Thirty years after the release of his breakthrough album, Tones, guitar legend Eric Johnson is releasing his first all-acoustic solo effort, aptly titled EJ.
Long known for his painstaking approach to making records, Johnson took a more immediate approach for EJ, which will be available October 7. Most of the material was cut live in the studio, with some songs even being sung and played at the same time. The result is an album packed with honest realism and organic emotion.
Original tracks like "Wonder" showcase Johnson and his 1980 Martin D-45, which was a gift from his late father. Another highlight is "Wrapped in a Cloud," a six-minute sonic journey that features acoustic bass, cello, drums and percussion. There's also Johnson’s tasteful arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "One Rainy Wish," plus a burning version of Les Paul and Mary Ford's 1951 classic, "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise," which we premiered here last week.
What made you decide to do an acoustic album at this stage of your career?
It’s another side of me that I’ve always dabbled in but never really presented in my records or career. Usually, you’re out doing your thing and get known for something that becomes your main deal and you just go with it. Meanwhile, I’ll be sitting at home in my studio just doing what I enjoy. At some point, I decided to put things out and see what happens.
What was the criteria for choosing material for EJ?
It was a process of elimination. I just got a bunch of songs together and started recording them. Whatever songs I thought had merit or the ones I caught a vibe on, those were the ones I culled down for this record.
Let’s discuss a few tracks from EJ and get your take on them, starting with "Wrapped in a Cloud."
That actually started out as a demo of just me with one mic on a baby grand piano. If you listen to the intro, it’s literally a dynamic, mono mic hanging off the side of a baby grand piano going into a cassette player. I then overdubbed an acoustic guitar and vocal. It was a funky demo and I really liked the vibe of it. But rather than try to erase and redo it, I decided to use the existing version and transferred it over and started adding more professionally done tracks to it.
"One Rainy Wish"
I’ve always enjoyed doing Hendrix on electric in the band, and it’s always been my thing to pick it out note for note and play it close to the way Jimi did on the records. “One Rainy Wish” is one of my favorite Jimi tunes. It’s such a great song and indicative that a really great song can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. With that in mind, I said, why not try to take a totally different arrangement and slant on it? I thought it would be fun to take it to a different place.
A lot of the tunes on this record I cut live just singing and playing. That was the premise of what I wanted to do in the studio. If I could get the performance in a whole track I took it, and that was a complete track where I sang live. I like the lyric of that song and the whole mystery of life.
"The World is Waiting for the Sunrise"
That’s one of my favorite Les Paul tunes and a tribute to him. He was an inspiration to me and was a real futurist in so many ways. Even with his guitar playing he was so ahead of his time. I took a little bit of a different slant on it and it also gave me the challenging excuse to sit down and practice with a thumb pick. Doyle [Dykes] and I cut it live and then went back and fed in a few other takes to make a few more interesting parts. But it was pretty much cut as one contiguous piece.
What can you tell me about your upcoming tour in support of EJ?
There’s no band. It’s just going to be me by myself. I’ve done solo acoustic shows and tours for 10 years but never made a record, which is kind of crazy. I’m thinking I might do a "volume two" acoustic record with an alternate type of band at some point, but right now I’ll be doing the tour by myself.
Are there any extra nerves when it comes to doing solo acoustic shows?
Absolutely. It’s a challenging thing. That’s why I really respect people like Tommy Emmanuel and Doyle Dykes who can just go out there and bring it with just a solo guitar. There’s a certain galvanizing that has to happen, and you really have to be honest about where you are musically to go out there and play by yourself. In some ways, it’s also more recreational than electric. I don’t have to worry about cords and effects. So it’ll be nice to have a vacation from that [laughs].
What excites you the most about the release of EJand this next phase of your career?
I just want to expand my musical offerings, which to me is to keep experimenting, pushing on electric and pontificating on what it can be. Doing the acoustic thing is good medicine for me. There’s no mascara to hide behind and nothing to cloak the real value of what’s going on. If you don’t have good song, you don’t have anything.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.