There have been cinematic albums before, but EDJ, the solo project of Eric D. Johnson, is “a literal byproduct of all the film things I’ve been doing.” Johnson, formerly the front man of Fruit Bats, continues, “it’s informed by film work. Film work is so collaborative and unusual, but instead of making your own music it’s functioning as an interpreter for a director. You’re the mouthpiece for someone else.”
Four years had passed since he’d made the last Fruit Bats record (Johnson announced last year that the group would disband), and in that time he’s scored films like Ceremony, starring Uma Thurman, and the Paul Rudd vehicle, Our Idiot Brother. “Going back to writing songs was a completely different experience this time,” he says. “It’s so much easier than doing movies.” And, while EDJ is informed by “film-y stuff,” Johnson — who returns to Asheville as part of Harvest Records’ Transfigurations II festival this week — says what’s most important about the 11 song collection is “what isn’t movie-like about it.”
Those tracks are emotive and visual and complexly layered — both with imagery and instrumentation. Lead song, “For the Boy Who Moved Away” seems to rise from a summer mist settled over a light-dappled lake, both hope-buoyed and bitter-sweetly nostalgic. “So the troubled lovers were reconciled that day,” Johnson recites, spoken-word-style at one point, before returning to the dip and soar of his singing voice. What is the song about? Hard to say, and yet the listener feels it without needing to intellectualize it.
“West Country Girl” wavers on a sea breeze, somewhere between folk-pop and chill-wave. “Odd Love,” slow but not static, pulses on plunked keys and swoony strings. “We’re still loving with our messed up hearts, even though it’s been so long, even though I got you for a song,” Johnson sings.
“There were tonal reference points all over the place that I was interested in hitting,” the musician explains. But when it came to the concept of EDJ, Johnson says he “handed over the keys to the car, in a really awesome way,” to producer Thom Monahan. The two are good friends and collaborators on projects including film scores, Vetiver albums and the last Fruit Bats record. “We’d worked enough together and had enough trust that I really wanted him to do his thing on this one.” Johnson has also been working as a producer in recent years, which has given him an understanding about what that side of the collaboration means.
“The best music is a naive attempt to do something, and then it gets routed down another hallway and comes out completely not what you expected at all,” says Johnson. “I was just going to surround myself with people who I ultimately know will make the right decisions. …I kept referring to this album as the ‘trust fall.’”
EDJ also owes a debt to Joni Mitchell, who Johnson was listening to while making the album. “When you get deep into Joni, you can’t just be a casual fan,” he says. “If I could even capture a fraction of the emotional core that she puts in, that would be awesome.”
And then, halfway through the album, and its many moods, and its intricately worked tapestries, there’s “Salt Licorice.” The instrumental is a mere 30 seconds and just a dozen or so notes. It was taken from a 12 minute improvisation that Johnson performed on piano in the studio when, unbeknownst to him, Monahan was rolling. “It was a field recording,” he jokes. “I wanted to have the balls to be the dude with the 12 minute piano track on his record, but there were other songs I wanted to fit on there, too.”
That spontaneous, experimental piece might still be released at some point as a special project. That’s something that Johnson’s fans at Transfigurations II, a group of listeners game for unexpected music, might appreciate. Johnson himself relates to the Transfigurations II aesthetic, calling the lineup, “everyone I like.” “I do my own little festival in Northern California every spring,” he says of the Huichica Music Festival, founded in 2010 with Gundlach Bundschu winery owner Jeff Bundschu. “It’s basically the same thing.”