For pop artists, the idea of striking a trio of Top 10 hits is a challenging, but not an altogether insurmountable task. But when that performer is a guitar instrumentalist, you’re talking rarefied air.
So it went for Eric Johnson back in 1990 when his sophomore bow, “Ah Via Musicom,” was taking him from being a “Guitar Player” cover darling to getting significant airplay to go with that commercial success.
Fast-forward to 2018, and the Texas native is reuniting with bassist Kyle Brock and drummer Tommy Taylor to hit the road and play the hit album they created together in its entirety. But rather than rest on past laurels, Johnson is also promoting “Collage,” his tenth studio outing.
Split between five covers and five original numbers, this latest outing not only features the guitarist’s tasteful and fluid style of playing, but has a looser vibe to it than previous projects, where his own perfectionist tendencies found him getting in trouble with music industry executives during his days at Capitol Records.
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“Things were going pretty good because we’d put ‘Tones’ out on Warner Brothers, but they weren’t sure if they wanted to pursue another record and decided that we should go somewhere else,” Johnson recalled in a mid-January phone interview.“So I worked super-hard on (“Ah Via Musicom”) and I would just do it over and over until I felt I was playing it well enough. That record was a lot of hard work to get it to be the way it was. I think when you have a responsibility or pressure to be the best at what you do or if you’re supposed to be good at this certain thing, the question is how do you interpret that? If I interpret that as having to go into the studio and record one note at a time and make it absolutely perfect, that might not be the most (ideal) way to handle those types kinds of expectations. And I think at the time, that’s how I was interpreting (what people expected).”
While the success of “Ah Via Musicom” gave him more leeway with Capitol Record higher-ups, Johnson’s perfectionist tendencies found him again going over budget with the follow-up, “Venus Isle,” which led to his getting dropped by the label. While he has since released a number of albums on independent labels, in addition to working on side projects like Joe Satriani’s G3 Tour and the ad-hoc group Alien Love Child, he looks back at his crossover success as a learning experience.
“I don’t have any kind of bitter attitude about record labels or that music scene. But I think it’s really important to look at it honestly,” he said. “Yes, it can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but it is what it is. But it’s temporal. One minute, you’ve got the red carpet and the next minute, you’ve got the locked door. It really depends on how in vogue you are. Now, I think the better way to interpret expectations is to try to be a little deeper or a little more soulful. It’s a process of unlearning a lot of stuff you learned that may not have been necessary to pack on your back and carry around.”
With “Collage,” Johnson gives nods to The Beatles (“We Can Work It Out”), Stevie Wonder (“Up Tight [Everything’s Alright]”), surf music instrumentalists The Chantays (“Pipeline”), B.B. King (“Rock Me Baby”) and Jimi Hendrix (“One Rainy Wish”). By casting such a wide stylistic net, the former guitar prodigy was looking to loosen up his recording process while honoring those who came before him.
“This was just me going in and recording whatever I felt like recording with no pressure. It was just to have a little fun and to try and cut as much of it live as I could. It has more of a relaxed vibe to it,” Johnson said. “The main thing in my mind when I’m trying to record is trying to re-establish important issues of making a record, and I think that is to follow the groove, look for magic and get out of the way and have fun. For me, it was just kind of honoring the idea that there’s such beauty in all styles of music. It’s kind of like going aerial in a plane and you look down on the topography and you realize that there’s this connectivity to it all.”
Originally inspired to play music by a guitar-playing family friend who came over to the house and played some numbers by bluesmen Elmore James and Jimmy Reed, Johnson started woodshedding when he was 11. Over the next decade, his skills grew as he put in time with local fusion group The Electromagnets before going solo and earning his own cult following. He also wound up being a session guitarist for a number of higher profile artists, including Christopher Cross, Cat Stevens and Carole King, which gave him creative insights he might not have otherwise gotten.
“It was really cool to be around songsmiths like that and to see how important a song was to them. That was what it was about. It was a really good learning experience for me to see that,” he explained.
Fans coming out to see Johnson on his current tour will get to sample the newer, mellower guitarist with a first-half set focused on his most recent fare, while diehards will get to experience all of “Ah Via Musicom” in the show’s second set. It’s the first time the Johnson will be taking this kind of approach to that landmark release.
“I’ve never done it in its entirety before. I’d only do a song here and there. It’s pretty nostalgic and I’m having fun with it,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of parts of it that are improvisational, so it’s a little bit more liquid than if I had to go play it all note-for-note. It’s nice to play with Kyle and Tommy again. There’s a chemistry between us that’s really cool.”