Johnny Irion: Always Lookin' Out

I'd always had that socially conscious thing that makes you want to say something but you don't know how. Woody and Pete [Seeger] taught me how to do it without being too preachy-teachy.

-Johnny Irion


In The Think Tank

Arlo Guthrie with son, Abe, daughter, Sarah Lee
And her husband, Johnny Irion
Irion's sweet, keening voice steers Ex Tempore's cleverly sculpted, deeply human tempests in a teapot - signaled by the cover painting - with a rare sureness. As haphazard as Irion paints the sessions, each cut feels fully fleshed with little touches - sinewy guitar solos, consciously warped keys, etc. - that's very different from his work with Sarah Lee or the Guthrie family.

"There's not a lot of feedback or double guitar with the family [laughs]. It's a fun way to stretch out," says Irion. "When I get an idea for a tune I know what I'm looking for, and hopefully you get lucky and get it. Like 'She Cast Fire' was an acoustic kind of song then Zeke [Hutchins] and Jay [Brown] - from Tift Merritt's band, The Carbines, one of two rhythm sections on the album - came in and played it straight, almost like an indie rock tune. I was like, 'No, no, it can't do that! It wants to be like [Dylan's] John Wesley Harding!' So we listened to John Wesley Harding and Jay started bouncing more on the bass and the drums are little more fluffy. I know what I'm trying to do, and hopefully I can relay that."

A new track like "Roman Candle" builds on Irion's existing gift for taking the commonplace and generating something new.

"That was inspired by great Southern writer Pat Conroy [best selling author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides] who was giving a talk somewhere in South Carolina and said, 'She was going off on me like a freakin' roman candle.' I thought, 'God, I love that!' So I processed it. In my early twenties I started reading about The Beatles. I never had someone teach me to write songs, so I came about it in a whole crazy kind of way. I wish I'd heard some Woody Guthrie songs when I was younger - though I don't know if I'd write like I do now if I had. So, I'd read about how John or Paul got an idea - 'Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!' coming from a poster - taught me to follow the freedom of what gets you off, what makes your mind go."

Johnny Irion
"When you itch to make a record you just have to do it. After Exploration I wrote a bunch of tunes and I didn't know if it was gonna be a new band or just some weird outtakes. But with these guys - Zeke and Jay and Brian [Howard] and Dave [Johnson] - it started sounding really good and the pieces fell into the right places where suddenly I had this thing. Now that it's out I'm glad that it's over [laughs]. Hopefully it helps Sarah Lee and I with moving forward. It's so exciting to me that we could make this record, put it out and someone in Japan or anywhere else can hear it. It's always exciting for an independent artist to do this. I'm still very album-oriented, which could be a bad thing. They're all little movies to me, and I love the process. To go in and do one song is such a teaser [laughs]."

However, they are discovering the challenges of getting the word out about a record that doesn't fit into neat categories.

"That's one of the thing we're finding out, where we wonder if maybe we should have just made a folk record or a rock record or a singer-songwriter record. It's gotten so freakin' genre-fied. If you want to take people on a ride it's even harder," laments Irion.

Fragile Humans

A standout on Ex Tempore is the unvarnished lullaby "Brush Yr. Teeth Blues #56."

Sarah Lee, Olivia and Johnny in the studio
"It was inspired by Olivia [his five-year-old daughter] but also other people who have kids who wear pirate suits," Irion explains. "I'm at the age where this is what's happening. It's great, one of the best things in the world. You look at the world TOTALLY different. With everything that's going on you wonder about what you can do to help maintain things. It fires you up in that sense. There's the Dylan tune on New Morning ["Sign On The Window"] where he sings, 'Build me a cabin in Utah/Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout/Have a bunch of kids who call me Pa/That must be what it's all about.' I just love that whole thing, a song about a day or a vibe."

Like a lot of his catalog, "Brush Yr. Teeth" captures moments and not so much freezes them but lets them live on. It's a lot like what happens with children in a way, where our timeline doesn't so much stop as fade into theirs. Johnny and Sarah Lee just welcomed their second little girl into the world recently, and one wonders at the complications a growing family places on touring musicians.

Sarah Lee and Johnny
"It's totally doable. I think the orbit that Sarah Lee and I are touring in is sometimes a little more feasible than hitting the rock clubs," says Irion. "We play folkier rooms and festivals, which are just more kid friendly in general. Usually there's somebody there who wants to watch them. At a club it's just the bartender! I was talking to Sarah this morning and she said, 'You know what they say? One is one and two is twenty.' I just groaned."

And there's the matter of sharing a creative life with his wife as well as raising a family.

"We're constantly in the bubble," Irion observes. "We just got off a year-long tour with the family. That was a great tour, and in the midst of that I was doing the mixing and some of the recording on [Ex Tempore], which was so great. We'd do like two weeks with Arlo and Abe and the rest of the family where we were doing 4-5 songs a night. Then I could go to the studio and work on this weird stuff [laughs]. Which is not that weird at the end of the day but when you're playing 'Union Made' and other old, very traditional folk songs 'Roman Candle' can sound like Sonic Youth."

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