Austin native Eric Johnson has been a constant presence on the musical scene since his 1986 debut "Tones", which launched him on a national career as one of the most innovative and best sounding instrumentalists and song writers. His second release "Ah Via Musicom" (1990) brought him worldwide recognition and a Grammy Award for the song “Cliffs of Dover”.
Among other accolades, Johnson has been voted Best Overall in Guitar Magazine three years in a row. He also traveled and recorded with music legends B.B.King and Chet Atkins. Last year Eric Johnson released yet another extraordinary album, "Venus Isle", and toured with fellow guitar virtuosos Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
Venus Isle took Eric several years to write and produce. The album clearly shows an expansion and refinement in Eric Johnson’s already immaculate style, if such thing is possible. The songs are carried out effortlessly and the melody seems to flow naturally out of every piece. Songs that particularly grab the listener’s attention are the bluesy “S.R.V.”, the jazz influenced “Manhattan”, the straight forward rock tune “Camel’s Night Out”, and Hindu derived title track “Venus Isle”.
Alexander had the pleasure to converse with Eric a week before his show at the Cullen Theater in Houston. The interview was his fourth for the day and he seemed a little wary due to his rigid road schedule.
A.D.: You recently came back from a tour of Japan. What is your impression?
E.J.: Japan was great. I enjoyed it a lot.
A.D.: How many shows did you perform?
E.J.: We played Kawasaki, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Osaka.
A.D.: In what aspects is Venus Isle different from your previous recordings?
E.J.: I was concentrating more on the songwriting and singing. On this one I experimented with different sounds, threw in a little bit of Hindu influence. It took me one to three years to come up with the songs on the last album. I tried to kinda figure out a way to mellow the guitar playing and (make) it blend more with the songwriting.
A.D.: Did you record analog or digital?
E.J.: It was kinda half and half. The initial recording was analog, the mixing and mastering was digital.
A.D.: Did you change anything on your guitar sound?
E.J.: A little bit. I just kinda redialed the equipment a little toward where the sound will be a little purer.
A.D.: You had some guest musicians on your last recording, for example Jimmie Vaughn on “S.R.V.”, your tribute to late blues guitar legend Stevie Ray?
E.J.: It was great. I was honored to have him on the record.
A.D.: Were you ever acquainted with Stevie Ray Vaughn? What did you think of him as a musician?
E.J.: I remember first meeting Stevie when he moved to Austin from Dallas. I always admired his playing.
A.D.: When you write a song what kind of reaction is it that you are looking for?
E.J.: I would like to contribute something to somebody’s well-being, that is my intent.
A.D.: In what sense?
E.J.: I think it could be in different sense: you can make people feel good, you can try to reach them emotively, through some kind of emotion, some sublime kind of thing, or through some subject that you are talking about (in order, ed.) to stir up some kind of response.
A.D.: Last year, along with colleagues Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, you were part of the G3 tour. Was that a new experience for you?
E.J.: Yeah, we’ve never done that before. I toured with Joe (Satriani, ed.) six years ago, but never the three of us touring in that type of situation.
A.D.: How did the finale feel when the three of you went onstage for a free jam?
E.J.: Well, I’ve done like that during a tour with B.B.King years ago. We had three or four guitars on stage: B.B., Buddy Guy, myself, and host of other people like Sid and Monty Brooks. There were a lot of guitarists and we’ll be jamming on the end of that show as well. So, in that way it was the same kind of structure, but it had a different musical effect.
A.D.: Eric, you probably hear these questions a lot. What kind of music did you grow up with? What music influenced you?
E.J.: I kinda grew up with everything. I originally studied classical piano , so it was mostly classical music. (Another influence was, ed.) Also my dad , who was really into swing music, Elvis Presley and stuff like that. I was introduced to rock and roll as well.
A.D.: What made you switch from piano to guitar?
E.J.: I guess hearing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, and Cream just inspired me to play the guitar.
A.D.: How do you see your music in the future? What new things would you like to try?
E.J.: I like to learn more about all different musical idioms, be able to reorganize things from different musical styles and make a recipe of stuff (in order, ed.) to kinda change the recipe of what I’ve done a little bit, but always (to, ed.) be able to draw from my old musical stuff.
A.D.: Could you briefly tell us what each one of your records personally means to you?
E.J.: Tones was the first record I put out. It had a kind of feminine energy. I was into the songs, it was an entrance to doing my own records. That one was produced by David Tickle. Ah Via Musicom was more of a guitaristic record where I really wanted to rock out, concentrate on a kinda bolder energy. The last record was more a return to the Tones record. It was more ethereal, sublime kind of record. It was produced by myself and Richard Moen.
A.D.: What are you planning to surprise the Houston audience with?
E.J.: We will have five or six new tunes that we will be doing.