A man with "a hundred year-old voice and a teenage attitude" (Jonathan Byrd), Johnny Eaton conjures tales of hard times and sweet times, ferrying listeners on time-travel journeys across Canada with a lucid imagination that can make you feel like any of his songs actually happened, whether they did or didn't.
When you’re an artist that hasn’t released new music in 18 years, it stands to reason you’re going to have a lot to say when the right moment comes around again. For Ottawa-based singer/songwriter Johnny Eaton, that moment is now.
Eaton’s new album, here’s the thing, offers 12 songs that display his full musical range, from traditional country to plaintive, confessional folk, as well as a couple of side trips into neo-soul and post-punk. With a weathered, campfire-coal baritone voice, Eaton spins tales of life in different parts of Canada reminding us of harder times and sweeter times in turn.
Eaton began working on here’s the thing in 2022, recording with producer Gareth Auden-Hole at his La La Studio in Gatineau, Quebec, and a host of contributors—18 to be precise, an eerie coincidence with the gap in Eaton’s output. Among them were guitar maestros Noah Zacharin and Jimmy Bowskill, along with other notable names from the roots and soul/jazz music scenes.
Eaton explains, “These are songs I wrote while living in Montreal and playing in an old-time country band, while living in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, and while living in Ottawa and working as a cartographer while hosting a livestream show called ‘Tunesdays with Johnny’ throughout the pandemic. Because choosing songs for an album is my least favourite part of the process, I let my livestream audience vote on YouTube for which songs they wanted on the album. Essentially, each song is a democratically elected representative, with the exception of the title track, which was an execution of my darling love’s power of veto.”
Not a bad system, really, to gauge what listeners are into after so many years, but that’s hardly to say Eaton hasn’t been doing interesting things in the meantime. After graduating from Mount Allison University (paying his way by working as a tree planter in B.C. and northern Ontario), he set his sights on Whitehorse, Yukon in 2005 where his music career fully got underway. Eaton toured Canada several times in the mid-00s, while also landing acting jobs on opposite ends of the country in Victoria and Halifax. But when the need for more steady employment arose, he went back to school to study cartography and is currently employed by the City of Ottawa, making maps and analyzing geographic data.
Eaton’s creative urge has never waned. Actually, he says that having a relatively stable life now has made him a better songwriter. “I think I’ve just become more comfortable in my own skin, more accepting of my skills and limitations, and that’s resulted in my new songs feeling more authentic and more earnest, while leaning less on artifice and performative cliches.”
Indeed, songs on here’s the thing such as “Nova Scotia’s Shores,” “Lost In Manitoba” and the epic, 10-minute “Resolution” are steeped in detail, drawn from memory, and delivered with an unapologetic nod to Canada’s great troubadours.
“I love all the songs on the album," says Eaton, "but if I had to choose my favourites, they’d be the ones with a deeper personal meaning for me. I wrote ‘Nova Scotia’s Shores’ after moving back home to Ottawa and feeling the ache to return east. Everything in the song is autobiographical, and all the places mentioned are real. ‘Resolution’ was written just after New Year’s 2018 during a massive snowstorm. I stared out the window at the snow coming down, strumming the guitar slowly in what felt like with the rhythm of the snow, and it all just started flowing out of me. The song ‘Here’s The Thing’ ended up tying everything together. I wrote it when I knew I was falling in love for the first time in almost 20 years, and I wanted her to know it without being too gushy or over-the-top about it.”
It’s easy to describe Johnny Eaton as what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy, but one listen to here’s the thing reveals so much more. Having been down the road and back many times, he’s now ready to share it all.