An Interview With Nashville-Based Musician CANYON CITY All About His Recent Album ‘Constellation’ and More!
Posted On 07 Nov 2017
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, released on October 6th, is now available on all digital platforms including Spotify, iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and Google Play. Johnson donated 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.
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.
Learn more about Canyon City in the following All Access interview:
Thanks for your time! So where does this interview find you today? Is there music playing in the background? If so, what is it?
Thanks for having me! Right now I’m in downtown Nashville settling in after a chilly (finally) fall-like morning walk and coffee. I usually turn down the music during interviews, otherwise I can’t help but try to listen to the song and split my attention. A good problem to have I suppose, but before and after I usually ease into the day with something to gradually start turning the engine, maybe some Avett Brothers, Ben Howard, Bear’s Den, or whatever Spotify cues me into!
What’s a song you are loving these days? What music instantly lifts you out of a bad mood?
I’m all over the place; I just found this tune by Shovels & Rope called “Lay Low” that I’ve had on repeat. I LOVE the new David Ramirez record, and a friend just showed me Donovan Woods’ stuff which has been great, but I’ve also been digging some Bleachers, and a few off the new Killers record too. I’m maybe a little weird in that if I’m in a bad mood, rather than trying to lift out I tend to gravitate towards music that dives further into it, like if you’ve got to feel it you might as well feel it beautifully. But I definitely appreciate an upbeat jam to start the day off positive, too!
Did you approach the start of this year any differently then you did last year? What have been some of the highlights for you this year? What are you excited for in 2018 which will be here before we all know it?!
This year I pretty quickly dove into writing, but I actually went out to stay at a friend’s home studio in Arkansas for about a week to start playing with ideas and get outside of Nashville’s familiarity for a fresh start to the season. On my way back from that trip I got invited to play SXSW, which was a huge highlight. It was my first time there as both an artist and a fan, and it felt like this group vacation where friends from all over the music community came to celebrate each other for a week. In 2018 I’m really excited to continue to share Constellation, especially diving into some shows, but also expanding the studio a bit and continuing the exploration of new songs and sounds. I want to do a lot more with integrating video in the upcoming season as well, and the possibilities within that are getting me really excited!
Growing up, did you always want to be a musician? Can you recall your earliest musical memory? Was there ever a time where you thought about doing something completely different? What do you think it finally was that pushed you to this career?
Music has always been an important part of my life – I was fortunate to grow up in a pretty musical family, and so it was always really encouraged and accessible. I think one of the earliest memories I have was trying to play my dad’s guitar before I really understood how guitars work. I would strum without realizing that he was forming chords for me on the fretboard; I just thought I was a natural! If I wasn’t a musician I think I’d either try to be a pilot or a pastor, in that I love exploring new places and connecting with people. But fortunately for passengers, people, and me, music seems to cover all that pretty well. I don’t know if there was a definitive moment that solidified music as my career choice, but more that it’s been something that has always felt really foundational and moving to me, and I’ve increasingly loved it every year that I further explore it. It’s a rare form of communication where I can occasionally feel like I can express the totality of an emotion.
I always like to know how a particular city has influenced an artist. How do you think your hometown has affected the kind of music that you are making today? How has your current city, Nashville, influenced your music?
I grew up in Fargo, ND, which unless you’re Chuck Klosterman, was not necessarily a musical hub. That said, there’s also a lot of space, metaphorically and literally, to explore your sound, in that in the absence of a music industry presence there isn’t really much pressure to conform to anything specific. What Nashville brought to the table was challenge and refinement. I was surrounded by so much musical excellence here that if forced me to up my game, but in the context of a community that continues to guide and help me reach to be a better artist. The danger of being in a music industry epicenter, however, is that you can start to feel pressures to sacrifice or normalize areas where you could and should be exploring your creativity, the stuff that makes you unique. So I try to benefit both from where I came from and where I now am by growing in all that this amazingly creative city has to offer while maintaining an “outsider” perspective that allows me to bring a unique voice.
I am curious to know why you decided to be known as something other then your own name?
I really enjoy the sense of creative freedom in externalizing the project a bit so that it can be something I work on and play with, rather than being limited to an autobiographical “here’s me as a guy” kind of thing. It also allows for the project, both as a band and as a fan community, to grow into something bigger than myself. I feel like in using the moniker, the music and how people connect with it can be more of the focus, and I’m just there helping it along. It also opens the possibility to add great friends and musicians as we take it on the road more, which is something I really look forward to!
What was it like releasing your newest album, “Constellation”? What was the inspiration for these songs? How different or similar is it to anything else that you have put out?
It’s been a blast sharing the new record! The music draws inspiration all across this latest season of life, but the overarching theme seems to be that of discovery and the challenge of finding peace and connectedness in mid-journey. The Constellation metaphor essentially refers to the way we look at the points of light and draw lines through the unknown space between them to make sense of things, but that most of our time, including all the beauty and pain within it, is traveling within that unknown space. I feel like a lot of the songs touch on that experience throughout different circumstances. Musically I think it still sounds like Canyon City – an emphasis on organic instrumentation, warmth in minimalism, and storytelling – but also expands instrumentally to widen out the available soundscape a bit.
Why did you decide to put together “Constellation” entirely on your own at your home studio? What was that like for you?
The workflow for this record, and so far Canyon City as a whole, has evolved from doing whatever I can to build the song in a very intentional way that hopefully honors the heart of the emotion. Lots of the recording process for CC records is the time spent exploring different sounds, arrangements, parts, etc., to the point where if I brought someone in to play a specific part I don’t know if I’d know what to tell them to do right off the bat. The record in and of itself ends up being kind of an exploration where I learn things about this season of life that I didn’t understand when I started writing about it. It can be a lot of emoting, window staring, hikes, and just trying to spend as much time in an inspired “zone” as possible.
Now that the summer is over, what was something fun that you did or tried for the first time?
The video shoot for the “Our Way” music video was really a blast! The video crew and I went up to a small seaside town in Rhode Island after a couple East Coast shows, stayed with this super kind and huge family, and essentially captured what their various days look like, both as individuals and a community. That was the first “full production” music video that we’ve done for Canyon City, so to have it connected to such a great group of new friends and experiences was really special.
Have you been able to perform a lot lately? Where can people see you play out live next?
I did a few shows this summer during that East Coast run, and am about to do a handful more to celebrate the new record this month (October). After that we’ll take the holidays to plan some more this coming year and hopefully get to visit a lot more places and people!
How do you think being a musician gives you the most joy in life today?
I think the best part of it is that it’s essentially my job to exercise being connected and inspired, which forces me to be more intentional about how I’m interacting with the world than I might otherwise be. It’s as if I have a professional obligation to give extra attention to the things that move me to the point that I want to sing about them, which is a crazy cool way to make a living.
Do you believe that the music being created right now will be greatly influenced by the intensely politically charged times we live in right now? How has it affected you as a musician in general?
I think it’s already having an effect. I think a lot of artists feel a greater sense of importance on the need to showcase the humanity and vulnerability in our common experience, especially in the face of a political arena largely aimed to divide. When the marginalized and under-served are dehumanized through generalizations and prejudices there can be an eerie normalization of injustice, and whether or not a song is directly addressing a political issue, emphasis to see and share humanity is an important thing. No one’s well-being isn’t connected to their neighbor’s, and I think that when we connect the commonality of our experiences through art, a light shines on that.
What artists have continued to inspire you and your music? Who would you absolutely love to work with in the future?
Neil Young’s Harvest Moon has been a constant in my personal soundtrack, as has Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album and a slew of James Taylor. More recently I love a really wide variety of artists and genres, but I think a group like Dawes would be a star-struck experience for me. Their songs have had a huge impact on how I approach writing, and on top of that it’d just be great to be in a rock band for a day!
What advice would you give to a young person who is considering becoming a musician one day?
I’d say take the time to find what really inspires you, the heart of the reason that you want to do this, then create the space to let your unique voice flourish and protect that. Everyone’s going to have a really confident opinion on what you should do, but listen to your gut, surround yourself with people who will be honest advocates, and have a blast!
At the end of the day, what do you hope your fans take away from your music? What do you hope is the message of your songs?
I hope they feel like they’re in good company in how it honestly feels to be human, to allow yourself permission to really experience the beauty in the highs and the lows, and that in that connection there’s hope and affirmation for both of us that it’s a worthwhile journey together.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers about yourself or your music?
Just lots of gratitude for everyone who’s listened and/or shared these tunes! I’m blown away that I get to do this and share it with such an awesome community of listeners who make it possible! Thanks for letting me chat a bit about it!