Next to Ryan Adams or Jason Molina, Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson is as prolific a songwriter as they come.
Texas in June is great. There's a certain romance to it. By August, though, the romance is gone, and everyone starts getting edgy. A few summers ago in the studio, the heat really started getting to Centro-Matic frontman Will Johnson, inspiring him to write faster, louder and rawer material.
"We just kind of pulled the rip cord and went for it for about eight days in the studio, and that's what we came out with, really," Johnson says of the tunes, most of which were written and recorded on the same day. "It's a little scary writing right then and there, in the moment, because you've booked time and everybody's coming to the studio in a hour or two, and you're still writing that song or still working on it. But I think it's a very good kind of scary, and I think it's good to find what's important to you lyrically and find what you gravitate toward quickly and find kind of what you're made of. You're teetering on that strange fulcrum of pulling it off or total failure. I think that far more times than not, that brings out the best in a band or a group of people. And I think that's what we wanted to do with that particular session."
Some of those songs ended up on Dual Hawks, the band's latest effort and a split release between Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, which features all four members of the former plus additional musicians. While the guys knocked out the Centro-Matic tracks in just over a week, they labored longer over the South San Gabriel material. Since there were so many people involved, it took more than a month to finish.
"It's definitely kind of an unusual record," Johnson points out, "but at the same time, we wanted it to be a fan-friendly release, and something that we think kind of illustrates why we pursue both projects and how we pursue them. We felt like both sets of recordings sat well together but were different enough to put out a double record with both bands, which is something we've been curious about doing for a little while. We figured, why not? We have the liberty as independent musicians to do those sorts of things. So we went ahead and took those liberties and went with it and put together what we feel like displays both bands and exactly where we're at at this point in time."
More to the point, Dual Hawks highlights the duality of Johnson's songwriting: The Centro-Matic tunes are usually a bit more playful and scattershot, while the South San Gabriel songs are typically more straight-faced and personal. Johnson says that, for the most part, he knows early on which project a tune will be suited to.
"I'll usually have a pretty good idea where I want it to fall," he explains. "On occasion there will be a song or two that kind of ride the fence, so to speak. If that's the case, we'll discuss it in a democratic forum and decide where we want to place it. But most of the time I'll kind of know what path I'm taking once I get a verse or a chorus in; I'll kind of have a feel for it." He should. In the past decade, Johnson has been incredibly prolific, having written roughly 200 songs spread out over nine Centro-Matic records, four EPs, two South San Gabriel albums and two solo efforts.
"I try to stay busy with it," he says. "I'll go through streaks where I won't write anything for a long time, but then something will kind of kick in and I'll write fourteen or fifteen songs over the course of a week. It's a strange thing. I try not to rely on it too much, with the understanding that there may come a day when I don't have a damn thing left to sing about. And hopefully I'll have the wisdom to know when the hell to shut up when that day comes.
"I used to kind of force it when I was younger," he goes on. "I'd lock myself in a room and say, 'You gotta write ten ideas by noon.' But it's got a little more breadth to it at this point. I'll let the quiet times just be quiet, and then suddenly it will go away for five days or a week, and then I'll just start writing and it'll all unfold and make sense to me again. That's kind of the way it's been in recent years."
"Recent" is a relative term when you consider that the 37-year-old musician didn't write his first complete song until he was 24. The seed for that may have been planted at the first concert he attended, at age three: John Denver at Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, 1974.
"My mom tells me I didn't sit down for one bit of it," Johnson says. "We had front row seats in the balcony. I stood there, holding onto the railing, just completely smitten with the entire presentation that was happening in front of me. I don't think I was ever the same, actually, when I got home from that show."
Johnson's professed affinity for Denver aside, you'd never know he was even a fan from listening to the raw, aching beauty in his voice, especially on the more contemplative South San Gabriel cuts or the utterly heartbreaking "Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming," from his solo album Vultures Await. There's just something in the way that he sings a song that makes you want to believe him.
That quality would certainly account for his list of recent collaborations. In addition to helming Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, Johnson lent his talents to Patterson Hood for his forthcoming album (bassist Scott Danbom also played on the Drive-By Truckers frontman's record and appears on the Truckers' latest album, Brighter Than Creation's Dark), and last year, Centro-Matric toured with former Trucker Jason Isbell.
Johnson says the Truckers connection goes way back. "I can't see them as anything less than family at this point," he declares. "We've toured with them and made recordings together. We've just had an all-around good time being with each other for many, many years now. It's a really cool and fortunate friendship I think that has been forged with Jason and the Truckers over the years."
Last February, Johnson also made a record with an equally prolific songwriter, Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia. That album, which is expected to come out some time next year, was mostly written in the studio, like the Centro-Matic side of Dual Hawks. Johnson says he's gotten somewhat addicted to that in-the-moment style of writing in the studio.
"Each session and each record has got its own life because of things like that," Johnson insists, "things you could never really premeditate, nor could you go back and try to duplicate. There are just certain elements to each session that sort of make them like snowflakes. Every one's a little different. And so why not write a few things — maybe not the whole record — but why not write a few things then, there and in the moment, with the people that you're working next to?
"Every dynamic is going to change from year to year," he adds, "and your values and the subject matter of lyrics and things that are important to you are going to change from year to year, so why not keep a little bit of that in the moment, for what's right there in the studio? Just running jokes or humor or whatever the case may be. I think it's really important, because it's what makes every record kind of unique."
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