RICHARD LEO JOHNSON
Celeste
(Soft Science Records)

 

The 12 track, 2014 CD release of Celeste adds another intriguing chapter to an ongoing series of recordings from Savannah, Georgia based Richard Leo Johnson. On Celeste, Richard mixes a wide range of organic and non organic sounds by performing, of all the wildly thought out ideas, a specially designed Martin guitar designed with a built in Theremin. The legendary Theremin—famous for helping to usher in the age of moog synths and first enjoyed by pop audiences on the Beach Boys’ 1966 track “Good Vibrations”—is given a new lease on life on Celeste. The all instrumental tracks on Celeste are otherworldly and with the Theremin trading sonic volleys with the guitar, the CD filled with a myriad of musical moves. The concept of mixing acoustic steel string sounds with E-bow and Theremin is nothing short of fascinating, and as such, Celeste will appeal to acoustic guitar fans as well as fans of vintage electronica. The sound of Celeste is somewhere between the rural ambience of Leo Kottke and the intense cosmic prog of Robert Fripp to name just a couple of the audio signposts. Speaking to mwe3.com about Celeste and his performance on the Martin “Theremin” guitar, Richard explains, ‘The guitar is a one of a kind instrument. It is both interesting to look at and complicated to play. I approached the guitar with the idea of two converging and different sonic palettes. The acoustic guitar, with its harmonic, percussive and physical properties and the Theremin with the linear non incremental pitch and the purely electronic tone.’ Well worth the trip for guitar fans, Celeste is filled with progressive ideas that further establishes Richard Leo Johnson among the leading guitarists of the early 21st century. www.CelesteTheRecord.com / www.RichardLeoJohnson.com / www.SoftScienceRecords.com



mwe3.com presents an interview with
RICHARD LEO JOHNSON



mwe3
: Richard, how’s life in Savannah? I remember our interview from 2004 that appeared in 20th Century Guitar magazine when you released Poetry Of Appliance so it’s great to see you’re back with the new album Celeste. What were some of the key events that led up to the making of the new Celeste album?

Richard Leo Johnson: Savannah is fine…it is a wonderful and weird city. Soon after the trio record, I was given an old National Duolian guitar by my neighbor here in Savannah. While looking at the guitar I noticed a name crudely carved in the body. The name was Vernon McAlister…at that point I was intrigued about with this person was and what kind of music he played. Because I could find out nothing about this person, I decided to fabricate a story based on nothing but the name and the guitar. I created a narrative and song cycle which I felt represented this imaginary character, his music and his encounters. Vernon McAlister is the catalyst for a line of characters.

The story goes: Vernon had a terrible head injury in a lumber mill where he worked in the 1930s. While recovering, he was given a guitar as a gift from his friends and family. He fell more and more in love with the guitar and less in love with his current life. Vernon eventually disappeared into the landscape, hopping trains and hitching rides. His itinerant life and seemingly aimless wanderings, advanced his passion and obsession with his guitar. Vernon's abilities to coax, what seemed like sonic sorcery from the guitar, stunned listeners wherever he went. He barely survived on tips and generosity.

Subsequently his influence on Charlie Shoe, Duval Rey and Celeste, during chance encounters, is what preserves and continues his mystical, musical legacy. Celeste is the latest installment based the legacy and influence of our main character, Vernon McAlister. I have become, what you might call, a musical ghost writer….*

The story of Celeste: Vernon McAlister was abducted by an alien craft while he was camping in the woods near Meridian Mississippi in 1968. The strange and frightening encounter consisted of Vernon being forced into a breeding ritual with an alien female. It was like a dream, both erotic and surreal, and Vernon woke up back at his campsite with a feeling of wonderment. He went on about his travels and never spoke of the encounter with anyone. Several years later, a mysterious and beautiful young lady "Celeste", was showing up at random places, playing an unusual guitar and singing with a voice that was otherworldly. Anyone that heard her was immediately moved and amazed. It seemed as if she had 3, sometimes 4, separate voices. Astoundingly, the songs had no determinable words, but everyone listening seemed to know what exactly she was saying.

mwe3: Looking back over the past ten years, what were some of the highlights for you, if you could give a time capsule. Where did ten years go? 2014 like a different planet compared to 2004. (lol) Any key musical moments over the years that stand out for you?

Richard Leo Johnson: Here is a breakdown of the feelings I have developed about the music/performing life I once lived... kind of psychoanalytical but true.

The sometimes blurry line between myth and fact or fiction and reality can be a wonderful playground for one to dabble. Being the sum total of our influences, how we assimilate and sometimes repackage that information, has always been fascinating to me. I call/consider myself a "self-taught" musician, and have been playing guitar since I was 9. I cannot read or write traditional music notation. I’ve always relied on my ear, intuition and memory to compose and perform my music. After many years of practice, experimentation and listening to others, I felt I could express my ideas and emotions freely without hesitation or fear of failure.

There was no denying the speed of my playing and complexity of my songs and I was eventually rewarded with several quite significant kudos: record contracts, endorsements, etc. Suddenly, I was on the road doing concerts and workshops for as many as 150 days a year. It was exciting, yet lonely, nevertheless, I thought I was getting what I wanted. In time, after several years of this, I realized something felt terribly wrong. It became obvious that my reasons for doing this felt more and more uncomfortable, when it was about "me" although I knew I was just a tiny speck in the big scheme of things but that is how I felt. I still wanted to compose, play and record music. It was at this juncture, that I began focusing on a series of mythical, yet believable, alter ego characters. (See earlier answer above).* This allowed me to write and record in a way that felt removed from "me" as an artist/performer... very liberating, indeed.

mwe3: Your new CD, Celeste is a masterpiece. How did you arrive with the name Celeste and when was the music for the album written? Did you use a specific song writing process for the making of this album?

Richard Leo Johnson: You are too kind, really. The title was arrived at by virtue of a search for astrophysics terminology. The character I created for the CD, "Celeste", is a female, so the abbreviation of celestial, a term from the astrophysics vernacular, seemed very appropriate. I always write and record with a certain intangible and spontaneous response to the tuning I am using and the sound that comes from the instrument. I never start out with an idea or meaning but let the process of invention determine the outcome.

All of the songs I play are pretty much committed to memory. I record the basic tune and then revisit the music and add to the basic idea. This especially applies to "Celeste". The Theremin is an incredibly esoteric and bizarre instrument. I totally abused it on this recording, but I guess that is how I have always approached the guitar.

mwe3: How does Celeste fit into the trio of albums about mythical characters you’ve now made, including Celeste, The Legend Of Vernon Mcalister and Who Knew Charlie Shoe? You say that Celeste was an alien female that Vernon Mcalister came into contact with but how does Charlie Shoe fit into the story? What is it about mythical characters that fascinates you so much?

Richard Leo Johnson: Charlie’s encounter: Charlie Shoe lives in Marked Tree Ar. Charlie has Asperger’s syndrome. When he was around 12 years old he and his parents were at a church social picnic. Suddenly a man appeared, he was obviously a hobo type and was carrying an old beat up guitar case. He made a mention to one of the attendees that he would be happy to play some music in return for some food. Charlie had been hyper-focused on the man and his actions from the moment he arrived. The man pulled out an old steel bodied guitar and without hesitation launched into a series of incredibly beautiful and mysterious music.

The congregation, and especially Charlie, were transfixed and silent during the performance. The man ate and left with a gesture of humble gratitude, he made a glance towards Charlie and wandered off into the woods. From that moment on Charlie was severely obsessed with the idea of having a guitar. The next Christmas his parents gave him a cheap Stella guitar. To his parents amazement he grabbed up the instrument threw off the red bow and started playing the guitar as if he had been practicing all of his life. He continued to adore and play the guitar as if it were a mission of the utmost importance.

mwe3: You can see the guitar you recorded Celeste with on the back of the CD cover. That guitar was commissioned by Martin Guitars and was designed by Michael Brolly. So the guitar you’re using on Celeste is a Martin guitar with a built in Theremin? That has to be a first. Is it? Can you explain to the guitar novice just how the Theremin gets triggered by the guitar sounds to create those other worldly effects? Has this kind of thing ever been attempted or thought of before? It seems and definitely sounds fascinating but highly unusual.

Richard Leo Johnson: The guitar is a one of a kind instrument. It is both interesting to look at and complicated to play. I approached the guitar with the idea of two converging and different sonic palettes. The acoustic guitar, with its harmonic, percussive and physical properties and the Theremin with the linear non incremental pitch and the purely electronic tone.

The relationship and placement of your hands on the guitar has an effect on the Theremin but it is VERY tricky. For live performances I do some looping which allows me to blend he sound of the guitar and Theremin as well as treat either one as a solo instrument. Combining those for the CD is more important compositionally and conceptually than actually playing it as a single unit. I do have tunes that I can perform live but that was never my end goal.

mwe3: I remember that you said Ricardo, who played with you on the Poetry Of Appliance album was into the Theremin. Is this the first time you’ve used a Theremin on record and what was your first exposure to the Theremin? Hard to believe it was invented nearly 100 years ago.

Richard Leo Johnson: Playing with Ricardo was my first real experience with the Theremin. It seemed unwieldy and scary but loved the sound of that combined with me using the e-bow on the guitar.

mwe3: What was the process like in the studio during the making of Celeste? What kind of studio gear and computer programs did you use to record with? It sounds like there’s thousands of guitar tracks seamlessly bonded together.

Richard Leo Johnson: I used my home computer and a 2 track ProTools set up. The individual songs were first composed and recorded in stereo with 2 mics on the acoustic guitar and then I would listen and respond to the song with some additional, but sparse, guitar tracks and gobs of Theremin as well as some super wonderful sounds from deep space I got from NASA to use for the record.

I have to give a ton of credit to Gabe Herman for engineering and mixing this project. He also did an amazing job with The Legend of Vernon McAlister and Who Knew Charlie Shoe. http://www.audiogabriel.com/

mwe3: Are you still using the E-bow for recording or in live settings? It’s amazing how much the E-bow sounds like the Theremin. The E-bow is a pretty legendary instrument. I knew some Swedish musicians would combine E-bow with a musical saw.

Richard Leo Johnson: (lol) Yes it is a hoot. Used it some on Celeste for the very reason you mentioned... the sound strangely similar.

mwe3: How about producers? Are you still working with any producers and how does a producer impact your recording and musical directions? Are there any producers left that you’d consider working with in the future? Seems like many of the great album producers are gone now.

Richard Leo Johnson: I have self-produced my last three records. I always enjoy input from others, but since I can record at home and take my time it seems more practical to do everything myself until the final edit and mix and give that to someone better suited to handle that aspect of the process. I think home studios have been a blessing and a curse. The great producers of the past seem in some cases to have replaced by a need for expediency and lack of budget. It is sad but a sign of the times.

mwe3: Your photography is legendary. What’s new regarding your photography work and what are some of your latest forays into the world of photography?

Richard Leo Johnson: My commercial photography is primarily architectural and interiors. We are fortunate enough to have great relationships with many architects interior designers and publishers. www.atlanticarchives.com

The so called fine art aspect of my work is based on my travels to Yucatan Mexico. We have a little beach place down there in a tiny village. No tourists and plenty of peace and quiet. Here is a link to a film we did a couple of years ago. I write, directed and scored the short film. http://vimeo.com/37451633

mwe3: Can you tell us something about the Celeste CD cover art?

Richard Leo Johnson: We have an old mask from Borneo, my wife said one day that it looked like an alien so that was that. The photo on the inside is from NASA and the rest of the photos I did.

mwe3: The music on Celeste is quite experimental and has as much to do with guitar music as it does with experimental music. Some writer said your music is one part John Fahey and one part Harry Partch. Is that pushing it or were you influenced more by rock guitarists than experimentalists?

Richard Leo Johnson: I was really inspired more by non-guitar and non-music in many ways. I was always interested in how someone did something, like early Kottke and McLaughlin, but after that early interest in guitar I really liked sax, keyboards, trumpet, orchestra and a host of other things, including film scores, poetry, and the visual the arts, which is my formal educational training... MFA in photo.

mwe3: How would you compare Martin’s “Theremin” guitar with other guitars? How about the 6 and 12 string McCollum guitars that recorded Poetry Of Appliance with? Is that the double neck and are you still playing that one? What else is new for you in the 21st century guitar world?

Richard Leo Johnson: The Martin/Martian guitar is actually a very nice sounding instrument acoustically even though it has a huge circuit board inside associated with the Theremin. If you look at it the first thing you notice is the body is upside down….well I guess the first thing really is it looks like an alien... (lol) green and crazy eyes which serve as the sound holes. The lower bought being on top helps promote the bass response and gives it a real even volume/tonality.

I still have the McCollum double neck and another 12 string Lance made for me. His passing is a real loss for the guitar community and his friends and family... he will be missed.

mwe3: Have you been on Ebay recently looking for rare guitars that you might use in the future? Guitar players must be on Ebay a lot! (lol) What other effects did you use on Celeste and how about other sonic effects you record and perform with?

Richard Leo Johnson: My wife said the guitar and other weird instrument acquisitions has reached the glass ceiling…lol My tracks on Celeste are all straight tracks with no effects or pedals. Gabe added some things to the mix but I am not quite sure what he used... all I know is it sounds pretty cool.

mwe3: How about guitar pickups that you use these days? Back in 2004 you spoke about using a Godin fretless guitar and when I asked you about strange guitars you spoke of a rare 12 string called a Bozo Podunavac guitar.

Richard Leo Johnson: I took all the pickups out of my guitars. The Martin has a Fishman built in for performance purposes but I did not use it in the recording process. I have a couple of very nice Octava mics from Russia that I run through a tube preamp system which gives the acoustic guitar a very natural and warm feel. I sold the Bozo guitar years ago. It was an OK guitar... pretty heavy and cumbersome.

mwe3: What about live shows? Have you been able to capture all the sonic complexities and nuances of your recordings in a live setting? Are you hoping to release a DVD of some live shows and/or some video clips?

Richard Leo Johnson: We recently did a live show here at The Ships of the Sea” museum. It was called “The Theremin Summit” (lol) Four players which included me and Ricardo. He and I had a blast playing together and we plan on some shows in the future but not sure where or when as of now. There will be video clips on Youtube soon.

mwe3: Georgia based Soft Science Records released Celeste on CD. How did you begin working with them ? Is there a label philosophy there that is compatible with yours and I hope they will follow this up with another album from you.

Richard Leo Johnson: One of my first photo assistants here in Savannah, was Skip Terpstra. He is a real standup guy and good friend. He and his pal Gus started the label for some local bands to have a way to distribute their music. When I decided to release Celeste and realizing the large number of contacts I had made in the past you included it seemed like I could revisit those kind good folks and sources, to see if they would consider reviewing and or playing the CD on their radio shows etc. Well the response has been overwhelming... really amazing... better than I ever expected.

mwe3: So many great musicians are passing away these days. I guess we have to enjoy what we have left from the legends of music.

So true…my friend Gregg Bendian is working with Yale to do recorded interviews with some of the real jazz greats. The world is losing them left and right and when some of the people are gone, that will be the end of a generation with no clear replacements in sight. In some ways I think the listening audience globally has been dumbed down. Intellectually challenging music is on the downhill slope. You can cite many reasons for this, but it is happening.

mwe3: What’s next for you both as far as Celeste as well as other plans you have for the rest of 2014 and into 2015. Only eight years till 2023!

Richard Leo Johnson: Like my wife once said in a moment of frustration ”the future is coming up ya’ll!” Celeste is going to be there doing its thing and I hope more people hear it and find it interesting.
The next fictional character is “Duval Rey One Man Band”. It is about a blind creole street musician in New Orleans. The record is done and will be out next spring. The featured instrument is a four string banjo I got off of eBay. There is also percussion, trombone, kazoo, harmonica and other assorted instruments on the recording.

Thanks to Richard Leo Johnson @ www.RichardLeoJohnson.com









 

 
   
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