A Way to Begin: Michael Johnson talks to Gordon Hayes
By Gordon Hayes
Country Music News
One of the most significant developments in country music in Britain in recent times is the increase awareness of the British market by currently successful American artistes, and their increased willingness to visit these shores.
It was in this atmosphere that top RCA recording artiste Michael Johnson recently made a brief tour of country music clubs and small theatres. Michael willingly gave his time to discuss, at length, the reasons for his tour, his latest British album and various other aspects of his multi-faceted musical career.
Michael saw his visit as a way to begin. Otherwise things don't happen, and agents sometimes have problems trying to book you in certain venues. "I will come back and hopefully play at the Cambridge Folk Festival, because part of my music lives there and I'm coming back again with Route '89. The truth is that I like small clubs. Part of me gets off on that. I like to sit down and play my guitar. I've been a soloist almost all my my career. I work songs out solo and I do quite a bit of solo work in the USA, maybe 2/3 of the time.
Michael's latest album. 'Life's A Bitch', is a sixteen track compilation album, aimed specifically at the European market. "It is a combination of two other records, 'Give Me Wings' and 'That's That, but there are three additional songs that we cut especially for Britain because of the show I did with K.T. Oslin for Route '88. It seemed that three of the songs I did were singled out by the label. Somehow word had got back that they liked those three songs, so we put them on."
Michael's current British single, 'Jacques Cousteau', is an acknowledgement of the work of the famous French underwater explorer. It struck me as the kind of song which would be unlikely to be recorded by anyone other than its writer, but this is not the case. "It was written by Andy Paley and Plastic Bertrand, but I pretend I wrote that song. Livingstone Taylor, James Taylor's brother, and I played a show together, and we decided to tape each others performance in the event that if someday we worked together again we could play on stage together. 'Jacques Cousteau' fell out of his performance and I was sure he had written it. I learned it and performed it and told everyone it was a Livingstone Taylor song, only to find out that it was not. Actually we tried to record it in the USA, but it just wasn't right for the country clientele over there.'
Ardent Michael Johnson fans may be fooled into thinking that 'Life's a Bitch' contains four new songs, but as Michael explains. 'Sampson and Delilah' had already been released. "We recorded that on the C.D. version of 'That's That'. There is another song on there that I would like to see the light of day, called 'Too Soon To Tell'."
This being the case, it is a strange fact the Hugh Prestwood song 'The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder', was included on 'Give Me Wings' and 'That's That' as well as the 'Life's A Bitch' album, something of which Micheal was not instantly aware. "That's right it's on this one as well. Oh no! I won't say it shouldn't be there, I love the song dearly, but as an artist, every slot available for a song is a place where you get to do your work, get to do another new song. It was a marketing decision, it wasn't mine."
As well as 'The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder', Michael has recorded several other Hugh Prestwood songs on recent albums. "I am very impressed with him. He's one of the poets I just can't see around, and I don't know how else to day that. It's almost like infatuation. When you first fall, everything she does is perfect and only later do you see the im-perfections. But I don't think there are any with Hugh Prestwood. You can't drive a pin through the meaning of the lyric, it's all there. He's amazing."
Since 'Life's a Bitch' is aimed at the European market, what are Michael's plans for a new album in the USA? "I've got one more single to come off my current album, 'That's That', and I'll be going into the studio with new material soon. We've been trying the to find the centrepiece, the weathervane, something that gives us what the album is all about. From there it is so much easier to really work around it, even if that song itself does not end up being on the album. I haven't found it yet, I've tried to write it, co-write it, given up on that tried to just find it. I just got a Fax from Brent Maher, my good friend and producer, and he tells me that we have it. If I think so too then that'll be good. It's always nice when he gets excited."
Without being over critical. because Michael showed on his tour, he is an immensely talented musician, I do feel that his 'That's That' album and the new tracks on 'Life's a Bitch' are going away from what Michael does best; the soft acoustic ballads he displayed SO well on 'Give Me Wings'. "You know, it's curious that you should say that, because we've had a couple of conversations with the head of RCA in Nashville and he agrees with you. He says the same thing and this next album will be a deliberate attempt to simplify, to get back to acoustic, simple, almost folkish, country ballads."
Although his recording career has encompassed folk, pop and country, a common factor throughout has been Michael's relationship with his producer Brent Maher. "It's strange, because we work together very intensely and we've become close friends, but when we're not working ing we really don't associate much. We have more in common musically than we do outside of that."
On the face of it, Michael's musical direction has changed enormously in recent years. "In some ways it has changed from the pop stuff. I even did some jazz/R&B kind of things. But if you go back twenty years and heard the first albums I did, the folk, acoustic quitar orlentated stuff, it is reminiscent of the 'Wings' album."
Although firmly labelled 'pop' at the time, Michael recorded songs like 'Drops Of Water' and 'She Put The Sad In All Her Songs', long before The Judds and Alabama got hold of them. "I didn't know they were country then but I was being told by Los Angeles when I was having to deal with the world of being a pop musician that they were country." I didn't believe them at all. Really I come from story songs and folk songs, ballads, songs that are about something. That's a part of me that I hope has some continuity throughout."
Now that he is firmly committed to country music, has Michael found that his music is being accepted? "I'm being accepted well here, it seems. In Nashville, I'm not really mainstream, that's obvious. I'm on the edge, with the new artists and I'm being accepted in some ways. "Give Me Wings' and "The Moon and the ballads that you were talking about are accepted, and even 'I Will Whisper Your Name', but 'That's That' and 'Roller Coaster Ride' ' were not. Parts of me are acceptable and parts of me are not".
Having said that, how is Michael accepting country music? "I'm doing fine with it. My peers are people I respect. If I were in a studio where that was not true I would have a hell of a time pretending. There are elements of the old school country that I don't identify with, but country music is large enough these days".
One of the apsects of Michael's involvement in country music which pleases him most is that he is now able to play guitar on his recording sessions. "I didn't play guitar on those pop records. I'd sit in the control room, change my strings and look wistfully through the glass at the studio guy, who was playing a very nice part, but it just didn't happen to be me. There is more of me on the country songs. They start with my guitar, then Don Potter and I work it up and it's based on a guitar duet. So I'm not an overdub or an after-thought, I'm the centrepiece, for better or worse.
As a young man Michael spent some time studying classical guitar in Spain, although in hind sight, he feels that he didn't really learn as much as he could have done. "I didn't really practice as much as I should have, or I was supposed to. It was like being in school. even though was infatuated with the idea when I first went to Barcelona. I learned more from my brother and in the studio. I went because I told everyone that I was going to go, and pretty soon they started saying, Well, when are you gonna go?'. So I saved up $600 and I went I lived on that for a year. It was an accomplishment, but it wasn't really that I was driven to it or compulsive about it. I went because I kind of had to. I learned some interesting things. The first time I did my laundry by myself I was in Barcelona, and as I was folding my jeans it came to be that I was gonna be alright. I kinda grew up a little bit there. I learned a lot about living.'
On his return Michael joined the Chad Mitchell Trio, alongside John Denver. After a year, during which they did 191 concerts, Michael left to join the stage show 'Jacques Brel Is Alive & Well & Living In Paris'. "I learned some things from John. He is what I call a self made man in some ways. He knew how to put on a show. We wrote a couple of songs together and I learned some things about showbiz. I just got tired. We were travelling and performing too much to grow. I used the '68 Convention in the USA as a reason to leave. We were supporting McCarthy, and here I was trying to sway people to vote in a direction I really didn't know anything about. I was a musical kid and was not politically aware at all. But the truth was that I was tired of the music and wanted out.
I auditioned for the Brel show by singing and playing guitar. Singing what turned out to be all the womens songs. There were several basically wrong things with what I did, but the director said. said, 'Well, you obviously love the music, you got the job, and then we'll find out if you can act.' I was scared to death. About two weeks later we were into rehearsals and I was absolutely terrified'.
It was after leaving the stage show Michael's pop career was launched. Just when he thought his future was assured, EMI decided not to renew his contract. Even to this day it is a painful memory. "That was real bad. I think if there is a lesson to be learned from success it's the failure that happens after. I remember the way I was told. I had just done a commercial for one the the beer companies, stayed at the Waldorf Estoria and they picked me up in the limo. My manager and I had just had lunch together and he said, 'Now young man', and I knew that something was wrong, he said, 'I want you to know that your future is limitless, your horizons are wide open; and EMI won't be picking up the option'. Boy! I didn't know what to do. Every artist gets dropped from the label and goes to another label, but I remember riding back to the airport in the limo, thinking, this is the last time I'm ever gonna ride in a limosine, and seeing how ludicrous that
was, like who cares?. It took four or five months before someone told me something that I actually heard, and it was just turn the crank make music any way you can and you'll be fine. I started doing commercials and writing with my friends, then I called up Brent and said. What are you doing, and if we were going to do someting, what would it be?. He played me The Judds and I was amazed. knew then that I had a place in country music."
Michael was eventually offered a duet with RCA recording artist Sylvia, the success of which led to him being offered a recording contract, which resulted in the 'Give Me Wings' album. "I wanted to do the duet right away. The song was kinda light, 'I Love You By Heart', but Sylvia is a good singer and a sweet girl. Actually it was Jennelle's idea, Brent's wife, and I just knew that it was something I really wanted to do. It turned out to be a great way to accomplish many things'.
When he was offered the RCA contract Michael was confronted with the question, 'Can I really do this? My wife, Sally knew the whole time that I could. She just kept on saying, 'Be yourself'."
By 'being himself', Michael has just completed what the promoter describes as 'a very successful tour, for what it was intended to achieve', that is, the introduction of Michael Johnson to British audiences.
Michael sees Britain as a major part of his future career development. "Being here is very important to me. I'm hoping that I can get a foot in the door and wind up playing some concerts in some of the nice historic 500/600 seat halls. That to me is wonderful. I can't see beyond that. There is a kind of kindred spirit here for me."