Chandler Trey Johnson: Finding the still in simpler structures
by McKenna Cardwell
photo by Hailey Deti
The tape recorder rotates, making a soft “click” signaling the start of the song. The music crackles through the speaker, then starts slowly with the muffled strums of an acoustic guitar. It’s this run-down rhythm of tape recording which Chandler Trey Johnson fell in love with.
For his entire first album, Fare Thee Well My Love, Goodbye, Johnson chose to try his hand at recording music old-style. Released in February, he said the worn, effect tape recording achieves the melancholy, western-folk inspired music he is driven to make.
“It isn’t meant to sound crystal clear like computer recording,” Johnson said. “I was just drawn to it, the act of having to physically do it rather than just push buttons.”
Having never recorded music by tape before, Johnson made the decision to spend the extra time focused on learning the complicated process and recording his songs along the way. He recruited the help of a past friend, Adam Gelatt, rekindling their friendship through music. All in all, Johnson said it took around seven to eight months to record the tape.
The painstaking process is well suited to match the carefully-crafted music within. The tracks are incredibly intimate with relatively straight-forward configurations.
“I find it more impressive when artists can create a wide variety of emotion with simple structures of music,” Johnson said. “So that’s what I’ve tried to incorporate into my music.”
Dedicating the time and effort to learn a skill highlights Johnson’s value in the music making process. For him, creating music is simultaneously a form of expression and something he feels he has to do. Monotonous at times and invigorating at others, Johnson said he can take weeks or months to write song lyrics.
This collection of tracks revolves around intense personal struggles he has experienced. The lyrics do not describe a specific story, rather evoke feelings about past lovers and a period in his life involving substance abuse. The raw emotions of isolation and depression flow through his music, creating a melancholy theme that remains prominent throughout the work.
The acoustic style Johnson is drawn to perfectly marries to tape recording, but is something he isn’t completely comfortable portraying live just yet. Armed only with his guitar when he takes the stage for a show, Johnson said there is a certain element of audience banter and artist storytelling expected of solo performances. While he enjoys playing live, creating music is a personal passion.
Johnson said he wouldn’t blame people if they didn’t want to come see him playing love songs on his guitar. “But if I wasn’t making music I don’t know what I would be doing. Music is the only thing I feel like I should be doing,” he added.
Appearing on stage as a solo act is something relatively new to Johnson, but making music isn’t. In high school, Johnson was a part of another band, Croak. A harder punk band, they toured together for some time before breaking up.
“For a while I was feeling the angst,” Johnson said. “Then, eventually I just grew tired of the whole scene. It started to feel stale.”
Following Croak’s disbandment, Johnson became drawn to music edging on a quieter sound – not so “in your face.” Creating music with more space for listeners to connect with their own emotions became a reoccurring aspect for him.
Johnson is already working on creating more content, and experimenting with more multi-instrumental components and further perfecting his tape recording process.
“Some people can get up, go to work, come home, go back to work and be completely happy,” Johnson said. “And that’s great for them, but that’s not something I can do. I have to make music, for me it’s a necessity.”
Johnson performs at AB Crepes on Saturday, March 3 as part of the What’s Up! 20th Birthday Celebration. For more information about his work, see https://crylikedonna.bandcamp.com.
Published in the March 2018 issue of What’s Up! Magazine