Record time for Matt Johnson
September 4, 2008
CARBONDALE ” Matt Johnson has a long history of being mystified by recorded music. When he was a kid growing up in Seattle, music was made by people and instruments, not turntables and LPs, or stereos and 8-tracks. Johnson’s father, Robert, was not the bluesman nonpareil, but he was a folk singer and guitarist who played at local hootenannies. Johnson’s older sisters ” two of his eight siblings ” were both accomplished musicians and ambitious songwriters when Matt was still young.
“My parents tell me about the time I first heard a juke box, when we were out at a restaurant,” says Johnson, now 35. “I was maybe 8, and I sort of freaked out because I heard music, but I couldn’t see the musicians.”
Johnson isn’t sure why he shied away from music for most of his early years. It probably wasn’t the juke box episode; he speculates that, more likely, he was intimidated by his sisters’ talent. In any event, he didn’t even flirt with playing music until his mid-teens, when he took a few piano lessons. He became quickly disinterested. Not until his years at Washington’s Evergreen College did he pick up guitar, learning the basics from his roommate. It took a few more years before he was writing his own songs and testing them out, terrified, at open-mic nights.
And Johnson has even become acquainted with the concept of recorded music. Since arriving back in Carbondale, where he had spent the latter half of his childhood years, he has made and released three CDs. His latest, “A Drop of Sun,” credited to Matt Johnson and Boneyard, gets introduced to the world with a CD Release Party on Saturday, Sept. 6, at 4 p.m. at 834 Euclid Ave. in Carbondale.
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Johnson’s recording history has been a process of trial and error. “Searching Clear Waters,” his first album, can be chalked up as an error; Johnson refers to it as “something terrible.” The album was made in 1998, the year Johnson returned to the Roaring Fork Valley to take a job as director of the Woody Creek Ceramics Studio. “Searching Clear Waters” was entirely solo, the songs done mostly in a single take. Even the writing, Johnson admits, “was monotonous. My writing was less varied.” Ultimately, he sees it as the product of youthful inexperience: “I was 24,” he shrugs.
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In the years after his recording debut, Johnson put together a band, Boneyard, comprising guitarist Frank Martin, drummer Paul Valentine and bassist Marc Bruell. Johnson realized he much preferred making music as part of a group; playing with other people, he said, “That’s the real mark of taking it seriously. Then it’s not just you playing in your living room.”
For his second album, Johnson was determined to capture the energy of the band, in live performance mode. “It seemed like whenever we had a really good feeling playing the songs, it was live,” he said. He set up Boneyard in concert-like setting, before a small audience at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale. The resulting album, “Boneyard,” released in 2005, was genuinely live: “What you hear on it is the band,” says Johnson.
Unfortunately, it is the band at less than its best. “We got tight that night. And not tight in a good way,” said Johnson. “I like the songs, the writing was good. But I wasn’t able to give it a good, flowing album feel. I just chose the best songs, the best performances.”
For his third recording, Johnson aimed for a place halfway between spontaneity and deliberation. He and Boneyard practiced a selection of songs, all written by Johnson, for three weeks ” “enough so they were really familiar, but not so much that it lost the power, the edge,” he said. The foursome, with engineers Gordon Wilder and Rich Ganson, then set up in a Glenwood Springs recording studio for a single weekend, and over two five-hour sessions, played the songs, together, as a band, straight through. This time, the music flowed.
“We all stepped away just buzzing, like we had tapped into something,” said Johnson. “I felt we could have just mixed it like that.”
Instead, Johnson opted to finesse those cuts somewhat. Several friends ” cellist and vocalist Lorraine Curry, saxophonist Chris Bank ” were brought in to contribute some texture to the songs. Martin added some color to his original tracks, Valentine layered hand percussion over his drumming, and Johnson recorded backing vocals behind his lead singing parts. The process of recording additional parts, and mixing and editing the tracks took some six months.
And then, Johnson set the project aside for a year.
“Making an album, you listen to it so much, you get fatigue,” he said. “When we were done, I had to not listen to it at all. Finally, about a year after making it, I put it in and listened to it for the first time as a listener. And I said, yeah, we finally made a strong album. There was nothing I wanted to skip.
“It seemed for all of us ideal ” we got the energy of the band, which was real, which you can’t fake. It’s nice to know that that was us, not some trick,” continued Johnson, noting that eight of the 14 songs on “A Drop of Sun” were done in one take. “But there was also the ability to produce a little.”
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While Johnson was a late-bloomer as a musician, he took naturally to visual arts as a kid and through his years at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. In college, he studied sculpture and painting; after moving back to Carbondale, he worked for four years as director of the Woody Creek Ceramic Studio. When he left that job, he seriously considered enrolling in a graduate program for ceramics ” until he visited several campuses, and became disillusioned with academia. Instead, Johnson drifted toward a very different sort of campus ” the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, where last spring he completed a satisfying six-year stint as a classroom teacher.
The background in visual arts is evident in the songwriting. Johnson’s lyrics are not so much filled with imagery as with a sense of a person looking at things, hearing and seeing. Dreams have been a big influence; Johnson says he has had to consciously stop writing so much about his dreams and the idea of dreaming.
“I definitely write from an image-based place,” said Johnson, whose singing voice comes from a slight remove, giving “A Drop of Sun” a dream-like feel. “When a song starts coming, it’s pictures that are coming. And I am trying to describe that in the most accurate or poetic way, or both. You can see people write in an action-based, or poetic-based way. But I have to be reacting to something.”
“The Cats Crawl,” which marvelously showcases the more jazzy dimensions of Boneyard, is a song about the year and a half period, around 2003, when Johnson had a paralyzing case of writers’ block. Over that time, he didn’t finish a single song. But rather than get bogged down in the explicit emotions, the song becomes visual and cinematic: “Now I’m watching the sky fall … It should rain, not snow.”
“It’s like a movie that’s playing inside, and you’re picking little things out of that, to describe them, or converse with them,” he said.
“A Drop of Sun” dwells in the world of sociopolitical ideas as well as in imagery. “Many Hero’s” was inspired by the Iraq War protester Cindy Sheehan; “Backwards World” is a protest against the walls of fear ” of sex, of strangers ” that inhibit us. In all of these, Johnson balances clear points of view, poetic language and the sense of a person there in the middle of it all, absorbing and reflecting the thoughts, sights and sounds.
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The next step in Johnson’s recording career is probably a long way off. After taking his Waldorf School class from third through eighth grades, Johnson opted to take time away from the classroom. (In Waldorf education, one teacher often stays with the same group of students from year to year, and the local Waldorf school goes only through eighth grade.)
The time off will not be devoted specifically to music. Instead, Johnson plans to travel for between five and 11 months; his first stop is Ireland, and beyond that the plans are loose, possibly including Asia and northern Africa. Johnson is bringing his guitar, and keeping his ears open.
“I’d love to just experience the music of other cultures,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in traditional music, even though I don’t write in that vein. I’d like to pick up things along the way. Paul Valentine always says my guitar playing has a lot of African influence, so I’m curious to see what that’s about.”
When his travels are through, the next recording project can’t be far behind. The preliminary ideas mostly involve duplicating the team and process from “A Drop of Sun” ” Johnson would like to work again with engineer Gordon Wilder, and start out by playing the basic tracks live. And after making an album that leaned toward jazz-rock, he’s thinking more in terms of acoustic instruments.
“Not a bluegrass thing,” said Johnson. “But more hand percussions, acoustic lead guitars, mandolin. Maybe that sonic tapestry. I love the sound we get with our band, but I would like to shake it up a little on a few tracks.
“But who knows what I’ll want after I experience a few other musical landscapes?”