Michael Johnson Photo

From the broadway stage to an Atlantic Records contract

By David Haney
October 1972
Photos: Judy Olausen

If it is worth anyone's while, or even possible, to distinguish "movements" in the morass of songwriters recorded in recent years, two somewhat distinct directions seem to have appeared. These may be clumsily labeled "folk" and "intellectual." The first group contains the likes of John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, and (crossing a rapidly disappearing border) Merle Haggard. They write in the Hank Williams/Woody Guthrie tradition of grass-roots songs about basic problems of life and the common man. The "intellectuals," such as Paul Simon and Randy Newman, are products of the wide variety of education, music, and media to which the middle class is exposed. They write accordingly. Their styles are more eclectic, and they have attempted with varying success to remove songwriting from a purely pop or folk context to a more sophisticated artistic reflection of contemporary life. Much of their appeal is to people who would have been reading poetry of equally variable quality 100 years ago. Most artists, particularly musicians, would rightly cringe at being designated "intellectual," but even Randy Newman's songs about simple-minded characters are made intellectual by their author's studied cynicism.

No such categories are sacred, of course; folk traditions are among the many influences affecting the intellectuals. Besides, folk writers must consciously reject or adapt the unavoidable influences of a complex and largely intellectual society. Giants such as Dylan tend to combine, transcend and destroy any classifications.

An aspiring member of the "intellectual" group of songwriters is Minneapolis-based Michael Johnson, whose strongest qualification is a rare ability to synthesize a wide variety of musical forms. His credentials indicate a certain lack of direction: the Back Porch Majority, the Mitchell Trio, off-Broadway acting and classical guitar study in Spain. Salvation from a career of musical job work came, however, with his decision to become a serious solo performer: singing, playing incredible jazz, country, and pop music, he has disciplined his diffuse influences into a refreshingly intelligent fusion which will appear on Atlantic Records later this year.

Such a wide-ranged synthesis works because he is aware of what he is doing, and its pitfalls. He has never been a dilettante, but a "purist in everything." Thus he has a working knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of each genre he draws upon, and knows when to use what sounds. Constantly aware of the danger of over-diversity, he says "if you start putting too many forms together you can really end up looking like a bowl of fruit." Much of this stems from a well developed but largely subconscious (lest he seem too overtly intellectual) sense of taste. While very discerning in his choice of other people's materials, he admits to a high degree of impulsiveness in his own writing and arranging. This may be the cause of certain weaknesses, particularly in his songwriting, but it also gives the songs a sense of spontaneous unity which too much conscious effort might destroy.

Johnson has his own album jacket -- human interest story of his introduction to music. Thomas Mann enthusiasts might find some implications about "sickness breeding art." In 1957, thirteen-year old Michael and his brother Paul were hospitalized together. Michael had pneumonia and Paul had a broken leg. To amuse them as they recovered, their father bought them a guitar. One thing led to another, and before too long, Michael was laying "Sheik of Araby" in a VFW hall for 5 dollars a night. His idol at the time was Chuck Berry. Despite this amazing success, he entered Colorado State College to prepare for a career in music education, having grown up around Denver.

What appeared to be his first real break occurred during his sophomore year. He won a nationwide talent contest sponsored by Columbia Records and WGN radio in Chicago. The prizes were a week's engagement at the It's Here coffeehouse in Chicago and a record on Epic. One of the judges was Judy Collins, whom Michael counts among his many influences. The record, profoundly named "Hills" after his sole original composition, sold 23 copies, and he was not paid for his gig at It's Here. He obviously Wasn't There quite yet, though he had forsaken school for music. The manager of the coffeehouse liked Johnson, however, and hired him for 20 weeks at $275 a week. This saved him the trouble of cashing his 11c Epic royalty check. He still has it. Things were different then. Money flowed freely when "folksingers" were as popular (and often as talented) as Frisbees are today. Following the folk boom around the country, Michael played Philadelphia, Kansas City, Denver and elsewhere. Unfortunately, "House of the Rising Sun" soon became a rock, not a folk song. The folk market was forced into hibernation until James Taylor's apotheosis.

Michael went in another direction, however, and turned to serious guitar study. After hearing a concert by guitarist Luis Bonfa, Michael auditioned for him, and was invited to study at Segovia's Conservatory of Liceo in Barcelona, Spain. The discipline with which he has studied guitar, apparent in the timing, control, and technical facility with which he plays classical as well as other pieces, belies his alleged impulsiveness. "For some reason it was easier to do because I was in Spain, and I couldn't talk to anyone, and the only rock n' roll was year-old American-Europeanized music on transistor radios in the streets. So the only music I had was my own. Just playing it until you got sick of it, then putting it down and looking at it, and having nothing to do for the next 20 minutes, and wanting to play again and picking it up again. You're bound to get clean if you more or less isolate yourself from everything. That was really what did it. It wasn't any sort of 'I'm going to college to build character' attitude."

A year later, he was back in the U.S. doing solo work in lounges, when Randy Sparks of the Back Porch Majority approached him. Though serious about music, Michael had no definite plans to make a career of it, and simply accepted the first offer that came along. He signed with Sparks, attracted by the prospect of an oriental tour, though he considered the group's sound to be "smithereens." After changing his name to Julia Piper to avoid embarrassment, he discovered that Sparks expected a familial loyalty to the group. "Family" life meant rehearsing riverboat songs day and night, leaving Michael no time to enjoy the travel, the group's only attraction for him. "It didn't take long before I got tired of 'Up Your Lazy River', crinolines, and blue blazers."

The next offer came from John Denver, who was looking for a third member for the Mitchell Trio to replace Chad Mitchell. This gig was at least democratic. As one third of the group, Michael influenced material and arrangements proportionately. With a repertoire of political satire, they rushed through a nerve-wrecking concert schedule which culminated in the 1968 Democratic convention where they supported Eugene McCarthy. Michael decided politics and music don't mix. He found himself unintentionally in a position of political influence, and seriously reconsidered his role as a musician. "I decided I'd step out of political satire, because although it was light and frivolous, it was swaying people. It was acting on them, and I decided I didn't know what the hell I was talking about to be doing that to people on that direct a level. If it comes to anything external, I'd rather influence them emotionally, and not point them into any one direction in terms of housing or water rights or taxes. So I got out of that, and ever since then I've been habitually a lot truer with myself, I think. It was a useful tool -- in terms of a concert it worked, and in terms of supporting people politically it worked. But of course, who wants to have the best campaign song? It doesn't mean much."

After seeing the off-Broadway show, "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris," Michael decided to expand into one more form: acting, and successfully auditioned for the New York show's producer. Particularly excited by Brel's songs, he spent five weeks with the New York company, another five in Los Angeles, and finally 40 weeks in Chicago until the show closed in March of 1970. He was heavily influenced by the experience, and Jacques Brel will be well represented on Michael's album.

Since his departure from the Mitchell Trio, Michael had decided to approach his by now inevitable musical career with a little more seriousness and discretion. "I was really ready to do something else. I didn't know what it was, but for the first in my life nobody came along. I was kind of crazy -- I'd back in and out. I'd back into a situation because there didn't seem to be anything else to do, and I didn't know what to do. Afterwards I decided to wait, and turn down people, but nobody really came by with any stellar offers. So I just started sitting and playing, and after I'd been at it for six months somewhat seriously, I decided I was a single, and I wasn't into a group thing. The thing to do was to find an agent who believed in me, and get some bookings other than Michael's in Mankato and Westward Ho (which is exactly where he put me when I started working)." This believing agent turned out to be Keith Christianson, partner in Projects IV of Wayzata.

With Christianson's help, Michael ascended from suburban cocktail lounges to Guthrie concerts second to John McLaughlin. His humility survived, however, and he still enjoys playing bars and small clubs. Early this summer, Michael was competing for the attention of 20 people against a televised Twins game in the Bronco Bar at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Though it was an off night for Michael, the Twins were soundly defeated after the first few songs. He also played nightly guest sets at the Coffeehouse Extempore during his few free weeks this summer. His unpretentious and intimate performance works to perfection in such situations. He doesn't have to play pop music to hold his audience. Extemp coordinator Jerry Mettetal, himself a classically trained musician, was amazed to find his West Bank clientele silently enthralled by Michael's rendition of a Villa Lobos guitar piece. He uses no gimmicks; he simply asks his audience to believe him, and they do. He says of this type of performing, "Everybody says concerts are so much better. But it's got its own set of values. The nearest chair is 30 feet away, and it's metal, and the audience can't smoke cigarettes, and they can't drink, and they can't really relax; it's a formal situation. In a bar, the negatives are somewhere else. And the positive things - if you can get a group of people who weren't listening to listen, the emotional value is greater; you can feel it. They're closer; they're in the midst of having good time. The best moments I've ever had have been in nightclubs and gin mills, and I'm right there with the audience, and usually have buzzed."

Recording involves dealing with yet another set of problems and values. One of the biggest difficulties is the apparent arbitrariness with which performers are selected to join the elite coterie of those with major recording contracts. Michael has been submitting basically the same material for the past 4 years; for two years he has worked with the same tape. Until recently, he was rejected for sounding "too much like James Taylor." Record companies gave him the impression that he "was more or less sitting on the end of the bend of the soft/ballad/folk type people, and that if I got in it would be really close." Though heavily influenced by Taylor, he considered allegations of sounding too much like him untrue. More importantly, he resents being evaluated in terms of other people's music, rather than on his own merits. His music has changed little for 4 years, but suddenly someone decided, for equally arbitrary reasons, that he will be a financially sound investment.

Another problem is playing for an audience from which he is separated by months of red tape is that of production. Michael has definite ideas about how the album should sound, and originally wanted to produce it himself. After producing his own demo, however, he discovered that this was psychologically impossible. "It wasn't that I didn't know what to do with the sounds, or what kind of orchestrations or things like that, I think I could handle that; it's just that I couldn't handle my own defense. I couldn't be my own attorney. Psychologically, I wouldn't know when I was too tired, and when I was really sterile I systematically drive it into the ground. I have a tendency to get cornered when it comes to trying to feel in the studio." Although Michael's exacting demands will probably result in a well-produced album, he has had trouble finding the right person with whom to co-produce it. After severing relations with his original choice, he is now working with Peter Yarrow and Phil Ramone. The latter is an engineer with a list of credits ranging from the Eastman School of Engineering to Dionne Warwick's albums.

The mere fact of working in a studio creates new problems, along with offering some new advantages. "Records are a totally different thing, and I have trouble with it. I'd love to be able to have one of the moments -- one of the flashes of the things you consider true about yourself -- in the studio. But I love the studio anyway. You never get the respect anywhere that you get in the studio. The engineer is there for you, the producer is there for you, the man who moves the microphones is there for you. It's not like they're babying you, but it's like all of a sudden this is your ultimate value, and if you can put out under the best of circumstances, that's good. Of course, the opposite side of that is, you feel you're in a space ship singing a Ukrainian folk song on your rusty old guitar. You feel totally unequipped compared to the genius that went into the studio."

The album will include Michael's own material, some "extended" classical guitar pieces, and some Jacques Brel tunes. Orchestration will be used, hopefully with the same taste that goes into his guitar arrangements. One of his major concerns is to preserve the natural sound of his voice and guitar, so he will do the same with his string arrangements. "When I think of strings I think of one violin, one viola, one cello; a chamber sound. There's really a tendency to come up with a new sound by destroying the sound of instruments. It's one thing to get a Moog to do anything you want, which I think is principally acceptable to me, but it's another thing to take 12 violins, multiply them three times, and come up with the traditional marshmallow sound of 101 Strings. Sounds really tubby."

Most of the guitar will be Michael's, of course, but among the 4 musicians who will play on the album will be another local guitar wizard, Leo Kottke. They met in Chicago, where Kottke was appearing on the Quiet Night, and Johnson was at the Earl of Old Town. After visiting each other's gigs, falling down a flight of stairs together, and discovering they lived about a mile apart in Minnetonka, they got together to jam. Kottke asked Johnson to play on his next album, and the invitation was returned. "It's more or less whichever comes first that we're going to do most of our real goodies on," says Michael.

It should be an interesting combination; each guitarist's style is a unique synthesis of several forms. Michael is aware of the potential difficulties of such an alliance: "It's difficult; we don't have too much common ground in some areas, or we have too much in common in concept. He's a busy guitar player; 'busy' in a sense that is not detrimental. Leo plays a decent bass part that is always right, he's always got a good accompanying thing, he's always got a tight melody on the top. From the songs that he's done by himself to some of the traditional things he's arranged in collages, he's very tight. I think I am too, in my own way, even though he might be more into traditional sounds, and my greatest departure from him is jazz, I suppose. But we're both very busy, and we have to stay out of each other's way."

Michael is indeed a busy guitarist, but usually in a very understanding way. His classical and jazz-oriented numbers are played very straight-forwardly, and his arrangements of popular songs are uniquely appropriate. His version of Steve Stills' "For What It's Worth," for example, shows a many-formed but intelligent interpretation of the song's musical and lyrical content. A country music purist will wince slightly when Michael ventures into this genre; however, his country-flavored numbers are a little too 'cute', and display a slightly condescending attitude toward country music. This is forgivable. Many guitarists of his training and ability wouldn't touch Nashville with a ten foot tuning peg.

Although Michael is technically far ahead of most guitarists in the "pop" music field, he is constantly aware of a need to improve, and is even considering further formal training. "There are one or two things I desperately need in terms of guitar. One is a good hand position. I really love a bass sound, though I'm not prone to that in terms of a total sound. So far that is there, but the top is not what I want it to be yet, which is the other three fingers, not your thumb. So I might need a teacher to change around my entire hand position. I'd have to stop playing everything for awhile, and start doing little drills and things." Again, it is hard to reconcile this with his statement that "discipline is something that seems to destroy whatever I'm going after."

A classical guitar is Michael's major instrument, but he often surprises audiences with his "sympathetic guitar." Using only the higher octaves of a set of 12-string guitar strings, this Nashville creation produces a tinkling, harpsichord-like sound which, according to Michael, has "some new limitations, and some really extraordinary expansions of the guitar. It's in a much higher register, and therefore hard to consider a solo instrument." It will be featured on two songs on the album.

Because of his unique, creative arrangements of other people's songs, Michael is often asked why he doesn't write as much and as well as he arranges. His answer is that the two are totally different processes, though he recently began writing more. The quality and frequency of his output is impulsive, but he gives a good deal of thought to his songwriting method and its role in relation to the rest of his work. His lyrics must grow before they successfully complement his music, but his awareness of the intricacies of songwriting suggests that they will. "I usually do it the same way, and I usually make the same mistakes. Maybe I ought to experiment with different ways to write. But I come up with the lyrics first, because it's easy to come up with a melody. The guitar part is usually pretty hard. What I usually do is find a phrase I decide I'm going to be true to. It's usually one or two or maybe three ideas in a song that aren't necessarily related to one another, but what I want to put together. That much of it is impulsive, but the rest of it very hard work, trying to be true to the lyrics, and not throw away the lines you come up with in the meantime, to the point where it's not obviously built around 'a song sung blue' or 'cracklin' rosie (you may think I have something against Neil -- I do). I come up with one phrase, and before I know what's happened, I've considered it a finished product and I've put myself in a hole in the ground. I've got a very good melody for it, and a guitar part that I think is right, and I have one phrase that's totally... I'll fill a tape with that phrase, till I get innuendoes and everything I want, and by that time I realize I've gone too far in the finishing process. But the interest is maintained, so I just backtrack. It's like memorizing something, in a way. Memorize two lines, add another one to it, memorize three, add another one." While melodies are "easy" for Michael, he is not as consciously concerned about their quality as he is about his lyrics, and he feels the lyrics to his songs stand up better than the music does. Many listeners might disagree; take for example this stanza of one of Michael's songs:

I could sing you a song about the happier days
But the happier days ain't here
I could string you along in a million ways
Only the lies would be clear
You need something to believe in, right or wrong
You would sell your soul tomorrow for a song

Such lyrics are nothing spectacular, and the phrase "You would sell your soul tomorrow for a song" around which the song is built is indeed somewhat conspicuous. It works, however, when propelled by its fast, syncopated melody and gutsy guitar arrangement. Perhaps the many musical forms Michael has assimilated have had time to congeal at that mysterious subconscious level where creation occurs, while the energy that goes into his lyrics is still at too conscious a level. At any rate, it is unfair to separate the two; a song is "its own happening," says Michael, not merely a poem set to music. A good poem is complete in itself; he tells the story of someone who told T.S. Eliot that he had set one of Eliot's poems to music. The poet replied, "I thought I already did that." A song is a different entity which cannot be dissected any more than the poem can be added to. "It's like a joke, or anything else that you try to dissect. It just loses its total value." If it works, it is good. Michael definitely considers songwriting true poetry and an important and valuable art. Though it will of course never replace literary poetry, he feels it has the advantage of being currently acceptable to more people.

Though musicians can be artists, they are not the sort of glamorous figures that fill the pages of such publications as Rolling Stone according to Michael. "Musicians -- instrumentalists especially -- are just involved in their thing, and to make a very glamorous thing out of it is boring to me... to read the same types of glittering generalities about the same types of people. They're being admired in the wrong ways." Michael Johnson wants to be accepted for his true value as an honest source of good music -- nothing more or less. Determining exactly what that value is becomes difficult when it is defined in terms of dollars and cents, and is affected by many factors which have little or nothing to do with the basic worth of his music. The mere fact of performing a satisfying concert and accepting money for it bothers him with a feeling that he is not "earning things." Also, as a song becomes popular, its "worth" mysteriously increases without any further effort on the part of the artist. "The thing that is hard about it is not determining whether a song is worth a nickel or a dime, but whether it's worth a nickel today, a quarter tomorrow, and a dollar the day after tomorrow." Sometimes, the compensation is actually in inverse proportion to the amount of creative effort expended. He cites the case of a friend who is handsomely paid for writing mindless jingles, but those excellent creative works go unrewarded. "The less he does, the more he gets paid for." These problems will not be solved in this life, or course, but it is encouraging to find musicians who are seriously aware of the responsibilities and enigmas of their position. Hopefully the amount of good music put out by people like Michael will more than compensate for the puzzling nature of their or any artist's role in life.