Centro-matic vet Will Johnson returns with a stellar solo LP
Will Johnson used to split his time among Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and solo albums, each filed under, respectively but roughly, rocking alt-country, restrained folk and somber singer/songwriter fare. Plus, there were side gigs like a one-off collaboration with Jason Molina or stints with the Monsters Of Folk and the New Multitudes. He mostly splits time today between family life raising two kids in Austin and working on solo records, such as the new Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm (although South San Gabriel is still active).
He’s traded being prolific for being productive, quantity for … well, the quality has always been there. Johnson used to try to write a song a day. “It was just a discipline that I wanted to respect,” he says. “I truly wanted to give it the amount of time that I felt it deserved every day and treat it like a job.”
Now, he thinks about writing when he’s on trail runs and records demos in hotel bathrooms when he’s on the road doing living-room tours. He’s reconsidered, by necessity and by choice, his goals. “Maybe it’s not necessary to stick with that kind of quantity and now it’s time to focus on writing good songs, writing songs that still turn me on, with melodies and characters and situations that still feel compelling to my eye and my ear,” he says. “I’m not writing as much as I used to, but I’m writing with more care than I used to, if that makes sense.”
Not that stellar records such as Centro-matic’s Love You Just The Same or South San Gabriel’s Welcome, Convalescence (which both came out in 2003) lacked care or ambition. But the songs on Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm are longer and more character-driven; they’re more thoughtful, with subtler textures and arrangements. It’s a collection of tunes about people who are “good souls but doing bad things, or at least flirting with it,” says Johnson. “I started going down a well of putting characters in questionable situations, sometimes good characters in bad situations.”
The LP is populated with drug abusers, strippers and cheaters with names like Ruby Shameless and Mazie May, treated with empathy and compassion and often framed by pretty melodies. That dichotomy between lyrics full of emotional turmoil and music full of peaceful beauty is something that Johnson first explored on his 2004 effort Vultures Await. “I was trying to work with pretty melodies and pretty piano parts but with characters and with subject matter that was pretty tough,” he says. “There was a juxtaposition with that. It’s something I’ve messed around with over the years, and I always enjoyed mashing the two together and seeing where it goes.”
Not that Hatteras Night is entirely restrained. “With the absence of Centro-matic, there is occasionally a want to go ahead and crank up the guitars and pull the rip cord with the volume every once in a while,” says Johnson.
“Every Single Day Of Late” is full of dark, ominous electric guitar, and “Heresy And Snakes” churns with the power of a Magnolia Electric Co. song. “The effect that Magnolia had on me and Jason’s writing had on me was massive from the start—I just felt a kinship with it from afar,” says Johnson, recalling his late friend.
Hatteras Night is Johnson’s first solo outing since 2015’s Swan City Vampires. For now, he’s not at risk of being called “prolific,” which he laughs at as a backhanded compliment anyway: “I don’t think too much about that, but when I do it’s kind of like they’re saying, ‘He’s just an all right student— but he’s got the best attendance!’”