The Chat Room: Johnny Eaton
When you’re an artist that hasn’t released new music in 18 years, it stands to reason you’re going to have a lot to say when the right moment comes around again. For Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Johnny Eaton, that moment is now.
Johnny’s new album, here’s the thing, offers 12 songs that display his full musical range, from traditional country to plaintive, confessional folk, as well as a couple of side trips into neo-soul. With a voice as weathered as your favourite pair of boots, Johnny has grown into a wizened elder, his tales of life in different parts of Canada reminding us that there was once a time when all a young person needed was a guitar and a Greyhound ticket to start a new life.
Johnny began working on here’s the thing in 2016, crafting the songs around some of his past exploits while simultaneously taking stock of his current place in the world. The album was recorded with producer Gareth Auden-Hole at his La La Studio in Gatineau, QC, with a host of contributors—18 to be precise, an eerie coincidence with the gap in Johnny’s output. Among them were guitar maestros Noah Zacharin and Jimmy Bowskill, along with other notable names from the Ottawa roots music scene.
After graduating from Mount Allison University (paying his way by working as a tree planter in B.C. and northern Ontario), Johnny set his sights on Whitehorse, YT, in 2005 where his music career fully got underway. He went on to tour Canada several times, while also landing acting jobs on opposite ends of the country in Victoria and Halifax. But when the need for more steady employment arose, Johnny went back to school to study cartography and is currently employed by the City of Ottawa, making maps and analyzing geographic data.
Indeed, songs on here’s the thing such as “Nova Scotia’s Shores,” “Lost In Manitoba” and the epic, 10-minute “Resolution” are steeped in detail, drawn from memory, and delivered with an unapologetic nod to Canada’s great troubadours. It’s easy to describe Johnny Eaton as a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, but one listen to here’s the thing reveals so much more. Having been down the road and back many times, he’s now ready to share it all.
What motivated you to make new music again after 18 years?
Well, I’d been writing tunes since the last album in 2005 but hadn’t really thought about making another album until I started livestreaming during the COVID pandemic. Doing that got me re-engaged with playing and writing, and exposed me to a whole new set of people who really enjoyed my music. Me and the Tunesdays Troopers — what I like to call the regulars who drop into the livestream “Tunesdays with Johnny” — kind of grew together, and they got to witness the birth of a lot of new songs. And eventually I started thinking, and then saying out loud, “Maybe I’ll make an album.” And they responded enthusiastically. Then it was just a matter of reaching out to a lot of musical friends and saving up money to do it. Realistically, I never stopped making new music. It’s just that the output seems to come in waves and troughs and this was a tsunami.
How do you feel your writing process has evolved?
I think, when I was younger, I just hadn’t really lived a lot or thought much out of my own box. But over the years I’ve pushed my own boundaries as far as the genres I listen to, and I’ve experienced a lot more life, and I’ve been able to mentally put myself in others’ shoes more easily and imagine how their situations would make them feel. I suppose that could be called emotional intelligence, but I think the theme behind all of this is open-mindedness. The actual process of songwriting is the same for me as it’s always been. Songs tend to pop in my head out of the ether and come out pretty quickly, and often in bunches. But I think my palette grew, if that makes any sense, so the paintings are more nuanced, more layered, more thoughtful, though I still love to write the occasional simple and fun song, like “No-Way Train” or “Old-Time Feelin'” on the new album.
You’ve lived in almost every part of Canada, and that’s reflected in your new songs. How do you feel that experience has shaped you as a person?
I think, in short, it’s made me appreciate places and people more, the experience of existing in different environments — physical, socio-political, etc. I don’t know if it’s wisdom, but it’s something. I did a music tour by bicycle way back in 2007, and I can still cast my mind back to most of the places I saw there. It gives me a sense of wonder and a sense of nostalgic longing to go back to a lot of places and people. So I’m not entirely sure how it has shaped me. I’ve taken it all in. I’ve loved a lot of it. And I keep longing for more.
You also worked a lot as a tree planter. That’s obviously a job that attracts a certain type of person. What made it so attractive to you?
Full disclosure, I wasn’t too excited to go out the first time, nor many other seasons. I first went out because I needed a summer job to pay for tuition, and my girlfriend at the time had a sister who could get us both a job in a camp. It was two birds with one stone: summer job and summer with girlfriend. I really was terrible at it at first, but in my last week of my first season, I figured it out, so I went back for another year. I just kept getting better at it and didn’t have many other work prospects going for me that weren’t creative and temporary, so I ended up putting in 12 seasons, eventually running crews and doing forest surveys. It’s good hard work, and you get to meet a lot of great people and have some legendary parties. Pretty awesome for people in their 20s. But there’s stress that comes with it sometimes: mostly crappy clients, crappy companies, and the instability of seasonal labour. The song “Sad Contractor” was 100 per cent sourced from treeplanting. But I have no regrets about my time planting. Many great memories, and a number of long-lasting friendships.
What do you hope to get out of making music at this point in your life?
I already get out of it everything I need. It is a compulsion that fulfills itself, and truly just writing and playing is its own reward, much as just making the album and doing a good job of it was its own reward. The rest is just icing on the cake. What I want for it is to bring joy, or thought, or some sort of catharsis, to others who listen to it. I’ve never wanted my music to find as many ears as possible, but the right ears, the ones that will benefit and get true enjoyment from it. Doesn’t matter the number.
JASON’S JUKEBOX PICKS
Gabe Lee / Drink The River (Torrez Music Group)
On his fourth album, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Gabe Lee continues to enhance his reputation as a storyteller, while blurring the lines between folk and bluegrass. With degrees in literature and journalism, Gabe has always wielded a powerful pen, but on Drink The River, his words meld elegantly with his stripped down acoustic combo. They’re able to provide the right amount of energy when required, as on the standout “Even Jesus Got The Blues,” while gilding the edges of tracks such as the banjo-picked “Eveline.” Having recently made his Grand Ole Opry debut, Gabe was able to fulfil a dream on behalf of his parents, both Taiwanese immigrants. The recognition has helped put him at the forefront of Nashville’s cultural renaissance, and his voice provides an important contrast, while never veering far from tradition. Most of Drink The River is quiet and unassuming, but ironically, it is artists like Gabe who are driving change in Nashville by being exactly that.
The Watson Twins / Holler (Bloodshot)
Kicking off with the instantly sing-able title track, and following it up with the rollicking rockabilly of “Sissy Said,” Chandra and Leigh Watson make their long overdue return after a five-year hiatus. Working with producer Butch Walker, a strong honky tonk sensibility permeates Holler’s 10 tracks, which provides the perfect backdrop for the Watsons’ immaculate harmonies. Their voices arguably soar highest on the soulful “Never Be Another You,” although each song on Holler contains its own identity, from the light-hearted barroom stompers “The Palace” and “Two-Timin’” to the majestic ballads “Love You The Best” and “Southern Manners.” The Watsons never seemed to catch fire after bursting onto the Americana scene in 2006 with their Jenny Lewis collaboration Rabbit Fur Coat, but on Holler it sounds as if they’ve finally put all the pieces together in a well-balanced package.
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway / City Of Gold (Nonesuch)
Grammy-winning bluegrass artist Molly Tuttle makes a quick turnaround after last year’s Crooked Tree, proving in the process why you should always strike while the iron is hot. The band indeed comes out blazing on “El Dorado,” and it lays out the album’s theme of tales set in the boom and bust cycles that have marked the history of the west. Produced by dobro legend Jerry Douglas, with songwriting contributions from Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, the performances on City Of Gold can often be head spinning in their speed and intricacy. I don’t listen to bluegrass as much as I used to precisely for this reason, but it’s impossible not to be awed by the group’s skills. In a more conventional sense, Tuttle’s duet with Dave Matthews, “Yosemite,” is a well-executed love song, while “Next Rodeo” displays some genuine pop crossover potential. Overall though, there’s plenty to dig into on City Of Gold, with different shades of blue(grass) that are sure to appeal to any sensibility.
SONG OF THE WEEK
Chris Stapleton – “White Horse” (single / Universal)