“The whole record is about the title,” says singer/songwriter Johnny Irion about his latest solo album, Ex Tempore (Rte 8/RCAM Records).
He’s not kidding: Recording with various musicians (including his wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie), Irion worked off-the-cuff, with most arrangements done on the spot.
Medleyville.us: Did you know from the outset that Ex Tempore was an album you’d be releasing under your own name, or was it going to be an album credited to you and Sarah Lee?
Johnny Irion: “I didn’t know. I was just going in and recording songs because I’d been writing a bunch of tunes. I actually thought it would be a US Elevator record, which is my side project in the wings — just a band that has yet to happen. There were like 20 songs there, and I whittled it down, and I thought: ‘This is cohesive enough to release as a solo album.’ Having those guys play — I just didn’t think it was going to be as good as it turned out. I actually had the name of the record before the record, so hence the whole off-the-cuff process.”
Ex Tempore was recorded with analog and tube equipment. Were there any “happy accidents” or frustrating moments that were the result of using vintage gear?
Irion: “Yes. We were using old tape from different sessions, and there were ghost tracks that were showing up that we’d have to clean. There’s a weird thing that happens on ‘She Cast Fire’ — on the ‘angels flock to her’ verse, there’s something that happens with the word ‘flock’ that’s a total result of using the old tape. The flip side of it was that we were able to speed some things up and slow other things down.”
How many arrangements, if any, were done on the spot with the band right before you rolled tape?
Irion: “Before I got down [to Durham, N.C.], I would send MP3s of four-track recordings I was working on and I sent a lot of songs to [drummer] Zeke [Hutchins] and the guys. If I got back, ‘Cool song!’ that one would go on the list to try. They were like an audience, so to speak, and a great audience at that.
“So we had a basic chord structure, so even if we changed keys or flip-flopped arrangements, they still knew the basic gist of the tune. Most of the arrangements were done on the spot. We’d roll tape and go, ‘Oh, let’s do that there.’ It’s guys I’ve worked with for years . . . and Zeke is one of those drummers who wants to be a songwriter, but he’s a drummer and he’s been around enough good producers to think like a producer.”
On your Web site, you credit Pat Conroy with inspiring the title for “Roman Candle.” Where does he rank among your favorite novelists?
Irion: “He doesn’t, really (laughs). I think of my favorite as whoever I’m holding in my hand at the time because they’re holding my attention.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Johnny Irion on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Aug. 24: The Dreamaway Lodge — Becket, Mass.
* Aug. 30: Joe’s Pub — New York
* Sept. 6: The Evening Muse — Charlotte, N.C.
* Sept. 7: Bella Festa — Wilmington, N.C.
* Sept. 8: Headliners — Columbia, S.C.
* Sept. 9: The Pour House — Charleston, S.C.
* Sept. 12: The Basement — Nashville, Tenn.
* Sept. 13: The Melting Point — Athens, Ga.
* Sept. 14: The Red Light Cafe — Atlanta
* Sept. 15: The Cats Cradle — Chapel Hill, N.C.
* Sept. 16: The Grey Eagle — Asheville, N.C.
* Sept. 19: Club Cafe — Pittsburgh
* Sept. 25: Jammin’ Java — Vienna, Va.
* Sept. 27: Johnny D’s — Boston
* Sept. 30: Helsinki — Great Barrington, Mass.