063 - Chuck Johnson

I always loved the fantastic youtube easter egg of Justin Bieber's 'U Smile' slowed down 800%. The effect is mesmerising, creating a vast, epic, chamber-like expression of a pop song that would otherwise not appeal to my musical sensibilities. So it perhaps comes as no surprise that I love, Chuck Johnson's record Balsams, my personal introduction to the veteran American guitarist. It's a record built almost exclusively around the pedal steel guitar, an instrument synonymous with country music, but Johnson uses these familiar tones and open tuning to create a completely unique musical world, one that sounds like quaint country jams slowed down and stretched out into oblivion. Whilst 'U Smile' is a glorious accident, Balsams is the product of a refined technique and Johnson's incredible feel for emotional resonance.

It's a truly sublime record and one that I have gone back to again and again since first hearing it upon release in 2017 to soak up its soothing frequencies. In our discussion about his mix (see below), Chuck talks about the healing power of music and how this record in many ways was a literal attempt to soothe an ailing canine companion of his. When listening to the music he has created with this set up, it is hard to come away not feeling a sense of quiet restoration. 

And it is within the world of Balsams that Johnson's contribution to the Métron series lives - recorded in September 2018 whilst preparing for his most recent European tour - he presents a 40-minute live recording that feels like one long improvised meditation on the music of Balsams. Johnson himself describes it as “a document of a time when I was trying out new ideas and a new setup, while figuring out how to integrate them with music from Balsams”.

Chuck has been making music for many years, and his finger-picked acoustic works are also well worth exploring, as well as the work he has done creating music for TV and film. However, for me, Balsams is a blissful masterpiece, and as such, I was thrilled that he chose to share an additional part of that world with us for his Métron Mixtape. I cannot wait to hear the follow up that is already in the works.

I spoke to Chuck about taking up the pedal steel guitar, collaborations and his upcoming plans. You can read the full interview beneath the artwork below.

Artwork by Jack Hardwicke.

It's such a peaceful and light recording, that feels like an improvisation or meditation on the works in Balsams. How did you approach playing this record live during that tour?
Thank you! Performing the Balsams material live initially presented a challenge because the album is very much a studio creation and has many layers. When I first started to perform the material I used an analog synth and sequencer to play the basslines and some backing textures, and then did live looping and processing with the pedal steel on top of the synth. That turned out to be a cumbersome setup for touring - the pedal steel guitar is already a heavy and complicated piece of gear to travel with - so I moved the basslines and other sounds to backing tracks triggered on an ipad. Now I have moved to using Ableton Live on a computer so that I can run the backing tracks in a more fluid and improvisational manner, and also have a lot more options for adding effects to the pedal steel without having to travel with so many pedals and other gear.

When did you start playing pedal steel and what drew you towards using it as the base for your recent works?
I’ve been playing pedal steel for about seven years so I am still relatively new to the instrument, although I have played other styles of slide guitar for a long time. I’ve always been drawn to the sound of the pedal steel, having grown up around country music, but in recent years I’ve been made aware of the pedal steel’s potential outside of the country idiom, thanks to inventive players like Susan Alcorn, Heather Leigh and BJ Cole. Daniel Lanois’ steel playing in the context of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s music has been an important touchstone, of course. And I have been enamored with the “Sacred Steel” style of players like the Campbell Brothers and Joseph Randall for a long time. I initially started playing pedal steel as an accompanying voice on my own solo records Blood Moon Boulder and Velvet Arc. Then Steve Lowenthal from VDSQ sort of challenged me to use it as the primary voice for an album on his label, which eventually became Balsams. Once I started approaching it as a solo instrument I began to realize that I can use it like a string trio or quartet, with simultaneous notes moving in different directions and in different registers, and I was hooked!

It's interesting to me that the origins of this record were in part a product of trying not to upset your dog Bubbles during a time of her healing following a traumatic incident. They say one of the reasons cats purr for instance is to create healing and restorative frequencies, hence they often purr when injured - I wonder if you feel that music can create a similar effect on humans and non-human animals, and if this in some way informs the way you create? Balsams for me personally is such a blissful record that I cannot help but feel calmer when listening.
I am happy to hear you experience Balsams in the way! I absolutely believe music and sound can be conducive to restorative mental and physical states. I think we are just scratching the surface on a scientific understanding how it works, but it seems like common sense that if a person needs to heal psychologically or physically, then being able to relax and to have enough sleep are necessary to that process. Music has certainly been a healing force in my life.

How is Bubbles doing now and is she still editing your work?
Haha Bubbles is fully recovered, but she definitely still serves as producer for music I make and curator for what is listened to on the hifi. She has very particular tastes and is very good at expressing them.

You just played on the new Jefre Cantu-Ledesma record which I love (coincidentally Jefre will be the featured artists for our next mixtape release) - how did that come about and do you enjoy collaboration?
Jefre and I have known each other for years because he used to live in San Francisco and we are part of a pretty tight-knit community here. He reached out to me early last year about playing on a new piece. The piece evolved and morphed quite a bit since I contributed parts - I will let him describe the process to you - and I couldn’t be happier with the results. The album is sublime.

I do enjoy collaboration and, after many years of working almost exclusively in my little solo world, I’ve recently set an intention to invest more time and energy in working with other people. So there are several projects in the works right now. One I am particularly excited about is Saariselka - my duo with Marielle V. Jakobsons.

Who would you love to collaborate with but have yet to find the opportunity - musicians or otherwise?
Too many musicians to list! I compose for TV and film as my main gig, and there is so much new and innovative talent in that world. A dream soundtrack job would be composing for Katja Blichfeld, Alex Garland, Ava DuVernay, Brit Marling...

When did you first realise that you wanted to play guitar and make music?
I studied piano when I was a kid, and was usually more interested in banging out my own ideas than learning my lessons. But I didn’t start playing guitar until I was in college, and that’s when I finally felt empowered to make my own music.

You're working on a follow up to Balsams right? How's that coming?
It has been a slow process, but it’s going well and I am happy with how it is taking shape. I am deep in the mixing stage now!

What else do you have planned this coming year?
Saariselka have our first full length coming out later this year! My next solo record and a couple other collaborations will be on the horizon for 2020. And I expect there will be digital releases like this one here and there.

We always ask for a couple of recommendations for listening - any suggestions?
Lately I have been fascinated by Claire M. Singer’s organ music. It has totally changed how I conceive of the possibilities of that instrument! I’m also spending a lot of time with recent music by R Beny, Wizard Apprentice, Jake Xerxes Fussell, Sarah Louise, Dax Pierson… So much good music happening right now, and it seems like every week there is a new stack of releases that I worry I will never find time to listen to!

Métron Records 2018. Hampshire, UK.