In the autumn of his 68th year, Michael Johnson is commemorating a few firsts:
- His first new studio album in 15 years, “Moonlit Déjà Vu,” which hits stores next week.
- His first release for Red House Records, the St. Paul-based independent folk and roots label.
- His first home in the Twin Cities, after spending more than two decades of his professional life in Nashville.
- His first collaboration with his biological daughter, Truly Carmichael, whose mother placed her for adoption when she was four days old and whom Johnson met for the first time in August, 2009.
That last first has been the most inspiring – and, ultimately, jarring – of all.
“I came down with shingles, because your body doesn’t know good stress from shinola,” said Johnson, the Grammy-nominated songwriter behind such chestnuts as “Bluer Than Blue” and “Give Me Wings.”
“I started seeing a counselor about it, and he said, ‘Well you should expect to feel nuts for quite a while.’ I was feeling relief and joy and happiness, and I was proud – it changes the way a guy thinks about women, when you have a daughter. Half the world’s population changes, and it was for the better. It was wonderful.
“But there was also sadness for the girl I didn’t raise, and there was shame. So you start feeling all those things at once and your body lets you know what’s going down. I couldn’t visit her, because I was a mess. We didn’t meet up for three months. We talked on the phone, and we emailed voraciously. We said a lot of silly things, and one of the things I said was, ‘God, you sound so grown up.’ And she said, ‘Well, I’m 40.’ ”
Carmichael was the product of a brief love affair Johnson had when he was a 25-year-old actor visiting his brother in Texas. He initially had no say in the baby’s future, but over the years, he searched for both mother and child. By his own admission, he was “haunted” by the knowledge that his child was out there, somewhere, in the world.
‘In my dreams she’d appear at my door’
“It was like having a ghost around, like living with a ghost. In my dreams she’d appear at my door,” he said. “Sometimes she’d be in a Little Orphan Annie kind of tweed coat and suitcase – so much for my imagination. For some reason, I decided her name was Heather. And later I’d see her looking tired and I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, she’s 18 now, she’s 23 now, she’s 25 now…’ I didn’t know if she was alive or covered with tattoos or in an abusive situation or … all the things a dad would worry about.
“So I was just shocked to find out that, at the time, she was married to the director of the Seattle Children’s Theater and that they were doing just great, thank you very much, and she was drop-dead gorgeous and a singer.”
As fate would have it, Carmichael and her husband, Children’s Theater Company Managing Director Tim Jennings now live in the Twin Cities. The couple has a young boy, which means Johnson, a divorced father of two 20-something boys, is a grandfather for the fourth time.
“Truly found Mary, her [birth mother] first,” Johnson explained. “Her mom was living on a boat off the coast of Gibraltar. Mary went to Seattle, and they had a tearful reunion, and Truly said, ‘OK, who’s my dad?’ Mary said, ‘You got a computer?’
‘She knew all those tunes’
“They go to my website and Truly goes, ‘I used to sing these songs.’ Or, she used to hum them. I don’t know if she ever performed them. But she knew all those tunes, like ‘Bluer Than Blue’ and ‘This Night Won’t Last Forever,’ the more visible ones.
“It’s wonderful, because it’s one thing to find your mom, but it’s another thing to decide to find your dad. You know, what if your dad’s a jerk, and doesn’t want to know, or is ashamed. She waited two days to think about it, which I considered a real compliment. And then she notified me by email.
“It was like a PowerPoint presentation. It had all these photos. The first thing she said was, ‘Did you ever think of me over all these years?’ and, ‘Is it uncomfortable for me to have jumped out of the woodpile just now?’
“So she had a sense of humor about it. I wrote her back immediately and said, ‘Gosh, no. I thought about you all the time and it’s no problem, believe me.’”
Daughter sings on his new CD
The reunion eventually graduated to in-person meetings in Seattle and Nashville, where the two played music together for the first time. Carmichael sings on one tune, “One Mile Apart“ on the new CD, and she’ll be on hand at Johnson’s CD release concert on Saturday, Oct. 6, at the Hopkins Art Center.
“She’s a full-time mom, so music is her hobby,” he said. “She’s a very legit singer. She studied opera in college, and she plays the Celtic harp, and that’s where she’s at now. She loves Celtic music and songs about fairies. Playing music with her the first time was like an out-of-body experience.
“She stuck with me through this illness. She was a great friend then; we were emailing back and forth. Of course, now she’s like my boys: she doesn’t write or call. She is definitely, truly, my daughter; and that’s just fine. That’s how it should be: I’m not her dad, I’m her father, you know what I’m saying?”
Correction: This version corrects the name of Johnson’s CD and the number of grandchildren he has.