Will Johnson

Will Johnson / Swan City Vampires
Release Date: September 25, 2015
Bio by Annie Zaleski

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.”

Some nice words…

“Will Johnson is one of my favorite songwriters on Earth, and this album is as literate and addictive as any of his previous work. These songs are honest and specific while remaining open to multiple layers of interpretation. The melodies are beautiful and memorable, and Will’s voice is a complex and delicate instrument. As a long-time fan, it makes me happy to know that Will is still challenging himself to make music that truly can be called art.” – Jason Isbell

“Swan City Vampires, the new solo album from former Centro-matic frontman Will Johnson finds him in peak form. At times as beautiful and melodious as he’s ever been, at others with a primal immediacy beyond anything I’ve ever heard him do. Raw and urgent, this album is a thing of immense beauty that only gets better with each repeated listen. This could end up being my favorite album he’s ever made.” – Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers)

“Swan City Vampires is another fantastic release from Will Johnson. It’s melancholy, hazy but hopeful. It’s tuneful, complex, and beautiful. At times it seems to me like a fever dream, but with sudden stunning moments of clarity. I’ve been listening to it a lot in the early mornings, but I think it’s also a dusk record, as it’s shadows reveal new things each time. Scary like a vampire, pretty like a swan, buzzing like a city. Will again delights and surprises.” – Craig Finn