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Bats And A Cat: Eric D. Johnson And Cat Clyde on The String

Chantal Anderson
Eric D. Johnson, mastermind of Fruit Bats.

Episode #250 of The String opens with thoughts about the seemingly divergent music genres of indie rock and folk music, because in my rambling through this year’s coolest, Americana chart-making albums, I came across a couple of fascinating artists who split the difference in their own ways. Cat Clyde is an exciting young songwriter from Canada whose current album Down Rounder impresses with its moody grace and confrontive lyrics. About the same time, Eric D. Johnson released yet another album under his moniker Fruit Bats, and in the wake of his award-winning work with folk trio Bonny Light Horseman, his bright and uplifting pop sounds downright rootsy. They split a fresh-sounding hour of the show.

With the atmospheric, electronically enhanced sounds of the newest Fruit Bats album thrumming in your ears - A River Running To Your Heart it’s called - one might be surprised to learn that Eric Johnson’s first serious instrument was the traditional clawhammer banjo and that while he was getting established as a professional in the late 1990s, he taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music in his native Chicago. But it was tinkering with home recording and oddball keyboards that led him to the fold of experimental rock band Califone and its ultra-DIY label home Perishable Records. Califone made common cause with rising indie acts like Modest Mouse and The Shins, whom Johnson would later join for a stretch as a member.

“I'm at this very interesting age, where I caught kind of the tail end of the 90s indie rock world, and I was enamored of those bands,” Johnson says in our remote interview from his home in Los Angeles. “And for me that music was filled with possibility, because I had grown up with pop radio and then became a kind of a Deadhead, but I wasn't good enough to be a jam artist. I couldn't play a guitar solo or anything like that. So indie rock was like this palpable thing, where you can kind of be yourself and create a vibe. And like you don't have to be a virtuoso; you just have to have a voice of some kind.”

Fruit Bats, a “nom de plume” that Johnson took on in the early 2000s, became a collective with him at the center, ultimately cycling in as many as 50 different musicians, though he says the recent lineup has been stable. Then there was the three years he disbanded Fruit Bats with a farewell concert in Portland, OR only to reform in time for an influential run of shows with My Morning Jacket.

Amid this Americana-adjacent indie-rock, Johnson joined Bonny Light Horseman, cited as a supergroup featuring rarified songwriter Anais Mitchell and the multi-faceted Indianapolis artist Josh Kaufman, whose achievements include winning Season 6 of The Voice. “It seemed like something where maybe I could flex those (folk music) muscles,” Johnson says of the trio. “Or not even flex but exercise them. Because they weren't even ready to be flexed yet.” Their album exceeded everyone’s expectations and became a national talking point and a Grammy nominee.

A River Running To Your Heart, self-produced in a studio overlooking the ocean in Stinson Beach, CA, came into focus in reaction to the moody blue tone of the folk trio as a “swashbuckling, hard-hitting pop record.” But its one with a lot of sonic flowers to admire as well, as with the cinematic instrumental opening gesture “Dim Star North.” When that segues into “Rushin River Valley,” we’re in space that feels for all the world like a more cheerful and jangling Hiss Golden Messenger. There’s a real payoff sequence in the middle starting with “We Used To Live Here” that Johnson says helped the album arc click into place, and it’s just all a refreshing, sun-kissed album that will be one of the most enjoyable of the year.

Cat Clyde's current indie folk project is Down Rounder.

Meanwhile Cat Clyde strides back onto the stage after a pandemic lull that profoundly interrupted her career momentum with Down Rounder, a substantial album that’s as rich with issues as it is with piquant singing. It feels like a “leveling up” for her, she says, and with a showcase at this fall’s AmericanaFest recently announced (as well as some serious thought about moving to Nashville), I’m hoping that she becomes more of a player in the roots/songwriting conversation.

Clyde grew up in Burlington, Ontario near Toronto, but she says her surroundings were pretty rural and she spent a lot of time alone in the woods, and her musical contacts were limited to a couple of extended family members who played guitar. What truly lit her fire she remembers was a pathway from Nirvana’s version of the old blues number “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” to the original recording by its author Leadbelly. She was 14.

“It just absolutely destroyed my world,” Clyde said over a Zoom connection, in a good way. “I never knew that music that old had been captured, and it just felt so familiar to me. And it just felt like home. And I just felt like I could really feel all of those feelings and emotions and it just enthralled me how so much was captured in such a simple recording. And I just couldn't get enough after that.”

After getting her start in performing with a formal music and music business degree (plus time in a punk band), she made things happen with her first two albums - Ivory Castanets and Hunters Trace in 2017 and ‘19 respectively. Released on an American label, she grew a touring base in the States. But the big pause of 2020 broke her stride. In the quiet, she home-made a true roots folk album with her partner Jeremie Albino called Blue Blue Blue, with such covers as “Freight Train” and “Girl From The North Country.” An album of originals was in the works in that same home studio, but then her world was upended again when she was evicted after the discovery of severe mold infestation in her place.

“I just felt very lost in the whole thing and really felt a lot of pressure to get it done,” she tells me. “And I didn't really know how to get it done or how I wanted to get it done.” Then her manager introduced her to famed producer Tony Berg, a sonic wizard with a resume that includes albums by Aimee Mann, Andrew Bird, Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift. They workshopped the songs by Zoom but struggled to find time that Berg could devote to the tracking. Clyde felt somewhat hopeless for a time, so when Berg called with a sudden window of six days, she jumped on it and she says it was one of the best experiences of her life.

Clyde told me in a segment that was cut from the show that going forward she plans to indulge both her inner indie rocker and old-time folk singer sides. “Yeah, absolutely. I really love them both,” she says. “I think I'm going to be skipping stones between them for some time.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>