Eric Johanson turned a corner, and he knew a reckoning was coming. “All through the day, all through the night / I tried to shape myself just to stay upright,” he sings on the bluesy “Hammer on the Stone.” Off his new record, Below Sea Level, the deeply confrontational song peels back layers of his own past and attempts to make amends, while also accepting what he’s done.
“Sometimes you can see these things in your life, that at some point you know you’re going to have to deal with, but somehow they feel out in the distance, like a storm that hasn’t made landfall yet,” the New Orleans-based musician tells American Songwriter over email. “When that moment comes, changing your habits and thought patterns can be like trying to carve a stubborn rock into a new shape ─ at least for me.”
As he picks himself a part, in lyrical form, electric guitar rattles the earth beneath him and sets the groove with a particularly irresistible smolder. “Usually, I’ll start with playing something on the guitar that has a vibe to it, and I’ll sit there with that for a while until my mind starts to wander into a different space,” he offers on his musical approach. “I might start humming a melody or mumbling a phrase, and I’ll let that guide me into what the song should be about. With [this song], that riff on the low tuned guitar just sounded so nasty ─ heavy and bluesy at the same time ─ and that became the basis for the song.”
In a brand new video, premiering today, Johanson and his band head down to a local watering hole called Maple Leaf Bar, his absolute favorite venue in New Orleans. “It’s an iconic piece of the city’s musical history, and it’s also a place I spent many a night partying unsustainably hard,” he says. “So to be back in there rocking out to the empty walls, after the club has been closed since the beginning of the pandemic, was surreal enough. Add that to the fact that it was the backdrop to parts of my life I’m referring to in the song, and it just felt really meaningful to me to film it there.”
Performing in a live space, and given the state of the world in 2020, carries with a tremendous significance. Personally, Johanson found himself reflecting “more on the importance of places like the Maple Leaf,” he observes. “They are such a vital part of our culture, and they make it possible for artists like myself to make a living. Prior to [this year], I was spending the bulk of my time on tour, performing mostly at independent venues. Almost all of them have been closed now for the better part of a year. They can’t do curbside pickup of live music. So one way or another, we have to make sure they make it to the other side of this.”
Johanson issued his debut record, Burn It Down, in 2017. He has just come off the road after years supporting acts like Anders Osborne, the Neville Brothers, and JJ Grey, and it soon became evident he had something special in his own right. His second record, a duet collaboration release with Tiffany Pollack, titled Blues in My Blood, arrived two years later.
As he takes stock of his craft, he considers his growth as a songwriter. “I’ve tried to get better at simplicity in songwriting. I’m trying to make songs with some room to breathe, that can evolve as they are performed live,” he says.
For his new solo effort, Below Sea Level, he eyed a vinyl release, and such “time limitation” provoked him and his co-producer Luther Dickinson to “think about stuff like, ‘Does this part really need to repeat again, or is once enough?’ It was my first time really thinking like that, and it made the songs stronger, I think.”
Across 12 songs, spotlighting musicians Cody Dickinson (drums), Terrence Grayson (bass), and Ray Jacildo (B3 organ), Johanson occupies himself through “rebuilding and reorienting the mind and one’s relationship to the world,” as he’s stated in press materials. He takes a moment to reflect further, noting how 2020 has guided his hand, either personally or professionally: “I do think this year has caused a lot of re-evaluating in that way. It has probably made all of us think more about our goals, motivations, and what we really want out of life.”
“In many ways that was the sort of thought process I was going through when writing this album,” he adds. “Even though it was recorded right before things really started to change, it has, in many ways, increased its relevance for me in light of these new circumstances.”
Photo by Kaylie McCarthy