March 20, 2016
Canyon City is Paul J. Johnson’s solo indie-folk project that he launched back in 2015. He has already released 3 excellent EPs (Flicker A Light, Refuge, Smoke & Ash). It is one of my favourite recent discoveries. I had the chance to get an interview with Paul at a very special time for him.
Indeed, he is currently working on Canyon City’s first album! We chatted about music (his influences, inspirations), the different projects in which he’s been involved (Silver Trees, Oh Gravity), and, of course, Canyon City.
When talking to a singer-songwriter, it is always interesting to ask about the beginning of his/her passion for music. How did you get into songwriting? Did you start writing songs early in your life or was it a late discovery?
Paul J. Johnson: I’ve been playing the guitar for a long time. I’ve actually played for most of my life. In high school, I was playing with a few different friends and I think songwriting started really around that time. However, it is something I did almost on my own. I played for other people and, then, I would write something.
I don’t know why exactly I caught the bug. It was early teens when I started to feel the need to express in that way. Then, I got addicted to writing songs and I just kept going. I tried to put together a little record early on as a solo artist. It was very much just learning, practising, writing and basically finding my way.
I moved to Nashville about 7 years ago when I was 18. I continued to play with many people and to write. Basically, I was first playing the guitar as a session player recording and working for other people. One of the producers that I was working with had the idea of doing my own music. I always had songs. And that was how Silver Trees was born. When Silver Trees came out, and we had the chance to get some success, that opened the doors to start out a few new things.
‘Oh Gravity’ was another side project with another studio here in town, a small label. And then, Canyon City is the most recent one and the project I’ve been according a lot of time to lately. I built my own studio and started doing my own records. Canyon City is a product of my own studio whereas, for the other projects, I was working with producers. It’s really been an escalation.
Writing just seems to be more and more like a necessity. Whether or not I was working for a project I knew about at the time or not, it seems like something I always needed. I ended up doing it for nothing else but for fun. My parents were in a folk trio when they were in college around my age. So I was always around that style when I was a kid. That probably influenced my eventual exploration of that as well.
So you’ve been working on all your Canyon City projects in your own home studio?
Yes. Canyon City music is pretty much all out of my home studio, which is where I am right now. It’s been really fun because I used to do more production and to be more involved in the recording process early on. Then, I put that aside to work with other people.
I started working with other producers and studios here in Nashville. That was a really good learning experience in terms of learning how professionals do it. And I really needed to learn that. I didn’t have those skills right off the bat. I feel like I’ve put together all the lessons I’ve learned from those guys in Canyon City. It’s been a really fun project where it’s a total freedom outlet from beginning to end.
For other projects, I would try out songs and work on them with other producers. With Canyon City, from the genesis of the first note to the last one on the record, it is just complete diving in, which is sometimes kind of scary. However it is also great because you get to wear a lot of hats and really approach music from many different angles. I’ve found a very unexpected joy in that.
Why did you call this project Canyon City?
These days, my philosophy is ‘don’t do stuff under your own name’. I did that way back in the days. I really like having project names even if it’s largely me in the studio writing the songs and doing the production. It gives me some creative license. It allows me not to worry so much about displaying myself. The project is more of something I can work on. I feel less pressured to be the thing in front of it. It can be its own entity.
I think it also helps with the aesthetic of it. The name ‘Canyon City’ is the combination of very opposing things. For me, on the opposite of ‘City’, ‘Canyon’ paints the picture of this landscape, this natural environment. I really liked this partnership, this tension between both. It’s like uniting two very different elements. Or maybe I am just unable to commit to one or the other.
On your website, you mention that in Canyon City, you also pay homage to your folk influences? Which artists would you say influence you?
Lately I’ve been listening to a group called Milk Carton Kids. I was actually just listening to their album right before this interview. I really like those guys. I don’t know if it really counts as folk but, from a musical standpoint, I really like Bon Iver. This year, I really got into Tallest Man On Earth. He does some great music.
I also like Noah Gundersen a lot and Jason Isbell. He sort of started Country, but he’s got some great songs. All those guys are very good storytellers. There are many similarities between Canyon City and Silver Trees.
However, with Canyon City, I really try to dive a little more into the storytelling. And that has to do with the fact that I’ve been listening a lot recently to these artists I’ve just mentioned. I rediscovered with them this side of music.
Talking about storytelling, you recently released your 3rd Canyon City EP ‘Smoke And Ash’. Do you feel like you’ve reached a phase of maturity within this project. This EP is as good as the former two, but I felt like it sounded deeper and that you went further with the storytelling.
I’m glad you think that. I feel the same way. I feel like the songwriting process for that record was little more intentional. I tried to push it a bit farther. I really tried to focus more on the stories. In addition to that, because it’s all done in my own studio, you can hear over the course of the record that I am learning more and that I’m getting better.
‘Smoke And Ash’ was probably a stylistic turning point in terms of my songwriting. I also simplified the process a little in terms of the music and production. I amplified it in terms of painting a picture and being very intentional.
There are two things that I want to do before the end of the year under Canyon City. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do them. One is to put out another single in a couple of months. And, at the end of the year, probably late fall, I hope to do a full-length record.
I was actually going to ask you about that. So there is a Canyon City album in the works?
That’s something I really hope to be able to do. That really depends on whether or not I have the songs for it. I’ve been writing a lot in the last few months. I really want to make sure I have a group of songs I really feel proud of. The ‘Smoke And Ash’ EP was a nice way to start off the year because it was like a guiding coast in terms of where I really want to take that record.
I want to make it about a larger story. I’ll probably include one or two older songs that I think fit within that scope. So I really see ‘Smoke And Ash’ as an introduction to the continued thought that will be the full-length. We’ll see what happens. I always go into these projects thinking I know what I’m doing. And then, they just end up evolving into something totally different.
You already released 3 EPs. Which song would you choose to introduce Canyon City to someone who has not heard anything yet?
Right now, I would probably say the song ‘Smoke And Ash’ and, then, potentially, the song ‘Blue’ from ‘Refuge EP’. You can see more of the scope of the production in these songs. They also are both kind of story songs. Maybe I’d take ‘Smoke And Ash’ more than ‘Blue’. I like where ‘Blue’ goes musically. So, right now, I’d probably say those two.
The nice thing about having a full-length record in mind is that it leaves room for exploring more. There are songs that really feel like Canyon City songs such as ‘Smoke And Ash’ while other songs are little more outliers. But I feel those are also important to include. I like them just as much because they surprise me in the sense that I didn’t expect to go there, but I’m glad I eventually did.
Canyon City music has that quality of sounding raw and without artifices. Do you think that working in a home studio rather than a professional one contributes to that sound?
That has a lot to do with the songwriting. If I’m writing a song and have to bring it into a group of producers and session players, I’m a little more conscious about what they might think of it, how it may be perceived.
When it’s just me, the process is a little more led by joy. I don’t have to worry so much about what people are going to think right off the bat. There’s some comfort in that sense. To be totally honest, I think that the fact that I work in a home studio is both a strength and a weakness. The weakness of it is that it sounds sonically less professional than Silver Trees.
To be honest, if I hadn’t read about it on your website, I wouldn’t have guessed that it did not come from a professional studio. It sounds really good.
That means a lot. I’m glad you feel that way. It’s something I had to embrace. On the one side, you want to make the best sound you can. You want it to sound as great as it can for the people listening to it. On the other side, the home studio isn’t as sound treated. There’s a lot more reverberation.
I basically could do one or two things. I could turn it into a full-fledged studio by putting film on the walls and really soundproofing it. Or I could just go into the other direction and fully embrace the sound of the living room. We’ll see. I kind of enjoy that sound even if it is less controlled. In this context, with these songs, it works.
I really liked the visuals of the last EP. Who did the cover art of the Smoke And Ash EP?
Some friends I have in town own a video production company called ‘Electric Peak Creative’. They’re really close friends. With the exception of the Refuge EP, they’re the people I go to for any kind of visual stuff. For Smoke And Ash, I saw that picture while visiting them and directly chose it because it looked exactly like what I was thinking of when I wrote that EP.
Do you have any concert planned in the future?
We’re talking to some people about this summer. This year, I’m so focused on this record that I keep going back to it. However, one of the things I love the most is playing shows and playing for people. We’ll probably do a few shows here and there throughout the year. Next year, once the album comes out, I’m hoping to put together a longer string of shows.
So Canyon City is your main project right now. But will you do anything with Silver Trees in the future?
Silver Trees is still around. The thing with Silver Trees is that it’s a few people, a few friends and I. It’s a little more of a full band sound, which is fun. However, they also all live in different places so it’s hard to coordinate that.
One thing we’ll probably be doing is to play a few shows this summer. One half of the set will be Canyon City and the other half Silver Trees. It’s very much about organisation. It’s more of a planning endeavour. That being said, I still love, when opportunities arise, to play with those guys.
We talked earlier about music influences. Now that you are at a turning point in your career (preparing your first Canyon City album), do you have an artist who you look up to career-wise in the industry?
Good question. A lot of the influences we were talking about earlier are people I look up to. It really depends on what I’m doing. Right I would say Tallest Man On Earth simply because they do similar things to what I’m doing. He basically built his own studio. Having my own studio is sort of a new endeavor for me. So I think I look up to these guys because of that in some ways.
It’s always changing. I grew up listening to people like Jackson Browne and James Taylor. They are probably the closest things to living legends I can think of musically. They are the grandparents of this genre of music. They are sort of a paternal figure of that style.
Talking about genres of music, I think it’s great that people who like your music can hear different influences and different sides of you for example in a project like Oh Gravity.
Oh Gravity was interesting in that sense. It’s the most pop thing I’ve ever done. It’s always fun to step into another me. And it was also a challenge for that reason. Oh Gravity was largely done in conjunction with two producers in town. It ended up with an album I couldn’t have done on my own.
It’s sort of a new creation in that sense. But it’s also nobody’s single voice. Oh Gravity sounded the least like me. But, sometimes, it is nice to do something that doesn’t sound like you. You learn in that process.
For the Canyon City album, are you going to continue to work the way you’ve been working on your EPs? Or are you going to work with more people?
For the album, I will probably do it a little bit larger than what I’ve been doing in terms of the production and mastering. I’ll probably bring in a few people. I’m definitely not opposed to bringing in players and people as needed. But the nice thing about Canyon City is that, because I have my own place, it really is on an ‘as needed basis’. If I feel like I really need to bring someone in, I can try and experiment a few different things. It’s definitely going to be a continuation of the home studio method. We’ll see where that goes.
You’ve been living in Nashville for a couple of years now. Do you feel like a Nashville artist now?
Nashville is a great classroom. There are many really great artists and people to learn from. Specifically working in the studios helped me a lot to do what I do. I have a lot of attachment to Nashville. It’s my home, my community. It ‘s the place where I find a lot of musical inspirations. It’s also something I feel on the outside of because it’s Nashville.
It’s the home of the industry. I always feel on the outskirts of it. It sort of gets back to that tension inherent to what I’m doing. Even if I moved away today, this tension is always going to be part of me. It’s always something I’ll be on the outside of to a certain degree.
I’ll always be purposively a little distant from the mentality and the business model. I feel connected to that tension because it has a lot to do with what I’ve learned and the people I’ve worked with.
Thank you so much for taking a moment of your time for this interview. Looking forward to the album!
Thank you for your interest in this project.