Eric Johnson On His Most Revealing Album: 'Up Close'
GW This is an Eric Johnson record, yet it’s loaded with guest stars. Did it ever concern you that your fans might think they weren’t getting enough Eric Johnson?
JOHNSON Listening to the finished record, my only concern was that I wished I could have played guitar with more reckless abandon. It’s like, I should have more fun and let go. The record’s a little tame and in its place.
GW But I thought the whole idea was to let go more!
JOHNSON It was, but I don’t know if I got there all the way. I think this record is a step in the right direction. Put it this way: it’s much better than Bloom. With Bloom, I wish I could call it all back and redo the whole album. Give me that record for three days, man, and let me go nuts. That record’s sedate. I just… I want to figure out how to get more. More and more and more. I want to get less conservative in the studio and have fun and get crazy. There’s got to be a way to be more intense without stepping all over the songs.
GW Well, I would say you’ve done a pretty good job on the new album.
JOHNSON Yeah, thanks. I just know I can get closer. I have no problem with the amount of guest stars on the record. People are getting enough of me. They’re my songs. I’m playing on them. If somebody sings a song better than me, that’s fine. It all contributes to the whole.
GW The three interludes—“Awaken,” “Traverse” and “The Sea and the Mountain”—started out as one whole song. How and why did they become separate pieces?
JOHNSON I originally recorded the whole piece, and I tried all kinds of versions of it and placing it everywhere on the record, and I could never be happy with it. The flow of the record wouldn’t work with it, but I didn’t want to lose it, either. So somebody suggested to me the idea of cutting it up into three different parts, and it worked out really well. Suddenly, I had my opening for the album, “Awaken,” and then I had my middle, “Traverse,” and with “The Sea and the Mountain,” I kind of had almost the closing chapter. It’s weird how it all came about, but I’m so glad I chopped it up. Each piece feels more dramatic now. But I will say, with “Awaken” I had to fight myself wanting to hard edit that into “Fatdaddy” [the following track], because that would be exactly what I did with “Cliffs of Dover.” So now it kinds of fades out and goes into “Fatdaddy.” It’s cool. I can live with it.
GW The song “Soul Surprise” is a great instrumental, but it didn’t start out that way. Originally, you wanted Paul Rodgers to sing on the track.
JOHNSON That’s right. I’m such a fan of Paul Rodgers. He’s one of my favorite, all-time singers. But I could never come up with a compelling vocal melody for the song, and I wasn’t going to have him come in and sing on something I wasn’t totally thrilled with. If I’m going to do work with Paul Rodgers, I want it to be worth his while; it’s gotta be worth his talent. So yeah, “Soul Surprise” just seemed to want to be an instrumental. I struggled with it a bit. I liked the track, I liked the way the guys played on it, but whenever I tried putting guide vocals down on it, it sounded very normal and rehashed to me. It’s good now. I really enjoy the groove on it and how it sounds like a Free-inspired tune, which it is, of course. [sighs] It just didn’t want to be a vocal song.
GW Your soloing on “Gem” is gorgeous. You wrote that song for a friend of yours, right?
JOHNSON Yeah, it’s kind of a tribute to a good friend of mine. There’s a few songs that I directed toward certain people.
GW I would think “Your Book,” on which you play piano, is one you aimed at specific people in your life.
JOHNSON Oh yeah. I wrote that about my father, who died a few years ago. With that one, I started thinking about how everybody has a story, and that story is their book. Think about it: how many times have you gone to see a movie and you said, “Well, that was good, but the book was so much better”? That’s what I was trying to get at with “Your Book.” I was trying to put into words my father’s story, or at least what I thought his story should be.
GW Is it hard for you to write about something so personal, or is it a catharsis? Is it liberating to be able to get such emotional baggage out in your work?
JOHNSON It’s both. It’s hard, but…more and more, it’s liberating, yeah. I have a whole different side to me, which is me playing the piano. I get to explore a lot of personal stuff on the piano. You know, when I started playing the guitar, it was cool and people seemed to really like it, so I rolled with it, you know? But doing acoustic shows and playing the piano, I started getting feedback that people really enjoyed it. So to answer your question, whether it’s a catharsis or not, I think that’s always been there, but I’ve edited it; I’ve always removed myself from the experience. Lately, I’m not.
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