JEFF JOHNSON / BRIAN DUNNING
Eirlandia
(Ark Music)

 

The quest to find God often starts in the creative process and nothing is more creative than the power of music. Music that connects listeners with their own innate spirituality and the God like force in music is at the core of Eirlandia, the 2018 CD release by Washington state based composer / keyboardist Jeff Johnson and Brian Dunning, maestro of the flute and penny whistles. Also appearing on Eirlandia are other players, including guitarists Tim Ellis, Roy Salmond and Eric Miller along with Wendy Goodwin (violin) and more. According to Jeff, this magical album of contemporary instrumental New Age music was actually inspired by the Eirlandia series of books by author Stephen R. Lawhead. Speaking about the inspiration on his 2018 album with Brian Dunning, Jeff tells mwe3.com, "Over the past thirty years, much of the music that Brian and I have collaborated on has been inspired by the stories of Celtic fantasy writer, Stephen R. Lawhead. Eirlandia is inspired by Steve’s soon to be published, beginning May 2018, Eirlandia Series. Lawhead’s wonderful stories are full of great characters, rich plots and lots of dynamics." Eirlandia also echoes Jeff Johnson’s brilliant 2009 album, made with guitar legend Phil Keaggy called Frio Suite and, after spending quality time in deep listening, clearly Eirlandia has the same magical, musical power that made Frio Suite such a memorable listening experience. Central to Eirlandia is the expert musicianship of both Jeff and Brian and the expert production of Jeff Johnson seals the deal on this superbly recorded album of instrumental, and quite healing, spiritual instrumental music. www.arkmusic.com

 





mwe3.com presents an interview with
Jeff Johnson
The Eirlandia Interview


mwe3
: Is there a story behind how Eirlandia came together as an album and how would you compare it to the last album you made with Brian Dunning and Wendy Goodwin called Winterfold? How did you meet Brian Dunning since you have such a long history recording with him?

Jeff Johnson: Over the past thirty years, much of the music that Brian and I have collaborated on has been inspired by the stories of Celtic fantasy writer, Stephen R. Lawhead. Eirlandia is inspired by Steve’s soon to be published, (May 2018), Eirlandia series.

Lawhead’s wonderful stories are full of great characters, rich plots and lots of dynamics. Thus, the music that we’ve done based on these has a much wider dynamic than some of our more ‘chamber ensemble’ recordings such as last year’s If I Do Not Remember… and Winterfold with violinist, Wendy Goodwin.

Brian is a fantastic improviser on the flute and penny whistle and the Lawhead-based music allows him opportunities to experiment quite a bit more. I also have the chance to stretch out more with synth and percussive sounds on these recordings. Thus the production of music features a much wider soundscape and dynamic.

Brian and I started working together when we both lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1980’s. He was based there with the group, Nightnoise, and I was doing a lot of commercial music as well as making recordings on my ArkMusic label. I had hired Brian to play on a children’s music project, The Tale of Three Trees and we immediately hit if off. Shortly after, an opportunity came up to create some music that would go with the first book of The Song of Albion trilogy by Lawhead. The rest is history so to say, and even after Brian and his family moved back to Ireland a few years later, we continued to record and release new music. We were very fortunate early on to have much of our music exposed in the “Celtic music wave” that was happening through labels like Windham Hill and Hearts of Space. That helped establish us and gave us the opportunity to build a base of dedicated listeners who have stuck with us all these years.

mwe3: What would you say about the books of Stephen J. Lawhead that makes it so inspiring to your music? Can you describe Lawhead’s Eirlandia series to those who might not be familiar with them? You call him a good friend right?

Jeff Johnson: Yes, Steve is a dear friend so that makes an ongoing collaboration fairly natural. I love his stories and the ones that touch upon the more Celtic themes play into the kind of music that Brian and myself have always made together.

Good fantasy has always been about good story telling. And good story telling touches us and inspires us since it often parallels the narratives of our own lives. Sure, we won’t ever be or meet an elf or a druid or a Celtic warrior in this life, but like those fantastical characters, we are often personally faced with great struggles and must make difficult choices and act upon them to not only survive but to live lives that are worth living. Thus, our music based on these books is an attempt to creatively portray the emotions, feelings and experiences behind the story and some of the characters that inhabit it.

Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to divulge anything about this new story at this point. But I can tell you that it’s really, really good!

mwe3: Can you tell us about the Eirlandia dedications and about guitarist Tim Ellis? You have several guitarists on Eirlandia yet the guitars are very subtle and woven into the sonic fabric in a tasteful way. You and Brian write the music so what can you tell us about the other musicians and their contributions to Eirlandia?

Jeff Johnson: Yes, I know that you’re particularly interested in guitarists on this site! Portland, Oregon guitarist Tim Ellis first started working with me in the early 1990’s. There wasn’t a single recording that I released since that time that didn’t feature Tim’s acoustic and electric guitar playing.

Tragically, Tim succumbed to melanoma cancer two years ago just after he had turned 60… he and I were the same age. I’ll never be able to replace Tim. We had a fantastic working relationship and Tim would instinctively know the kind of thing I was looking for 99 percent of the time. He was also a complete professional as a guitarist, but also as a producer and recording engineer so he just “got it” every time. Add our close friendship into the mix and you can begin to appreciate how much I miss him.

Brian and I had actually begun recording a version of the “A Wonder Voyage” track when Tim was still alive and he had added several parts to it then. The Eirlandia version is quite different from the original, but I was able to retain Tim’s beautiful ebow line on the track. So the dedication of the CD includes Tim but it doesn’t really do his deep friendship and wonderful music that we miss true justice, of course.

I have been greatly blessed over the years to have had some fantastic musicians join me on my recordings. Portland, Oregon violinist Wendy Goodwin plays a leading role on this new one as she has on most of my records the past nine years. Also featured is the wonderful American soprano, Janet Marie Chvatal. Janet is based in Germany and has appeared on numerous recordings of mine. Phil Baker of Pink Martini fame plays bass. Phil has also appeared on all of my recordings since the 1990s. The guitars were handled by Canadian guitarist/producer, Roy Salmond, and Seattle singer-songwriter, Eric Miller.

mwe3: Would you say Eirlandia is more Celtic or Chamber music style and do you mind music fans describing as meditation or New Age music? What is your opinion on both modern day Classical / Chamber music and are there differences between Celtic / New Age music and are you receiving airplay from classical radio?

Jeff Johnson: I alluded to the contrast of Eirlandia’s Contemporary Celtic style earlier in contrast to some of the other instrumental recordings like If I Do Not Remember … as being more in the Chamber music genre. Up to the present, when Brian, Wendy and I have performed live, it’s definitely a more chamber sound where the musicians are working from arrangements that allow us to improvise a bit more.

Having said that, I’m pretty sure that most folks would consider this music fairly “New Age.” I used to struggle with the term on several levels especially since new age spirituality is quite a contrast to my own Christian worldview. Yet, the term has evolved to convey less about spirituality and more about a genre of music that includes even classical and world music influenced recordings. That’s made it a little easier for me to live with.

Yet, our music has never really fit into any one particularly genre very well. And consequently, it gets played by a fairly broad and eclectic variety of syndicated and college radio stations. Echoes, Hearts of Space, Sirius and Pandora have been great supporters over the years. Sadly, there certainly is not the network of radio stations that we had even ten years ago anymore.

mwe3: How has your work been going with your Ark Music label and what other albums have you released over the past few years, leading up to Eirlandia? You have other more religious based works on the label too right? Tell us more about Ark Music and its recent activities.

Jeff Johnson: As I already mentioned, I released the instrumental EP, If I Do Not Remember … with Brian and Wendy last year. I also snuck out a digital single, “Home Again” based on Psalm 90. My dear Dad passed away at nearly 90 years old in July 2016. A lot of my time was spent helping him that year and the previous one. Consequently, I put my music on the back burner a bit during that time. I wouldn’t trade the experience of helping and being with Dad for anything.

Along with the yearly Celtic Christmas tour that Brian, Wendy and I have presented for many years each December, I also lead a Christian contemplative service called Selah that features hymns, choruses, instrumental pieces along with readings from Scripture, prayers and silent prayer. I’ve also been leading a few pilgrimages to Scotland and Ireland the past two years.

All of this comes out of my own Christian faith experience and the expression of that faith in my vocal recordings that I’ve released over the years. I mentioned the “Home Again” single and the most recent CD along these lines is “Broken, Gazing” which came out in 2014.

mwe3: Have there been any changes to your synth / keyboard lineups in recent years? I know you use a bunch of different keyboards including Omnisphere. Would you say your keyboards are state of the art and where do you see the synths and keyboards of the future? Did you alter some of the piano sounds to get different effects as you do on the title track?

Jeff Johnson: I love the Spectrasonics offerings of Omnisphere, Stylus RMX and their most recent, Keyscape. I met Eric Persing, who began that company, years ago through our mutual friend, keyboardist/composer Richard Souther. I think what he and his collaborators do is brilliant. Along with the plugins featured in Logic X, I also use the Korg Wavestation as well as Synthogy’s Ivory, which is my main piano sound “go to.” And, I’m always altering things - that’s half the fun of working with all of this wonderful software these days!

Speaking of which, I recently updated to the UAD Apollo interface prior to beginning Eirlandia. Some of the plugin modelings that come with that are out of this world and made a great impact on the new recording.

mwe3: I know you’ve done shows with Brian and Wendy in the Northwest. Are you planning to do shows anywhere else? I guess the US let alone the world is so large, so that putting on a show in other areas of the country is cost prohibitive?

Jeff Johnson: I’m getting too old to do a bunch of touring. Meanwhile, Wendy just had twins a year ago so that’s going to have an effect on the trio’s plans going forward. Lord willing, I’ll continue to do music for Selah, retreats, pilgrimages and the occasional tour with Brian. We’ve just finalized a short December tour in the Pacific NW that will feature Brian and myself along with classical singers, Janet Chvatal and Marc Gremm who were part of the Coram Deo Ensemble that released “Antiphon.”

mwe3: Have you spoken with guitarist Phil Keaggy in recent years? What’s he been doing recently? The albums you made with Phil – WaterSky and Frio Suite, are still classic. so I imagine Phil is another go-to artist you have to continue making classic New Age / Celtic instrumental albums with. I sure would love to see another album with you and Phil.

Jeff Johnson: Well, I have good news for you. Phil and I are almost finished with a brand new studio recording that will come out later this year. Its turning out great and we can’t wait for folks to hear it!

mwe3: Now that you’ve made so many amazing albums over the years, are there still musical mountains left to climb for you? What would be considered your dream album when you get the chance to make it? And what else have you planned for 2018 and beyond?

Jeff Johnson: I don’t really think that way, especially as I’ve gotten older. I was telling folks when I finished Broken, Gazing a few years ago that maybe that was the last one. Yet, now you’ve got Eirlandia and a new one coming from Keaggy and myself. So, I take these things as they come. I do have some new vocal material that I think is good so there’s a decent chance I might be concentrating on that once the Keaggy-Johnson CD is out the door.



 

 
   
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