Canyon City is the moniker for a Nashville-based singer songwriter Paul Johnson. We’ve featured his EP Refuge a few years ago and have shared a few of his songs off of the 2016 album Midnight Waves. It was off of the merits of that album that we replied to Canyon City’s PR contact about the new album, releasing this fall. The tracks we’ve heard from the new project continue to impress us as the earlier projects. If you’re a fan of the thoughtful, atmospheric folk of an artist like Sleeping at Last, you’ll enjoy Canyon City.
Johnson speaks with a calm, confident, and blatantly humble tone. He has had considerable success as a singer songwriter, yet shows genuine appreciation for our interest in his music. When I asked him about his background in music, he mentioned that his parents were folk singers. This basis “growing up around music” and playing guitar from a young age provide the backbone to his songwriting and genuine love for the art of songwriting.
As a teenager, though, songwriting hit Johnson hard. Up to that point he didn’t sing or write much, but the angsty and emotional teenage years helped Johnson discover “stuff that wanted to come out… and I had no outlet for that.” So the songs that he began to write at that point didn’t fit with his garage bands and guitar-based projects. Instead, the singer songwriter style that we now know and love took a while to reveal itself. But it grew into a songwriting addiction.
Johnson loves that songwriting allows him to process and share emotions in ways that nothing else can. Anyone who has ever done creative work (yes, even writers) can relate to this feeling. When saying something out loud just doesn’t seem to capture the expression, songwriting can do that. Writing with words and music can convey powerful emotions that allow people to connect in deeper ways.
So how do these songs go from Johnson’s pen to a studio? Well, he’s a self-producing artist and spends time in his own studio crafting the songs. But one of my favorite elements of Johnson’s perspective on life and songwriting is that he feels the songs themselves are “souvenirs.” He sasy that he “exercises inspiration” and songs are the “byproduct” of that. What a fascinating perspective! In our interview he said that it’s great “when something strikes a chord… pardon the pun.” But really, that’s a wonderful point. Songwriting is not about writing for a market or for what the label wants; it’s about writing as expression in the outpouring of life.
At the core of inspiration for Johnson are his friends. He talks about how just spending time with people can provide inspiration for life yourself and for him, songwriting. One track from the Midnight Waves album that I really enjoy is a song called, “Olivia.” Johnson explains that it’s an often misunderstood song because it’s about the dream of “what could have been” with a couple, but not reality. The emotion of the song shows appreciation for the relationship, it’s just unfortunate that it never actually could have happened. We didn’t talk much about the musical tricks that convey the emotion so well, but as you listen to the song again, be aware that it’s actually a bit more pessimistic than you may have caught the first few times.
A major theme for Canyon City is authenticity. Again, Johnson writes music for himself and because of that – especially the folksy characteristics – come across as genuine and meaningful. In other words, in Johnson’s words, “while others work to be different, I try to stay true. I try to tell the truth.” He gave a fantastic example of this when talking about the simple phrase “I love you.” If we say it all the time does it lose its meaning? Of course not. It is “unoriginal but massively impactful.” The truth is always the truth. Saying it repeatedly does not change the truth. This basis for Johnson’s songwriting explains why his songs melt and move us; he’s speaking the truth we so desperately want to hear.
I had to ask a little about the sound of the music. While I’m far from a technical expert (and certainly not on the level of a successful self-produced singer songwriter), Johnson did a nice job of explaining in layman’s terms a few things he does. First of all, his voice fits into a kind of baritone range, so he does things with the guitar and piano that take up other spaces. In other words, he’s not hitting high screaming notes, so it makes the guitar’s “atmospheric” sound soar over the calmer vocal. He makes an effort to “move the guitar around to let the voice work.”
If you’ve fallen for Canyon City’s music as well, be sure to try to catch him live. He’s in the process of adapting his live show to capture a bit more of this atmospheric and open style of his music. He’ll be seeking to get out and tour this new album to seek moments of human connection. Come and sit in the room, listen to Canyon City’s thoughtful lyrics, and hear the euphonious sounds of his guitar and voice. Johnson extends the invitation with these beautiful words, “fans are part of the creative expression and the people listening are part of the process.” He views fans as an inspiration and is incredibly grateful for the community they have. So come out, join in, and listen.
-October 18, Basement in Nashville
-October 20, Rockwood Music Hall in NYC
-October 27, Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles
Photo credit: IG canyoncitymusic