‘The highest musical honor I’ve been lucky to experience’ An interview with Will Johnson
Will Johnson‘s never been stingy with his art. From his work with Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and Monsters of Folk, to producing and playing on albums by other artists, to painting portraits of baseball players, “prolific” barely describes the Missouri-born artist.
This year he’s been even more visible. First he released and toured with New Multitudes, the Woody Guthrie tribute project that also includes Jay Farrar, Yim Yames and Anders Parker. Six months later, he’s back on the road with Parker in support of his new solo album, “Scorpion.” He’ll be playing songs from both albums, and much more, with Parker at Off Broadway on September 29.
I talked to Johnson the morning after the tour’s opening show in Mobile, Ala. He was once again busy with an endeavor that will keep him on the road; we chatted from a waiting room while he was having the tour van’s oil changed.
Robin Wheeler: How did “Scorpion” and “New Multitudes” influence each other?
Will Johnson: The “Scorpion” record was predominantly written in the studio. It was a real front-of-the-brain exercise over the course of five days. With the exception of three songs, my bandmate from Centro-matic, Matt Pence, and I worked for five days, just trying to really capture this certain chapter in our musical lives.
The difference would be that the the “Scorpion” stuff was my own material and my own lyrics, and the Woody thing was something I’d never done, which is write music to someone else’s lyrics. However, the similarities between the two would be that the songwriting structures and the songs themselves came together very quickly — in an almost automatic way.
It’s a little hard to explain, but the timing was just right. The weather was right. Something as simple as the weather can influence something like that for me. That was the case in both of those particular records. All those recordings were around for a long time before we got a chance to release them. It took a good number of years to get the Woody record to a place where we were ready to show it to the world. And it took a little while after recording ["Scorpion"], though I recorded it really fast, I put it on the shelf for a few years just because there were some other releases to make room for and I didn’t want it to encroach upon the breath that those releases need to breathe, and the touring and all that stuff.
Can you tell me what it was like for you to go through the Guthrie archives and have the experience of adding music to his words?
It’s incredibly humbling. It really re-calibrated me in a lot of ways. To say it’s an honor sounds flimsy, but it is the highest musical honor I’ve been lucky to experience. To have a glimpse at Woody’s writings and notes, and math problems in the margins, and his drive until the very end of his life, when it was evident that his faculties were fading. His handwriting was so shaky toward the end, but that voice — that fire that burned within him — really burned until the very end. You can see physical evidence by looking over those pages he wrote at any and all costs. He wrote until the very end. To see evidence of that — we hear about it when we research Woody Guthrie — but to have an opportunity to look over those pages made it even more intense and real, to get a feel for the kind of energy and fortitude that he possessed until his last day. That inevitably carried over to making the recordings, without a doubt.
What kind of shift did you have to make in your songwriting to work with his lyrics?
Starting from the start, Jay Farrar sent me 17 pages of lyrics in a mailer. When I opened them up I went up to my little apartment, and I was looking at them on the walk. Then I got to my apartment, spread them out and really looked at them. This is going to sound kind of cryptic, but I waited for those songs to kind of jump out. I think they speak for themselves in such a powerful manner, just looking over the written word. It’s very realistic to hear music in your head when you’re looking at lyrics. When I was looking over those lyrics I was really looking closely for that, seeing if one or two or three would start singing back at me, if I could hear the cadence and hear the tempo, the velocity for lack of a better word.
The three songs I put on the record were pretty quick. “Chorine [My Sheba Queen]” was demoed with two guitars and two vocals. I think it was fully demoed out on four-track within 30 minutes of opening the mailer at the mailbox. That just speaks to Woody’s writing and his power. The presence of his written word, it just made perfect sense to my brain to demo it like that. The demo and the final version really don’t sound much different.
It’s interesting that you bring up “Chorine,” because I think it sounds so much like it could have flowed right into “Scorpion.”
To tell you the truth, the demo for “Chorine” was made within the two weeks that I recorded “Scorpion.” It makes sense. It’s from that same patch of 10 to 12 days. I was in that frame of mind, for sure.
When was that patch of time?
That was in February of 2009.
Every time I’ve listened to “Scorpion,” I keep waiting to hear “Chorine.” Your voice, especially compared to what you’ve done in the past, there’s definitely a link between the song and the album.
It’s the time. It’s definitely of that time.
What else was happening at that time?
What was happening at that time? Good God. Oh! I had purchased a house out in this little town called Bastrop. It’s 30 minutes outside of Austin. I was really taking advantage of having some space and room to roam with good-sounding rooms in that home. I was doing a lot of demos at that time, for sure. I was in the process of moving and trying to create and be as productive as I could. It’s a weird walk down memory lane, but that’s the way things were at that time. I was leaving that city and going to the country. [laughs] I do think that totally coincides with some of the spaciousness of the “Scorpion” record. It definitely lines up. That record was written and recorded at the time when I moved to the country.
There’s a slower pace to the album and a quiet to it, whereas what you’ve done before seemed more compact, just going off the cuff.
That’s what I was going for. And it was wintertime. The wintertime was definitely influencing me and the overall mood and the feel of the recordings.
I’m so looking forward to you and Anders [Parker, who participated in New Multitudes] playing St. Louis, to the point where I passed up the Avett Brothers and Guided by Voices because I want to see you guys.
Yeah. That night is ridiculous.
So, we’re fucked, right? I mean, I kinda want to go see GBV. I mean, we’ll be done early enough that we can go see GBV, right? We’ll be outta there by eight.
We’ll talk to Steve Pohlman [the owner] at Off Broadway and see what he can do for us.
We need to stagger this shit.
The tour’s a mix of club and living room shows. How did that come about?
I’ve been doing these small living room tours whenever time allows, or when I feel like trying out new material, or listening to people tell stories, or telling some stories myself. So I’ll book these living-room tours. It’s been fun. I enjoy the way it does strike down some of the barriers. It really does put everyone on mutual turf for a very music-intensive atmosphere. And I think it also encourages communication and friendships that don’t always develop down at the old rock ‘n’ roll venue. I think the rock ‘n’ roll venue is a valuable sanctuary for absorbing music, but I also think alternate spaces are important, too. I enjoy doing both.
I don’t think I’d want to just do the living room thing, but I like mixing it up a little bit and seeing how music affects people, myself included, in various atmospheres. It’s something as simple as the architecture, and the style of the place can really define the night. I dig that, and I really like experimenting with that. It’s a really positive musical atmosphere for fans and performers. It’s easy. It’s very easy. I cannot deny that. The overhead’s low. There’s no P.A.s — you pull out a guitar and start playing.
With this tour we’re doing a bit of a mix. Some venues we love and that we’ve each played at various times, and some art spaces as well, and some private residences. It’s kind of a mixed bag this time.
I was a bit surprised to see you were doing a club date in St. Louis instead of a house show, since we have such a thriving house-show community.
St. Louis has been one of my favorite stops over the past few years for the living room shows. I’ve really enjoyed it. But we wanted to try a venue this time. I love Off Broadway and working with Steve so much. I think it’s okay because you can do seated stuff there. It’s not like it’s a grimy punk-rock club.
What can we expect at the show?
Seems like we’ll be doing a handful of songs together and we’ll each be doing solo sections of the set as well. The idea is for it to be one show, as opposed to two separate sets. We’ve done the two separate sets before and that’s okay, but especially in the wake of this Woody Guthrie release it just serves the show better to meld it all together and have it be one show.
That’s what I was hoping you’d say. You guys work so well together.
Who knows? We might not even be talking by then. [laughs] We fight so often. Just constantly bickering.
Some final thoughts on Woody Guthrie: What did he mean to you before you did “New Multitudes,” compared to what he means now?
He already meant a great deal to me. I was a little bit late in getting my full absorption of what he meant to us as Americans. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I really started researching him carefully. I read the Joe Klein biography, which is tremendous. I read “Bound for Glory” and really started absorbing the dimensions that existed within this individual.
It wasn’t just a musical thing, obviously. There was so much more going on. He’s such a powerful personality and dedicated writer. And then I started researching the recordings, and not long after that the Wilco/Billy Bragg release came out, which I thought was really great. It really started to snowball. But after this I feel like I’ve gotten a deeper look inside what made him tick. I would never, ever profess to know the answers, but I really do feel honored and very humbled to be able to do that.
We’re really proud of ["New Multitudes"]. For the time it took to come together, I think it came out exactly the way we wanted it to. Even though it was recorded at different places in very different time periods, I feel like hopefully it still has a cohesiveness to it. We were aiming for that.
88.1 KDHX welcomes Will Johnson and Anders Parker to Off Broadway on Saturday, September 29.