by Michael Johnson
Performing Songwriter - Volume 1, Issue 3 - November/December
Performers. What makes them
leave their homes, spouses, and children to take turns making music over
bad sound systems at 3 a.m. for a few people in Broken Pelvis,
Montana while waiting for the big time? It is because they love what
they do, and they play for hours on end for the sheer joy of it.
They're nuts, and they're fun to be around. It doesn't make much sense to
anyone but the faithful, but performing is addictive.
Visit Michael Johnson's website at
Performing is a temporal art, and temporal arts are risky. You don't
get to see the rough draft of a novel, the sketches or false starts of a
painter, or hear the out-takes of a recording session. But a live
performance is there for all the world to see. A good show in New
York followed by an off-night in Boston is more than hard to live with. So
performers live and die by the degree to which they can be consistent.
Here's the deal. The sad truth is that as a group, solo performers
can't hold a groove rhythmically, they tune sharp as they progress through
the evening, and they play way too busy, trying to be the whole
band. Self accompaniment, if done seriously, is a duet, and
therefore a real balancing act.
In upcoming issues of The Performing Songwriter, I will cover a variety of
the topics outlined below in more detail. What follows is a general
list of observations that are all important to the solo performer.
Preparation: Have the music under your
fingers and be ready to sing. If it is not easy, you can't do it -
so do your homework.
Pitch: Audiences don't decide that
you're singing sharp or flat, they just feel irritated if you go sharp,
and bored or sleepy if you're flat. On the other hand, singing in
tune gives the lyrics a depth achievable in no other way. It's the
only reason to sing. I have a tape of vocal exercises I do
religiously before shows, and it has saved my ass many times.
Guitar: Play until you get your
sound. Play a lot the night before. Perform on strings that
have been played and stretched a little, so your music will tend to stay
in tune and your attack sound will be your own and not that brash,
straight from the factory sound so often mistaken for personality.
Play only half as hard as you think you need to. And for everybody's
sake, take the time to get in tune. We can wait.
Rhythm: The listeners don't think
"Man, he's really rushing," they just feel lethargic if you slow
down, and edgy if you speed up. If your time is all over the place,
then they are too. There is an undeniable integrity in a steady
rhythmic structure. It's something your body takes for granted when
it's right, and gives meaning to the silence and pauses in music.
Dynamics: seem to be the most fragile
thing in performance. Stage fright will kill it dead unless you
really stay conscious. Finding the top end of your volume and
intensity, and then putting the lid on it short of that limit is very
important. An acting director once told me that if you stop short of
showing all, the audience will assume you have so much more energy and
Desire: Sometimes I need a way to get
myself involved in the music. After I warm up I work on something
new or on the show if I need to, but only until I really feel like
singing. Then I stop and try to hold that desire. There is
nothing more sterile for me than singing when I don't want to - nothing
feels more dishonest.
Audiences: They are generally 50%
attentive and 90% sympathetic, and they know less about your stuff than
you do. They are generally more interested in what you have to say
than in who you are. Audiences really want to be involved
emotionally, and they are always unpredictable.
Stage Fright: I sometimes ask my wife
for some kind words before a show I'm nervous about, and without fail she
says, "Have fun!", which usually pisses me off. I think
that I should be feeling something more noble than "fun" about
my life's work. She's right, though. A labor of love should
also be child's play. But I forget. So don't take yourself so
seriously. Make it an act of love or something. After all, you
do have something to give, don't you?
Homework: Listen to and see yourself
on tape. Criticize yourself . . . gently,
The Copycat Syndrome: There are times
in the beginning of some artists' careers when they just can't keep from
imitating others. There are probably a hundred Shawn Colvins
currently out there. Imitation is useful and a natural way to
learn. That's how we learned to speak. The thing is, of
course, to move on after you've gotten what you can. Easier said, I
know. Here's how I suggest you might do that and find something of
yourself. When I can't see how to be in a song (even if it's
mine), I kind of chip away everything that isn't an elephant, as it
were. I reduce the melody, the changes, and the guitar activity to
its very simplest. I play and sing it this way until it seems like
it needs this little touch here, or that slight affectation there.
Pretty soon it has evolved into something of my own. No jive, no
vocal gymnastics, no rolled "R's", no affected "S's",
no false breathiness, no stolen vocal licks and no similarities to other
Until the next issue, here are just a few random thoughts to leave you
with . . .
- I used to think I had control
over my own taste, that I just liked what I liked. Then I
- If you have a gift and don't use
it, it will turn on you.
- Experience is just making
- To be a poet at 20 is to be
20. At 40 it's a little harder.
- One of the coolest things about
music is that it goes through air.
- Have fun.
About The Author
His name is Michael Johnson. He has no plans to put
on a cowboy hat, affect an accent, wear one glove or be anyone but
himself. Moreover, he is "The" Michael Johnson, and he has
performed and lived more music and recorded more hits than you would
His voice immediately identifies him as the man who sings "Bluer Than
Blue", "Give Me Wings", "That's That", "This
Night Won't Last Forever" and other landmark songs. His music shows a
diversity, depth and heart that only come from years of dedication to a
labor of love.
When asked what he would have you know about himself, Michael says: "Tell
them that I love it." He started playing at age thirteen and just
never quit. Singing, playing, writing and recording are the only
things he's ever done and he loves it.
"Tell them I play guitar." He really plays guitar. He
studied in Barcelona and he plays on all his records with a unique and
distinctive style. His playing is an important part of his show.
"I am a soloist at heart." Michael often performs alone,
and he has elevated the art. He prefers the intimacy and spontaneity of a
show that can change with the moment.
"Tell them I'm a showman. I like to talk to people and I love to
make them laugh. And, of course, I have to move them with the music.
That's the whole thing. Without that, there is no reason to be on
What one remembers of Michael is the texture of his voice, the meaning of
the lyric and the music of the guitar - singer, song and sound. And the
feeling of being at home with a friend.
Visit Michael Johnson's website at