper “Austin,” the guitarist fills the verses with glassy, jazzy chords before letting loose with a jaw dropper of a solo in which notes seemingly summersault over one another.
“I really love that song,” Johnson says. “I’m a born-and-bred Texan, and I wanted to write something about the town I remember as a kid. Austin’s still a great place to live, but it’s changed in some ways environmentally that I’m not pleased about.”
And for sheer cosmic guitar wizardry, there’s a trio of daring musical soundscapes—“Awaken,” “Traverse” and “The Sea and the Mountain”—originally cut as one continuous number but later sectioned into three separate pieces. “Even with something like those musical interludes, the idea was to expose myself as an artist more than I ever have before,” Johnson says. “See, in the past, I would’ve labored over that piece—well, they’re pieces now—but this time I just went for it. It was a lot of fun, especially when I went nuts with the feedback at the end. It kind of brought me back to that feeling of why I fell in love with playing the guitar in the first place. When I can get to that mental place with my instrument, I feel at home.”
With Up Close, Johnson has returned home in another way by signing once again with EMI after issuing a handful of releases on Steve Vai’s Favored Nations label. Although the guitarist admits that Capitol/EMI dropped him when 1996’s Venus Isle failed to match the sales of Ah Via Musicom, he’s happy to have the backing once again of the global powerhouse for Up Close, which is labeled an EMI/Vortexan release. “Vortexan is the part of the label I set up so that I can retain control over my music,” he explains. “I tried doing things a different way, the more indie route, and that was fine. But I think it’s important to have as much machinery behind you as you can, distribution-wise and promotion-wise—especially these days, when you’re up against so much in trying to get your music out there.”
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