…But Let Me Know: Michel Johnson

This may come as a surprise to anyone who’s not a record collector, but the audience for obscure “Private-Press Christian Folk” LPs has really hit critical mass in the last couple years. There are deluxe reissues coming out on the regular and everything. Could career re-launches (launches, really… these records rarely moved many units the first time around) be too far behind? Will people start talking about Larry Norman like they do about Todd Rundgren (I mean, Larry is basically the Christian Todd…), and make the profoundly uncool into the new cool yet again (cf. Hall and Oates), but on a whole new level? There would be an advantage to this trend in that, if some of these people started performing again, promoters wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not the artists might be uncomfortably “born again” and start preaching to a roomful of adoring hipsters without warning… given that they probably never “died”, it is virtually assured that they would. Why leave things to chance?

Though there are certainly gems in the old P-PCF catalog ripe for rediscovery, the ratio of interest to solid material is questionable. Thus, the speculators are swooping in fast before the bubble bursts. If you ask me, when people start paying upwards of $50-100 or more for this stuff, I think it’s less a sign of exciting sound excavations, and more of an indication that money-grubbing scumbags have found another way to milk the weak and gullible. I’ve played the game from both ends, and it doesn’t look any prettier from either angle, so I hope you’ll pardon me for wishing ill that whole corner of the record-collecting universe…

Nonetheless, I have to admit that I have my own P-PCF totems. One treasured LP that speculators haven’t turned onto much as yet, but easily could any day now given its rarity and superlative quality, is Michel Johnson’s Echoes. This record isn’t especially “psychedelic”, but it is both Private-Press and Christian as they come, and it’s great.

I currently know nothing about Echoes outside of what one can garner from the liner notes: it was recorded in East Lansing, Michigan, where Johnson was involved in the Abrahamic Community, in 1978. Johnson wrote all the songs herself. It was recorded and mixed at S.E.A.W.E.E.D. (what is that an acronym for, I wonder?) Recording Studios, which I suspect was a basement operation, or perhaps just a portable reel-to-reel: the credits list the studio as being in East Lansing, but the address for same is listed elsewhere on the back cover as being in Greenville, over an hour away. Johnson, who also designed the album’s sleeve, apparently had no illusions of impending fame from these songs: “This record was independently produced as a non-commercial venture for the sharing of songs”.

For me, the sticking point on this sort of record is usually a weak or dull voice (a lot of Christians have those). While Johnson’s voice doesn’t reinvent the axiomatic wheel, it’s true and strong: there’s a bit of the expected Baez/Mitchell vocal inflection that informs so much of this ilk and era, but Johnson thankfully lacks both Baez’s stridency and Mitchell’s quirk. Her melancholic tone, moreover, recalls neither of the aforementioned: though bolder and more tuneful, the mournful quality of Johnson’s voice more often brings to mind such sacred cows of fragility as Vashti Bunyan, or even Nico ca. Chelsea Girl (“Like a Dance” could easily pass for an outtake from the latter, except that Johnson could actually carry a tune). This sadness in Johnson’s voice, while intriguing on the religious tracks, is especially effective on the secular songs sprinkled throughout (the opening track “Loneliness” being an especially good example, as well as the aforementioned “Like a Dance”).

From the back cover of “Echoes”.

Though there’s nothing wrong with the lonesome bedroom sound so fetishized by collectors of these records, Echoes really benefits from its wide variance of instrumentation. I was re-listening to the record a couple times as I prepared it for sharing, and was struck by how it moves through shifts in tone and sound so gracefully… the recording and performances are somewhat raw, sometimes a little unpolished, but never lazy or indelicate, deigning to bring in a string section here, a flute there, even a small chorus of children (!) for good measure. For all this variety, though, It never seems like a record that’s trying to surprise you, nor one that is determined to throw in everything but the kitchen sink: the recordings are simply arranged to best compliment the songs, and by extension, the overall record.

It’s rare that ANY record manages this variety and tastefulness with such aplomb, and it’s doubly rare among homespun numbers like this. Then again, I guess if one follows the faith outlined throughout Echoes, one is inclined to believe that miracles of this magnitude happen every day.

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As I said earlier, I know very little about this record. I’m not even sure if Johnson is still alive. All I know for sure is that more people could benefit from hearing Echoes, and I’m happy to aid in making that happen. If anyone has any info, even if said info comes with a cease-and-desist request, please contact me (queries@fmdust.com). As with anything on this website, I post these things to share them, NOT to rip off the artists.

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.