Guitarist Eric Johnson looks to his past and to his future with a new album
Introspective Guitar God: Eric Johnson is back with
Souvenir, his first non-live record since 1996. |
Eric Johnson has recorded numerous albums over the course of his 20-year career, but only a handful of them are actually available. The rest are salted away in Johnson's vault of unreleased material at his Austin, Texas, studio. His latest album, Souvenir, is a sonic peek into his voluminous archive as well as an attempt to reconcile the guitarist's prolific recording activity with his infrequent release schedule.
"We're trying to figure ways to be more efficient about putting stuff out more often, instead of just every 20 years," says Johnson with a laugh. "That's the funny part of the whole deal. I take forever to do records, but when I do records, I end up doing three and putting two in the vault, and I put one out. You go through your own mental filters and say, 'This is good and that's bad.' But sometimes what you think is bad is good. It depends on your mood or how you look at stuff. It's kind of a subjective thing."
Johnson has spent a good deal of his career subjectively second-guessing his work. His official debut, 1986's Tones, established Johnson as a well-rounded and gifted guitar player, but his breakthrough came with the near-platinum success of 1990's Ah Via Musicom and its gorgeous single, "Cliffs of Dover." With the widespread acceptance of Ah Via Musicom, an album that launched Johnson into the guitar shredding stratosphere with the likes of Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, he began obsessing over every minute detail of his subsequent work, a cycle which saw him record nearly three albums worth of material over the course of six years before he arrived at the double album Venus Isle in 1996.
Johnson has been phenomenally busy in the seven years since Venus Isle. He's toured steadily, particularly as a member of G3 with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and finally released his long lost first album from the late '70s, Seven Worlds, and put together a side project called Alien Love Child and recorded the powerful Live and Beyond in 2000. Long a critical and popular favorite in his hometown of Austin, Johnson has earned his fair share of national accolades, including a Grammy win for Ah Via Musicom. He's consistently topped polls in Guitar Player and Musician magazines and inspired comparisons to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
As Johnson began to turn his attentions to a new studio album, he realized that, even with a less obsessive and more open approach to recording, it would be a while before a new one would be ready for release. Coupled with his desire to tap into the Internet market, Johnson rifled his reels to compile Souvenir, an album of rarities that spans the entirety of his guitar playing career.
"I'd decided not to do any kind of live stuff; I've got tons of live tapes," says Johnson. "I decided to do stuff that was never released before that nobody had ever heard, rather than another version of 'Cliffs of Dover.' And I didn't really think the quality had to be good, I just thought those were good parameters to work from. It's amazing it turned out half as good as it did because some of the master tapes are just ridiculous."
Amazing is the word, as Souvenir's material runs the gamut from "Fanfare One," one of Johnson's earliest 4-track experiments from 1973 which he recorded over his father's medical journal lecture tapes, to "Get to Go," an old Johnson song that gets a new life with Tones/Musicom drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock, to "Virginia," an outtake from Ah Via Musicom. So far, although the album has only been available through Johnson's Web site (www.ericjohnson.com), at shows and through MP3, Souvenir is quickly becoming one of Johnson's biggest releases, behind Ah Via Musicom.
For the time being, Johnson is concentrating on finishing his new studio album, a proposed double-disc set that he hopes to have out early next year. He's weighing label offers and considering his options as he prepares to mix his first non-live work since Venus Isle in '96.
"It's kind of all over the map, all sorts of different styles," says Johnson of his new material. "I'm happy with it. I like the songwriting on it. I tried to make it a little more organic and more 'life force energy.' Venus Isle kinda missed some of that energy; it became a little too stiff."
Through all of the hypercritical focus that Eric Johnson has subjected himself to, he has learned a few important lessons, and he is implementing them at every possible juncture, whether in the studio or on stage.
"I think I'm trying to be more honest with myself," says Johnson. "I'm trying to get more into that human spirit behind the music. I've come to the realization that that's the most important thing. You've got to have that spirit in there and then it has more meaning and value and impact. The only way you can keep growing is to be honest and take a good listen to what you're doing. The alphabet I used to use was more dissective and more mental, and now I'm just trying to be more honest with the emotional impact."
ERIC JOHNSON, with special guest Ric Hordinski, performs Saturday at the Madison Theater in Covington.
E-mail Brian Baker
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