Negotiating Songwriting's Slippery Slopes
By Jeff Miller
May/June 1997 No. 21
Throughout his career as a singer/songwriter and guitarist, Michael Johnson has found himself at the top of his profession on a number of occasions. Beginning in 1978 with his #1 hit, Bluer Than Blue, Johnson followed his instincts to produce a long list of records, yielding such landmark releases as Almost Like Being In Love, This Night Won't Last Forever, Give Me Wings, and The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder, to name but a few. His latest effort, Departure (Vanguard), showcases his sharp writing collaborations and arranging skills along with his ever-pleasing voice, behind which is the backdrop of Alison Krauss' talented band, Union Station.
If you have the opportunity to see Michael in concert, you will be immediately drawn to his impressive voice, his melodies, and smart lyrics. Then, and only then, you will begin to notice his accomplished guitar playing. Under closer scrutiny, you'll recognize that the guitar is so complimentary to the song, that it is, at first, transparent, intentionally giving way to the vocal and lyrical content. Michael likens the use of the guitar as an accompaniment instrument to another elusive act - skiing. "Think of it," Michael explains. "When you're skiing, you are keeping your feet together, your arms and upper body are facing downhill, knees bent - a myriad of details must be addressed and negotiated to 'ski'. Once you gain control of these basic details, you're doing one thing - skiing. The more you master the details, the freer you are to conquer the task at hand.
This metaphor also holds up in playing guitar while singing. "You're doing several things at once," he continues. "You are communicating by word, using your voice as an instrument to follow a prescribed melody, utilizing your guitar to tastefully augment the song, and emitting emotion and feeling from both your voice and your guitar, where needed. In total, it is one act, although it can be a tough one to master."
Michael points out the most common pitfall of guitar toting singers - overplaying. "A chronic bad habit of mine is allowing the guitar to get too busy," he confesses. "I check my arrangements to make sure my guitar playing is subservient to the vocals. I've found that when I overplay my guitar, I also begin to oversing. This can get to be a vicious circle. The guitar and voice must work in unison to create good dynamics for any particular song - that perfect blend. That's what I'm looking for."
Johnson searches for a simple example. "If I'm singing a D note while playing a G chord on the guitar (which normally contains the D), I might not play the D note in the guitar voicing. The idea is to compliment and support the vocal - not to duplicate it. I can create a G triad by singing the D note while playing the B and G note on the guitar. It's nice to have the two instruments working independently to create the whole picture. If you are a solo performer, this sparse accompaniment can feel very unnatural, almost scary. My guitar playing instincts want to create a full accompaniment by playing big chords with lots of notes. But if you listen to your song, you'll be amazed how satisfied your ear will be with this seemingly minimalist approach."
Michael's approach began taking shape at an early age. While growing up in Denver, Johnson's ear was sparked by listening to Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent. Also captivating his attention were classical guitarists like Julian Bream and Laurindo Almeida. But it was the radio that introduced Johnson to his most prominent influences. Emerging artists like Judy Collins, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and James Taylor hit home with their acoustic sound and meaningful lyrics. "There was a time when I couldn't separate myself from James Taylor," Michael admits. "I had to be careful not to lose my identity in his." But his continued interest with the nylon stringed guitar tempered his own sound and style. At the age of twenty-two, Johnson applied to and was accepted to study at the Liceo Conservatory with eminent guitarist, Graciano Tarrago, in Barcelona, Spain. While the experience was full of impact on Michael's abilities as a guitarist, it was not until he was back in the States that his vocal style, song writing, and guitar techniques began to merge into the incarnation that has produced his noted works of recent years.
This background has certainly contributed to Johnson's strong abilities as an arranger, as well. He has given much thought to the ever elusive process of creating a good arrangement. "I bring the song - that means the music, the guitar part, the vocal, the phrasing, everything - down to its lowest common denominator," says Johnson. "That means no licks on the guitar, no stylistic tendencies, no scooping up to notes vocally, no bent notes on the guitar - just bare bones. Then I begin filling in some of the blanks - still staying with the discipline - slowly finding the things that work for the song. I try not to force style into a song, but listen for things that work for the song. When things begin to work, the style, or feel of the song becomes more apparent. If it's working, you hear it. If it's not, go back to the bones. This really helps keeps my songs genuine and keeps me from copying other artists." Michael finds the exercise valuable for assessing existing songs, as well. "It's so easy to get bored with a song you're playing a lot. We all try to find ways of keeping things interesting by adding little things here or there and before you know it, we're detracting from the real focus of the song. If I catch myself doing that, I back the song down to its roots and start all over again."
Johnson's immediate future includes working on an acoustic "best of" project for tentative release in the summer 1997, and an instructional video that will focus on arranging for a vocalist/guitarist combination. If you find that he is performing anywhere near you, do yourself a favor - go! Whether he's playing his Olson steel string, or his Khono classical, this boy can ski!