It’s no surprise that Eric Johanson started singing the blues. The music genre born of trauma and adversity was a perfect fit for a young man who found himself homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Born in the Central-Louisiana town of Alexandria, Eric attended the University of New Orleans, and it was there he formed his musical future until the largest natural disaster in modern times left his home under water. With no possessions holding him down, Eric took off – way off – and landed in New Zealand, where he made his home for the next five years.
“It’s just a beautiful place and I think it’s almost like an alternate universe of the U.S.,” he said of the land down under. “A lot of things are similar to the United States and the things that are different are more subtle that you catch onto after a while.”
One of the most notable cultural differences he found was the “tall poppy syndrome,” where nobody really wants to stand out from the crowd. “Musically, we’re testifying, so we give everything on the stage – we aren’t about showing off, but we get excited about the music and express ourselves,” Eric explained. “That was kind of an interesting difference in the way it played out with their musical scene.”
While he doesn’t carry the air of someone with “tall poppy syndrome,” his deep, resonating voice announces him in a big way. His bluesy slide guitar riffs battle with that voice for dominance, resulting in a trembling crescendo of complimenting sounds.
He did well on the other side of the world, but in time, he started to realize how much the music was pulling him back to New Orleans. “There was so much I missed about that, and the fact that it felt like if I really wanted to pursue what I was passionate about, I needed to go back.”
There was no better way to announce his comeback, than to land a gig playing with Cyril Neville – the youngest member of the famous NOLA family quartet. Through Cyril, Eric had the opportunity to sit in with the Neville Brothers Band.
“That was a great learning experience for just really getting deeper into the New Orleans music scene,” Eric said. “Those musicians take care of each other. For me it was an education in a lot of the stuff that I’d never really dug in too much because I had been a rock guy – not so much a blues guy.”
He soon learned that, whether he realized it or not, he really was a blues guy, and the second time around in New Orleans really brought it out. A deep dive into New Orleans funk to explore all the different rhythms and big tones gave Eric’s music a different feel and helped to redefine his complicated relationship with the city.
“I live with the shadows that follow me around; there’s good and bad memories there, you know,” he said. “I mean the first sign out in the Gulf of Mexico of a newborn hurricane – it can’t make its mind up where to go – and I feel the same. I mean it’s a sad thing, like you watch this hurricane out in the Gulf, and you know it could literally just go ‘this much’ that way and it could be a totally life-changing moment; or it could just be another weekend where you bought some extra water and flashlight batteries. There’s always that unpredictability.”
It’s that unpredictability that has helped give his sound a unique flavor. “In my music now, even if I might not be playing it the same way as you would play a meter song,” he explained. “Those rhythms have made my stuff funky.”
This year, he’s taken the funk on the road, opening for guitar queen Samantha Fish. “We were on a Blues Cruise together and gradually hung out more and more. Last year her manager took me on and started putting me on tours with her since last August,” he said.
It was between Samantha’s shows in Houston and Oklahoma City that Eric found himself with some time to kill. Hence, he picked up a date at Six Springs Tavern in Richardson to promote his new album, The Deep and The Dirty, which hit Spotify yesterday, as well as other platforms.
“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. Eric wrote these tracks 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.
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 in order to take the solo somewhere special.”
“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.”