• Journal Archive
Eric Johanson has shared stages with Cyril Neville, Tab Benoit, and several other Louisiana greats — all the while experimenting with his own music. Now he's got his own blues album, Burn It Down, to show for it. We sat down with Eric and talked growth, inspiration, and the power of live blues.

What's your name and where are you from?

My name is Eric Johanson and I'm originally from Alexandria, LA. I moved to New Orleans in 1999 and have always considered it home. I moved to New Zealand for almost 5 years after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, and came back in 2010.

How long have you been playing music? How did you get started?

I've been playing most of my life. I grew up in a musical family, and I got my first guitar from my grandfathers music store when I was 5. I started getting serious with it around junior high and began playing clubs and festivals around Louisiana and the southeast at 14.

Any memorable mentors or educational experiences?

In my time playing with Cyril Neville, he definitely taught me a lot about New Orleans music history and culture, stuff like the origins of the second lines and the Mardi Gras Indians. I owe a lot of things that happened in my career, as well as pretty much anything funky I play, to Cyril. 

Is blues your first love? What other instruments and types of music are you into?

I was always obsessed with music. When I was a kid I was hearing the blues and soul music that my mom liked, but also the 80's hair metal that my sister liked. Rock music seemed like the most exciting thing ever to me, and I was exposed to that via MTV and arena rock concerts long before I ever saw anyone play blues live. As I got a little older, I'd be reading interviews with my favorite guitarists and they'd be talking about Buddy Guy and Freddie King and others, and I started to realize that's where all this guitar stuff came from. I started digging more into the blues from there. Eventually I was more drawn to the raw expression and improvisation of playing blues and roots music. I've taken twists and turns artistically, and experimented with different things, but that part of me has never gone away.

There was a period of time where I stepped away from the blues and was pursuing more progressive rock music, as well as sort of electro-acoustic stuff. It took me a while to realize I could also be myself in the blues/roots world - that it didn't have to be some sort of retro or traditional thing for people to dig it. 

Is it right to say that the influence of harder rock or of life in New Orleans can be heard in your music? If this is something you agree with, you have anything to say about that?

There's definitely a darker, heavier side to my music than a lot of stuff in the blues world. That's not intentional at all it's just what seems to come out of me. I think I'm as much influenced by the way New Orleans makes me feel as I am by the city's music. I'll get musical ideas walking through the old cemeteries, or just looking at the oak trees uptown. Theres a line in "Live Oak" - "Watch your step because roots are strong, and deeper than concrete." If you're walking down St. Charles you literally have to watch your step or you'll fall flat on your face, because the trees just bust right through any attempt to pave over them. There's something about New Orleans that shatters the illusion of permanence we try to place on the world. It's alive and it's out of control.

What was the moment when you realized you would pursue it seriously?

Probably the first arena rock show I went to at like 7 years old. I've always wanted music to be my life. There were of course times when I tried to think of other things I might be willing to do to survive, but thankfully being a philosophy major with a resume of playing guitar limited those options and kept me from landing a "real" job.

How did you link with Tab?

I started playing with Cyril Neville back in 2010, and they shared the same manager. At the same time Tab's drummer was a good friend of mine who used to play with me in my rock band in college. I had known about Tab for a while, but I'd never really seen him live. He became a big influence on me, on and off stage. He started getting me up to play with him sometimes, both here in New Orleans and at festivals like the Big Blues Bender in Las Vegas and the Blues Cruises. We talked about making an album for a couple of years, and then he got this label started, Whiskey Bayou, and it finally came together. I've been touring with him now for about a year.

What's your favorite place to be in the process? Stage or studio? Frontman or support? 

I enjoy the studio, but the stage is where the songs come alive and evolve each night.  With what I'm doing now, I look at the recorded version of the song as just one time we played it live in the studio. As you play them night after night, new little spontaneous moments start working their way into the songs. That's what I love about this type of improvisational music, versus something where you create a song piece by piece in the studio and try to recreate it live the same way forever. 

I definitely prefer leading a power-trio type band rather than playing as a side guy in a bigger band, as much fun as that can be. I like to make big sounds and get the mental release of letting my mind go where it wants to go, and paint all over the canvas without hesitation. I just think that's where my strengths are.   

Is there anything that you have learned through music making that has made you a better person as a whole?

One of the things I love about musicians in south Louisiana is our ability to just get on stage without any plan and make up enjoyable music right there on the spot.  It's an experience of connecting with other people, both on stage and in the crowd, that is beyond language or beliefs. I'm not sure if there are many other human experiences quite like that.

Love your album. Tell me more about it. Where did you record? When did you write the songs?

We recorded Burn It Down at Tab Benoit's studio in Houma, LA over the course of a week. I had most of the songs more or less sketched out, though they had never really been played as a band, and I left it to Tab and Corey Duplechin (bass) to play what they felt. In some cases the first time we played it all the way through is the take on the album. I had these darker, less traditional songs which I thought we would later round out with some old blues covers. Tab wanted to start recording right away, and before we ever got around to picking covers we had 10 original songs down. There is one cover on the album - a Chuck Berry tune called "Oh Louisiana".

What about living in New Orleans most informs your work?

There is so much vibrance and color and talent everywhere you look. I can walk a couple of blocks down the street and hear some of the best musicians on the planet any night of the week. It's endless fuel for creativity.  

Are there any wise words you’d like to share?

These days you can fix literally everything in the studio if you want. You can edit everything until it's technically perfect. When you do that, you're just expending energy to make a file on a computer better. You're not making yourself better. What Tab is doing with Whiskey Bayou, and what we did with this record, is get in a room together, and play music live and raw. That encourages you to put your efforts toward growing as an artist and a human being. That's something that I feel can apply to more than music.

Keep up with Eric on Instagram.
  • Previous Article

Focus on the Photographer: Laura Steffan

Laura Steffan's been photographing the charm of New Orleans since 2012 — along the way working with brands like French Market Coffee and New Orleans Tourism. She recently spent a year teaching in Spain, photographing its beautiful architecture in her free time. Read our interview and view her photos from home and abroad below.

Read More 
  • Next Article

DNO Studio — Panoramic Double-Exposures

After digging up an old panoramic point-and-shoot and finding film inside, we rewound the roll and shot it again — the result a set of photographs exposed for different times, by different people, and possibly more than a few years apart (the only visible time-marker we noticed was Lee still atop the circle). 
We enjoy the duality that these photos encompass, reminding us of New Orleans and our people. The frequent light leaks, blurs, and the combination of faded and vibrant colors tell a story that pans through time and place.

Read More