October 7, 2013

Fuel/Friends Chapel Session #26: Will Johnson (of Centro-matic)


“Life is wide,” Will Johnson told me, long past midnight at my kitchen table on a work night, a row of empty bottles between us. His eyes flash brightly as he listens to my stories, and I to his. My heart was ground-up meat the night he was in town, and even though my stories had nothing to do with anyone he knew, he elbowed his way into some truths with me as protectively as if he’d known me for years. And indeed, I felt as if he had.

This chapel session similarly feels summoned from some sort of ether that I completely understand, although the songs and the stories are all his. There’s a shining acuity, and this puncture-wound freshness in lyrics like, “and you were laughing that transparent laugh of one with a real broke-ass heart.” Will writes amazing, desolate songs with so much space and thought in them. They are the kinds of torn and weary homilies that I love from folks like Townes Van Zandt. His voice echoes off all the walls in the church and sinks straight into the cracks in me.

If you haven’t met Will yet, he fronts the bands Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, and also has been part of some rad collaboration projects that I love: Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and M. Ward), the smoky duet record he did with Jason Molina, and that Woody Guthrie New Multitudes record with Jay Farrar, Jim James, and Anders Parker last year. He is a gem, among the best. And he is on the road down the West Coast next week with Dave Bazan, in their new musical project together, Overseas.

“Life is wide.”

I wrote that on the inside of a discarded bottle cap the next day as I cleaned up. If it’s long in duration, it’s wide in possibility, in unexpected connection.

That bottle cap is sitting on my bookshelf, as a reminder.


April 24, 2013 – Shove Chapel, Colorado Springs

You Will Be Here, Mine
This is the best version of this song I have ever heard.

There’s no way to say this without sounding maudlin, but here it is: this song makes me reflexively get a lump in my throat, as sure as a rubber mallet on the kneecap makes you kick. There is something in that stairstep progression of melody at the end of each line that just flat-out breaks my heart on this extremely primal level of sadness that is different from a rational cognitive sadness.

I’ve been kind of knocked flat by the brilliantly unresolved quality of this song, off his latest album Scorpion, since I first heard it.

Little Raider
I don’t know who the protagonist of this story is, but after hearing all the layers that Will describes seeing about who she is, I absolutely feel I know her, broke-ass heart and all.

I, The Kite
This is the best version of this song I have ever heard.

I requested that he play this old one, which was written about Will’s divorce and soundtracked mine, pulverizing me the first time I heard it in 2008. If we’re on the subject of best-worsts, I think the line about “and we tried innocence and we tried formaldehyde / in the end, you were left with the strings and I, the kite” is probably one of the most bitingly flawless collection of words to ever sung describe the end of a relationship. But there’s also something I can’t quite articulate in how purely and clearly-resonant he sings those words out into the room.

Going Back Song (Baptist Generals)
So this song first baffled me, because it seems really simple. When Will first launched into this cover by these Denton, TX/Sub Pop Records friends of his, it kinda sounded like a grocery list, a forgetful Post-it note to oneself: has anybody seen my bag?

But then you realize that it is a song about leaving.

It’s a song about the sidelong glance and the slow shuffle along the wall, towards the door. It is completely soaked in regret, about no longer being clean, about being cross but wanting someone you love to know that they are not the reason why.

You’ve had a bag packed all the time, waiting.


[more pics from the session are on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page, all taken by Kevin Ihle. Audio magic, as always, by the fellas at Blank Tape Records.]

Next chapel session: DAWES.

April 17, 2013

the next Fuel/Friends house concert: Will Johnson (of Centro-matic)!


My next Fuel/Friends house concert is one week from today!

On Wednesday night, April 24, Will Johnson is finally coming to play after a long time planning. Will is a Texan songwriter who fronts Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, making smoldering, understated music for the last twenty years. He’s also collaborated on some of my favorite side projects in recent years: with Jim James and Jay Farrar on that tremendous Woody Guthrie album New Multitudes last year, as a part of Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst, Jim James, and M. Ward), and on the smoky duo album with Jason Molina (of Magnolia Electric Company, who recently passed away).

There is something in Will’s honest voice and way of phrasing that makes me persistently uncomfortable (in a way I very much like); it’s a red-hot ember held real close to the skin. I’m so looking forward to an evening of just close listening to him and his guitar.

I have been completely riveted by Will’s music ever since I first saw this song that my friend Dainon recorded years ago in the radio station studios where he worked:

And we tried innocence and we tried formaldehyde / in the end you were left with the string and I, the kite” — ooof. That’s still one of the most powerful songs I’ve personally ever heard about a marriage ending.

I, The Kite (live on KRCL) – Will Johnson

Last year, his record Scorpion was this sun-scorched, potent slow-burner of densely woven wonder, and I think I listened to the track “You Will Be Here, Mine” on repeat for months. It is so full of wonderful hesitancies and fumbling that make it even sweeter when everything finally hits its stride in that song.


1. He just announced a collaborative project with (Fuel/Friends two-time house show alum) David Bazan, called Overseas:

2. Will loves baseball (a man after my own heart) and makes acclaimed paintings about it. Wonderful.

Do it now, as other cities (see below) have sold out!


September 6, 2012

you will be here, mine

Will Johnson makes smoky music that simmers understatedly, rewarding you for spending time sitting with it. The frontman for Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel, Will’s also made music these last few years with Monsters of Folk (with Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Jim James) as well as that great Woody Guthrie album with Jay Farrar and Jim James earlier this year.

This opening track off Scorpion (his first solo record in eight years) wrestles exquisitely with “what to do with the golden beast of love,” but this song is not, as they say, a victory march. The first 90% of this song feels hesitant, and beautifully unsure. It grows slowly. There’s something in the emotional map of this song that feels like the end of a soul-sucking workday, when you come home and slip off your shoes and sit there in your stocking feet in a dark living room with a glass of something amber and alcoholic. It’s rife with doubt, and little flashes of bliss. It feels like a stumbling relationship. It’s only for the very, very last final measures of the song that finally all the pieces come together that have been missing colliding with each other for the whole song — finally, the rhythm clicks double time and the melody falls into that simple ladder step progression that’s so satisfying.

The whole song is a weary unfolding of fits and starts. That dopamine-rush of an ending makes me think it was worth it, for just a few measures. And then it’s over; unresolved. Damn you, Will Johnson, for leaving things as messy as our real lives.

You Will Be Here, Mine – Will Johnson

Scorpion is out on September 11, a self-release distributed through Thirty Tigers/Undertow Records (Avett Brothers, Dave Bazan, Joe Pug, Langhorne Slim).

You can listen to the entire album now over on his site. I honestly haven’t been able to get over this first track, so I haven’t even listened to the whole thing yet. One of these days I’ll stop wanting to click “play again” on Track 1. Not today.

Sept 11 – Waterloo Records in-store, Austin, TX
Sept 14 – Waverly, AL @ Living Room Show
Sept 15 – Birmingham, AL @ Living Room Show
Sept 16 – Atlanta, GA @ Living Room Show
Sept 17 – Athens, GA @ Living Room Show
Sept 18 – Saxapahaw, NC @ Haw River Ballroom
Sept 19 – Baltimore, MD @ Living Room Show
Sept 21 – Philadelphia @ Living Room Show
Sept 22 – Brooklyn, NY @ Living Room Show
Sept 23 – NYC @ Mercury Lounge
Sept 24 – Boston, MA @ Living Room Show
Sept 25 – Montpelier VT @ Living Room Show
Sept 26 – Buffalo, NY @ Living Room Show
Sept 27 – Cleveland, OH @ Living Room Show
Sept 28 – Chicago, IL @ Schuba’s
Sept 29 – Saint Louis @ Off Broadway
Oct 2 – Dallas, TX @ Texas Theatre
Oct 3 – Houston, TX @ Fitzgerald’s
Oct 4 – Austin, TX @ Cactus Cafe

[image credit Matt Pence]

February 22, 2012

change the things your heart desires

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sometimes an album pops in your mailbox at midnight on a Sunday when you stop into the harshly-lit post office, and you find yourself wishing there was anyone else in the building to excitedly bubble over to: “Sweet jesus, did you see who is on this record?!”

Advance warning of the incredible New Multitudes record escaped me until this weekend: a dream-team collaboration between Yim Yames (My Morning Jacket), Will Johnson (Centro-Matic), Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt), and Anders Parker. Right!?

I listened straightaway, late into that night, and my first thought was how much it reminded me of the rambling, haunting joy found in the Kerouac-sourced (and also California-focused) record that Farrar made with Ben Gibbard, and also of course of Wilco’s collaborations with Billy Bragg on the Mermaid Avenue records. This July would have been Woody’s 100th birthday, so the record was intended as part of the celebration of the immeasurable mark he left on American songwriting.

As she did to jumpstart Mermaid Avenue, Woody’s daughter Nora chose these four musicians to pore through more than 3,000 of her father’s unrecorded lyrics (many from his earliest songwriting days in Los Angeles), and use them as fodder to create new songs. After diving into boxes of diaries, notebook, handwritten scraps, typed and coffee-stained pages, Farrar decided to focus the songwriting on Woody’s California period. That sounds like an amenable decision to this California girl.

Stylistically, there’s all sorts of wonderful stuff happening on this record, but that lack of coherence adamantly doesn’t work to the album’s detriment. We’ve got the African-inspired/Graceland feel of Yim Yames’ “Changing World,” the slow-burn Texas desert sadness of Johnson’s “Careless Reckless Love” (always the hardest way to do it), or the bouyancy of Farrar’s “Hoping Machine” (reference #19 on this fantastic meme). There is an intuitive chemistry and threads of collaboration all throughout this record, regardless of who sings lead vocals, or who wrote the music.

Changing World – Yim Yames

“No Fear” sounds just like something you’d want to sing at the end of a Sunday southern church service, an old spiritual with all four of their voices rising. “Chorine My Sheba Queen” by Johnson will, I promise, break your heart (and the provenance story will make your pulse race a little).

I’m still absorbing this record, but so far it couldn’t be more fantastic.

LISTEN NOW: You can stream the entire record thanks to Conan, and order it immediately here. It’s out next week on Rounder Records; the bonus disc version will have 24 songs total, and the artwork is also by Woody.

March 6 – The Fillmore – San Francisco, CA
March 7 – Music Box – Los Angeles, CA
March 9 – Crystal Ballroom – Portland, OR
March 10 – Showbox – Seattle, WA
March 12 – The Birchmere – Alexandria, VA
March 13 – Union Transfer – Philadelphia, PA
March 14 – Webster Hall – New York, NY
March 16 – Paradise – Boston, MA

PS: In Jay Farrar/Colorado news: Did you see that Son Volt is headlining the Meadowgrass Festival in Colorado Springs/Black Forest this Memorial Day Weekend? Damien Jurado last year, Son Volt this year — way to go organizers!

October 8, 2009

One dark blissout of a night


Any bit of writing that is penned to promote a new album is always prone to a bit of hyperbole, but today I read this:

“…Running together for one dark blissout of a night, two of the finest indie-folk songwriters of the last decade come together under the Texas sky to quietly lay to tape 14 crushing, haunting tunes, leaving space enough in each to match their surroundings.”

I like each and every one of those things — Quiet blissful nights. Crushing, haunting music with lots of space to echo and ache. Texas (!). Will Johnson (of Centro-matic) and Jason Molina (of Magnolia Electric Co and Songs: Ohia).

So it was really a complete “sold” before I even clicked play on this new song from the two of them. Then I listened, and wanted to run away with them immediately. This is serious.

Twenty Cycles To The Ground – Molina and Johnson

Molina and Johnson will be out Nov 3rd on Secretly Canadian.

And if you didn’t listen the first time I posted it (looks like one year ago tomorrow, actually) or want to hear it again — please spend a few minutes with my all time best-loved, most-devastating song from Will Johnson:

I, The Kite (live on KRCL) – Will Johnson

Yes. Like that.

January 15, 2009

Will Johnson (Centro-matic) sings an Obama love song


There hasn’t really been an indie rock smash hit song about U.S. presidencies since … well, ever as far as I know. The guys over at iGIF are nerds (nerds I love, at that) who have a series called History Mixery which always titillates me, but other than that no one’s covering this material, man.

No one that is except the trio of J. Matthew Gerken, Christian Kiefer, and Jefferson Pitcher. These songwriters decided to write one tune about each U.S. president in a concerted effort during February Album Writing Month in 2006, emerging from the history book stacks with piles of demos.

These songs had fantastic titles like, “John Adams (Armed with Only Wit and the Vigor of the U.S. Navy)” and my favorite “William Howard Taft (There Was No Longer Use to Hide the Fact That It Was Gout).”

Obama clearly needs his own song to add to this effort, so with the help of Will Johnson (of Centro-matic) they’ve added the following  — a truly lovely tune, but then again, I so adore Will’s marvelously aching voice:

Obama (Someone To Wake) – Will Johnson / Christian Kiefer

Of Great And Mortal Men (43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidencies) is available via the Standard Recording Company. You can see the full tracklisting of the physical album here; it includes artists like These United States, Denison Witmer, Rosie Thomas, Mark Kozelek and Califone:

Andrew Jackson (Benevolence) – featuring Califone

And for those living in our nation’s capital during these exciting times, the new Will Johnson/Obama song will be unveiled live this Saturday the 17th at Washington DC’s Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in a big concert featuring many of the artists on the album, and more.

October 9, 2008

Will Johnson soulful, acoustic: “I, The Kite”

Listening to my friend Dainon‘s quality eclectic radio show tonight on KRCL.org reminds me of this achingly potent video that he shared with me recently. Shot live in the KRCL Studios in Salt Lake City, it captures Will Johnson (of both Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel), the heartfelt grit in his voice, and the striking literary nature of this song. This live version is a little slower than the album version, and whole heck of a lot sadder.

UPDATE, 6:38AM: Since I woke up and this is the first song I played –on repeat five times before I was even all the way awake– I think it’s safe to call this today’s obsession. It’s all I want to listen to. I ripped the audio because this live version is so bittersweet and heartbreaking:

I, The Kite (live on KRCL) – Will Johnson

UPDATE, 11:07AM: A reader just pointed me in the direction of a bit more album-faithful but equally fantastic version from Daytrotter a few weeks ago. Will shares, “Written right before the separation with my ex-wife. I was definitely zeroed in on some of that unraveling that was going on with that relationship. I hate to say it, but it’s a souvenir of that.” Eh, well that punched me in the gut; I guess it’s no wonder that it resonates so heavily with me.

I, The Kite (live on Daytrotter) – Centro-Matic
[full session here]


In the morning we were scorned in some overcrowded dream
With new faces, black erasers, and a D-movie like scream
And you smiled in a way that gets you into casting calls for life
But your blouses of corruption ripped your dreams right out of sight

And we tried innocence and tried formaldehyde
In the end you were left with the string and I, the kite

So we’re older and the soldering iron at your side
Fixed the damage of the organ cutter before he could really start
And you smiled in a way that gets you on the guestlist, say, for life
That’s as useless as a screen door on an operating submarine

And we tried innocence and tried formaldehyde
In the end you were left with the string and I, the kite

[From the 2008 double album Dual Hawks]

RELATED: Check the audio from the South San Gabriel set at Denver’s Hi-Dive just a few days later.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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