“Here we are, once again here.”
So reads the chorus of “The Pet Parade,” the opening track from the 2021 Fruit Bats album of the same name. It forms a powerful preamble – an affirmation born of the pressures of the pandemic, simultaneously in-the-moment and retrospective.
Those latter qualities could also be ascribed to Eric D. Johnson, the indie folk-rock singer-songwriter who is both taking stock and gaining momentum after notching his 20th year making music under the Fruit Bats banner.
He’s scheduled to perform at Capital Ale House's Richmond Music Hall on April 17 as part of the deferred release tour for “The Pet Parade,” though the show will double as a celebration of his new compilation entitled “Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud: Slow Growers, Sleeper Hits and Lost Songs (2001–2021),” due out Jan. 28 on Merge Records.
Despite Spotify play counts that reach eight digits, Johnson, who got his start in Chicago with experimental folk group Califone, is reluctant to call his successful compositions “hits.” His song “When U Love Somebody” was an early bright spot, originally appearing on the 2003 album “Mouthfuls” and eventually soundtracking a pivotal scene in the 2009 Michael Cera film “Youth in Revolt.” A late-2000s stint as a member of the Shins helped him establish himself as a full-time musician. But he reached a new level of notoriety in 2015, the year he revived the briefly retired Fruit Bats name by touring as opener for My Morning Jacket.
“I have a strange distinction of a 20-year career that didn’t really get going on a larger success level until 15 years in, or so,” Johnson says. “A lot of people didn’t hear about me until 2015.”
Johnson had that before-and-after in mind when sequencing “Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud.” Disc one of the vinyl edition contains album cuts that have gained traction over the years, either among fans or with Johnson himself – “to introduce your friends,” he says. Disc two collects demos and rarities that even established fans may not have heard, including a live cut of “When U Love Somebody” recorded here in Richmond at Spacebomb Studios, and a pair of winning discards – “WACS” and “When the Stars Are Out” – from the sessions for his 2011 Sub Pop album “Tripper.”
It’s all part of, as he puts it, “celebrating 15 years as a cult band and five years as a band you’ve maybe heard of.”
The Fruit Bats career arc may have an unconventional contour, but Johnson did have precedent when shaping the compilation: Neil Young’s 1977 “Decade” album. “It really is him making a mix tape of his own songs for you,” Johnson notes. “There are some hits on there, but he leaves some off, and there are some slightly deeper cuts that you can tell he has an affection for that he puts on, so I sort of took that as the template.” Incidentally, “Decade” was the first CD Johnson ever owned.
Fruit Bats’ third decade started with less ceremony than was originally intended, given the pandemic-related postponement of the 2021 tour planned in support of “The Pet Parade.” As common as that precautionary measure has become, it felt decidedly uncommon to Johnson. “I’d never canceled a date in 22 years of touring,” he says, “including having crazy chest colds and getting stuck in blizzards and playing to nobody. So that was rough.”
He staged just one Fruit Bats show last year, at the Newport Folk Festival, “which is a pretty good one show to have,” he acknowledges. Not performing tracks from “The Pet Parade” live gave it what he describes as a “lost album” feel, though he does see a big-picture silver lining.
“It was such a rhapsodic, melancholic, funny entrant into my later catalog,” Johnson says. “It’s an interesting one to float off into space, too, in some ways. I like that about it. It’s sort of my version of a private press folk record.”
That rhapsodic sound was shaped in part by producer Josh Kaufman, who plays alongside Johnson and celebrated singer-songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell in folk group Bonny Light Horseman. Kaufman also produced that trio’s eponymous debut, which updated material from the transatlantic folk canon and earned 2020 Grammy nominations for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Performance.
With a Kaufman-produced Mitchell album on the way in 2022, Bonny Light Horseman increasingly resembles a lens through which to view its individual members’ efforts – yet another way for late-arriving Fruit Bats fans to catch up to those already in-the-know.
“The Bonny Light Horseman audience and the Fruit Bats audience don’t cross over as much as you would think,” Johnson points out, “which I think is a good thing. It means I’m casting a wide net. My hope is that [‘The Pet Parade’] brings those worlds a little bit together. ”
“I’ve been ringing my bell for 20 years here,” he adds. “It’s got a specific sound to it, and it’s finally reaching some people.”
It’s an enviable position: so much to look back on, so much on the road ahead.
Fruit Bats will perform at Richmond Music Hall on April 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. Bonny Light Horseman will open for Bon Iver at Virginia Credit Union LIVE! on Saturday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $49.50 to $99.50. To preorder “Sometimes a Cloud Is Just a Cloud,” visit fruit-bats.bandcamp.com.