Open Road: Rod Johnson Relishes Cross-Country Adventures on "Looking for a Perfect Trip"
For Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Rod Johnson, a rusty, rattling Ford Econoline van serves as the ideal road-trip companion.
The tank-like vehicle represents carefree, youthful jaunts of the past and promising, independent cross-country journeys of the future on “Telephone Company Surplus Econoline Van" from his latest wanderlust-fueled album, Looking for a Perfect Trip.
“I had a friend in high school that had a telephone company surplus Econoline van, and it was just a Michigan Bell van with a logo painted on it," said Johnson, a retired University of Michigan College of Engineering professor. "We spent a lot of time in that van listening to Alice Cooper, and that’s the van that I was thinking of specifically."
“When I do that song, people always laugh when I say the title. They think it’s going to be this jokey song, but it’s not. It’s always fun to watch their expressions change as you go through it.”
Powered by airy acoustic guitar strums, echoey electric guitar, and husky bass, the song transports Johnson back to his fearless teen years as he sings, “We don’t have too many places we can go / People are always telling us to move on / But here inside this metal box we can head out on the road / And no one’s gonna notice that we’re gone.”
“When you’re growing up in the Midwest, you don’t have a lot of places of your own," Johnson said. "You basically have your car, and that’s where your life takes place. It’s based on that feeling of where it’s safe to be us, and it happened to be in a van."
As a follow-up to 2019’s When My Baby Comes Around, the nostalgic, introspective 13-track Looking for a Perfect Trip carves a folky, pop-rock trail to off-the-beaten-path towns, waterways, experiences, and possibilities. The album was co-produced by Dave Roof, who helped Johnson realize there was a common thread in the tunes.
“I looked at these songs and went, ‘Man, these are kind of lonely, lost, and stranded songs, and it really felt like there was continuity there,'" Johnson said. "I didn’t really think about it until one day Dave and I looked at each other and said, ‘These songs kind of have a theme.’”
They're not all biographical tunes, but there's a piece of Johnson in every lyric he sings.
“I used to think, ‘Well, I’m just trying to write a pop song. It’s not about me; it’s a pretty impersonal thing.' [But] even if the songs aren’t about you, ultimately they are since you’re writing the songs,” said Johnson, who’s inspired by The Who, David Bowie, and Roxy Music.
Johnson seamlessly weaves adventuresome wanderlust throughout Looking for a Perfect Trip.
On the eager, melodic opener, “Lafayette,” Johnson wistfully sings, “I’m sick of the cold in this place / Nobody looks me in my face / Losing time I can’t replace, every day / Don’t know why I’m here in this town / Why not disappear and not be found / And not let myself be ground down this way / Why should I stay?”
“A long time ago, I had a friend from U-M who got a job in Lafayette, Louisiana, and she told me about it one time. It just sounded like she really liked it, and it was warm and friendly, and the food was good,” said Johnson."I was probably suffering through another Michigan winter and wishing I was someplace like that. I was feeling like, ‘Man, I could just chuck it all and go to Lafayette.’ Maybe everybody’s got a Lafayette in their mind that they wish they could go to.”
He sings, “She often thinks she might move on / Maybe Des Moines or Madison / But she knows she’d miss her family and her home / It’s a risky thing, why take a chance / And put her life in someone’s hands / Who didn’t understand the way she saw the world? / And she would miss those prairie skies.”
“If you come up toward Sioux City from Omaha, you see all these signs that say ‘So Sioux City.’ Mile after mile, I kept seeing ‘So Sioux City,’ and pretty soon I was thinking to myself that’s ‘So Sioux City,’” said Johnson, who recently traveled to Nebraska.
“I started to think what would the person be like who’s ‘So Sioux City’ that she just didn’t fit anywhere else. That’s the way a lot of songs work. You have a line or title, and then you start thinking about, ‘Well, who is that person? Or what is that situation about?’ It’s kinda like a puzzle where the meaning is already there, but you just have to find it.”
Johnson didn’t have to travel far to record Looking for a Perfect Trip. He ventured to Grand Blanc’s Rooftop Recording to work with producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Dave Roof earlier this year.
The duo transformed Johnson’s initial acoustic recordings into an expansive folk-rock, power-pop sound after collaborating with Donn Deniston (drums), Beverly Meyer (vocals, handclaps), Bobby Pennock (vocals), Drew Howard (dobro, pedal steel, baritone, acoustic slide guitar), Brian Kingsley (acoustic and baritone guitars), Dave Solo (acoustic and 12-string guitars), Cheryl Beauchamp (piano), and Daniel Tavani (strings, string arrangements).
“We did this when COVID was really raging in the winter, and it was just Dave and me in the studio with our masks on. At one point, I thought, ‘Man, this is gonna be just another COVID album or another stripped-down album like you do at home because you can’t go out,’” Johnson said.
“I just had heard too much of that, and I wanted something a little bit more interesting. We sort of retooled it a little bit for a bigger sound, which was really fun.”
Johnson pulled from a treasure trove of previously written songs to compile the 13 poignant tracks for Looking for a Perfect Trip. In the past, he’s composed a wealth of material during February Album Writing Month, a 28-day challenge to write 14 new songs, and the 50/90 Challenge, a commitment to write 50 songs in 90 days from July 4 to Oct. 1.
“Every year, I would just sit down and crank out songs, sometimes way more than 50. Most of them are bad, and that’s the thing … to write good songs you just have to write a lot of songs, and most them are not going to be good,” said Johnson with a laugh.
“It’s about getting out of your own way and just writing. A lot of these songs are from various years, and they’re the ones that kind of rose to the surface.”
Today, Johnson’s focused on writing his next album, which will have a new sound and approach compared to Looking for a Perfect Trip. In a sense, he plans to steer his Econoline van in a new direction on the open musical road ahead.
“I feel like it’s the end of an era for me. I’m going to try to do some different stuff, so we’ll see,” Johnson said.
Lori Stratton is an Ann Arbor-based writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.