Will Johnson

Will Johnson

Samantha Crain, Doug Burr

Fri, January 27, 2017

8:00 pm

Club Dada

Dallas, TX

$12.00 - $15.00

This event is all ages

Will Johnson
Will Johnson’s latest solo album, Swan City Vampires, is distinguished by its immediacy and intimacy. Crisp, measured acoustic guitars cushion the Austin-based singer-songwriter’s equally precise, conspiratorial vocals, while keening pedal steel, droning electric guitars, and the occasional askew keyboard add color. The results fall somewhere in the cracks between Neil Young and Crazy Horse noise hurricanes, road-worn folk songs, and low-key alt-country barnstorming.

More tellingly, Swan City Vampires begins with a bracing, two-minute instrumental track, “Paradise, Basically.” Jagged electric guitar chords ripped apart by distortion and static dominate the song, aggression that’s tempered by an unsettled, minor-key piano melody hovering just underneath the surface. It’s not necessarily the easiest entry into an album, but make no mistake: This tone and sound—which Johnson describes as “pretty ugly”—is entirely deliberate.

“The album is a little reckless out of the gate, with the first song, and I wanted that to be the case,” he says. “I wanted there to be some discomfort, some uncertainty and some oddity.”

In one sense, this approach is the result of Johnson’s diverse musical collaborations—including Monsters Of Folk with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst; Overseas with David Bazan and Matt and Bubba Kadane; and a duo project with the late Jason Molina. However, Swan City Vampires’ tension and doubt more obviously reflect the changes Johnson himself went through, both personally and professionally, as the album took shape. In early 2014, his mother passed away, while later that year, his band of nearly 20 years, Centro-matic, called it a day.

Both of these events are referenced directly on Swan City Vampires. The melancholic, piano-curled “(Made Us Feel Like) Kings” is an elegy for his group’s musical achievements, while “The Watchman” is a tribute to his late mother. The latter song is particularly poignant: It blooms from slightly frayed acoustic guitar and lilting sonic whirrs into a barrage of electric guitar pelted with distraught keyboard zaps—conveying the messiness of emotional catharsis, where grief and relief combine in imperfect ways.

“When the record was coming together, I was dealing with loss and a lot of uncertainty,” Johnson says. “It was a strange time, emotionally. I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted the album to transmit. There was a lot of raw emotion flying around. For the first time, I didn’t have some sort of grand picture or plan for the whole record. I wanted to get as much down as I could and figure it out later.”

Perhaps as a result, Swan City Vampire’s recording sessions were brisk and economical. The album was recorded and mixed in two separate three-day sessions with different engineers—John Congleton (The Paper Chase, St. Vincent, Modest Mouse) and Britton Beisenherz (Monahans)—with additional contributions from Phosphorescent’s Ricky Ray Jackson and Johnson’s long-time creative foil, drummer Matt Pence. It marked the first time Johnson had ever done a record in this split-session fashion. “I was a little self-aware that it might have a patchwork quilt kind of feel to it,” he admits. “But it wound up still feeling cohesive to me once I put all the songs together and sequenced them.”

What makes this cohesion even more remarkable is that Swan City Vampire’s songs were written during different points in Johnson’s life. Several date from as far back as six years ago, when he was living in a little frame house in Bastrop, Texas, before he was married and became a father; others emerged more in the present-day, “right near the finish line” of the album. “There are some different perspectives, I suppose, in the writing,” he says. “The writing itself came from different viewpoints—or different vistas.”

However, Swan City Vampires does have some common thematic threads, including working through restlessness and major life changes, and trying to figure out what’s next after the familiar’s been displaced. Yet more than ever, Johnson is comfortable embracing the unfamiliar—as he does on the forthright “You vs. Off The Cuff,” when he sings the lyric, “How perfect it is to see you again.”

“I’ve never sung a line like that,” Johnson says. “It made me uncomfortable demoing it for the first time, but in a good way—in a way that I was finally unafraid to sing a line like that. There have been a lot of phases of my songwriting life where I probably would’ve rolled my eyes and turned away from that. But for whatever reason, with all that was going on in my personal life, at the time it felt exactly right to sing a line like that.”
Samantha Crain
Samantha Crain
Kid Face, the third full-length album from Samantha Crain (Ramseur Records, February 19, 2013), is a revelatory song cycle as expansive as the wide-open spaces of the 26-year-old artist's native Oklahoma, and as intimate as a conspiratorial whisper. Recorded and mixed in just eight days in the San Francisco studio of producer John Vanderslice (the Mountain Goats, Spoon), this wildly original album stands as the definitive statement thus far from an uncommonly insightful, fearlessly honest young singer/songwriter.

The most apparent thematic thread running through the album is restlessness. The first-person narrators of these 11 songs are in constant motion, as they feel the tug of the far horizon or the need to escape from their present circumstances, ruminating about what may lie ahead and what they're leaving behind—roots, family, a lover.

Crain introduces the notion of covering ground in the opening song, the propulsive, fiddle-accented "Never Going Back," and continues it on the following "Taught to Lie," a minor-key confessional whose nomadic protagonist has "tried to move around, spent a while in Oregon/Then back to Oklahoma, ran around and had some fun." Subsequently, this compulsive urge to keep moving pulses through the gossamer traditional folk of "Paint" ("I'm trying not to disappear/Into the shadows…"), the hushed piano ballad "The Pattern Has Changed" ("Changing my clothes though they're the only thing I own now/Coming off the road though it's the only way I know how…"), the incandescent title song ("Wrong light, driving on a low hung night/The border is just in sight, I can hear it hum…") and the dark, smoldering "Sand Paintings," which bears more than a trace of Crain's "most constant" inspiration, Neil Young ("It's the lightning hit the tower, all my westward driving hours/Please know my name…"). In the closing "We've Been Found," which turns on the preternatural purity of Crain's voice, a prodigal daughter makes her return. "I flew home before Christmas," she sings. "She was gone, I know she misses/All of us, what if I had stayed?"

When asked about the impulse behind this prevailing theme, Crain explains, "The common element of these songs is me; I'm the narrator of all of them. This is the first record of mine that's completely autobiographical. It's the most personal record I've written, a musical journal of my experiences—things that have happened to me as I traveled and my thoughts about specific situations. In the past, I resisted writing about myself because I was ashamed of how normal I was." She punctuates this admission with a quick laugh. "So I wrote about the people I met in my travels. But having done this for a few years, I've gained confidence, and this time I wanted to tap into the feeling of getting older and knowing more about myself. I think that makes the new record more relatable, more blue-collar."

Instantly accessible by way of the ecstatic melodic lifts embedded in each song, which enable Crain to explore the full range of her powerful but achingly vulnerable voice, Kid Face gradually reveals its depth and nuance over repeated listenings. Crisp, vivid images and liquid internal rhymes betray Crain's painterly attention to texture and the minutest detail. No song overstays its welcome, as she exhibits a rarefied economy of expression, an open-ended willingness to leave certain things unsaid, to resist the urge to dissect the mysteries of life.

As it turns out, Crain came to her gift obliquely. "It may seem odd, but wanting to travel preceded my wanting to get good at songwriting and performing," she confesses. "In fact, I started playing music in order to travel. Living in a small town in Oklahoma, there wasn't much going on, and I got itchy, so I started going out on the road and playing everywhere that would have me. At that time, a few years ago, the coffeehouse circuit was more welcoming than it is now; usually, all I had to do to get a show was to send a demo to the booker." Initially hitting the road as a duo with her roommate at the time, Crain began to satisfy her desperate need for raw material, and her experiences "traveling and meeting people and getting to see different places" began to feed and animate her songwriting, about which she was becoming increasingly passionate. In a sense, then, Crain was following in the footsteps of an earlier Oklahoma-born troubadour, Woody Guthrie.

A Choctaw Indian, Crain grew up in the small town of Shawnee listening to her father's Dylan and Grateful Dead records, dabbling in painting (a pursuit she took seriously enough to later land a gallery exhibition in Oklahoma City) and trying her hand at writing short stories. When she became intrigued by the notion of writing songs, Crain reworked a series of stories she'd written while taking creative writing classes at Oklahoma Baptist University into the songs she then recorded for her self-released EP, The Confiscation: A Musical Novella. The quality of the material and the bold way in which she delivered it inspired North Carolina-based Ramseur to sign the fledgling artist to a deal; the indie label gave the EP a proper release in 2007. The Confiscation revealed the then-21-year-old newcomer "as a promising young storyteller with fealty to ragged, country-driven indie-pop and an alluring dark streak," wrote The New York Times' Jon Caramanica.

Crain made Songs in the Night (2009), her debut album—and her first proper recording—with the Midnight Shivers, a band she'd formed not long beforehand. It got the attention of Rolling Stone reviewer Will Hermes, who wrote, "Her voice is gorgeously odd—all fulsome, shape-shifting vowels that do indeed billow like fog." She followed it a year later with the stripped-down You (Understood) (2010), recorded in a converted barn in Wichita, exposing the primal extreme of her sensibility. "Like a prairie-bred, meat-and-potatoes Joanna Newsom, Crain's vocals are quivering, emotive and visceral," noted Liz Stinson in Paste.

If these albums demonstrate Crain's skills as an observer of the nuances of character and human interaction, this new work shows she possesses the bravery to probe her own psyche as her journey turns inward.

Counterbalancing Crain's wanderlust is a rootedness that exerts just as strong a pull. "I've lived in other places these last few years, but never for long," she says. "Coming back home brings me perspective and focus." These leavening aspects are as integral to the impact of her songs as the experiences that inspired her to write them.

Ultimately, the movement in the songs of Kid Face is purposeful, as Crain searches for herself and her place in the universe. Think of Kid Face as a key early chapter in what promises to be an extended, enthralling personal saga. Woody would have been proud.
Doug Burr
A singer and songwriter of uncommon resonance, Doug Burr was born in 1972 in Dallas, TX, growing up in a Southern Baptist family, the spiritual residue of which has been a lifelong influence on his musical endeavors. Burr took up the guitar at age 16, and by 18 he was writing songs. After a dozen or so years of home recording, open mikes, church performances, and coffeehouse gigs in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, he began fronting the roots rock band the Lonelies. In 2003 he independently released The Sickle & the Sheaves, an ambitious and atmospheric gospel concept album produced by Deadman's Steven Collins that worked around the themes of birth, death, and renewal and brought him a good deal of critical attention. The equally impressive On Promenade appeared in 2007 from Spune/Velvet Blue Music.
Venue Information:
Club Dada
2720 Elm St.
Dallas, TX, 75226
http://dadadallas.com/