Interview With Chris Johnson Of Telegraph Canyon
by Maggie Danna on July 29, 2015
Posted in: Music
We recently chatted with Telegraph Canyon’s Chris Johnson to discuss the creative process, the Forth Worth music scene, and his adventures. You From Before, the band’s upcoming album, will be released on July 31st. Incorporating numerous styles and genres, this new album continues in the vein of Americana folk found in their previous albums, and also embraces more of an ethereal sound.
How long were you in the process of writing this album? I see that your previous album, The Tide and the Current, had been 6 years ago. Hmm. The whole time really since from 2010 to 2014 I was writing for the record in one way or another. We toured pretty heavily for a little over 2 years from the time The Tide and the Current came out. So basically by the time we were 3 years in post the record we were just starting to record seriously again.
Do you have a favorite track off the new album? I don’t know. I like a lot of them. I like the single (“Why Let It Go”). It’s nice to have a record where the single’s a song that you like. I mean I’ve never had a record where the single was a song I didn’t like but we never really had singles on our records. They’d be something like a big pile of songs. This is probably one of the more poppy songs that we’ve had.
How does your writing and recording process work? I normally write songs in the studio and work on them regularly throughout touring and that kind of thing, and then when we’re in the studio I spend a lot of time on the ones I actually want to work on and bring them to the studio and we’ll get started on trying to figure them out and how we’re going to do them. And inevitably I’m always trying to write some more songs while I’m in the studio so there’s always a little bit of an in the moment pressure and excitement to work on something new.
Do you write all the lyrics yourself, or is it a group collaboration? I write all of them.
A lot of these were deeply personal lyrics. Was it hard to share, was it cathartic? How do you feel about sharing personal lyrics? I’ve been making records for like ten years or so and I’ve always wanted to write intensely personal things. I’ve done it but I’ve kind of hidden it, you know. There will be personal things but you can’t really tell that they’re about me. And this record was a lot more. I felt like I really wanted to be vulnerable. I felt like I wanted to be real about it. Like there were things that I wanted to plainly say. I feel like it is cathartic in a way, more than anything I just wanted to share something that was really sincere because that was on my mind when I was writing that stuff.
How has being from Fort Worth influenced your sound? And what’s the music scene like there? Yeah, the music scene is great. We’ve toured all over the country and the Dallas/Fort Worth area to me is one of the best places to play music in the country. And all my friends who live in San Francisco and tour all over the U.S., they all just love coming to Fort Worth or playing in Dallas or Denton. There’s not really a sound, like a whole bunch of bands that sound alike in the area. I think it’s like a pretty diverse group of music folks. But it’s really supportive, you know. There’s a lot of structure, a lot of concert goers. A lot of people go to record stores and buy local music here. We have an NPR radio station that’s devoted just to music here. They play a ton of music that’s from here. It’s really helpful.
Is Telegraphy Canyon named after a specific place, or how did that name come about? Years ago I had another band, that was like 9 years ago, and it was clear that that band wasn’t going to keep going much longer and I needed to decide if I was going to rebuild it or move on and change names. That was like the first real band that I ever had. My buddy and I, who was playing drums for me at the time, were coming down the West coast and there was a canyon outside of San Diego called Telegraph Canyon and we were getting directions to a friend’s house. He just relayed them over the phone and I was writing them down and one of the directions was turn right on Telegraph Canyon Road and I was like, “Aw, I really like that name!”, and I kind of had it banging around in my head while trying to find a new band name. I found out that there’s a Telegraph Canyon in Texas also, that’s outside of a town called Telegraph. And it’s where they cut the trees to make the poles for the first telegraph lines in the area. And I always liked this idea that music had a lot to do with space, and communication, and telegraph is like, you know, and a canyon is space. It kind of seemed like a good name for something I was trying to do.
What else has been a really big influence on the band lately? Like in your life or just in general? I don’t know, you know, we’ve been working on this record for a long time so right before the record comes out it’s just a ton of excitement, a ton of pulling all this stuff together getting ready to go, so I think that we all split our time between doing outdoors stuff. Like I’m really into sailing and most everyone in the band is into boating in some way, kayaking river trips and stuff like that. We’ve just been switching back and forth between working in front of a computer, rehearsing a ton and playing shows, and being out in the middle of nowhere trying to soak up the summer before it’s over.
So what was your time like living in the RV? I was reading some other interviews and it sounded like that was probably a really rough stretch. Well, I’m from Louisiana originally and after the last record came out we were touring around, and in my downtime I lived in New Orleans instead of Fort Worth. I wanted a new place to go to, I was writing music down there, I was kind of like looking for something different and I needed some time away. And I had been going to New Orleans so much I thought maybe I should just lay my head there when I got off tour. So I went to New Orleans and it was eventually really clear that I needed to come back to Fort Worth. When I came back to Fort Worth I kind of spent a bunch of my money. I went on this long trip to South America and went backpacking through Colombia. I went all around, and I came back and it was almost an emergency that I come back, and I didn’t have a lot of money so when I came back I just moved into the RV that I’d bought for the band. And the place I had to park it was outside of this BLM that you call the warehouse. It’s on a road called Hemphill in Forth Worth, it’s a pretty gnarly road. But the guy ran me power off of there so when the power was working at least I had power out there. But people would bang on my door, you know. Like all night long, people were trying to break in. It turned into this pretty gnarly kind of situation that I had gotten myself into. I still had money but I needed it to record so it was either spend money on rent or put money into recording a new record. And simultaneously you know, I was kind of excited. Like I’d always been wild.
Did you have any traumatic experiences with people trying to break in? Like anything really awful or funny? Yeah, I mean pretty much the best thing that happened was there’s a guy that rides up and down the street on his bike all the time and I told him to tell everyone that I was crazy and that I had a gun. And it stopped. I was like, “tell them that I don’t want to make friends with anybody,” which is not like me but it had come to a boiling point, you know.
And how were Colombia and South America? Unreal. I had this impression that it was an amazing place and I decided to go. And I asked some friends who own a hostel in Santa Marta on the coast, so I was like, yeah this is great, I should go. And then as soon as I decided to go everyone around me was like, you’re going to get kidnapped, this is the worst idea ever. So we just pushed on through and we went anyway and I ended up meeting the most hospitable people. I’d backpacked in South America some before and it was great. But Colombia just ended up being this place where you can rent a hammock on the beach for $5 a night and they’ll make you a fish dinner with coconut rice and a Coca Cola with that. It’s five bucks for a hammock and dinner, it’s great.
How was the music there? Did you go to any shows, play with people? Yeah! I saw a ton of shows. They were just like things that were happening, not like shows that I planned to go to or something. Stuff like traditional Colombian music. Yeah, it was amazing. And all the dancers, it was so fun.
What are 6 things you could never do without? And what is the most private thing you’re willing to admit? Oh my god. Hmm. Can I give you an email response to this question?
Is there anything else you’d like your fans/the people who read our blog to know? That we’ve never played in Vermont and if you want us to play there, tell somebody and we’d love to play there. We’re going to the Northeast later this year, around November. If we don’t get to come to Vermont in November then at least we’ll have a bunch of other Northeast stuff.