Damon Johnson’s 25-plus-year career can be attributed to his versatility. He started out professionaly with Brother Cane, a band that rose to the heights of early Nineties radio. After two stints with Alice Cooper, he decided to pursue a dream with Thin Lizzy, which segued nicely into Black Star Riders. Johnson, an accomplished songwriter, singer and guitarist, recently released a five-song solo EP, Echo, which further demonstrates his breadth as a musician. Johnson and I recently spoke about the making of Echo.
You have a nice mix of styles on Echo. How do you approach writing for a solo release?
It's interesting that you mention the dynamics of these five songs. I feel that's been the theme of my career. I've never really been committed to just one direction. I have a lot of friends in other bands that have been successful, but they're kind of known for a sound they might not be able to step outside of. Maybe it would change their fan base, I don’t know.
Growing up in the South, there was just such a mixture of musical styles that I was exposed to throughout my school years. There were all kinds of things I got very familiar with. Over the course of my career, I've been able to dabble in those things. Last year when I was getting ready to make Echo, I felt this was going to be a good time. There were some holes in the Black Star Riders’ tour schedule and I had the incredible experience of working with Nick Raskulinecz, who produced Killer Instinct for Black Star Riders. We both live in Nashville and we were hanging out a lot and talking music. I'm grateful for him helping me; we worked in his studio.
Did you have commercial aspirations, or would you say this was basically scratching an artistic itch?
That’s a great question, particularly because of my experience with Brother Cane, where we had a ton of radio airplay. I grew up listening to the radio and appreciate songs that have good melodies and memorable lyrics. I've always been a fan of that kind of stuff, regardless of the genre. I think that's always going to be part of what motivates me when I’m writing a song. I don’t really believe that at this point in my life I could be on the radio competing with Foo Fighters or Beyoncé. That’s a crazy game to play, and it takes a lot of money and a big team of people. But I have gotten great reactions to the songs on Echo, and people will say, “Wow, this could be a hit." I feel really inspired, even motivated. It's a great time for guys like me if you can sing, write and play. It's a good time to be a working musician. I'm grateful to have a small base of fans.
Seeing Thin Lizzy on the Epitaph tour with Judas Priest in the U.S. was a great introduction to the band—not to mention Ricky Warwick and his singing ability. It was a great segue to the band that became Black Star Riders.
Ironically, that was my first tour with a band. I joined Thin Lizzy to play those incredible songs. I committed to doing Black Star Riders because of Ricky. We have a great chemistry and are almost like brothers. We have so much in common. I'm really grateful he came into my life and we have been able to the path that we have.
The first two albums were fantastic. But the way you've done it is a sustainable thing. Thirty years ago, bands came out and fizzled out. You guys are building this in a very organic way with a great live show and quality albums. That works in the music industry these days.
Thank you, and I agree with you. We believe that too. That's the advantage of having a group of veterans. It's a great band, and I'm very happy.
At what point did you realize your voice was just as big an asset as your guitar playing?
That story for me is really kind of bizarre. I put a band together with a singer in the hopes of trying to get a record deal in the late Eighties. Everybody was getting a record deal. I have been so inspired by Guns N' Roses and the Black Crowes in particular that it really got me energized, and I tried to go down that path. We got a singer and we started the whole process and we had a great manager at the time. We started showcasing and had a really great interest in the songs, but no one was getting behind the singer. This A&R guy at Virgin Records saw our band and he loved my guitar playing and songwriting. He wanted to invest some time and money and said he'd find us another singer.
We spent the next six or eight months looking for another singer. He heard me singing some covers in a bar in Birmingham, Alabama, one night. Ironically one of them was [Thin Lizzy's] “Jailbreak." He pulled me off to the side and said he didn't know I could sing, and I can't tell what it his thought process was. I thought, "No way, I don't want to sing. I want to be Jimmy Page. Help me find Robert Plant." He said, 'Look, buddy—we're out of time and we're out of money. We're going into the studio. Let's get you behind the mic and see what happens.' One year later, Brother Cane had the Number 1 rock track in the U.S., and we are out opening for Aerosmith and Robert Plant. It was a game-changer. I never really thought about singing as a viable tool for me; I always sang background vocals.
It's amazing how many guys are permanently employed as musicians in part by their voice.
I know it really helped me when I auditioned for Alice Cooper in 2004. He was blown away by my guitar playing and my voice. I do a substantial amount of solo acoustic performances. I enjoy that so much. It's a great way to play my songs and other songs by singer songwriters I admire. That has helped my confidence and helped me make Echo.
Echo is available at damonjohnson.com. Johnson will perform in July with Thin Lizzy featuring Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith and Scott Travis of Judas Priest. For more about Black Star Riders, visit at blackstarriders.com.