There's always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Alain Johannes proves that proverb with Spark, his solo debut. Due out October 5 via Rekords Rekords, Spark is a heartfelt, honest and hypnotic collection of songs that Alain penned to commemorate his late wife and creative partner, Natasha Shneider. It's more than a tribute though; it's the purest celebration of her spirit through song. Alain plays like his soul depends on it during album opener "Endless Eyes." Through tribal percussion and cigar box guitar strumming, the song breathes organically. Meanwhile, there's a poignant lyrical poetry at the center of "Make God Jealous" and "Spider" that resounds just as powerfully as the album's fretless guitar hum and the somber cello on "Speechless." From co-founding Eleven with Natasha to collaborating with everyone from Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures to Chris Cornell and Mark Lanegan, Alain remains a prolific force. Spark shows listeners every side of this unique songwriter, producer and composer.
Spark has been in the making since the summer of 2008. After Natasha passed away following her battle with cancer, Queens of the Stone Age organized a star-studded benefit in Los Angeles to celebrate her life on August 16, 2008 at the Henry Fonda Theater. Alain wrote "Endless Eyes" specifically for the show, and it set the wheels in motion for the entire record.
"The story started with that song," he explains. "It's the most direct ode to Natasha and the wonderful time we had together—it's specifically about my love and admiration for her. She had a wonderful soul, natural intelligence, humor and internal funkiness, and she's the most amazing musician I've ever met."
It all began with "Endless Eyes" and, for the next year, Alain brought his cigar box guitar everywhere. Whether he was on the road with Them Crooked Vultures or in the studio, he continued composing songs for what would become Spark. Once everything was written, he found a four-day period in November 2009 to record and mix the entire album at his home studio.
"It'd been building for awhile," he goes on. "I was gathering songs, and I was waiting for them to show up. The songs would come while I was on tour, and I knew I was going to record them at some point. Once it started, I knew it wouldn't stop until I was finished. I had a lot of friends offer to help me record, but something told me that wasn't the way to do it. I had to be alone in that space. I found four days that were open, and I gathered the courage to jump into it. "
Alain wasn't truly alone though. Natasha's spirit lives within each chord and lyric that he committed to tape during those four days. He reveals, "I felt like I was being guided. Not only that, but I felt her presence in the room so intensely it was insane. It was almost like I could turn to her and say, 'What do you think of this?' In our musical journey together, we compartmentalized so many things we were good at. Her ability to come up with beautiful harmonies was incredible. There were a couple moments that I heard the harmonies like she would, and they just came out of me."
An example of that is the eerily enchanting crescendo on Spark's final track "Unfinished Plan." The song soars into a sublime realm as Alain intones the last lyrics, and there's an invigorating, inspiring spell cast from those moments.
Alain's worked with some of the most important and influential musicians in rock 'n' roll—on stage and in the studio. In addition to his much lauded catalog with Eleven, he's been a longtime Queens of the Stone Age cohort, appearing on Songs for the Deaf, Lullabies to Paralyze and Era Vulgaris as well as playing live with the band. He contributed to Chris Cornell's acclaimed solo debut Euphoria Morning on guitar and as a producer, and he's a member of Spinerette alongside Brody Dalle. "I've been a musician since I was four-years-old, and it's been a long arc to arrive at this place. I've garnered so much experience, and I'm blessed to have worked with so many phenomenal and influential musicians."
Alain's about to bring Spark to audiences everywhere live all over the world. "The set is really stripped down, but the songs survive in that context. I simply wanted to be able to grab my cigar box and go. I'm like a traveling blues man," he laughs.
This is the most open that Alain's ever been. Constructing his own acoustic choir with a cigar box guitar and floor toms, Johannes builds each track with palpable power, orchestrating a cathartic sonic journey that's as unique as it is uplifting. "It's very direct and it feels really close. I was being taken over by the music. The thematic aspect of each song would come like a prism from a different perspective. Some songs sound celebratory, sweet and hopeful and some are much darker. Some have a bit of anger in them and a resignation. Whenever I got emotionally charged up enough, I would write. Going through grief, there are so many stages. There's shock, anger, guilt, sadness and a part that pushes you to keep going—that's what she would've wanted."
Thankfully, Alain's kept moving forward and he's continuing on the path he carved since he first picked up a guitar. About the record, Queens of the Stone Age and Them Crooked Vultures frontman and Rekords Rekords founder Josh Homme comments, "Alain's record is the total embodiment of what the label stands for—the war against endorsing mediocrity and the uncensored attempt to take a leap off the musical cliff. Spark is a stunning examination of figuring out what you do when someone's gone, and it's utterly breathtaking."
Beauty often is born from tragedy, and Spark ultimately stands as a testament to that. Alain elaborates, "I actually finished the album 25 years to the day that Natasha and I met—November 29, 2009. That was our anniversary. In many ways, I was really just trying to make a record that she would be proud of."
Her light still shines brightly through Alain on Spark. — Rick Florino (May 2010)