When a musical endeavor goes from soul-satisfying side project to being listed on NPR’s Austin 100 (their popular annual list of 100 must-see acts during SXSW) not long after initial creation, it’s kind of an exercise in destiny – music powerful enough to emerge from the basement to an audience of millions. Paul Johnson’s Canyon City has ensnared the minds of fans with a combination of pop and folk vibes, an approach he calls “moderncana” – the Nashville native putting a particular emphasis on powerful songwriting and storytelling told alongside warm layers of sound and pop sensibilities.
Canyon City certainly isn’t Johnson’s first foray into the music business – as a session player and performer in projects past, Paul knows his way around a studio (especially the one he’s built at his home), and this experience has helped transition the Canyon City sound from the project’s debut record, Midnight Waves, to the collection we’re here to talk about today: Constellation. We asked Johnson for all the details on the new music – he said, “It’s a new sound for me in that I tried to use the studio a lot more than I have before to explore new instrumentation and dive into a cohesive theme throughout the record. For me, ‘Constellation’ is a reference to a few known points of light in a person or season, and recognizing that you inevitably draw lines through the infinity of the dark unknown to shape out something graspable. It’s all about distance, journey, and reckoning hope with reality, all while being present in today’s page of the story.” Click to http://www.canyoncitymusic.
XXQs: Canyon City
PensEyeView.com (PEV): How would you describe your sound and what do you feel makes you stand out from others in your genre?
Canyon City / Paul Johnson (PJ): I would say that in broad terms its indie/folk with pop sensibilities. I sometimes refer to it as “moderncana,” in that the heart of every song is honest storytelling expressed through organic instrumentation and production, but also utilizing a hybrid of vintage and modern techniques to get the best version of the song that I can. Nodding to my roots, creating in the present and trying to present everything with a very human sincerity.
PEV: Calling Nashville home, what kind of music were you all into growing up? Do you remember your first concert?
PJ: My parents used to play together in a folk trio back in the 80s, so I grew up around a lot of Neil Young, James Taylor (a.k.a. America’s dad), and Simon & Garfunkel. Tom Petty was always “road trip” music too, and his Wildflowers record will forever be the sound of going west for me. We saw James when I was really young, but my first concert was either him or Weird Al – memorable experiences for entirely different reasons!
PEV: What was it like trying to break into the music scene in your hometown, when you first started out as a band? What was your first show like together as a band?
PJ: Canyon City is kind of odd in that it really got its initial traction online and via the streaming platforms, and so the experience of breaking through was totally different in that it happened via this community of people from all over the country. I played in a few other projects before CC, and as a session player before that, but this started as something that I was just doing to make myself happy, and then incredibly grew into something that reached people.
The first time I presented this live it was very acoustic, kind of an “in-the-round” type of thing, but it’s growing more and more from a solo/acoustic show to a 3-piece and beyond, especially as we try to be faithful to the larger sound of the new record.
PEV: What can fans expect from a live Canyon City show?
PJ: A typical CC show is half acoustic, half electric. In smaller venues it’s an intimate solo show, in mid-larger ones it’s a three-piece arrangement leaning hard into harmonies, keys, and the guitars. There’s really only one big goal with every show and that’s just to connect, whether that’s by diving deeper into the stories behind the music, lingering in the softer moments, or trying to really stretch the dynamic range. We want people to leave feeling like we all threw our hands up on the same emotional roller coaster if only for a few moments.
PJ: “I hope I left the capo in the right spot…” But immediately after that, just trying to sense the room, playing with what pulls people in. I try to remember that everyone has something that they’re either trying to feel deeper or forget about for the next 50 minutes, and create space for that opportunity.
PEV: How has playing in Canyon City been different from working with other artists or projects in the past?
PJ: This is the most honest and exposed I’ve ever been. It started as therapy for myself and I think that’s why it eventually connected on a deeper level. For that reason it’s both a lot more vulnerable and at times uncomfortable, but it’s also incredibly gratifying knowing that this is a very real thing that I get to share.
PEV: What is the underlying inspiration for your music? Where do you get your best ideas for songs?
PJ: Songwriting for me is about trying to get to a place where I’m out of the way and the song is writing itself. I see a lot of the “work” as setting up the environment and mindset for that to happen. For me it’s kind of a constant exercise of faith, in that you show up expecting to play something that’s never been heard before, and somehow it comes. I wish I knew the straightest line to getting there but it seems like there’s often a little bit of a wandering around with each tune. Maybe that’s the point!
PEV: Thinking back to when you first started out, do you ever look back on your career and think about your earlier days and how you’ve arrived where you are today?
PJ: Absolutely, I’ve changed so much personally and artistically since I first started doing this “professionally.” In some ways I’m glad I didn’t get all I wanted when I was 18; I wasn’t ready as a person, but the journey to here has been just as transformational and important as the “arrival.” That said, I still have worlds of changing to do personally and professionally, and I look forward to that being a life-long pursuit.
PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about the members of Canyon City?
PJ: I think people are surprised that it started as just me in my home studio. The live show is increasingly a “band” in the traditional sense, but it’s still a pretty small operation.
PEV: What can fans expect from your new release, Constellation? Tell us about the writing process behind this work.
PJ: My new album, Constellation, was a new sound for me in that I tried to use the studio a lot more than I have before to explore new instrumentation and dive into a cohesive theme throughout the record. For me, “Constellation” is a reference to a few known points of light in a person or season, and recognizing that you inevitably draw lines through the infinity of the dark unknown to shape out something graspable. It’s all about distance, journey, and reckoning hope with reality, all while being present in today’s page of the story.
PJ: If it’s good, it feels like an emotional exhale. As if something that couldn’t be properly said is finally expressed, even if it’s just better to articulate a season for my own understanding. There’s also the nervousness of letting go and allowing others to interpret it, but when done gracefully that can be one of the most beautiful parts of making music.
PEV: What would you say is the biggest challenge for musicians trying to make a name for themselves, these days?
PJ: Along with the incredible opportunity to be in control of your business and custom fit it to your unique art, comes a lot of people with opinions and products that can make it hard to hear your own voice. I’d say giving yourself the space and time to discover who you are as a unique artist, despite the pressures to fit in with industry trends, can be a really tough thing to defend, especially in music industry centers like Nashville.
PEV: With all your traveling, is there one area you wish you could travel around and play that you have not yet?
PJ: I would love to tour Europe. It seems like there’s such passionate support for the indie/folk artists out there and it would be an incredible honor to meet some of the people that have been cheering from across the pond.
PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your career? What’s it like when you get to play in your hometown?
PJ: I’m lucky that they’ve been incredibly supportive. I end up working with friends and family a lot for videos, design and other aspects of CC releases and so it really feels like it’s a village that makes this all work. There’s a few people in my inner circle that I workshop new music, new set-list ideas and things of that sort, and so hometown shows especially feel like a family affair.
PEV: What can we find each of you doing in your spare time, aside from playing/writing music?
PJ: No one in the Canyon City community ever says no to a good burrito, but you’ve also got a pretty good chance at finding us karaoke-ing in a Nashville dive bar at least a couple nights a month.
PEV: Name one present and past artist or group that would be your dream collaboration. Why?
PJ: I feel like Paul Simon, in both his early and current stages, would be an incredible person to work with. He weaves play and beauty, new and classic sounds, and social commentary alongside personal narrative in such a balanced, artistic way.
PEV: Is there an up and coming band or artist you think we should all be looking out for now?
PJ: David Ramirez has been around much longer than Canyon City and is a household name in some circles, but that said I still think even more people should have the gift of his music in their life. The man’s writing is so piercing, it’s truly inspiring.
PEV: If playing music wasn’t your life (or life’s goal), what do you think you would do for a career?
PJ: I think I’d try to be a pastor or a pilot. Pilot because I’d like a hall pass to adventure around interesting places, and pastor because I (maybe selfishly) get a sense of healing in connecting with people through our mutual brokenness. Fortunately for passengers and congregations, “musician” checks off both of those boxes!
PEV: So, what is next for Canyon City?
PJ: I’m always writing, and often times the next project comes knocking before I’m fully ready for it, but I look forward to sharing Constellation in living rooms and venues alike, hopefully further connecting with others and myself in the process. But before that, probably a good burrito and karaoke-ing “You Can Call Me Al.”
For more information, click to http://www.canyoncitymusic.com/.