A Man of Song
By Lisa Smith
The Gavin Report
July 4, 1986
Michael Johnson is one of RCA's most recent signings, and one of Country's most recent converts from the pop community. After an extensive folk/pop career that included a stint with the Chad Mitchell Trio (which at the time included an aspiring young songwriter named John Denver) and a string of solo hits in the late '70s (Bluer Than Blue, Almost Like Being In Love, This Night Won't Last Forever), Michael decided to explore new musical paths. Along with producer Brent Maher (famed producer of The Judds) they've recently completed his first County LP, and he's released two singles - a duet with Sylvia called "I Love You By Heart" and "Gotta Learn To Love Without You." We recently talked to Michael at his home in Minneapolis.
LS: How old were you when you developed an interest in music?
MJ: I fell in love with my music teacher when I was in the fifth grade - Sister Catherine - so obviously it was an improbable set-up, even despite the age difference. But I started playing guitar when I was 13 and I guess that was when I really got smitten.
LS: You learned to play guitar along with your brother Paul, didn't you?
MJ: Right. He had just been hit by a car, an I had pneumonia. We were both in hospital beds in our living room. This was in the days when doctors still made house calls. Anyway, my dad bought both me and Paul a guitar and figured out a way to plug it into the radio. So we were on the radio right away, and just started playing along with everybody.
LS: How much older is your brother than you?
MJ: He's seven years older. He's now repairing motorcycles and buying and selling rare gems. He has an interesting life.
LS: You won an amateur contest in college that resulted in a recording contract with Epic.
MJ: Yeah, and that looks great in print. I mean, winning the contest was almost more than I could bare - I was just elated with it. But the contract and the prizes were another thing. One of the prizes was a reel to reel tape recorder that never did work. Another prize was a two week engagement at a coffee house in Chicago called IT'S HERE, and they never did tell me that I wasn't going to get paid. It was just supposed to be an honor to play there. And with the recording contract, I recorded a song called "Hills" that I had written when I was fifteen. It sold 23 copies, and I got a royalty check from CBS for 11 cents. I have it framed.
LS: Do you remember what you played to win the contest?
MJ: Oh yes. It was a folk contest, and I played a chain gang song. Here I was, this little waspy kid from Denver, and I played a song called "Rocks And Gravel." They told me right after the contest, just to keep my feet on the ground, that the voting had been very close.
LS: How soon after that did you go to Barcelona to study guitar with Graciano Tarrago?
MJ: That was about two years later in 1966. That came about because I had told so many people that I was going to Spain to study guitar, that I set myself up to the point where I had to do it. I had no idea who to study with, so I wrote to the National Endowment For The Arts in Washington, D.C. and honed in on several different teachers. I decided on Graciano sight unseen. He turned out to be just wonderful. The teachers over there are very competitive about their different styles. They're very passionate at what they teach and what they believe music should be. It's like the old story about the two guitarists playing Bach, and one of them says "Ok, you play it your way and I'll play it his way." There's a lot of snobbism in the classical world, and when you combine that with the flamenco passion in Spain, you come up with some very opinionated people.
LS: It sounds wonderful, though.
MJ: It was just great. I'd sleep with my guitar under my bed and I'd wake up every day and immediately start playing the guitar. This was in a boarding house full of people doing exactly the same thing. I did it for a year.
LS: How did you get hooked up with the Chad Mitchell Trio?
MJ: I went back to Denver and Randy Sparks, the guy who had the Christy Minstrels and the Back Porch Majority, came through town. I met with him and he said he'd like to work with me in L.A. So I wound up out there with him working with various groups for about a year. Through various friends, I found out that John (Denver) was looking for somebody to replace the last original member of the Chad Mitchell Trio. So I left everything I owned in L.A. and flew to New York to join the group.
LS: Around this time, you also appeared in a Broadway play.
MJ: Right! John and I went to see "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris," and it really changed my life. I couldn't believe that songs of that substance could be that successful. The songs in that show are amazing. I bought the soundtrack and learned a few of the songs and went and auditioned to be in the show. There were only four people in the cast, and I had never acted before. So I auditioned for the play by sitting down and playing the guitar and singing for the producer. He said "You obviously love the songs. I don't know if you can act, but you've got the job." That began a very terrifying education. I remember going to see the show several times before I got the part and thinking "Oh, I can do that." Well, surprise, surprise. I enjoyed it after I got over the terror. I did it for a year. I'd love to do some acting again at some future date.
LS: Sometime early in your career, Phil Ramone produced one of your albums. What is he like to work with?
MJ: He's great. I've heard many stories about him, and some of them say he's hard to work with. But I never found that to be true. He co-produced that album with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary. I was still steeped in folk music at that time, even though that album was not steeped in folk tradition. I learned a whole lot during the making of that album. They were very gracious about listening to my ideas. They were patient, and occasionally they'd wink at each other. It was all kind of paternal. I think they knew I was growing up during the experience.
LS: In the late '70s, you had quite a few successes on the pop level with "Bluer Than Blue," "This Night Won't Last Forever," etc. Where were you recording them?
MJ: The same place I recorded these new ones - Nashville. I went down there to play on a session for Gene Cotton, because he was recording one of my songs. I was stunned by how good the sound and the production was. It was because of the combination of producers Brent Maher and Steve Gibson. After that session, a miracle happened. I asked Brent and Steve if they would work on a session with me, and they said yes! (laughs). So I took my life's savings, and I played some songs for them and they played some songs for me. The rest of it was all very proper in that regard. One of the songs that they played for me was "Bluer Than Blue," and I couldn't believe that no one had recorded that song. I knew that could be a big record.
LS: You were right.
MJ: Yeah, it turns out I was. I didn't know what was commercial and what wasn't, but I knew that I loved that song and that other people would love it too. We recorded that and "Almost Like Being In Love." We didn't have a record deal at the time, so my manager took it to a lot of places, and EMI liked it right away and they put it out without re-mixing it or anything. They were pressing the records while we were negotiating the contract, which is kind of fairy tale stuff these days.
LS: Why Country now?
MJ: Because that's where the songs are now. I've always been a song man. I love production and arrangement and instrumentation, and I did those things in pop music. But now it's just swung so much in the techno-pop area that the song and the singer take on a secondary role to the overall sound. It also seems to me that a lot of pop writers are writing records and not songs. I just miss songs. I love verses and choruses and lyrics that stand up all by themselves without any music. So I've always been a song guy, and Country music has gone through some changes so that hopefully they'll embrace me. I can't say that I grew up listening to Ferlin Huskey, but I do have folk music in my background and I have the songs. I think there's more of me in Country music than there was in the pop stuff.
LS: Do you think that your music has changed, or do you think that the definition of where your music fits has changed?
MJ: I think both happened. The song choices are the same, but the instrumentation is different. It's not keyboard oriented and there's not much synth in it and not very many strings. So those things are different. But I also think that Country music has grown larger and embraces more things. There's room for me there and I feel completely comfortable there.
LS: What do you think of the Country community as opposed to the pop community?
MJ: The Country community does more things and is more people oriented. Country has Fan Fair and the Country Radio Seminar. And promotion is also different. There used to be this lull between the time I finished the record and when the record came out. I'd go skiing or just disappear. That's not the way it is now. I don't know about other labels, but RCA is keeping me real busy. I've been flying around and doing a lot of promoting.
LS: How is this album alike and different from your previous albums?
MJ: It's alike in that I'm basically a balladeer, so dynamically the songs are about the same and I'm still the same singer. It's different in that I spent a year and a half writing and finding songs. It's also different in that I played on all ten songs, and all of the arrangements are based on my guitar parts. So that automatically puts a lot more of me into the record. I'm real pleased with it.
LS: How did the duet with Sylvia come about?
MJ: Brent (Maher) got this song, and his wife heard it and decided that it should be made into a duet with me and Sylvia. So Brent called me and asked if I liked the idea. I'd heard some of Sylvia's stuff and liked it, and I also liked the song, so we did it. It was a great introduction to RCA and to Country music.