Interview | FFS 5 with Canyon City

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Off the heels of Canyon City’s first record, 2016’s Midnight Waves, essential cut ‘Firework’ was added to Spotify’s Fresh Finds: Six Strings playlist and has since culled more than seven million streams. But that’s just scratching the surface. In total, Johnson now has over 1.5 million monthly listeners, and other songs like ‘Alone with You’ and ‘Lost Sparks’ (the latter from 2019’s Bluebird record) have amassed 15 and 10 million streams, respectively. His cover of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ stands at 27 million. His new single, ‘OK’, was premiered by Paste Magazine in late October and has already amassed over 150,000 streams. 

It’s quite easy to see exactly why Johnson is a streaming giant. His songwriting, fusing the work of Noah Gundersen and Tallest Man on Earth with a pinch of Tom Petty and Neil Young, is rich in emotional detail. New single ‘OK’ is not any different; in fact, the teary orchestral-driven ballad is Johnson at his most gutting, most intense and perhaps at his all-time finest. “A few guitars, a couple lines / A broken heart, white lies / The white light opened my eyes,” he sings, each syllable carrying with it tremendous, heart-wrenching punches.

Counter-intuitive to how many working musicians operate, Johnson has been keeping a keen eye on his streaming numbers to target his solo tours. “Streaming has been the engine of success for this project. Then, I look at the touring [statistics] to go to [my listeners], strategically,” he says. “Music can be hyper personal, and I want to be detailed yet intentionally open-ended for the listener to bring their own life to it. Releasing music as Canyon City instead of ‘Paul’ is a little less scary for me.”

Please tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how did you get started in music? Any defining moments along the path to present day?

I grew up in Fargo, ND, and moved to Nashville as soon as I finished high school to attend Belmont University (which lasted for 2 semesters before dropping out). After that, I took work wherever I could in Nashville as a studio guitarist and songwriter.

There were a few really course-altering things that happened throughout that decade in Nashville – one is when I started doing work as a session musician for a couple of producers in town, and since I was always coming in with my own songs they offered to help me make a few records under project names that pre-dated Canyon City, but were a crucial education in production and how to release music with DIY tools. 
We made some music that I’m really proud of, but as things progressed I really longed to go back to the roots of why I started writing in the first place, to make music first and foremost from a place of self-expression and personal connection. That desire led me to quit everything I was doing, build a home studio out of my apartment and start making what would eventually be the first Canyon City releases. There were no real expectations in that season – for all I knew I was just making music for myself – but it ended up in the ears of some folks at Spotify who were incredibly generous in supporting it via their playlists, and the audience just snowballed from there.

As an artist, how do you define success?

The funny thing is I had to sort of go backward with this question in order to get an effective definition. When I was working a day job I used to define it as the ability to make music as my full-time job, but once I was offered that opportunity I couldn’t bring myself to take it because music itself – that is, making music for reasons other than artistic expression – felt like just another day job. It wasn’t until I made peace with working to support the music, rather than trying to make the music support me, that I started to reconnect with the inspiration that got me started in the first place. At that point, I defined success by having a job & routine that allowed me the energy to come home and make music from my heart for whoever wants to listen, even if that’s just me. I think that cleared the pressures away and allowed me to create from a place of inspiration, which is what connected with people and ironically turned music into my full-time job. I, of course, have goals within that – places I’d like to tour, release strategies I’d like to see through – but ultimately if I can regularly get to that place where I’m making music for the love of it, I’m succeeding.

What do you find to be your greatest struggle when it comes to the music business?

I think the greatest struggle within the music business is 2 parts of one larger thing – comparison. Though it certainly takes persistence, skill, and work in order to achieve success in this industry, two people who have worked equally hard can experience very different outcomes due to uncontrollable variables and “right place right time” type of opportunities. I think this, combined with the vast amount of quantifiable metrics that we have access to in the streaming era, can tempt one to look to the left and right and wonder why their outcomes look so different. It can breed contempt or self-doubt when looking at someone who’s doing great, or it can also cause entitlement or false ego when you’re experiencing a “one of the cool kids” moment. It’s important to remember that quality is not always quantifiable, nor is it always recognized immediately. My cover of “Fix You” was relatively dormant for its first year until it started to get playlisted, now it has 27 million streams.

In the same vein, when you’re in an industry town like Nashville the industry compares you to like-artists and how they’ve been received. There’s sometimes pressure to go just a little more this way or that so that you can more easily be marketed as Americana, or country, or pop, and great artists are sometimes encouraged to drop the very differentiators that make them unique. In this way, it’s also important to recognize that you are you for a reason, and to protect creative spaces that honor that.

What do you think is the most realistic goal you can achieve as an artist/band? What do you hope to achieve?

There are milestones that I hope for and then there are things that I can actively influence, so if we’re talking about the most realistic goals I think that has to fit within the stuff that you can do regardless of reception – reception being something that’s relatively out of any one person’s control.  For me this is ensuring that I have at least 200 writing days a year, setting a release strategy that empowers my creative process, and above all being an ever-improving human being. Music is most valuable to me as something that allows me the meditative space that encourages compassion and empathy, so to grow as a human, husband, friend, is maybe the biggest measure of achievement I can realistically set.

Outside of music, what do you like to do that you feel contributes to the creativity that you tap into for your music?

Time outdoors is a huge must for me. It can be so hard to recognize that taking time away from the studio or writing room is part of a healthy creative process, but it really is. Although I don’t always follow this rule perfectly, I try to take at least one workday a week to go hiking or spend time in green spaces to refresh the mind and body. Keeping an eye on this had truly has become part of the job itself and is something that often precedes a fresh creative mindset.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm