When I first listened to ‘Our Way’ I felt myself relaxing. I put on my noise cancelling headphones and lay back and listened to the rest of the song. Paul’s gentle voice and the melody makes this song a MUST listen. Jen got the chance to have a chat with Paul.
Mixing his indie-folk roots with pop hooks and sparse, airy production, Nashville-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Paul Johnson shoots for the stars with Constellation, his second LP as Canyon City. The album is now available on all digital platforms including Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Google Play (10/06/17 release date). Johnson will donate 10% of his October album sales and streaming income to the Red Cross, in light of recent tragedies and disasters.
The record arrives one year after Canyon City’s debut, Midnight Waves, a viral hit whose soft-spoken songwriting has racked up a substantial Spotify audience. Currently, with tracks from both albums, Canyon City has an audience of over 1 million monthly Spotify listeners and over 24.6 million streams. Tracks from Constellation were recently added to major Spotify playlists including “Autumn Acoustic” and “Fresh Folk.” The streaming service also created “This Is: Canyon City,” a playlist specifically for the artist with his most popular tunes.
You are certainly no new comer to the music industry; can you tell us a little about your youth and when you first thought of becoming a musician?
I definitely feel lucky to have been around music in one way or another for most of my life – my parents are both musicians and used to play together when I was younger so I had a lot of early encouragement to join in. I started playing guitar around 7, and was fortunate to have an incredible teacher throughout a lot of my childhood who really focused on the deeper philosophies of music as well as the technique. I think it was around high school, when I started experimenting with song writing, that I really fell in love with music on another level. Writing opened up this world of expression, understanding and being understood in a way that was so addictive, especially for the awkward kind of outsider kid that I was.From then on I was hooked.
How many instruments have you mastered?
The only instrument that I feel like I can confidently say I “play” is guitar, however with Canyon City records I’m technically playing, or at the very least shaping, all the instrumentation. I do most of the production out of my own studio so I have lots of time to experiment, go down rabbit holes, and sometimes just practice an instrument to the point where I can sufficiently play the parts in my head. But I also mess up, a LOT, which for me ends up being part of the creative process. In trying to play a certain part on an instrument that I’m not comfortable on, I might stumble on a rhythm or set of notes that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone for but creates an interesting texture. In that way I kind of collaborate with my novice-ness, and a lot of the time it ends up being one of the more inspired and fun parts of making the records!
Earlier in your career in you felt that you were letting the paycheck get in the way of your true to self-honest art. So many of us feel this way, was there are moment that inside your head was screaming enough!! Or was it a gradual thought process?
There was definitely a painfully loud moment, or at the very least season. That said I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to better define what I DO want in having those experiences where I learned what I didn’t want. Basically I realized that in the compromises I made to make music my job, I just turned it into another job that I wanted to get away from while simultaneously losing the thing that I loved to do. At that point I redefined what success was to me as doing whatever job was needed to protect the time and ability to make music that I genuinely connect with. Incredibly, these days that job is to make that music that I’ve always wanted to play.
Your new release ‘Constellation’ you did everything yourself in your studio. Can you tell us why you choose this and what benefits you feel working solo brings to the end product?
I know for a lot of people having someone else in the room to throw curveballs and redirect the creative direction can be a really helpful part of the process, which makes total sense to me. That said, in working with producers in the past I always felt like we created something kind of “half each of us” but not fully either one of us. Maybe that’s the point, to get outside yourself a bit, but until Canyon City I never felt like I had the outlet to really fully be myself to begin with. I think having that safe time and space to really explore, sit in the moment and try to hear all the little whispers that can so easily get barrelled over in thinking about social nuances… you kind of have to confront how you really feel right now – however liberating, uncomfortable, or both it may be. I feel like what you can end up with is a level of detail and texture that can almost be tangible. It was real for you, and the listener feels it as it becomes real for them.
Each song of yours has a message that listeners can relate to. Can you please take us through a song of your choose and discuss the background story behind it?
“Be Scared With Me” is one that has its own story, but also ended up commenting on the season as a whole in a way that made it feel right to close out the record with. In a nutshell it’s about stepping into the uncertainty of a relationship, for me it was a new one, but I think any stage, however far down the road, is “new” in its own way (which is actually kind of the cliff notes version of “Like I Did”…. bonus story!). Where “Be Scared With Me” lands is basically that stepping into a relationship, or any season really, puts you on the path of so much pain, danger, beauty, joy, and things that you have no idea are coming, but for how terrifyingly out of control all that is, it helps to take that road together. So you take someone’s hand, and that might put you on a rollercoaster scarier than you thought possible, but for the same reason you grip it tight.
What is next for Canyon City?
I’m really looking forward to a few shows to cap off this year, and also planning a few more for next year, meeting some of the wonderful people who make sharing these tunes a blast! I’m always cooking something in the studio too…. or at the very least looking out the window waiting for inspiration, or for the coffee to finish brewing.
Just as he did on that career-launching record, Johnson wrote, performed and produced Constellation himself, working alone in his home studio. You can hear that sense of intimacy throughout the album’s ten songs, whose lyrics spin stories of love, struggle, and personal journeys. Rooted in the quiet strum of Johnson’s acoustic guitar and the hushed croon of his voice, Constellation shines bright during moments like “Midnight Flight” — a quiet anthem about seizing the moment, while fully acknowledging the moment is fleeting — and “Find You,” a warm, woozy travel song. It’s a personal album whose tracks were created in isolation, but Constellation still speaks to something universal, creating the soundtrack for a generation of lovers and listeners who are looking not only to find their partners, but to find themselves, as well.
Appropriately, it is Canyon City — Johnson’s most individualized project to date — that gave its creator the chance to find his true musical identity. Years earlier, Johnson found himself focusing on a different sound, creating music for TV shows, movie trailers and other multimedia opportunities. He was good at it, too, landing songs in the preview for the Gerard Butler film “The Family Man” as well as the Hallmark program Chesapeake Shores. Even so, Johnson wasn’t happy. He wasn’t writing music for himself, after all, and he was letting the promise of a paycheck get in the way of pure, honest art. Things changed once he began funneling his profits into his home studio, creating a place where he could spend his days and evenings working on music that moved him.
“Canyon City is the project I quit my old job to pursue,” he explains, “and coincidentally, it’s the project that wound up opening so many doors for me. It’s allowed me to do what I want to do.”
It’s fitting, then, that the name of Johnson’s one-man band conjures up a hidden town nestled between surrounding mountains. There, with no one else in sight, a person can feel free to pursue their own passions and interests. Canyon City is a safe haven, in other words, and it suits Johnson both sonically and personally. NPR agrees, adding Canyon City to The Austin 100 in 2017, their popular annual list of 100 must-see acts during SXSW. “Paul Johnson’s warm, bright folk-pop songs feel like letters from a friend,” the outlet wrote.
Constellation offers up timeless, classic music for a modern world. It’s 21st century folk music, lightly layered with piano, keyboards, waves of ringing reverb, and the occasional percussion groove. At the heart of every song is a message, a mellow melody, and the voice of a singer/songwriter who knows how to pack a punch without breaking a sweat. Like the star patterns that give the album its name, Constellation traces the shape of something impressive: a career that’s on the rise, one minimalist song at a time.
Photo credit Jordan Merrigan