Q&A: Will Johnson

I don’t know if I’ve ever listened to Will Johnson in the bright of the day. His music seems to live in the softer light of the dawn and dusk, where things aren’t so clear and the quiet helps you tune into the parts of your soul you ignore in the daylight. From fronting the tumbleweed wistfulness of Centro-Matic in the 90’s, pairing up for somber ballads with Jason Molina, to providing the graceful percussion to alt-folk supergroup Monsters of Folk, Johnson has made a career out of exploring and creating spaces of solace.

Johnson’s most recent album, 2020’s El Capitan released by Austin’s Keeled Scales, leans into this plaintive aesthetic as much as anything he’s done over the last couple albums of his career. It’s fitting the songs were culled from poignant moments on long road trips, quiet towns experiencing a reckoning, when solitude felt like an old friend. Some of those moments have come while the musician has been out on one of his semi-regular runs, something he’s been doing in some form for the better part of 30 years. Whether it’s a pre-dawn jaunt with the birds on the trail or a late-night lament down an empty road, Johnson has found running “heals me in a lot of ways and the last 16 months I’ve leaned on it pretty heavy for a place of comfort, solace and introspection.”

I’m sure many people have leaned on Johnson’s artistry these last 16 months to help them find a place of comfort, solace or introspection as well. Those who have used his music as support can catch him live for the first time since the pandemic this week as he starts a tour through living rooms and intimate spaces from Texas to Colorado to the west coast. For fans of his art, Johnson has been painting and selling portraits of famous athletes and public figures whose humanity is as inspiring to the artist as their career accomplishments. Finally, Johnson released his first novel If or When I Call in March of this year, an observation of small-town, rural America that his friend and fellow storyteller Patterson Hood of The Drive-by Truckers calls, “Intimate, yet cinematic. As strong a debut novel as I’ve seen in a very long time.”

I think it’s fair to say at this point in the pandemic, one’s not sure how to feel. The clarity of the moment is opaque, I can’t tell if the sun is setting or rising, I’m not sure what the future really hints at It’s also fair to say I’ve never listened to as much Will Johnson as I have recently, finding a quiet place to contemplate my standing in a world drowning in white noise.

The following is a conversation with Will Johnson. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What aspects of the viewing/fan experience are you conscious of to set up a good experience for fans? 

I pay attention to the architecture and how that will affect sound and the performance. Most of these shows don’t involve a P.A. system. One of the first sensations I pay attention to is how a sound does or does not reflect sound. Lighting can also greatly affect the experience for both performer and attendants. That’s kind of the fun part with these shows though, every one is kind of its own snowflake. They happen in their own ways and it’s based on the way the room is put together and the way sound bounces off. 

What’s one of the more intimate shows or house shows you’ve experienced as a fan? 

The increasing trend of living room touring has opened up options to see some of my favorites pass through town. I try and get to these types of shows when I can so I can experience that feeling. Califone has played a couple of these shows and both were really special. I’ve seen Richard Buckner do a couple of them and David Bazaan comes to mind. I think it’s healthy to see how others run their shows, even to their banter and comfort zones with the crowd. It’s always enriching and educational. 

I’m here in Denver, close to your Ft. Collins show. Where do you like to adventure in the Ft. Collins area? 

I kick myself for not booking a couple more days off when I come through. When I’m in Fort Collins I usually get out to Horsetooth Reservoir to run if I can. In 2015 I got to town early and went and hit a 10 or 12-miler in the late morning. My body was still adjusting to the altitude but I didn’t care, I just wanted to run. After a couple hours I got some lunch and I got back to the hotel and got so sick from the altitude sickness. It was so exciting to get back on the trails out there it was like a kid at the buffet eating too much Jell-O (chuckles). I sat myself down in front of a big salad and Sprite and got myself right just in time for the show but I almost put myself out of commission, it would have been a pretty embarrassing reason to cancel a show (laughs).

What kind of avenue does running provide in your life?

I find it to be the most dependable source of therapy going back a good number of years. It heals me in a lot of ways and the last 16 months I’ve leaned on it pretty heavy for a place of comfort, solace and introspection. I started when I was nine and that was thanks for a family friend that signed me up for a 5k race. When I was 11 my mom remarried a runner and we’ve bonded over that for 40 years. The first thing we did when we met was go on a couple mile run, that was our bond through middle school and high school. The last 20 years it’s been a real regular thing, a force of habit. Quite frankly I get a little cranky when I don’t get out after a couple days, it’s like one of those Snickers commercials (laughs). 

You’ve been doing these sports portraits for some time. Who were some of your heroes from the sports world when you were growing up? 

We were south of St. Louis growing up so a lot of those late-70’s and 80’s Cardinal teams were real prominent, players like Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith were two of my favorites. In regards to the paintings, I started doing that 10 or 12 years ago to pay tribute to athletes I admired not only as athletes but as humans. Roberto Clemente is probably my favorite player of all-time, for how gracious and selfless he was as a human being. 

It started as a way to fill wall space in this dank apartment I was living in and then friends started to make requests and commissions. There are so many athletes and public figures that are worth paying tribute to, each painting teaches me something new, which I think is positive. 

I love Dennis Rodman in a Spurs uniform. The most impactful one for me was Carolyn King, the first female Little Leaguer. She’s obviously pretty unknown but maybe has had the most impact on the greater sports world and culture than anyone. What more do you know of her story? 

It’s an amazing story. It was towards the beginning of the pandemic and I was scrambling for stuff to do. In about May 2020 I committed myself to painting one a day and selling it and in the middle of that a friend of hers reached out and enlightened me to her story. Yet again doing a painting can teach you things. He bought it and then we donated the proceeds to charity. It’s fascinating. 

What had you not yet seen or experienced before in reading or novels that you wanted If or When I Call to have? What did you hope to bring to the world with the book? 

I don’t think I reinvented the wheel with it but I hope I touched upon the importance and crucial nature of how lives in places where we don’t often think about matter and the connections between these characters matter. They reflect a lot of my personal life but they can mirror a bigger picture. A friend of mine who is a writer read an early draft and said I was giving credence to these places people wouldn’t think twice about. 

I was trying to highlight parts of the world people don’t think twice about and I see these places all the time on tour. I’m always sympathetic to them because I grew up in one. I think about their social structure and makeup and resources or lack of resources. There is a delicate balance of jobs and economy in these small towns in middle America. I’ve always been curious about those elements. 

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