Interview with Jeremiah Johnson Bluesman

Photo: Jeremiah Johnson, provided by the artist

Interview with Jeremiah Johnson Bluesman

By Martine Ehrenclou

Jeremiah Johnson blends the sounds of the south with Mississippi River Blues. A highly talented guitarist, singer and songwriter, Johnson’s last release Unemployed and Highly Annoyed is nominated for a 2022 Blues Music Award for Best Blues Rock Album Of The Year. He also won Best Modern Roots CD of 2020 (Independent Music Awards) and is a five-time Top Ten Billboard Blues Artist. His songs are written with meaning, a powerful honest voice and master class musicianship.

From St. Louis Missouri, Johnson’s emotionally charged roots music is powered by the working man’s passion for life and the struggles that lie just beneath the surface.

Johnson’s new album Hi-Fi Drive By (Ruf Records) finds him embracing more traditional blues, rock & roll, and swampy funk, complete with a smoking horn section. And this return to his roots finds Jeremiah in career-defining form, with powerful vocals, explosive yet tasteful guitar chops and authentic, well-crafted songs. Guests include Grammy nominated and Blues Music Award winning pianist and singer Victor Wainwright and harmonica master Brandon Santini.

I caught up with Johnson by phone from his home in St. Louis and asked him how he was doing.

Jeremiah said, “Man, I don’t stop. I get up early in the morning. I have a three year old son and he gets up at about 4:30 or 5:00 AM, and I just start going from there. And as soon as I drop him off from school, I’ve got a whole list of stuff to do for the band and the family.”

Envisioning Jeremiah performing with his band at a venue the night before, getting to sleep about 2am and then waking up to a jubilant pre-preschooler, I asked how that was for him.

“It’s very rewarding. I’m older now. If I’d been in my twenties, it never would’ve been the same. I’m pretty thankful for it,” he said.

Enthused by his top-tier new album, Hi-Fi Drive By, I asked him about his goal of getting back to the blues and rock & roll basics for the album. “It’s a great record.”

“Thank you,” Jeremiah said. “I felt like I had drifted a little bit. I wanted to get back to more traditional blues. And be able to show people that I can do that. The traditional blues is really what I started on, as far as my career as a blues musician. I just wanted to be able to showcase a mature level of songwriting and musicianship.

Continuing, Jeremiah said, “I got two of my good buddies who are extremely talented producers that I trust, Tom Maloney and Paul Niehaus IV, and I said, ‘Listen, here’s what I want to do. I want to make an album where we all collaborate on it. Let’s throw any ideas out there that we have. I’m not going to worry about whether I’m playing the guitar or not. If there’s somebody in the room that you think we can make it better with them playing guitar, let them play.’ That’s what we did. I was really pleased with working with them and how it all turned out.”

Jeremiah Johnson photo, interview

Photo: Jeremiah Johnson by Angela Girarder

Jeremiah shared that Tom Maloney is a local legend and was Johnny Johnson’s musical director for years. He urged Maloney to give him guitar lessons to work on his blues riffs. Not that he needed any help, but his drive for a deeper, more soulful sound was what he was aiming for. And he got it on Hi-Fi Drive By. He shared that he’d said to his mentor, “Anytime I’m playing too many notes, I want you to smack me on the side of the head and say, ‘Less, less, less.’ (laughs) And that was pretty much one of his number one jobs as far as being a co-producer.”

“Did he do that?” I asked.

“He did,” Jeremiah replied. “By the time we got to recording the album, I had been taking lessons from him for several months so he didn’t have to do too much of it because I already had it in my head what I needed to do.” He added, “I kept telling the producers, ‘What I want are solos that somebody can sing because those are always the best.’ When you listen to a Pink Floyd solo, you can practically sing it.”

“There’s a couple of songs on the album where your guitar tone and phrasing sound a lot like B.B. King. Not easy to do that,” I said. “Is he an influence?”

“He is,” Johnson said, “but there’s other guys. But that’s exactly what I was going for.”

I asked Jeremiah if he spontaneously wrote in the studio or created the songs ahead of time. “Tell me about your songwriting process for the album.”

With excitement in his voice, Jeremiah said, “Me and Tom Maloney and Paul Niehaus IV would meet up. Once we narrowed it down to songs that we really thought had something, we just put on a microphone and just jammed the songs. I drank some beer and took a one hit and just started making up stuff.”

“Sounds like it was a real creative process in the studio,” I said.

Jeremiah described it. “It was completely that way. What’s nice about it, is a lot of times, those things that you sing off the top of your head have real emotion to them that you wouldn’t get if you were just writing something down on paper. You know?”

I added, “Because you’re in the moment with it and there’s no outside pressure?”

Jeremiah said, “Right. And in the moment it rolls off the tongue in a natural way. I found it to be an excellent way of doing it.”

I asked, “You describe some of the songwriting and singing as very creative and improvisational in the studio. Was your lead guitar playing the same way?”

“Yes,” he said. “Totally. I didn’t know what I was going to do on the majority of it. In fact, we kind of left it that way on purpose. They were all kind of just right then and there. Man, whatever the heck I could come up with at the time. And most of it went real fast. I kept it simple. I had a real good understanding of what I wanted to do. The majority of them are just one shots.”

“That must have been a thrill,” I said.

Jeremiah Johnson photo, interview

Photo: Jeremiah Johnson by Dawn Wilcox

“It was nerve wracking. (Laughs) I don’t ever get nervous, ever,” Jeremiah said. “You could put me in front of a bunch of people and I don’t feel that. But this particular session was very nerve-wracking because Tom Maloney, in my opinion, is one of the most phenomenal guitarists I know. At certain times I was thinking, ‘Man, if I don’t get this right, then I might not even play this. I better do it good.’ (Laughs)

I asked him to tell me about his song “Ball And Chain.” Not unlike a Southern Steely Dan, the song is a blend of powerful roots rock with a mix of guitar, piano and horns that creates a full sound with Johnson at the top of his game.

Jeremiah shared that the music was written by Tom and Paul and that he wrote all the lyrics. “When it goes to the chorus, it reminded me of a Rod Stewart, Rolling Stones, rock and roll thing. The lyrics just came out of me, to be honest with you. I just had this idea and I started singing about it. I’m really proud of the lyrics in that one. I’m proud of all the lyrics in all of these actually, because I spent a lot of time on them. It’s a typical relationship thing, a song about the struggles you might have. People will bitch and complain that, ‘Man, I feel like I’m stuck in a ball and chain here.’ (Laughs)

Laughing I said, “I think everybody’s felt that way.”

Adding to that, he said, “But then in the end though, they would never give it up because you’re still happy. When you see the opening lines, to me, it pretty much says it all. ‘The vicious cycle of love and pain, hot air balloons in a hurricane.’ You can almost see the chaos that you get with love sometimes.”

I mentioned that he added some funky tunes on the record like “Hot Diggity Dog.” 

“Oh yeah. During our lessons when Tom Maloney, he would come over to my house whenever my son was on his naps. I have a sunroom that closes off from the house, so you can go in there and play guitar and it won’t wake him up. We did acoustic guitars. He came over and he started busting out that song. He was playing it and finger picking, and it just sounded like Keb’ Mo’ or a Front Porch Blues thing. And I was like, ‘Man! Dude, we are not leaving until you show me how to do that. That is absolutely freaking cool, man.’ (laughs) And that was a thing he had in his back pocket for a lot of years. And I was like, ‘Dude, we’ve got to do that.’

“Your voice also sounds great on that song,” I said.

Jeremiah shared that part of his focus on vocals was to not force himself to do something out of his range. In the past, when he recorded albums, it would take a couple of tries in the studio to hit a certain note. He didn’t want any of that on this album. He wanted everything to be in his vocal wheelhouse. “That way,” he said, “I knew I could sing it live any time I wanted.”

On Hi-Fi Drive By, the richness and soulfulness of his voice comes through, a certain maturity or confidence. “This is definitely your best album,” I said.

Jeremiah agreed. He explained that part of the new album’s success came from preparing and recording it in St. Louis with two producers who were his friends. Referring to two of his previous releases Straightjacket and Heavens To Betsy, he shared, “Those were done by producers where you’re driving out of state, you’re staying in an Airbnb, you have one week, and it’s all got to be done. And they’ve only heard the songs maybe a few times on a demo you sent them on a phone.”

“That sounds like a lot of pressure.”

Jeremiah said, “It is a lot of pressure. It’s also not a lot of time to work through everything. With this release, we spent a good two months thinking about how we were going to make each song better.

In my opinion, the reason that a lot of those great records from the sixties and seventies is because record companies were allowing the artists the time. They didn’t have to put out a release every year. They gave them plenty of time to go in and really work on those records and make them the best they can possibly be.”

He continued. “Now, there are exceptions, obviously. The first Black Sabbath album, they just went in there and freaking did it in a day or two, and it ended up being a legendary record. But you get my point. You listen to those Zeppelin albums, those guys worked on that and perfected those songs over a long period of time.”

Jeremiah concluded with, “That’s why I think the pressure was off with this album. I really felt confident that we were going to make this happen, that it was going to sound great.”

Jeremiah Johnson is currently on tour. For tour dates see Here 
For more information on Jeremiah Johnson see his website Here 

Listen to “Ball And Chain”

 




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