Michael Johnson Photo

On His Way Up

By Brian Junker
Little Bit
September 1975
Photos by Chris Sherman

Recording of the interview made by Brian Junker and Tim Hanson. Used with permission: An Interview with Michael Johnson
July 1, 1975, 3:00-4:15pm
at Projects IV / Sanskrit Records, 7515 Wayzata Blvd
Owned by Brian Junker, used with permission
Brian Junker and Tim Hanson interviewed MJ for an article which eventually appeared in the city-wide high-school magazine "Little Bit" in Mpls-St.Paul.

Major acoustic guitarists in or from the Twin Cities area have gone basically, to three extremes. The poetic extreme is personified in Bob Dylan, whose musical accompaniment is often neither as interesting nor as inspired as his lyrics. John Denver, on the other hand, is very performance oriented. His music, lyrically and instrumentally, is as often trite or formulaic as it is interesting, but entertainment seems always to be its main goal. Finally, there is the very technical extreme, the kind of thing Leo Kottke does. To a learned or accustomed ear, Leo's instrumental work provides a magical high. However, he hasn't applied himself extensively to the lyrical aspect of his music.

Now there is singer/songwriter Michael Johnson, born in Denver, based in Minneapolis. He draws from all three extremes to come up with a sound that is at once intelligent, entertaining, and technically proficient. His music is a complex hybrid of classical, jazz, and traditional folk forms.

He currently has two albums out, There is a Breeze on Atco and For All You Mad Musicians on Sanskrit. Taken together, they demonstrate the immense diversity of his talent, from very straight-forward coffeehouse cuts like "May You Never" to the classical "Study in E Minor" to more upbeat things like "Happier Days."

Johnson's first experience with guitar came in 1957. He and his brother Paul were both confined to hospital beds at home. He had pneumonia and Paul had broken his leg. Their father bought them a guitar to pass the time and not much later he was doing $5 stints at the local V.F.W. hall.

Later, he entered Colorado State College to begin a major in music education. Even though he had been playing guitar steadily, "I decided that life as a musician was just beyond me," he says. "Actually, my parents decided that. If you still want to be in music and don't want to be a music-person, you're eiher a music teacher or you sell guitars or something. I decided, well, being a music teacher had some future in it."

Johnson left college in his sophomore year. Columbia Records and WGN radio were sponsoring a nation-wide talent contest. He made it all the way through the local, state, and regional levels to the national competition in Chicago, where he took first place, to his utter surprise.

"It was weird. Once of the reasons I was sure I wouldn't win was my choice of material. I played 'Golden Apples in the Sun', which is a poem that W.B. Yeats wrote and Judy Collins recorded. I did her version. She was one of the judges and I didn't even know."

Michael's prize included a week's engagement at the It's Here coffeehouse in Chicago and a record contract with Epic Records (owned by Columbia) for a single '45. He flew to New York and recorded "Hills", a song that he wrote when he was 15.

When he played at It's Here, the manager was so impressed that he signed Michael on for another 22 weeks. After that, he moved to the Blind Owl in Kent, Ohio, where he played several engagements.

Then he decided a second time that being a professional musician was not for him. He packed up his guitar and wound up in Bar Harbor, Maine, as a waiter in a restaurant called the Rendezvous. But the group there was so bad it was fired shortly after he arrived and before long, he was back onstage.

In 1966 Michael saw Luis Bonfa, a classical guitarist, in Washington, D.C. He auditioned for him and Bonfa told him that if he could get to Barcelona, Spain, under his own steam, he would teach him at Segovia's Conservatory of Liceo. Michael stayed in Europe for a year on $600 and virtually relearned everything about guitar.

"I had to deny all the playing I'd done before that," he remembers, "because my left hand position was just so bad. I was just told that I couldn't play anything except what Bonfa was teaching me so that's what I did. I bored myself to death, played a lot of scales, and it was just really hard on me. But it improved my ear a lot because I didn't sing. It must have made things a lot cleaner."

When Johnson came back from Spain, he developed a sort of lounge act in Denver and played there for eight months straight. During that time he learned to adapt popular songs with a lot of instrumentation to the guitar so that he could play them along in his act. After eight months, though, he was so sick of it that he allowed a fingernail to split, letting him out of his contract.

After an unhappy stint with the Back Porch Majority, John Denver approached him, looking for a replacement for Mike Kobluk in the Mitchell Trio. John flew to L.A. to hear him; they talked and the next day they flew back to New York together.

A day later Michael was in the trio. He had to learn 26 songs for a concert two days later. Twenty-six songs in forty-eight hours? "Well, I learned twenty-four songs and the other two I just destroyed, just mangled."

Michael remembers Denver as "an idealistic person ... I can't honestly say that I know him now, because you know that a career like that has got to change a person in many directions, better and worse."

In a Rolling Stone interview, Denver appeared to be very paranoid about his music. Was he like that then?

"No, but he hadn't been proceeded by John Denver's career. So I imagine, once hou have something, you're afraid to lost it.

"But he's, y'know, he's quite honestly accused by many people of being insincere and they read into his music, his MOR, and, uh, he's under a tremendous amount of scrutiny. MOR equates Steve Lawrence and Edit Gourmet and Bobby Goldsboro and John Denver.

"And sometimes I agree and sometimes I just say, now and then John Denver writes an incredible song. One tune I feel is unusual is a song called 'The Game is Over'. Just really insightful, very nice. And it wasn't Rod McKuen and it wasn't pablum. I'm not saying John writes pablum, but this song was not."

The Mitchell Trio did college gigs across the nation in 1968 with a repertoire of political satire that strongly Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign.

Then the trio began to stagnate, since no new material was being added to the show. Toward the end, they were in New York and Denver recommended a show that was playing, to Johnson, saying it would change his life.

He went to see it, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, and he was so impressed that he arranged to audition, successfully, with the show's producers.

The show played for five weeks in New York, five weeks in L.A. and closed after forty weeks in Chicago. About then Johnson decided that he wanted to try it out as a solo performer. He was tired of having to change to suit other people and he wanted a chance to develop at his own pace.

He met Keith Christianson, his present manager and a partner in Projects IV of Minneapolis, and they came to Minneapolis to build Johnson up. He played some clubs in the beginning, including Michael's in Mankato and the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Bronco Bar. After that, it was small college gigs and things started snowballing.

Finally, in 1972, Johnson landed a contract with Atlantic Records. He spent a year putting together his first album, There is a Breeze. It tends to have much more concentrated instrumental arrangements than are normal for Michael Johnson.

He explains, "It was the first album I had ever made, and suddenly Peter Yarrow (co-producer) told me I could have whoever I wanted. And that's the first time anybody ever said that to me.

And I decided, well, OK, I'm gonna have some darned good people. I didn't want to have everybody's band, y'know, but I wanted to have some people who were really good and sort of unknown. So I picked up a really good jazz group called Petrus. I had a great time doing it and I really loved it.

Two weeks after it was done, I got to listening to it, and I knew I would start feeling worse and worse about it, and sure enough I did. I like the music on it. It's just not mine."

After the album came out, Michael spent a lot of time thinking. He was disillusioned with show business, with making records. He needed to find out how he felt about being on a record. He asked to be released from Atlantic, and because he wasn't selling (Atco had released two singles, "Happier Days" and "Rooty Toot Toot for the Moon", along with the album and all three flopped), he was.

Then Projects IV, which had created Sanskrit publishing for him during There is a Breeze, launched Sanskrit Records, the label he used in March of '75 to release a second album. For All You Mad Musicians took Mike ten days to make, and all the arrangements are simple and concise.

"It didn't even feel like a record. It just felt like a concert, sort of, because it's not a really super0heavy album. It's very normal. If anything, it's underproduced."

Because Sanskrit is a new label, it has been financially impossible to release Mad Musicians except in the Midwest. Here, however, the album is doing extremely well, far better than expected.

The success of Mad Musicians has allowed Michael to think about making a third album. If all goes well, it will be recorded in a studio that he is building at home with a close friend, Mark Henley. Johnson thinks "it'll be a little bit busier, but it still won't have the kinds of things that make it earmarked for a commercial sound. Like it probably won't have a bass, or probably won't have drums, but it will have other acoustic instruments."

Henley and Johnson will co-produce the album, which is tentatively scheduled for release late next January. After that, Michael would like to do an album on his own.