|ROCKWIRED INTERVIEWS EARL R. JOHNSON JR.
UNFINISHED BUSINESSPianist and composer EARL R. JOHNSON JR. has travelled the world and the seven seas and has built a name for himself as 'the' keyboardist to work with. His resume has certainly been enhanced by the marquee value of industry luminaries such as BRIAN MCKNIGHT, CHAKA KHAN, GLADYS KNIGHT, KENNY LATTIMORE, and BEYONCE, however being the supporting player wasn't exactly what JOHNSON had set out to do. Ever since he earned his degree from the BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC in Film Scoring, the phone has not stopped ringing with people wanting him to work with them. Needless to say, the dream of scoring that great, big, Hollywood blockbuster has eluded him so far. His self-produced and self-financed debut CD 'JUICY' is more than just a calling card for JOHNSON's immense artistry and talent. It is also an introduction to a man whose talents have not yet been realized by folks outside of the music industry. "It took a lot of saving and planning and begging and crying, but that is why I'm so proud of it now." says JOHNSON in regard to recording 'JUICY'. "I'm pleased that I actually finished it. I wanted a GRAMMY-level project that was independently produced and I wanted it to be able to sit up on the self beside any other project. I wanted it to look and sound like a major label release with the only difference being that I paid for it myself."
EARL R. JOHNSON JR. TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HIS DEBUT CD 'JUICY'
WORKING WITH JUST ABOUT EVERYONE IN MUSIC
AND MAKING A CONNECTION WITH THE AUDIENCE
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED spoke with EARL R. JOHNSON JR. over the phone. Here is how it went.
Now that 'JUICY' is out ther for everyone to hear, how do you feel about it?
I feel really great about it. I've got an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I've got a high level of anticipation and I'm just really excited to have a finished product and to have the potential for great amounts of people to hear and enjoy something that was created in my head. There is no greater feeling than that.
And you've been a part of the music industry for a while. You've played with tons of musical luminaries. What took you so long to come out with your own album?
Well, I think this is actually my season for that. When I first got into playing and touring, it was really exciting to have the name as the benchmark behind my name to validate me. I really had to let that run it's course and let the novelty wear off before I could think about advancing my career forward as a solo artist rather than being in the supportive role.
Talk about the name 'JUICY'.
That nickname started in college. It followed me from college. It started as a joke. Some of my college mates came up with that name after some joking around, and I hated it. The madder I got, the more it stuck and then people outside of my immediate circle heard it and it caught on. After while it's like 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!' The full nick name is 'BIG JUICY' and then recently, the 'BIG' was dropped off. More people within the industry know me as 'BIG JUICY' than they do 'EARL JOHNSON', interestingly enough. I've been feverishly trying to push that name away from me but pople are starting to know me better as EARL JOHNSON JR.
You went to school at the BERKLEE COLLEGE OF MUSIC in Boston.
Yes. I went PENN STATE on an academic scholarship and then I transferred and I ultimately got my degree from BERKLEE.
In film scoring.
What moved you into that direction?
Well, I've always been really interested in composition. I'm a huge movie buff and the greatest medium for creation is within the dramatic underscoring realm. In one movie, you're doing something that is funny, one thing is scary and then another piece has to be suspensful and alot of times all three of those emotions are within the same project. It calls for you to be a chameleon of sorts, musically and that is really challenging.
What sort of films spoke to you?
Big epic dramas, comedies and suspense films. I'm a big history buff as well so I like lot of period pieces as well. I just love movies.
So how did music begin for you?
I started with private piano lessons at the age of nine. My parents bought a piano and six free lessons came with the purchase. My older brother had already started playing trumpet and I remember my parents asking me about what instrument I would like to play as I was watching 'A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS' and SCHROEDER was there hunched over the paino playing and I remembered asking my parents "could I play like that?' and they said 'If you practice', and I said 'okay!' And that was that.
Of course that monster LUCY wouldn't have left you alone.
Yeah.(laughs)I started with the lessons and it just made sense to me. I'm a big math buff as well and music and math are intimately related. When they were teaching me the note values and how to read music, it made sense. I won't say that I got it instantaneously but it was very close. It took off from there and I ended up taking classical lessons for about ten years and then I made the switch to jazz once I got to the University level and I was big bee-bop buff for a long time. Most of that education came from studying the masters on vinyl, listening to the radio, ear training and all of that stuff which was a supplement to all of my studies at BERKLEE and it just took off from there and I never looked back.
It's interesting for me to hear keyboardists talk to me about classical training and then moving into jazz. Do you feel that having a classical background sort of helped you in jazz?
Definitely. It helped to put harmony into perspective as far as what the traditional approach was and gave me a deeper appreciation of how the jazz masters adapted and changed it. In terms of the physical aspects of playing piano, starting off with classsical gives you a nice solid foundation in terms of your dexterity and maneuvering this massive monster with 88 keys on it. You first look at it and you go 'Whoah!' Classical training really helps you to break that down into malleable chunks and then you can start ingesting it a lot better.
I've heard a similar explanation from another pianist I had interviewed named LISA HILTON.
I've also heard that classical training is quite rigorous and that there is no room for deviation, whereas jazz is improvisational.
Exactly. A lot of people don't know how to break out of that rigidity. It's really a double edged sword. As far as your reading, it really helps to get your fundamentals down. Interestingly enough, classical music was the jazz music of it's time because most classical music was not notated. They had a short hand known as figured bass so you had your Italian sixth and 6/3 and they would have single notes with these little 6/4's on top of 6/3's and that was the short hand to let HENDEL and SCHUBERT and all of them know how to arpeggiate those harmonies, then people centuries later started writng out the approximation of how they would do it and that was how we came to know the classical music that we know today. In the jazz medium, the jazz lead sheet is pretty much the same thing. You see chord symbols and after you do your melody and you're playing through the changes and doing a solo, you're using those same chord symbols in the same way that the classical musicians of the time used figured bass.
What composers spoke to you along the way.
Classically, CHOPIN, BEETHOVEN, MOZART and then once I made the switch I got into WYNTON KELLY, DUKE ELLINGTON ART TATUM, and TOMMY FLANNAGAN. I've got so many. There is also OSCAR PATTERSON, HERBIE HANCOCK and once I got to the more modern players I got into JOE SAMPLE, GEORGE DUKE and KENNY KIRKLAND. GEORGE DUKE, KENNY KIRKLAND and HERBIE HANCOCK really spoke to me because they each lived in different worlds. They could navigate within the jazz bee-bop realm and then make a total switch over to R&B and fusion without missing a beat.
Once you completed your study at BERKLEE, what happened?
One month after I graduated, I was walking down the streets of Boston and my plan was to move to New York. I was going to be a jazz musician in New York. Then I ran into my ear training professor and he asked me what I was going to do. I told him I was moving to New York. And he asked me if I'd like to play in his band. My ear training teacher was jazz saxophonist WALTER BEASLEY, so I said 'Yeah! I'd like to play in your band.' and he said 'Good! Go to TOWER RECORDS and buy all of my CD's and learn everything that you hear.'
He wouldn't lend you the CD's
No, he made me go buy his stuff. He said to me that he knew that I could do it because he had trained me. He told me to learn everything and that he would see me at rehearsal in three weeks. That was that. A few months after that, I was down in New York hanging out with him at MERCURY RECORDS because that was his label at the time. BILLY ECKSTEIN's son ED was the President of MERCURY at the time and he had just signed this new up and coming artist BRIAN MCKNIGHT and I was offered to play in his band. I was told that this BRIAN MCKNIGHT was going to be around for a while, and that he was great. So that was how I ended up with BRIAN MCKNIGHT's gig. I actually did WALTER and BRIAN's gig simultaneously for the next three and a half years and it all just took off from there. I'm one of the rare stories of people who immediately got a job afer graduating.
You're right. Most of my friends who studied music went to go work for a cruise liner or something like that.
I was really fortunate and the work hasn't stopped. Because of that, I had a self-imposed hiatus so I could work on 'JUICY'. I litterally went from BRIAN MCKNIGHT, to WALTER BEASELY to NAJEE and then to brief stint with WYNTON MARSALIS. All of these gigs were coming one after another. A lot of it is based off of your reputation and personal recommendation. I never went six months without playing with somebody. When I made the decision to move out to L.A. in 1998, I was really trying to adjust myself and get into scoring film. At the time I was the musical director for NAJEE and I started getting calls from all of these other people such as GERALD ALBRIGHT, KENNY LATTIMORE, THE BRAND NEW HEAVIES and PATTI AUSTIN. One time, GLADYS KNIGHT got a hold of me. My last gig was with CHAKA KHAN. I was her keyboardist and soloist with her for two years and we toured Europe and all of these different places. One day, I said 'I still haven't done my project!' I was doing music for a small film here and there, but that ever elusive A-list feature has always managed to go around me. Once I started putting my focus and attention there, I figured that I would start with my own project and maybe I could use that as a calling card so that people would know what my voice actually sounds like on the comercial side. It worked for MARCUS MILLER and that was what broke him into the film scoring realm.
In putting this CD together, who all did you work with?
I made a conscientious decision not to have any big names on the project with me. I really wanted the project to stand on it's own merit but at te same time, I wanted to have my industry colleagues with me. I went around and got the side men from the various bands that I had worked with from K CI and JO JO to NAJEE to CHAKA KHAN and all of these various people who were on the stage and in the background. Several of the people on the project were old schoolmates of mine who had moved out here as well. There were close to twenty three musicians on this CD. It was all self-financed, which was brutal.
You'll pay off those credit cards soon.
It took a lot of saving and planning and begging and crying, but that is why I'm so proud of it now. I actually finished it. I wanted a GRAMMY-level project that was independently produced and I wanted it to be able to sit up on the self beside any other project. I wanted it to look and sound like a major label release with the only difference being that I paid for it myself.
And it does sound like a major label release. It sounds really big.
Were the compositions on 'JUICY' specifcally written fror this project or does some of the material come from somewhere else?
Some of these came from other places but a majority of the compositions were specifically for this project. I try and write on a daily basis. They don't always come to fruition as a finished song. I try keeping my compositional pencil sharp. When the opportunity comes for a film project or the chance to produce another artist comes on the table I don't have to warm up and gear up for it. I'm already in full stride. A lot of the songs for this project, I just started writing and writing. Sme things made it on to this project and others did not. I actually have about a total four CD's worth of material right now.
Recorded or written down?
Half of it is recorded but it's all written down. All of the arrangements are complete. I'm going to figure out how far I can push this project and probably around the top of the year, I'll start working on the next project.
Of the tracks on JUICY, which ones stand out for you and why?
It may sound like a joke but all of them are my favorites. When I listen each one of them I think of how I tried to construct the project I wanted to tell an overall story so it would be like records used to be back in seventies and eighties, when I was growing up. Back then, you could put a project on and listen to it from front to back without skipping any songs and that was the kind of project that I wanted to construct. When I listen to '412' it reminds me so much of my family and my upbrininging even with the instrumentation that I use on there. The trumpet is in there and it reminds me of my older brother. 'UNIFINISHED BUSINESS' is a song that makes me think of present and dare I say past loves. 'THAT THANG' is party kind of song where you don't want to think too much. You just want to groove to something, get up and dance and have a good time. 'FULL OF ENVY' reminds me of a couple of bad breakups - my own and others that I've heard about. My inspiration doesn't just come from within. Sometimes I'll hear a story from a friend or colleague and just go 'wow!'. I could go through each song and go through what drew me to constructing it in that way. Even the poem piece, 'POSSIBILITIES' - that song grew out of a day dream and then when I got with the spoken word artist, the piece evolved. 'TASHA'S WAY' is the song that I've dedicated to my wife and 'REQUIEM' goes back to my first love - the acoustic piano. There are very few projects that I hear in modern day where artists use the acoustic piano. There is a lot of emphasis on production these days but it all started with the acoustic piano.
You had your CD release not too long ago. How did it go? Were you nervous?
Actually no. I don't get nervous. I don't mean to sound egotistical. I perform so much that when I go onstage I go into this whole other head space where I really try to intimately connect with every aspect that is happening on the stage musically. Tthere is no real time ot get nervous because I feel that it is a priviledge to touch my instrument and release that outward expression of the inner soul. That is what I get into. It's really exciting to me whether I'm playing in front of empty chairs or whether I'm playing for eighty-thousand people. I've done both and everywhere in between and it's like I grab different energy from different crowds like that. For an intimate crowd there is certain kind of energy and flow thats happening where it's easier for the musician to connect with the audience. I performed for NELSON MANDELA on his eightieth birthday celebration in Johannesburg. There were eighty thousand people out there and it was a ten hour concert with CHAKA KHAN and STEVIE WONDER and DRU HILL, NAJEE and KENNY LATTIMORE and I ended up playing with everyone at that concert and I was like 'Wow! I've played with everyone at this concert!' The immense crowd was so enthusiastic about being there and not one person left during the entire time. We had the concert at a soccer stadium so we were set up at one of the end zones of the field and all of the fans filled the field. It was a whole sea of people and it was so exhilarating. People were asking me if I was nervous and I wasn't nervous. It was exciting. I was like 'Is this the closest thing to feeling like MICHAEL JACKSON?'
You don't want to feel like him right now.
That's right! (Laughs)This is a little dangerous here! So I don't really get nervous, fortunately.
Earlier you brought up how records from your day, and I'm speaking for myself also, were records that you could listen to from begining to end. Now it seems like people just take this and a little bit of that and they put it on an i-pod. How do you feel about these changes?
Well, it's good and bad. It's good because the consumer can cherry pick and get exactly what they are interested in and that is a good thing because people release these CD's with fifteen to twenty songs and out of the twenty, there might only be three good ones. They are just trying to give you a mass so that people will think that they're getting a good value for their buck, but they're not getting good quality music. So from that stand point the listener can pick the good ones and move on from there. It's bad from the stand point to have all of those songs on a project because first of all, its a waste because SOUND SCAN only recognizes twelve and it puts the artist in the mentality that they have to produce things like that and a lot of times they are under some sort of deadline and that sort of breeds that whole environment of putting out all of these mediocre songs while only concentrating on a couple. From the label's stand point, the labels aren't going to make a lot of money when people just take a single here and a single there and not buy the entire project. The sitiuation is worse for the label than it is the individual artist. I think for an individual artist, it's fine because you can sell singles and and sell forty thousand to one hundred thousand singles and the money is going directly to you. You'd be coming out better financially than if you went Gold on a label.
A Gold Record doesn't mean anyting anymore.
No it used to be five hundred thousand -
And it's like a hundred thousand now. I don't know why they don't call it silver instead.
Or foil. Something on the Periodic Table. It also sounds to me like you're still holding out for that Hollywood blockbuster to score. Do you have any idea of what kind of film you'd like to score.
I would really love to do one of SPEILBERG's films because I'm a real fan JOHN WILLIAMS and I know that they've been partners since the days of JAWS. Working with SPEILBERG would be great because his films are very strong thematically and there is a great back story happening and you've got all of this great cinematography. I would really love to interpret his work.
Of all the people that you've worked with and you've worked with a ton of them, what was the most surprising to you?
The realism. You see these people a lot of times on television or videos and you buy into the persona that is presented to the public. When you see them behind all of that minus the lights camera and microphones they are just real people. It's just an eye-opening experience.
What's been the best bit of advice you've ever received? In music and in life.
In life, I've had so many but I would have to say that the best advice that I've ever received in both musc and in life is to never buy into your own hype and to stay grounded. Stay as close as you can to the center and not deviate too far to the left or too far to the right. There is always a balancing factor that is present whenever you are dealing with a situation where you are putting yourself out there in front of the public. Some people will like you, some people won't. It's always important to remember what the true purpose is. Always remember where you started and why you started and realize that it can all be taken away in an instant. So it's a privilege everytime you get the opportunity to create music so you should treat it as such.
What would you like a person to come away with after they've heard JUICY?
A sense of fulfillment and completion. A sense that they were able to span the range of full emotional expression and enjoyment, which is the ultimate in entertainment and is something that supercedes style, or age. Music crosses all kinds of boundaries and when you are in the privacy of your own thoughts and you are able to sit back and take it in without any external stimuli and get a full and complete experience, that is what I'd really like people to come away with after they've heard 'JUICY'.