11 Questions: Chandra Johnson

Every so often, you meet a musician whose hard work, talent and passion sets them apart. Fiddler extraordinaire Chandra Johnson is just that type of person. From playing music in five different bands and working on solo work, to studying environmental science and loving the outdoors, Chandra clearly values her craft and life experiences. We talk about this and more in this month’s 11 questions.

Tell us about yourself.  Who are you and where did you come from?
Hmm, where to begin? I’m a senior at WWU where I’m studying environmental science and music. I usually play violin or viola at least four or five hours a day and I like to sing in the shower and sometimes onstage. I’m also one of the world’s worst guitarists. I started learning violin in fourth grade and began taking Irish fiddle lessons a year later. I grew up in Port Angeles, the most beautiful town anywhere. I was incredibly lucky to grow up right next to Olympic National Park and to have a family that encouraged me to get outdoors. As a kid, I spent a lot of time backpacking, hiking, climbing mountains, skiing, and trying to keep up with my brother. Now I’m an all-around outdoors enthusiast. I’ll try just about any sport that gets me outside. Trail running and ice climbing have been two new favorites. Being from the Peninsula, I know how to clean and fillet a fish, where to find the best huckleberries and chanterelles, and where to go surfing. I also love cooking, dancing, reading, soccer, knitting, sitting in the living room discussing jazz, and playing bluegrass around bonfires.

You spent part of the spring and summer in Peru, what brought you down there? Give everyone a glimpse of what a day in Peru is like.
I was leading an aquatic toxicology research project for one of my Huxley professors as part of the American Climber Science Program. The program took place in Huascaran National Park in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Andes. I spent almost two months with the group. Most expeditions into the mountains began by loading out gear onto burros to carry our gear while we hiked to the campsite where we’d be staying for the next few days. Many of the trailheads were around 13,000 or 14,000 feet elevation so hiking was a slow process. At camp I would begin most mornings by waking up in my tent around seven, putting on a fleece and a down parka, and walking to the meal tent for breakfast. After breakfast, we’d break into groups to go off and work on the research projects. My group would spend all day hiking to predetermined locations on different streams and lakes. At each site we’d stop to collect and filter water samples. The terrain was pretty steep and rocky, so getting to a sample site could be a real challenge. After returning to camp I would check all my samples then acidify and place some in a stream to keep them cold. We’d all eat dinner together in the meal tent, then we’d sit around and talk or watch the sunset or play cards.
If it was a climbing day, we would’ve carried all our gear to a high camp around 5,000m elevation the day before. We’d wake up around 3 or 4 in the morning and choke down a cold breakfast of hard bread and jam. Then we’d put on our backpacks, harnesses, climbing boots, helmets, and headlamps and begin the approach. Each climb was different from the last – one climb took 16 hours and featured several WI2 and WI3 ice pitches, while another took five hours and required no technical skills. We’d stop at various points on the summit and glaciers of each peak and take snow samples for two of the research projects. When we returned to high camp, we’d pack up all the climbing gear and tents and hike back down to the main camp. The highest peak I climbed was Tocllaraju, which is 19,790 feet high.

What was the first thing you did when you were back in Bellingham?
I travelled straight from Lima to Bellingham, with a quick stop in Seattle. I was feeling pretty overwhelmed, so first thing I did when I got back to Bellingham was call up my best friend Ruth. She picked me up from my house and we drove to Fairhaven to get fish & chips and milkshakes. It was an absolutely gorgeous warm, sunny day. It was nice to sit outside and look at the ocean after being away for so long. Later, one of my bandmates picked me up and drove out to Deming where I played that evening at the Subdued Stringband Jamboree.

It’s the Sunday morning after a long night of playing music, what are you doing?
I’m either in the kitchen cooking Chancakes (whole wheat buttermilk pancakes from scratch) for everybody and listening to records, or I’m playing music at Old Town Café.

Judging by your photos, you spend an awesome amount of time outdoors. Where is your favorite place to get away?
Anywhere with mountains! The Olympics, the Cascades, Colorado, Montana, BC, etc. There are a few special getaway spots in the Olympic Mountains that are pretty spectacular and rarely visited. If the weather is really nice, I love going to the beach.

When did you first pick up the fiddle and why?
When I was five or six, the renowned Irish fiddler Martin Hayes played at a festival in my hometown and my parents happened to take me see him. I remember watching him put so much effort into the music that his face turned purple as he played. His passion for music really affected me. Sometime afterward, we inherited a broken violin that my grandmother once played when she was young. When I was in fourth grade I decided to join the strings program at my elementary school. I had a hard time deciding which instrument to learn but the choice became clear when I thought about Martin Hayes and other fiddlers I’d heard. I was also excited to someday fix up and play my grandmother’s violin.

Tell me about your favorite moment while playing music live.
That’s a really hard question! I’ve been lucky enough to play in some incredible places with many amazing musicians. Many of my favorite moments happened at Seattle Rock Orchestra shows. Last fall, I had the pleasure of being concert master for a show we played at the Moore with Devotchka. I had one solo and was terrified that I would miscount and mess it up. When it came time to play, I hit every note and Devotchka’s keyboard/violin player gave me a smile and a wink. What a feeling of success. Also, I’ll never forget all the crazy people in the crowd at our 2010 set at Sasquatch.  For instance, there was one guy dancing like crazy with a giant inflatable alligator, and another with a massive box of Cap’n Crunch who kept throwing cereal everywhere and yelling “YEAH! CAP’N CRUNCH!”

Can you list all the music projects you’re involved in currently? Out of those, which is the most challenging?
Right now I’m playing with Hot Damn Scandal, Juniper Stills, Great Pacific, Mary Lambert, the Seattle Rock Orchestra, the WWU symphony orchestra, and the WWU scholarship string quartet. I’m also working on solo classical violin music, which is definitely the most challenging. The music is very technical and there is no room for mistakes. When I’m improvising, I can always take a “wrong” or out of tune note and do something interesting with it to make it fit. You’re not allowed to do that in classical music.

What is your favorite non musical memory as a child?
Many of my favorite childhood memories come from the long camping trips my family would take to national parks in the Southwest and the Rockies. When I was nine, we drove to Arches National Park and camped there for about a week. We woke up one morning before sunrise and left for a long hike to a rock spire called Dark Angel. Part of the trail was on top these high sandstone fins. I felt like a tightrope walker as I hiked across them. The desert was so spectacular, and I’ll never forget how lovely the sunrise was that morning.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise even your friends.
I’ve never eaten beef. Or bacon.

What is your favorite thing about Bellingham?
I love how socially and environmentally conscious the town is and how much support there is for the arts. Also, Bellingham really has a nice small-town feel. I love that I can walk anywhere and bump into people I know.

What are your top five favorite records and why?
In no particular order,
Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti: This album just rocks. Every song is fantastic, there’s so much variety, and the album is super long.
Pink Floyd, Meddle: I can sing along with every Pink Floyd album except the Final Cut, which hardly even counts. Even though I love all the Pink Floyd albums, I have a special place in my heart for Meddle
Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks: Bob Dylan has so many incredible songs and albums, but this one has gotten me through a lot of hard times
Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues: Listening to the Fleet Foxes always reminds me of the Olympic Peninsula. I only prefer this to their first album because it features some violin.
Black Keys, Brothers: I love blues and I love fun, catchy music. This record is the perfect mix of both. It might not seem like it belongs in the same league as the first three records I mentioned, but listening to it makes me really happy.
What was the first live band you saw? What do you remember from the show?
I used to go to a lot of folk and world music concerts as a kid, but the first “real” concert I went to was the White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in Seattle in 2003. I remember standing in the pit with my dad waiting for the White Stripes to come on when a fight broke out in the crowd in front of us and someone pulled out a knife.
My dad ran over to intervene, and broke up the fight. One guy was bleeding and had to get carried out. I also remember freaking out when a bunch of crazy strobe lights went off during the guitar breaks in Seven Nation Army. It was so cool.

What’s next for Chandra Johnson?
I plan on graduating next quarter and then going on tour all spring with Mary Lambert. After that, I’m hoping to help a friend with research on glacial lakes in Himalayas. If all goes well, I’ll start grad school in Huxley College in the summer and fly back to the Cordillera Blanca in Peru to continue doing research and mountaineering.