Johnson has produced, engineered, mixed, hollered, shouted, sung, played guitar, played bass and played melodica with artists like Modest Mouse, Mecca Normal, Built to Spill, Beck, Robyn Hitchcock and Versus on over 80 records. And there's probably more. A documentary was made a couple years ago about K Records and Johnson's influence on punk in the last 15 years called The Shield Around the K; Johnson has been involved in shaping the world of independent music since the mid-'80s, and this year, he released his first solo record, What Was Me, on (what else?) K Records.
Solo records are a risky endeavor: Even Paul McCartney's solo records are seen as somewhat mediocre by even the most hardcore Beatles fans (at least the ones I've met, who then secretly admit that they love those sappy oh-I-Love-You-Linda songs on McCartney). Solo records usually say, hey, I'm in a great band and now I'm a star and I'm going to do things my way for a while. And usually, the consensus is, the solo artist could've really used the rest of the guys in the band. Or, the rest of the guys in the band are on the record anyway. But none of these things are true for Calvin Johnson: He's always done things his way. So it's surprising that What Was Me is his first truly solo record. So what motivated him?
"Everyone keeps asking me that question," Johnson says. "I guess it's a really obvious question, and I really don't know if there's an answer."
Johnson's voice is incredibly distinctive; every Johnson collaboration is different but always maintains a certain Calvin Johnson feel. His Dub Narcotic Sound System are a funky, soul jam band, and the Halo Benders are exactly what you would imagine getting when you combine Johnson and Built to Spill's Doug Martsch: pop songs so strangely catchy they're almost creepy. Beat Happening, Johnson's first and most influential band, is the only one where Johnson doesn't overpower the rest of the musicians, just by being Calvin Johnson.
What Was Me is Johnson stripped down: four songs are a cappella, and the rest are just Calvin and his acoustic guitar. "It's a pretty straightforward record," said Johnson, straightforward in that it's Johnson's songs at their bare minimum, without any gloss or frosting. What Was Me is 37 minutes of Calvin's flat lo-fi pop songs that sound like old folk work songs, the kind you imagine the chain gang singing as they lay one railroad track after another; they stick in your head like hard repetitive labor.
Fellow K records musicians Beth Ditto of the Gossip and Mirah make brief vocal appearances on one song each. Ditto's duet on "Lightnin' Rod for Jesus" is the loudest moment on the record: She nearly screams the speakers out at times, proving herself to be the first singer ever to eclipse Johnson's voice through sheer volume. Mirah's smooth harmonies on "Ode to St. Valentine," however, are a perfect match to Johnson's wavering baritone.
Absent from What Was Me are the funky lyrics and the playfulness found on Dub Narcotic Sound System, Halo Benders and Beat Happening records. In their place, Johnson offers lyrics that depict a man with his heart on his sleeve, songs that ask "What would happen if we happened to kiss, would the clouds curl up, would the earth still exist?" and lament, "I don't want to have to ask for a Valentine, that's no fun."
Despite his vocal and musical presence, Johnson humbly shares the spotlight with all the other musicians he's worked with, and that's what makes him one of the founding fathers of indie rock. When asked what he thinks of the world of independent music these days, Johnson says he doesn't really have time to pay attention to all that, what with all the work he has. But what Johnson did start talking about were the bands on his label, bands like the Microphones and Little Wings, and the great stuff they're doing these days, as well as his other bands and what they're up to. (There'll be a new Dub Narcotic record soon, he says.) He seems to be his friends' biggest supporter.
On the phone, Johnson strays from talking about himself to talking about the guy he's touring with, Kyle Field of Little Wings, and how his record is a trilogy, since the LP, CD and cassette all contain different versions of the same songs. Suddenly he sounds less like a musician and more like the press publicity people one has to go through to get to the musician. But that's because Calvin Johnson is all of these things combined: musician, producer, record exec, publicist and friend to his bands.