"The real challenge was trying to focus on what I wanted to do," says Michael Johnson.
After riding the crests of number one hits and being thrown overboard by a few labels, this master song interpreter found himself at a career crossroads last year. "I was frightened about going with an independent label, but somebody said, 'you've got to go through the door that's open.' I thought that was great advice."
The open door has led to one of Johnson's strongest efforts in his twenty-five years of making records. Departure (Vanguard), produced by Johnson, includes handpicked song gems from some of Nashville's finest writers, including Bill LaBounty, Gene Nelson, W.T. Davidson and Hugh Prestwood (the writer behind Johnson's past hits "The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder" and "That's That" contributes four songs).
With so many great songs to choose from, how does Johnson decide which ones are right for him? "First I have to listen to it a hundred times. It's kind of a non-verbal thing that it has to keep feeling right," he says. "Then it's almost certain vowel sounds that make me think I could lean into a song, put myself into it."
Once he decides on a song, he says, "I have to learn it and get rid of whatever prior gymnastics and musical gyrations are there on tape, and then I don't even add my own. I take it down to the common denominator, just the song in its basic form and then slowly put myself into it. It's a long process but it's a labor of love."
In that labor of love, Johnson says, "I have my chords, changes and phrasing that give it my sound, but what's most important to me is that each time I have to learn something, really expand what I bring to it."
Beyond his tasteful guitar work and warm, expressive singing, Johnson also brings to Departure his own writing talents, co-penning three songs, including the languid "Distant Fire." He comments, "I've always loved the 40s, and I wanted to write a neo-40s piece with an introductory verse into a refrain. It has those kind of changes and we were using words like adore and ember. It's music for big people, kind of an after six thing.
Looking back over his three decades of making music, and hits such as "Bluer Than Blue" and "Give Me Wings," Johnson says he feels great about his new label and new record. "The best thing is I got to do exactly the music that I wanted to do." And he adds, "I am singing the music of my life."