After three albums, a few regional tours and countless local sets, the emotive rock quartet Pretty Little Empire quietly folded up shop a few years ago. There was no formal goodbye show and no bitter parting among bandmates, just the slow accretion of years, experiences and adult responsibilities that make twice-weekly practices and regular gigs more of a chore than a blessing.
At least that's how it began to feel for former lead singer and acoustic guitarist Justin Johnson.
"I don't know if I was burned out, but trying to keep a band together and scheduling and setting up shows and promoting shows — I had done so much of that for so long, and felt like I needed a break," says Johnson.
The band's songs could range from direct and energetic to languid and atmospheric, but Johnson held the center of the song, no matter the setting. His lyrics were artful but guileless, elliptical but searching, and his performance — especially in the band's sweaty, full-bodied live shows — never suggested anything less than a heart-bursting commitment to the music.
And while he briefly kept busy with other bands — as part of the Jump Starts with drummer Sarah Ross and in the duo the Fog Lights with Jim Peters — Johnson has been mostly content to play a few solo shows a year. He found that those shows came with benefits and drawbacks.
"If I just play by myself, it's easier. I can practice whenever; I don't have to check with anyone's schedule," he says. "But I found that it was much more limiting to get shows. And I didn't really bring people out when I played solo. It's a hard thing to promote — 'Oh, come hear me sing some sad songs on a Friday night,'" Johnson says with a laugh.
With his forthcoming solo EP Never Coming Home, Johnson has found the best of both worlds. He's free from the strictures and responsibilities of being in a multi-member band, but able to make a record as fleshed-out and melodically driven as his old band's best recordings. Fans of PLE will instantly recognize Johnson's high, yearning voice and strummy, Americana-tinged compositions. He mixes lightness — especially through a couple of super-short tracks and a cover of the recently departed Daniel Johnston's "Devil Town" — with some more resonant and affecting material, the title track in particular.
Johnson had little inclination to record his solo material, but a chance meeting with an old family friend, Vince Corkery, led to an exploratory session in Corkery's Rock Hill home studio. "I thought about doing two songs, and then that turned into seven," Johnson says. "At first I said, 'Ah, I'm gonna do this real stripped down,' and then I started thinking I wanted to do more full-band arrangements."
That meant that the solo artist had to put a band together. Luckily, Johnson has friends in medium-height places: Melinda Cooper of Town Cars signed up to play bass and electric guitar without having heard a note; journeyman (and occasional RFT contributor) Corey Woodruff played drums on several tracks as well.
"Over the span of about four texts, I had a band ready to come in and record," Johnson recalls. "It didn't take a whole lot of time."
Likewise, the recording went quickly. Compared with the numerous sessions it took to finish the last Pretty Little Empire record, Johnson appreciated the efficiency of working with Corkery. "I think it's better that way," he says. "If you're four people working on something and you all have your parts and you're deliberating a lot, it can take longer."
Having over a decade of live performance behind him, Johnson has embraced the ancient adage "know thyself." Whatever misgivings Johnson had as a younger performer — about the quality of his songs or his ability to transmit them effectively — has been quelled by years of live and in-studio performance.
"For the longest time, I had the worst kind of stage fright," Johnson says. "There just got to a point where I could channel those nerves into my performance; my just letting go and not caring how it looked or sounded somehow made it the best experience to play music.
"Over the past few years, I think I know my traits as a songwriter, or how my voice sounds as a singer. I was no longer hindered by, like, not enough self-confidence with my voice," Johnson continues. "This is how I sound. It's not getting any better or any worse. It's where it's at, in a comfortable place. I know where my range is."
For his upcoming EP release show at Off Broadway on Saturday, September 28, Johnson will again be in front of a live rock & roll band, with Cooper, Woodruff and PLE bassist Sean McElroy supporting him. It may be only a one-off gig, but he's looking forward to being back in a familiar setting.
"I'm excited to be actually playing with a group instead of acoustic with maybe one accompaniment," Johnsons says. "I don't know — I haven't really enjoyed playing solo like I thought I would. I thought that it would be this fun, freeing thing, but I miss the excitement of playing more up-tempo stuff with other musicians."