Canyon City is a Hidden Gem of Music

By Paula Araujo
Photo by Jordan Merrigan

Paul Johnson is a man of many trades — singer, songwriter, and producer just to name a few. When you bring it all together, he’s better known as Canyon City. Though his stage name may come off as though there are more people involved, impressively its just him. He’s fully immersed in the craft from the writing to the production. Just last year, he launched his career with his debut Midnight Waves, which certainly did cause some motion as it reached 34 million streams on Spotify. Most recently in October, he released his sophomore record Constellation. The new album brings warm sensations reminiscent of catching up with an old friend and having a good heart to heart. If you enjoyed Niall Horan’s debut Flicker, you’ll love Canyon City.

We had pleasure of chatting with Paul about his musical endeavor, the holidays, how a collab with Betsy Phillips came about, and what music has been on his radar this year.

Hello, Paul! How are you? What are you looking forward to this holiday season?
Hey! I’m great, thanks for having me here. I love the holidays largely for the end-of-year reflections, celebrations and overall gratitude for the people and experiences that made the accomplishments throughout the year possible. I’m also a big believer that sometimes the most productive thing you can do is rest, and so I’m going to try to take my own advice seriously before jumping into a new year.

You’ve got a holiday cover, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas / Hallelujah,” featuring fellow Nashville artist Betsy Phillips. How did this track and the collab come about?
The idea for this song initially came together when I was just playing around on my guitar to find some intriguing chords (holiday songs have always struck me as surprisingly rich in interesting chord structure), and the way the guitar ended up having that arpeggiated thing with stair-stepping bass lines landed really naturally into the classic, “Hallelujah.” Anytime I hear the “Hallelujah” chorus it feels irresistible to harmonize, and Betsy’s voice is so nuanced yet clean I couldn’t imagine anyone else fitting in that space quite as perfectly as she does. I’ve had the good fortune of working with her in the past and she was super kind to swing by the studio to try it out.  

How did you land on the name Canyon City?
I loved the juxtaposition of the natural and man-made, it’s an image that I feel speaks to the [Canyon City] sound in that it’s authentic, raw, but also modern and intentional in its production. I also started the project at a time when I really needed an honest creative outlet, and not yet knowing if or where Canyon City would find an audience it was sort of my safe-haven of making stuff that I felt genuinely connected with. A city hidden in the canyon if you will!

You released your latest record, “Constellation” in October! Congratulations! How has it felt now that it’s out for the world to listen to?
Thank you! Releasing records is a funny thing because in some ways the beginning of the listeners’ experience with it marks the end of pieces of mine. Once it’s released people integrate the music into their personal stories, interpret it uniquely and really give it a meaning beyond what I have control of. In that sense it’s the beginning of my relationship with the songs as things outside myself, and the end of my time steering them. The kids have gone to college, you support where you can but ultimately let go and hope the world is good to them and vice versa. For the same reasons, it’s also closure. I feel like I said what I needed to say about that season, and that frees me all the more to be present in the next.

What have you discovered about yourself throughout the process of creating new music?
Most of all, I’ve discovered I’m not alone. These days I primarily try to make something that makes ME feel something, and that’s kind of the entirety of my quality control. Instead of chasing trends or overthinking how it’ll be received, I try to trust that if I feel emotionally affected then it’s a good sign that others will too. The success of Canyon City has been an incredible affirmation of emotional company in that sense. I’m an independent artist so no label is telling me what do for the radio single and such, I’m just saying “I feel this” and via digital outlets people with entirely different life stories find it and relate. I can’t speak for anyone else but I certainly feel a sense of healing in that.

Any particular lyrics off this album that you love? Why?
I think the chorus of “Our Way” is sort of a pseudo-motto – “maybe if we don’t know where we go, or where the leaves land or land that feels like home, baby they’ll never say that we lost our way.” To me it’s essentially a reminder to let go, own the “on the edge of a little lost” feeling, and know that’s a great place to be.

What is your favorite aspect of creating or working on a new piece/project?
I really dig getting to the place of being lost in the “work.” Being human in modern times is no easy thing, but finding that place of clarity and connectivity feels like a meditation of sorts. I see my job as practicing hanging out there as much as possible and hopefully getting to take home some songs as souvenirs.

Do you have favorite song to perform?
Both “Train” and “Waves” are really fun to get super dynamic with. I have the most fun when the band is with me – I can really lean into the sonic foundation in those shows, but when I’m solo it’s also fun to stretch and play with dynamics and timing on those to try to pull people in as much as possible.

What is your workflow like? What does a typical day/week look like?
It totally depends on the season, whether I’m at home or on the road, but most Nashville days I try to get started pretty early to move slow and get the caffeine working. After that I’m in the studio either writing or playing with some production ideas, then I answer emails and all that type stuff for about an hour after lunch, then dive back into the music. I typically try to structure my day to mirror the timing of a traditional work-day for the sake of being available to invest in friendships when everyone else is free, but I can easily end up writing late into the night too. What’s great about making music is it’s what I do for fun, so the lines between work and play often overlap.  

What has been the most challenging thing so far?
There are seasons, especially as an independent artist, where it can be really hard to feel confident in myself or a chosen path. I really have to keep a clear view of the greater meaning and “why” behind anything I’m doing, and with various industry pressures there can be times where you sort of lose the horizon line. A lot of what I do, especially in writing and recording seasons, is in solitude too, so if I’m struggling with mental health it’s on me to reach out and let people know. I’m so grateful for what I get to do day in and out, but all the struggles of being human are still very much there.

What has been the most rewarding thing so far?
I think the feeling of connection and community, especially at the shows, is really incredible. When a community of people make the music a part of their life and personal soundtrack it’s really something that blows me away. In a lot of ways everyone’s unique story gives the songs new meanings too, which is super gratifying to see the music go out and kind of live its own life.

What are your long term and short term goals?
Long term, I’d love to continue to grow the community of Canyon City listeners, as well as find meaningful ways to leverage the platform for a good beyond this moment. On a more measurable level, I think if I ever get the chance to headline the Ryman here in Nashville that’ll be a pretty clear “everything from here is icing on the cake” moment.

Short term, I’m already working on the next record, nerding out on new recording techniques, and working on building a new studio and creative space for future albums. I’m also really looking forward to a string of mixed full-band and solo shows this winter!

What are you most looking forward to in the new year?
I’m really enjoying sharing the Constellation and Midnight Waves records live and with the online community, and definitely look forward to continuing that in the first part of the year. I’m also already itching to play with some new sounds and songs in the studio, that thrill when a song starts to shape up and come to life is hard to beat.

What do you hope people to take away from your music?
First and foremost I just hope it makes them feel something, even if that’s just company in an emotion. I think different kinds of music are useful in different ways – make you feel more, or just better, or take your mind off something or remind you of something else, etc. With CC I want it to be a sort of portable eye in the hurricane in that it’s not meant to be escapist, but rather just 3 and a half minutes of company in the middle of an anything but calm human experience.

What is your advice for other artists out there? What was the best advice you’ve been given?
I’d say just give yourself the time and space to really explore your creative boundaries, discover your unique (and probably ever-changing) voice, and figure out the “why” behind what compels you. After that, persistence. There’s an unbelievable amount of people in the world, someone will inevitably connect with your experience. I’d also encourage people that if you feel your music is ready to share, in this modern age no one is standing in your way. You’ll never know what the whole road looks like, but you probably know where the next step is. By the time you take it, the next will reveal itself, and over time a journey unfolds.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Which artists inspire you?
I draw from all over, but just to name a few I really admire the songwriting in just about anything from Dawes, Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” record, Tom Petty’s general badassness, a new-to-me but killer singer/songwriter Donovan Woods, The Tallest Man on Earth, the process and creativity of Bon Iver, The Avett Brothers, Noah Gundersen, David Ramirez’s latest record from start to finish, Sleeping at Last, Taylor Swift (because I’m human), and many, many more.

When was the moment you knew you wanted to do this for a living? Do you recall your earliest memory?
Music has always been a really important part of my life, but I think it was around middle school that I started thinking being a guitar player is maybe what I want to seriously pursue. That amplified in high school when I started writing and finding a voice beyond the instrument alone, and by the time I was 18 I was moving to Nashville and pretty dead-set on the path. Canyon City however took a long time to come to fruition, there were a lot of different versions of playing music – session player, songwriter-for-others, and a handful of bands – before this current, and most gratifying, one. It’s still what I want to do when I grow up.

What songs/albums have you been listening to lately?
I mentioned it earlier but David Ramirez put out one of my favorite records of 2017, We’re Not Going Anywhere. I’m also really digging Andrew Belle’s latest along with “Everybody Lost Somebody” by Bleachers, a good bit from Passenger’s catalog, and also reviving my love of Paul Simon as of late.

Stay up to date on all things Canyon City by checking out the links below.