When Memory and Nostalgia Play Tricks On Us: Canyon City’s Paul Johnson Talks EP ‘Matinée’

Canyon City, the project of Paul Johnson, is delivering new EP Matinée this Friday, January 7th, via Nettwerk Records. For Johnson, the EP spans a time of tremendous, intentional change in his life as he sought out a new home and dug deeper to find more nuances in his musical voice as a songwriter and performer. Conceptually, the EP takes on a very interesting and universal theme–the role that memory plays in our lives and the positive and less than positive aspects its power can have over us. Johnson delicately unpicks the webs of association we have around the concept and experiences of memory in different ways in each of the song’s EPs, and with quite varied outcomes.

The Matinée of the EPs title becomes the natural distortion that memory plays out in our lives, filling us with joy, regret, and at times less reality than we may assume. In songs like “Changes” and “Comet”, Johnson explores the fear and hopefulness that breaking out of memory cycles can engender, while offerings like “Paris” may give a nod to the more positive, grounding potential of remembering some of our better moments. I spoke with Paul Johnson about the big move he made from Nashville to Fort Collins, Colorado, the personal explorations at work in some of these songs, and why the natural world is such a source of inspiration, and so worth protecting, for him as an artist.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I know the process of making Matinée spans a period of change for you. How did making the move out to Colorado impact things?

Paul Johnson: I was in Nashville for about ten years, and that’s where I really started this project. Out there, I really learned the foundations of Production. It took me a long time to find my artistic voice, but it started to track for me. Then I came to a time where I felt like that personal growth slowed down or became more elusive. Around that time, I realized it would be good to shake things up a bit and get out of my bubble.

There were some pit stops in between. I spent a little time in New York a little time east of Nashville, a little time in the north of Minnesota. Eventually, I landed in Fort Collins, which felt great. It was a nice mix of having access to musician-friendly things and a lot of great folks, and also being far enough away that I could escape the gravity of influence that the industry can have on me. When I was in Nashville, sometimes that influence was helpful, but sometimes it would drown out my ability to hear myself, asking “What is it that I uniquely have to bring to the table?”

HMS: That really paints a picture of your journey. Now you had to do a geographically-themed album on all these places that you’ve been! I can imagine that Nashville could be a place where it’s a little bit difficult to find your own voice and hold onto it.

PJ: There’s a duality of being inspired and also having imposter syndrome, looking around and seeing people doing incredible things. It can push you to explore, which made it a healthy place to start and grow, but once I had gotten a little bit of footing, it felt harder to hear myself and get into a quiet space. In order to grow as an artist, I had to find some outside space.

HMS: Absolutely. It’s really admirable that you were willing to make such a big change to try to get to the next stage for your music. How did that affect working on Matinée?

PJ: It was pretty disorienting for a while on every level, but that was kind of the point. What I hoped would happen happened. When you look back at a few years ago, sometimes you see that you did not anticipate who you would become, or that you were going to let certain things go while other things grew in unexpected ways. There’s a gratitude and excitement in that, but for me, there’s also a fear in that. Sometimes when I happen upon a good thing, I want to hold onto it forever, but in reality, five years from now I might be looking at this season of life and thinking, “That is so different from where I am now.”

HMS: It is a little scary to realize that we become radically different people over time. All of this ties to the new EP, I’m realizing. In the song “Changes”, there seems to be a fear of changing too much, to the point that we might lose our identity, but there’s also the suggestion of a touchstone, like a relationship, that can keep us from that edge.

PJ: It’s definitely playing with that tension, for sure. To some extent “Changes” was a little bit of self-reassurance as I was writing it. The chorus is saying, “Whichever way things go, it’s going to be different. So don’t run away from things being different. Lean into them and find whatever it is that you want to carry through. Find what’s core and important to weather the changes.”

It also explores those EP themes, how memory and nostalgia plays tricks on us. It’s a funny thing that the brain does where it sometimes holds onto the good things and lets some of the emotional power of the bad things start to fade. It can create a distortion where our present forever feels like it doesn’t compare to our past. It’s really hard not to look back at the past without this filter. The theme through Matinee is struggling with those distortions, which appear like aged film. You can try to be with right now a little more clearly and gratefully than what memory would have us believe.

HMS: I hadn’t really thought about this much before, but it seems like an important thing to keep in mind that a memory is an artefact of an experience, and not the full story of what happened. Maybe you can reach a greater degree of truth if you keep that in mind.

PJ: There are also multiple truths at the same time, and those feelings have all been more exacerbated in these pandemic times. We think about the “before times” and the uncertainties around today. The album tries to reconcile with some of these tensions, as well as call them out from time to time, to make some peace with them.

HMS: The different songs on the EP seem to wrestle with these ideas in different ways and with quite different outcomes. Sonically, that also makes it very interesting because you get a wide mix of feelings to the music.

PJ: I had a kind of “ah-ha” moment a few years ago. For some reason, in my early writing, I thought I had to tie up loose ends in songs. Then I came to the conclusion that it was actually more interesting and honest if sometimes you just leave things. If you’re dealing with a complicated feeling, it’s enough to say, “This is what my experience is.” Maybe it will keep someone else company in their feeling. I tried to intentionally push back on the temptation to tie up any one song cleanly on this EP. I let the difficult feeling stay difficult, or the good feeling stay good, knowing that there’s value in saying to someone who might be going through that same thing, “Hey, we’re in it together!”

HMS: In terms of songwriting, it must be difficult to hold off on trying to solve all these equations for the audience by adding just one more verse that might make things simpler. But keeping things in a more meditative realm, I think, can make a big difference. It includes the audience more.

PJ: Yes, even if the listener can’t get to a place of resolution within three and a half minutes, it still provides them with some company as they say, “That’s just how I feel.” It leaves some space for those feelings.

HMS: The song “Comets” probably stays with difficult feelings in the most pointed way, and then there’s the video which reinforces a lot of these ideas. It has a feeling of loops of time in both the music and the video. Is it more about pushing back against the distortion of memory or about acceptance that this is what it’s like to be a human being?  

PJ: It’s a little bit of both. The song came from an experience of persistent challenges that I’ve had with mental illness. My experience with it has been with OCD and anxiety and so the song is diving into this cloud that will not break and feels like it follows you everywhere. The repetition is meant to hint at that and is intentional. The chorus does break a little bit. It’s sort of a reaching out for something truthful, something outside of this distortion loop. It’s saying, “If I can hang onto this artefact from the real world, then I can weather this.” It’s also an acknowledgement of how much gravity there is to go back into that cycle.

The director on the video is Ben Phillippo and he really immediately caught all of the context and nuance of that. He really wrote the entire script for the video without needing any kind of guidance. I feel like what he did with the video was actually a great articulating companion to the music. The first time I saw it, I just sat in my chair and cried for a while because what he was describing was so much “it”. It’s that struggle to get to the people you want to be with, to be present with them, then continuing to find the same place, over and over again.

When the music video ends, he actually gets there, and has this moment of presence with his partner, but then realizes how much time has gone by. There’s a moment of joy but there’s also the emotional weight of wondering if, at any moment, he’s going to be back in that parking lot. In fact, both of those things are held at the same time, both the joy of the breakthrough and the also the chronic challenge of trying to continue that fight. That was a very powerful for me about that video.

HMS: One of the things that hit me the most, emotionally speaking, was the visual contrast between the desolate parking lot and the green trees on the road. It was that sense of freedom shut down over and over. That may be a pandemic feeling of needing to escape!

PJ: There have been so many false starts in the pandemic, too, thinking that we’re free, and then having to start again.

HMS: Do you think that the song “Paris” takes a more positive approach to memory?

PJ: It might be a case for narratives of memory, for the treasure aspect of memory, and the special things that you can take with you. They might remind you of feelings that you might be able to bring into the “right now”. I think I could approach it both from an optimistic and a pessimistic standpoint. I think you could also criticize how much it leans on nostalgia and how rosy the nostalgia is. But within all this discussion, “Paris” is sort of the advocate for the gifts of memory. It probably is one of the more upbeat moments in the ping-pong match between the songs on that album.

HMS: When a really positive memory comes back to you suddenly, sometimes it can be grounding, because it can help you remember who you are or have been in your better moments. Probably the only line that made me realize that it could have a more negative aspect was about “fitting days into dreams”.

PJ: There’s definitely a gift component to positive memories and I like what you said about them being a grounding force at certain times. At its best, that’s what “Paris” could be. The exploration of memory throughout the Matinee EP is not meant to be present it as a villain or a bad thing, just as a kind of misunderstood companion in our lives. Sometimes it’s helpful for me to take a look at it and decide what it means for me right now.

HMS: You seem to have a close connection to several causes, such as environmentalism, global warming research, and humane treatment of animals, and you sometimes bring your music into relationship with those causes. What makes that a combination that works for you?

PJ: For me, they are very intertwined. That was definitely part of moving out to Colorado, to making the natural world more integrated in my daily life. I find the outdoors and nature to be a clarifying, humbling, and inspiring place for me. It ties into some of the value that I put on art and music in general, which is that they are things that connect us. Within the natural world, it’s so on-display how interconnected everything is. Whether we realize or acknowledge it, we are also interconnected to it. The beauty and tragedy of all things is out there, whether it’s life or death. Even plants die for me to eat lunch. But in my own life, there are also things that need to die in order to lead to other things.

It really grounds me in the interconnected tapestry that we’re all a part of. I think that’s dangerously easy to disconnect from in the current world with social media and the internet. I wouldn’t have a career without the internet, so I’m not against it, but I think it’s easy to disconnect from the fact that what we do impacts other people. I really care a lot about nature and the lessons I can bring into my life, but there are also the mental and physical health benefits of being in nature.

I want that to be available to people and I feel like it should be. It’s something that everyone should have access to, so it’s the responsibility of all of us to ensure that for the future. I strongly feel that taking care of the environment is taking care of people. Sometimes with environmental work, people get accused of caring more about the well-being of the environment than people, but the environment is an essential component of caring for people, including people who disagree.  

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