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BLUES PLAYER

"Blues is at the root of the different styles of music I play” - Eric Johanson

Posted: July 17, 2023

One of the most important things to consider when working with people is what they can expect from the experience. If you communicate this clearly at the start, you will minimize the potential for disappointment or misunderstandings – both for the people participating in the activity and for your team.

Certainly, communication of what you expect out of your team is conducive to the success of all involved. It can make or break the cohesiveness of a team. A team can describe any number of individuals. It isn’t limited to a specific industry either. When you think of a team, you may think about those who excel in a sports market or in a corporate setting. However, a team environment is applicable to even the music industry. Again, it depends upon the amount of people that you work with. Despite the size of the team, it is essential for someone in authority to manage expectations among the group. This is for the purpose of avoiding misunderstanding and disappointment. While these things seem to be minor, they often prove to be huge distractions. Leading to loss in revenue and project setbacks. So, from the start, prioritizing expectations will determine success or failure within a team environment.

But what if the expectations are requirements, we set for ourselves? What then? Is there potential for disappointment when phases are not clearly defined? Yes. Without a doubt. Most of us will create phases for creativity. Ideas require testing and implementation. It is a sequence of actions or events that will determine the outcome of a project. When a team is involved, we try to convey the importance of specific actions, and its desired results. Managing expectations is difficult when we are the only ones involved. An argument can be made that managing expectations is more important to a one-man operation. Versus, a team or staff. The pressure to succeed within a specific timeline is not as great when we have no one to answer too. Therefore, it becomes necessary to set boundaries, goals, phases, deadlines, and processes to keep ourselves on course. This approach to creating music will build confidence and self-esteem. However, we must be diligent and willing to compromise when applicable.

I could talk and write a book about the pros and cons to managing expectations. However, I am a huge proponent of providing illustrations, examples, or personal experience. Therefore, I rely upon my guests to provide proof of our topics. It is making a huge impact coming from those that have a proven ability to work well when expectations have been established. For instance, our guest today. His name is Eric Johanson.

 

ABOUT ERIC JOHANSON

During creating The Deep and the Dirty, Eric Johanson's previous album cracked the Top 10 on the Billboard blues chart. It was his fourth time reaching the Top 10. And for a Louisiana native who'd grown up idolizing bluesmen like Freddie King and Robert Johnson, it felt pretty good. Even so, genre success didn't discourage Johanson from reaching beyond the blues for The Deep and the Dirty's eclectic, electrifying songs.

"I've never tried to stay within one box," he says. "Blues is at the root of the different styles of music I play — hard rock, Americana, New Orleans funk, country — but I don't see the lines between genres, and I'm not following a standard form. What I find important about the blues is the rawness of it. The expression of it. The humanness of it. That's what makes The Deep and the Dirty a blues album: the raw self-expression."

Produced by Jesse Dayton (Supersuckers, Rob Zombie) — another roots-rock innovator who, like Johanson, uses the blues as a springboard for a bigger, broader sound — The Deep and the Dirty (whose title refers to the American South) fires twin barrels of sharp songwriting and fiery fretwork. Johanson wrote these songs during an era that found him at home, live-streaming acoustic performances and releasing two volumes of his Covered Tracks series to a quarantined world. At the earliest opportunity, Eric returned to the road, gaining a fresh appreciation for the musical chemistry generated by a well-oiled touring band. The Deep and the Dirty captures these contradictions and subtleties with songs infused with messages about embracing the modern moment recorded in the studio as a band playing together live.

Bassist Eric Vogel (Big Sam’s Funky Nation / Fred Wesley) and Grammy-winning drummer Terence Higgins (Ani DiFranco / Warren Haynes / Tab Benoit) joined him in the studio, recording 12 songs in two days. "When you're playing this kind of music together, you create moments that can't be replicated if you're recording each part separately," Johanson explains. "I don't write my guitar solos beforehand, and I don't record them separately, either. I need to interact with the band to take the solo somewhere special, and that's why it's important for us to record live. Even if there's a mistake or two, it feels like an honest representation of the moment."

Johanson has been capturing moments for years. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, he received his first guitar at five and became a self-taught prodigy. By his teens, he was a staple at regional blues gigs, often joining much older musicians on stage from New Orleans to Memphis’ Beale Street. Meanwhile, his tastes expanded to include rock acts like Tool, Soundgarden, and Nine Inch Nails. Next, Johanson began making his songs, experimenting with everything from rock & roll to beat-driven electronic music. Living in New Zealand for four years broadened his horizons even further. And by the time Johanson resettled in New Orleans during the 2010s, he'd developed a style of music that unapologetically encompassed all his influences. Solo albums like 2017's Burn It Down introduced that sound to a larger audience, while sideman work for acts like Cyril Neville (The Neville Brothers) kept his guitar chops sharp.

"Music is a way for me to try and make sense of my world and myself," he says. "The Deep and the Dirty is an evolution of what I've done before — a little more in your face, a little more up-tempo, and a little more rocking. I came out of the slow years with a lot of energy, wanting to blast off." Songs like "Don't Hold Back" encapsulate the album's "seize-the-day" message. Anchored by fuzz guitar and a stomping groove, the song finds Johanson reveling in the present. "This moment right now; this is all we get," he sings, his vocal delivery as compelling as his guitar work. "Just Like New" explores similar themes, with Johanson trading the overdriven crunch of his electric guitar for the Delta dirt of a metal-bodied National Resonator. Elsewhere, The Deep and the Dirty offers everything from roadhouse roots-rock ("Undertown") to dark, bluesy Americana ("Familiar Sound"); it's diverse sound glued together by a musician who's never been afraid of the grey area between traditional genres.

"Traveling the country and playing for different audiences over the years, I've learned that people respond to honest music, even if it's not in a standard blues format," he says. "That realization has freed me up to do whatever sounds natural. I love listening to old blues and country, but I also love hard rock. I love playing guitar and improvising onstage, but I also love writing songs that tap into a feeling. This album became a natural mix of all the things I'm into. I've found a way to bring everything together."

 

INTERVIEW WITH ERIC JOHANSON AND GUITAR THRILLS MAGAZINE

GT: Hello Eric. Thank you for the opportunity to get some clarification to some important questions. As noted, speaking to a proven resource was important to establishing the foundation for managing expectations. In what environment would you set expectations? Is it with your staff, or is it applicable to yourself? Please explain.

Eric: I might have more hopes than expectations at times, as the outcomes in the music business are so uncertain. I hope people hear the music, hope it gets presented in a way where people dive in a bit, hope it reaches people that will resonate with it.

The expectations I have for people working with me, I probably become aware of only when someone falls short. If something is forgotten, or if a choice is made that I never would have chosen - stuff like that. But I try and remember that we all have our moments, and if you’re giving it your best shot, we just try and do better next time. You can’t take it too seriously.
At the same time, the stage isn’t a place for excuses. You must remember what it’s like to stand in the crowd waiting to see your favorite band, buzzing with excitement for the lights to go down. It’s not just an hour or two out of your 16-18hr day, it’s supposed to be this transcendent moment… the greatest expression of being alive. So, I have expectations of myself to be focused, present, and full of energy - even if I drove for 8 hours to get there. Sometimes those expectations can be unrealistic, but you try your best, and I enjoy the challenge.

 

GT: Have you ever received push back when you set expectations?

Eric: Of course. This is my whole life, and for every other person involved, my music is just one of many things they have going on. So, there’s an inherent mismatch between where I’m at with it, and how much I’m willing to give it, versus the other people around me. Sometimes you must remember that other people have lives that don’t revolve around this 24/7. I try and stay aware of that.

 

GT: What kind of positive reassurance have you received regarding your expectations?
Eric: Well to some extent, every show where the crowd is really responding to what we’re doing, reassures me that it’s not crazy to be pouring a lot into this, or to have the reasonable expectation that I’ll continue to be able to do it. And I’m thankful that really all the shows have been getting a great response from the crowd, from both longtime fans and newcomers. So that feels great and makes me feel like we’re on the right track.

 

GT: How has it worked for the benefit of your music career?

Eric: I have high expectations of what I should be able to accomplish, and if I can’t find or afford someone to do something - whether it be audio engineering, or running a merch store, or making music videos, then I just learn how to do it myself. I think that has been a huge benefit. If you learn a bit about all these different aspects, then when it comes time that you can afford to hire other people, you’ll know what you’re looking for in a team member.

 

GT: Did you ever set expectations that you later regretted? If so, why?

Eric: I don’t know if I can think of expectations that I regret, but I suppose there are times where I took for granted that something would work out, especially with musicians, and then it totally didn’t. It’s a learning experience for sure, but the human element can be difficult. It’s not easy to say to someone, “this isn’t a good fit”. You never want to make someone feel bad, but there is no way around it sometimes. Thankfully that situation hasn’t happened too many times in my career. It’s still hard to say you regret it though later, as it always teaches you something.

 

GT: We can agree that setting expectations for your team, or yourself requires a process and a plan of action. A specific result is what we look for, and it’s for the benefit of everyone involved. Sometimes there is loss that was due to parameters that were never defined or communicated. Regardless, setting expectations and managing them appropriately works. If you are working with a team, there will be negative feedback. In some situations, it may be an individual that needs adjustment. Versus your expectations. However, it is important to listen to constructive criticism. This is part of the communication process. Ultimately, you are the one that will be responsible for losses. Remember, if you communicate this clearly at the start, you will minimize the potential for disappointment or misunderstandings.

 

GT: Based upon your accomplishments, what has been the biggest achievement of your career thus far? What point in your career did you accomplish it?

Eric: So far, the achievements have all been cumulative rather than one moment. I must look back and say - hey you’ve got people showing up all over the place wearing your t-shirts and singing your songs. It might only be a handful, but it’s a growing handful, and it’s more than it was 2 years ago or 5 years ago. Making those connections with people and seeing that they are real genuine bonds people have developed with the music - that is always the best achievement.

Awards and things like that - they’re nice and I’m not saying I wouldn’t celebrate winning something, but you start to see that there are people who have large audiences and no trophies for it, and people with trophies and very little audience. I’m way more concerned with getting to more people than I am with winning things that only people in this industry people care about.

The other important achievements are creative. Just making music that is a better realization of an idea, or something closer to what I want to listen to. I’ve seen that get closer and closer with each album. This new album feels like something I would want to find out there in the world, and that feels like an achievement.

 

GT: Do you feel completely fulfilled in your music career, or are there other goals that you would like to achieve?

Eric: I try my best to be thankful for just being alive, let alone having a career in this at all, so in that regard I feel fulfilled in many ways. However, of course I want to play bigger venues, be able to add to the road crew, travel more comfortably - there is quite a long way to go in that department, so plenty of goals to work toward.

 

GT: You are considered young within the music industry; I see more accolades that will add to your career. What comes next for Eric Johanson? What seems elusive to you thus far and what do you plan on doing to accomplish it?

Eric: What is somewhat elusive, or I should say just the challenge of all artists right now - is just finding ways to move the needle and keep getting in front of more people. These days there is so much music out there, let alone content in general, that finding the people who would really dig what you do can be tough. The opening slots for people like Samantha Fish, Tab Benoit, and North Mississippi Allstars have been great for that. We’ve met a ton of new people that way. Of course, it would be great to get on late night TV or something, but in the absence of things like that - it’s just word of mouth. People playing the music for their friends and inviting them to come along to a show. That’s really the way this whole thing works for those of us outside of the mainstream music world.

 

GT: When you perform live on stage, what are some of “must haves”? Is there a specific set of gear that you never forget to bring? If so, which instruments and what brands are part of your selection?

Eric: I always have my 2 Duesenberg Starplayer TV’s, which are my main 2 electric guitars at this point. They just have a unique combination of things, between the Fender scale length, the Gretsch-like semi-hollow bodies, and the tremolo that is inspired by a Bigsby but just better all around. They’re inspiring to play. Plus, I’ve had them both refretted with bigger jumbo frets, and swapped the pickups around a bit (Seymour Duncans in both), so I’ve put a lot of time into dialing them into my liking. Those and my Category 5 tube amps, which are hand wired near Dallas, TX. Those have been the main part of my rig since 2018.

 

GT: Outside of your live performances, do you have a guitar brand of choice? If so, why? Is it a specific sound that you are looking for?

Eric: I love my national steel-bodied resonator. It is a magical instrument. I used it on a few songs on this record, “Beyond The Sky”, “Just Like New”, and “Familiar Sound”, running it into my amp rig as well as micing it acoustically. It’s a great sound. It can be trickier to use live because it ‘resonates’ with everything, as it is supposed to do, but in front of loudspeakers that can mean howling like crazy. I just try and find a way to have it howl in key when it wants to!

Other than that, the Duesenberg’s are my go-to electrics as I mentioned, but recently I acquired 2 cool guitars made by a guy in Nashville going by “Music City Custom Guitars”. One is a Firebird with Telecaster hardware & electronics, and the other is a semi-hollow lemon burst Explorer. They are a lot of fun, and they look cool as hell, so I’ve been bringing them out on some shows as well.

 

GT: What are you currently working on, that you can let your fans know about? I know there are some specifics regarding your recent release. What are some notable points that you can share with our readers?

Eric: I am working hard on getting to Europe next year. That’s been something I’ve been having people ask about for years now and I think we may finally have some dates in the works. I am also planning to do more tours with Samantha Fish, at least through the end of the year, if not a little into next year. Possibly some support tours with other artists as well.

 

GT: That is awesome.

GT: You are a dynamic artist that represents the country music industry with a high level of energy and work ethic. This is your first interview with Guitar Thrills Magazine, and we look forward to having you back soon. How does that sound to you?

Eric: Would love to be back! Thanks so much for having me, it’s been great to chat.

GT: Excellent. We look forward to asking some additional questions and catching up on what you are currently working on.

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