A musician becomes renowned courtesy of a given musical style, and in many cases, adheres to that formula throughout the rest of their careers. Some deviate and find it wasn't a successful transition, so attempt to reconnect with their more successful musical stylings.
When a musician has experienced great success and is arguably edging towards the twilight of their career though, they have nothing to lose so therefore have the opportunity to explore and record material they enjoy as opposed to material written for commercial purposes. In releasing "Up Close", Eric Johnson is arguably in such a position.
"Up Close", Eric Johnson's sixth studio full-length and first since June 2005's "Bloom", experiences release on December 7th, 2010 through the man's own label Vortexan Music. Distributed via EMI Distribution, the record reunites the guitarist with EMI, responsible for releasing February 1990's "Ah Via Musicom" and September 1996's "Venus Isle". Included is Johnson's version of The Electric Flag composition "Texas", featuring vocals from Steve Miller Band's namesake frontman Steve Miller and guitar work from Jimmie Vaughan. Other guests include singers Malford Milligan ("Brilliant Room") and Jonny Lang ("Austin"), as well as guitarist Sonny Landreth ("Your Book"). Andy Johns oversaw the mixing process for "Up Close".
From late October to late November 2010, Eric Johnson travelled across North America as part of the "Experience Hendrix Tour" package alongside the following musicians: Steve Vai, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Susan Tedeschi, Robert Randolph, Jonny Lang, Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Ernie Isley, Living Colour, Chris Layton of Stevie Ray Vaughan And Double Trouble and The Slide Brothers also known as Chuck and Darick Campbell of Sacred Steel. Initially occurring from early to mid October and scheduled to wrap up courtesy of January 2011 dates, the "Acoustic Guitar Masters Tour" pairs Johnson alongside Andy McKee and Peppino D'Agostino.
On November 2nd at 18:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Eric Johnson to discuss "Up Close".
Eric Johnson: Hello?
UG: Hello. Is this Eric?
This is he.
This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com.
Hey... How are you?
I'm doing well. How are you?
I'm doing great man, thanks. Thanks for calling.
Would it be alright if I began the interview?
Yeah, that's fine.
Could you provide some background information on 'Up Close', your sixth studio album?
Sure, yeah. I finished 'Up Close' three to four months ago, and am just waiting for it to come out - on December 7th it's coming out. The album is fifteen pieces of new music, and I had some guest artists come out to play and sing on it and so on. I'm pretty happy with the direction 'Up Close' took.
'Up Close' is your first studio full-length for five years, isn't it?
I think so, yeah.
Is there a reason why you generally take a lengthy amount of time to release successive studio albums?
I just do other projects, work with other people, and tour. I just do other things in life besides recording.
The press release issued for 'Up Close' states that the album contains "lyrical themes of reflection, emotional revelations, personal growth and fulfilment".
Yeah. I just think on 'Up Close', I started the process of being a little bit more open in terms of what I personally like to do musically, and of just bringing other people in to sing and play if it called for it. Some of the lyrics were more honest, I think.
Did something specific inspire that extra honesty?
I think it's always been there but in making 'Up Close', I just decided that I wanted to start being a little bit more open, and just trying to be even less guarded and less removed from the person. The album started to sound more like I normally do in the beginning, but halfway through, I just switched and started going more in a direction where I just reach out to people more, and am just a little more open. Maybe the word would be available I guess, a little bit more emotionally available. 'Up Close' is more indicative of where I am creatively.
You've explained how in making 'Up Close', you "decided to let go a bit and allow things to happen and just go with the flow". What brought that direction about?
I think as I was making 'Up Close', I wanted to let it lift to another frequency. Looking at the bigger picture, I think that the way to start dilating your musical aims is to just open up because that's what we did when we were kids. When we first started playing, we were totally open to trying all sorts of stuff and we weren't so judgemental or so definitive about what we think it is we should do or not. I think if you rid of all that as it was when we first started playing music, I think you allow yourself to be available for new opportunities that might come. Otherwise, you might not see the opportunities because you're too busy trying to broadcast what it is you think you've done in the past.
As a result of that approach, were any new directions ventured in?
I think there's some beginnings of a new direction on 'Up Close'. I don't know. I've been getting some good feedback from people that've heard the album, people who've told me that they feel it's a step in the right direction.
How did you approach achieving "the energy and magic of the performances" on 'Up Close', which you've also made reference to?
Some of the songs on 'Up Close' were cut live, and it really helped doing that more. It brought home to me the importance of trying to do that more in the studio, because you get that interaction. Some of it was me just trying to play bigger pieces when I was overdubbing, so that it wasn't me playing little snippets. I tried to play a whole piece, trying to get as much of a big lead right as possible - if not the whole lead - so that the song has more of a continuity.
What guitar elements which are progressive for you feature on 'Up Close'?
For me, writing is a process of growing and trying to learn to use more chord voicings when I solo, rather than being stuck in a pattern.
What new chord voicings did you experiment with on 'Up Close' then?
I used flat fives, and chords that lead into other chords. I tried to change the way that was done a little bit, and as I was playing solos over that, I tried to play some of those notes in the soloing so I wasn't restricted to certain guitar patterns. Sometimes, it was just me fiddling around finding chords, and then I wasn't even sure what chords they were. I just worked them into the songs.
So whatever hit the right note with you, so to speak?
Would you describe 'Up Close' as a raw album?
I wouldn't really say that. I think there's definitely room for me to implement more liveness and more rawness, but it has more qualities of that than some of my other albums did.
Which genres does 'Up Close' incorporate elements of?
I have a country piece on 'Up Close', and I have a blues piece on it. Then there's Motown-type material, and then more pop-type material, and then several rock guitar instrumental pieces.
So you definitely have a wide variety of influences?
I think so, yeah.
'Up Close' was mixed by Andy Johns. How do you feel his mix benefits the album?
Andy's track record is so unbelievable; he's just done so much wonderful work, and that's how I initially got to know him - by all his work. I think he has that special magic. Watching him mix, he mixes using his heart and soul. He has a real magic; he doesn't really approach mixing from a severely technical standpoint, but just as more of a feel, a vibe. I enjoyed working with him.
Would it be alright if we discussed specific tracks from 'Up Close'?
How did Malford Milligan come to provide vocals to "Brilliant Room"?
Malford sang on the Alien Love Child record 'Live And Beyond' (2000), which was released a decade ago. We've always jammed together, and I've always been a fan of his singing. Actually, I originally sang "Brilliant Room", and I just didn't really think that my vocal was... I thought that maybe someone could sing "Brilliant Room" a little better than me, so I just tried to keep my options open until I brought Malford in to sing. I just liked the way he sang it better than I sang it.
Why do you feel Malford's vocal better suited "Brilliant Room"?
Malford has so much energy and tension and a nice, real gruffness to his voice, so it better suits the mood of the song.
'Up Close' features a cover interpretation of The Electric Flag song "Texas". Why did you choose to cover "Texas"?
I've always loved "Texas" since I was a kid; I was a big fan of The Electric Flag, and I really used to dig listening to their songs when I was growing up. I actually cut a blues song live in the studio, and we overdubbed Steve Miller's voice. It was a coincidence because he came in, was played the track, and said "You know what? I'm gonna sing "Texas" over this". When we first cut that live piece though, it wasn't really decided that it would become a "Texas" cover. It was just a blues jam thing, but it was just one of those coincidental things where Steve came in and said "I'm gonna sing "Texas" over this". That's what he did, and it worked out really well. I like the way it worked out.
How did Jimmie Vaughan come to provide guest guitar on your cover interpretation of "Texas"?
Jimmie came in at the same time Steve did. Steve was in town playing a show and he invited Jimmie and I up to jam, so we ended up playing part of his show with him, just sitting in. After his show, they then just came over to the studio and we recorded that night late into the night.
Compared to the original version, how would you describe your interpretation of "Texas"?
Mine's definitely different to the way Mike Bloomfield plays, even though I've always been a fan of Mike Bloomfield - I used to listen to him a whole lot when I was a kid. Personally without thinking about it too much, it was really off the cuff and more just an honest presentation of what I like to play.
"The album is fifteen pieces of new music, and I had some guest artists come out to play and sing on it and so on."
How did the track "Austin" come together, featuring Jonny Lang on vocals?
"Austin"'s a song that has a kind of Stevie Wonder vibe to it, and is just a song I wrote about the city where I live, about all of the changes that've happened over the years. "Austin" was another song that I had dabbled with singing, and I wasn't really liking the direction of my voice on the song. Jonny happened to be in town, and I had gone and sat in with him the night before. He had a day off the next day, so he just came to the studio. He had said that if I ever had a song that I might want him to sing on, that he'd be into it, and I was like "That's great". He came in the next day and sang on "Austin", as well as the background vocalist that he works with - Jason Eskridge - who provided background vocals on that song.
Is there a jam aspect to your work? If somebody's in town, can they just pop by and jam with you?
Yeah. It's great doing different collaborations, especially when they go somewhere else different, and perhaps somewhere better than where you would've went just on your own.
And 'Up Close' also features the composition "Your Book", including Sonny Landreth guesting on guitar.
"Your Book" is a song that I wrote for my father when he passed away five to six years ago, and that's just a special song to me. Sonny related to "Your Book" because his father had passed away too. I played a tune on Sonny's last record ("The Milky Way Home", from May 2008's 'From the Reach'), and thought he could play on mine. He just overdubbed that one.
What was your relationship like with your father?
He loved music, and he really inspired me to want to be a musician because I saw how much he loved music, and all kinds of music too. He was constantly playing classical to swing music to rock to country - he was playing everything around the house when I was growing up. From the time I was born I was always around the joy of music, and I saw how much that made him happy, so I wanted to be like my dad. I just incorporated that whole thing.
As you've grown older, is that something you've thought about more? Family, friends, love, and that type of thing?
Yeah. It's always been important to me, but I think as you grow older, you realize that everything else becomes less important. Consequently, it becomes more important because you realize that everything else is such an illusion really. It's really nothing. No matter what it is you have, you need to have something else or else there's no end to it - there's no real pay-off. As you get older, I think you start giving way to the idea that maybe there really is no better pay-off to all this, and then you start realizing that those other things are really more valuable than you thought.
Has that way of thinking helped you become more free with your music as you've grown older? You're obviously an established artist now, so you have nothing to prove, and can go in any musical directions you like really.
Yeah, I think so. It's good to be honest and open, rather than bury yourself in whatever art you do. I think the more you do that, providing that you are discerning and have a quality in what you do, the better. It would've been better if years ago I had thought about this more because I think it always helps, so yeah, it would've helped me musically years and years ago if I had placed a lot of emphasis on that. I'm glad that now though there's this desire to really look at the really important places to put emphasis on. I'm glad it's happening, and I think it'll be better as far as what I do from now on.
What are your thoughts on your instrumental "Cliffs Of Dover" being included on 'Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock' (October 2007). Is that something which you're happy with, or is it annoying to be asked about that a lot?
No. It doesn't annoy me at all - I'm happy that they did that. With some people, it leads them to try playing music. Other people may never learn to play an instrument though, and just get good at the game.
Would you say "Cliffs Of Dover" is your signature track, or do you hate the song being viewed in that way?
Yeah, I guess "Cliffs Of Dover" is my signature track. It is the one that's the most popular, so it makes sense that people identify me with that. From identifying me with that, they probably decided what I'm on about, or what I should do, or what they expect from me, and I think a lot of that is true. There are a lot of things I wanna do, but I do like to keep to instrumental guitar as well.
Since late October, you've toured North America as part of the 'Experience Hendrix Tour'. Why did you decide to become involved in that particular tour package? What about that premise appealed to you?
This is the second 'Experience Hendrix Tour' I've done. The first time around, I participated because of the fact that Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell were on the tour. I just thought "Wow, what an opportunity", and it really was just to get to play with those guys. It was just a beautiful opportunity, and there were other things going on as well. The fraternity of all of us is nice; everybody gets along, and there's no ego problems. Everyone's there for one cause, which is to play the music of Jimi Hendrix. It's like going to music camp or something (laughs). It's actually a lot of fun; it's cool, and I'm enjoying it.
In what ways have you been influenced by Jimi Hendrix?
The biggest way is in how he used his guitar ability. He chose to make great music, and write great songs. I'll never cease to enjoy his guitar playing, and I think what makes it so extra-special is that it's inside great songs and great lyrics. You have something that'll last forever, and it's not just two-dimensional with guitar playing - it's multi-dimensional with some wonderful music. As I go back to the reservoir of his music, I'm always learning something about the way he used the guitar to orchestrate or design the songs he did. I think that the priority he put on everything was really in place. It was about conveying that music, and that song.
Do you think that's an element which some guitarists miss? Having a great track within which to demonstrate their guitar work, as opposed to just concentrating on showing off and God knows what?
Most definitely. I think some of that has come from just an evolution of the guitar; the guitar was an integral part of arranging and orchestrating music originally. As it became less necessary to only use that, we could use other things like synthesizers, keyboards, and the guitar got moved to a different orbit. Nowadays, the guitar is in this orbit where there's a bit of gratuitousness to it, and being almost revered like icons, there'll be a place where we throw in the guitar solo. I'm not sure why. I think maybe just the rock guitar idiom has been done so much that people familiarize themselves so much with it that it's become a household-type sound. I don't know why it's different now than it used to be. I'm not sure.
Do you have a favourite Jimi Hendrix record?
I like 'Electric Ladyland' (October 1968), 'Axis: Bold As Love' (December 1967) and 'Are You Experienced' (May 1967). I think 'Are You Experienced' is my favourite in a way just because it was the first one and the album just came out of left-field. There was nothing even close to it when it came out (laughs). I remember being twelve years old or so when 'Are You Experienced' came out, and there was no music that even approached the sound of that. He put that into perspective in 1967.
"Maybe the word would be available I guess, a little bit more emotionally available. 'Up Close' is more indicative of where I am creatively."
The next tour you'll be a part of is the acoustic 'Guitar Masters' tour with Andy McKee and Peppino D'Agostino. Is there a reason why you opted to embark on a trio type tour to promote 'Up Close'?
It's not really to promote this record - it's all different music. With the electric record, we did a tour in October and then we have a second leg, which we're doing out in California and then in Texas in January. I've been just collating acoustic material, because next year I wanna try to put out an acoustic solo record.
Will this possible acoustic record consist of new material, or acoustic reinterpretations of your past material?
It would consist of new material.
Will there be any acoustic reinterpretations at all then? Perhaps the odd one that'll be used as a bonus track?
I've already got a few things for it, but I might put tunes by other people on it; there's a Joni Mitchell tune I'm fooling with, and actually a Jimi Hendrix tune that I've fooled around with on acoustic, as well as a Simon & Garfunkel tune. I'm playing around with them, so there would be reworkings of tunes by other people.
Is playing an acoustic guitar as opposed to an electric guitar any different for you?
Yeah. To me, playing acoustic is a totally different technique; I like to finger-pick the acoustic more than using picks and so on, so it's a different technical approach. Consequently, I probably lean towards writing different music that's more folk oriented.
Do you have a message for the fans of your solo material?
Just sincere appreciation and thanks for listening, and giving me a lifetime career where I try to make music that people might enjoy. I just wanna say thank you, and that I'll keep trying to do my best.
Thanks for the interview Eric.
Thank you for doing this interview.
All the best with your musical career and everything.
Alright, thank you. I'll talk to you again the road then.
Yeah, definitely; we'll have to hook up when you release your forthcoming acoustic album.
Oh yeah, that'd be great. Are you calling out of the United Kingdom?
Ok, great. If you decide to do that, I'd be more than happy to do it.
That'll be great. I'll catch you in awhile then, so all the best.
You too, and thanks again.
Interview by Robert Gray
"Writing is a process of growing and trying to learn to use more chord voicings when I solo, rather than being stuck in a pattern."