Musician and producer Alain Johannes has spent most of his life making music with and for others as a talented producer and player. But after the passing of both his wife and creative partner Natasha Shneider and dear friend Chris Cornell, his mind was sent to a low, reflective place, that was only piqued by a debilitating illness in 2019. And he wasn’t sure he would recover.
It took months for Johannes to recoup from a serious respiratory illness, but when he did his passion for music and life resurfaced stronger than before. And after questioning his livelihood both physically and emotionally, he emerged, guided by the essence of his wife and Cornell to make his latest solo record, Hum, out today on Ipecac Recordings.
With songs like “If Morning Comes”, “Mermaid’s Scream” and the title track, Johannes forged a record that is equally as enlightening to his listeners as to his process making the record. “If Morning Comes” was a majorly important song for the record and Johannes personally and the equally vivid and graphic-leaning music video envisioned by Liam Lynch, is premiering today on American Songwriter.
“’If Morning Comes’ was one of the most cathartic for me during the making of Hum,” Johannes told American Songwriter. “Many difficult nights while I was ill, those words were like my mantra. And my dear friend Liam Lynch created this intense world so visually stunning and resonant with the song. He’s the man!”
Johannes was energized on Hum from some of the same things Cornell and Shneider did when they played music. Shneider, who played in the ‘90s band Eleven with Johannes and Cornell who he had worked with in several capacities, including Cornell’s 1999 solo release Euphoria Morning, both lent ideas for the lyrics and composition on Hum.
“Natasha was just such an amazing composer; she had this ability to write a very complex arrangement on the spot,” Johannes recalled. “She had all this emotion and just imagined it in her head. That’s’ become part of me now, I almost have a dialogue, just imagining what she would do. But it is so shorthand now. A voice says to me ‘now you need this or clarinets or something’. It just happens. It’s like she’s sitting in my mind executing something through me. I continue to feel connected with her. And with Chris it was the same, with the lyrical, melodic aspects and the poetic darkness.”
With these ideas in mind after a build-up of inspiration that incubated while Johannes was ill, he immediately went to his studio where he had everything elegantly set up and he purely and innocently reacted to the music and what he was feeling. “Mermaid’s Scream” was the first song to come alive and twelve days later Hum’s track-list was completed.
“I went into the control room. I had all my instruments there, a few microphones and a world of different characters set up,” Johannes said. “And I got my percussion stuff and I just kind of started with the first song, which was only the melody. And I wrote the lyric and I recorded all the instruments, which led the next day to ‘Hum’ the second song, which I didn’t have much for. And then the third day, I just listened to the first two songs because I would finish them that night, then I would fix them and then they’d be mixed.”
Many of the songs for Hum Johannes wanted to include more diverse instrumentation than guitar, drums and vocals, but his lungs that were still weak from his illness ruled out his ability to successfully play reed or brass instruments at full capacity. A simplistic but effective, electric, fuzzed guitar, heard as a driving tone on “If Morning Comes”, with other unique stringed instruments and native percussion became some of the leading sounds on Hum. Johannes listened to the call of the instruments to write the lyrics, which start with usually one or two words, spiraling into creative chaos.
“Music is always first, sometimes I might have a melody or the sound in place,” Johannes said. “It dictates certain words for me. I don’t often have a concept in mind beforehand, but it just happens with a line or a few words. Then it pours out, I can barely write fast enough. I react to the feeling of music really.”
Johannes’ reactive response to music is parallel to his perspective of music as a continuum. He thinks of it as something that is always present and that can be tapped into. He has a very earthly connection to all aspects of music, emotions and sounds, which is part of what makes him an equally talented producer.
“I started young and I was really interested in all the aspects of music, songwriting and recording,” Johannes recalled about his early interest in production. “I fell in love with the sound of the records that I was listening to as well, so I tried to figure out how it all worked together. And my uncle who would stay with us always had bands rehearsing in the house, and brought his gear over, so I had access to all that stuff. And I think that started my interest in the recording side, the arrangement side, the sounds, the parts and how they work.”
“I never thought I’d make solo records because I was in other bands, Eleven with Natasha, then Queens of the Stone Age and Chris Cornell,” he added. “It was always a feeling of a family so I never thought about making a record for me. It didn’t resonate with me. And as a producer I’m good at folding into the project and assuming a role.”
Johannes has released two other solo records over his career, Spark in 2010, arranged as a love letter for Shneider shortly after her passing and Fragments and Wholes Vol. 1 in 2014. Johannes’ role as producer over the years has benefitted him to create the solo music completely independently like he did with Hum, which he recorded, mixed and performed himself. But perhaps more importantly it helped Johannes be able to heal from loss.
“My solo stuff is a lot of catharsis and emotional intensity that I need to communicate and music is the best way I know how to do that,” he said.
Hum is out today everywhere and you can get a copy here or listen on Spotify. And don’t forget to be the first to check out the brand-new video for Johannes’ mantra-song “If Morning Comes” on American Songwriter today.