Saturday, November 14, 2020

Year of the Sleepwalk: A Live Performance and Interview with Johnny West & Show # 855

Johnny West’s Year of the Sleepwalk is a 48 song double album that spans a wide breadth of eclectic musical genres (folk, blues, jazz, blue grass, bossa nova, shoe gaze) and guest/cameo musicians. Throughout its creation, Johnny has produced, played on and helped with arrangements for other musical projects in a period that ran from his last solo album, 2011’s Gift For A Spider to 2020 and the release of Year of the Sleepwalk. In this period of creativity, Johnny West released music with Papa Ghostface (Stew (2015), What We Lost In The Flood (2018)), a previous band he had been in with Gord Thompson that resurrected itself briefly and The O-L West. The O-L West had an album out in 2016 titled Afterthoughts that was a collaboration with Steve O-L of James O-L & The Villains/Tire Swing Co. It was a dark folk tinged record that also featured several guest musicians. On the producer front, Johnny produced albums for Zarasutra (Uncertain Assertions (2014), The Forrest For The Trees (2017)), Teenage Geese's Cat & Cormorant (2016) and Ron Leary’s Musicians Make Good Construction Workers (2020) to name a few.

Year of the Sleepwalk begins with “Don’t Let The Preamble Ramble”. It starts with acoustic guitar, vocals and a mixture of ambient sounds. Lyrically, the song with words such as “What you call a trench/I call a home/If home is where the hope you had eats itself alive to keep from starving,” dives into themes of hope, desire and rejection in the opening moments of Year of the Sleepwalk. The song quickly drifts into more unconventional territory after the lyrics “Hey snake charmer won’t you sing my blues away” lure us away from the framework of the song and it drifts into the second song “Vector”. This piano driven ballad attacks with awareness. Musically, the song also features Steve O-L on second lead vocal and Kelly Hoppe on tenor sax. The song itself changes its style adding more jazz and ambient melodies to its framework. Lyrically, "Vector" acts as internal monologue as it questions and searches for answers. The last half of the song kicks in with the dual lead vocals of Johnny West and Steve O-L mixing in folk guitars and the lyrics “For the first time in a long time/I’m talking to myself.”  These words show a positive moment, cloaked in frustration that rings true in a mantra-like fashion with every listen. “Losing Light” is a country folk track that is a character driven song. With all instrumentation provided by Johnny West, the song tells the tale of a character getting on a train after being shot. With the character in between good and evil, the song reflects as it pulls in different meanings. Words such as “The tiger in my blood drank up all the rain to force a deeper flood” provide poignant moments, which move like a train in the last moments of a long lost Western.

“Later Than Soon” is a short doo-wop song that finds its way into the album, as “Lullaby For An Unborn Child” features vocals from Jen Knight. This dark folk song deals with someone who is fearful of the world that their unborn child could be born into, “Archaic Units of Measure” is a meditative track that features the prominent sounds of the dulcimer instrument, in addition to chimes, Wurlitzer, piano, acoustic guitars, drums and vocals. After about two minutes and forty five seconds, the piano and drums shift into a musical clarity as it ends with the words “Displeased to see you, but pleased to be seen in this light,” before all the instruments drop out, except for piano. “Dew Point” moves into bossa nova ambiances with surf guitar accents and flugelhorn by Austin Di Pietro, “Do Not Don’t Do That” is an eclectic mix of ambient sounds and soprano sax from Brent Lee, “First Dialogue” features a discussion from two different people with lines such as “Kindness is acting like you give a shit.”  The words alter the dynamics of the song, which feature piano, acoustic/electric guitars and drums as the song conveys a deeper meaning that has two characters despite their differences that “are running away to stay in one place/We are galloping.”  The song which also features guest vocals from Natalie Westfall, and galloping backing vocals from James & Steve O-L is an example of what West does best, in addition to the music found here, he creates a mood and emotion for the listener that is cinematic. “Alien Eggs” is a short piano piece drawing on a mockingbird metaphor, “Cicadas” is a vocal and experimental collage of sounds, “Calcium Oxalate” is a swampy, grimy, garage track with jagged lyrics, “Boy See” is a piano dominated song featuring violin from Stu Kennedy and a chaotic ending featuring chromatic harmonica from “Mr. Chill” Kelly Hoppe complete with abstract lyrics throughout. “Gold Smoke” is another short track found on Year of the Sleepwalk, while leaning towards the experimental aural side of things is in a category of its own. The scenic backdrop that it paints sounds like it could be at home in a David Lynch film.

“Lead Bullets” is a dark murder ballad, featuring guest musicians Paul Loncke on bass, Jim Meloche, Steve O-L and Pat Robitaille on vocals, in addition to violin from Stu Kennedy. This song unearths a series of emotions that seem to pull from the darker atmosphere of 2016’s Afterthoughts by The O-L West. “The Constellation of Conditions” finds itself in an ethereal atmosphere surrounded by synthesizers and drum samples, “Nothing To See, Nothing To Say” is a song that seems to rummage through the feeling of indifference or reluctance, “When The Bottom Drops Out” arranges a series of words with a sense of the existential with lyrics such as “And we die anew each day/crumbling as we grow,” while “Buying Time at the End of the World” comes in at track twenty on disc one of Year of the Sleepwalk. This song swings with layers of complex emotions and loneliness. “Buying Time at the End of the World” also features compelling vocals from Zarasutra.

Disc two of Year of the Sleepwalk starts with the short, hazy piano piece “Early” that conjures up mixed emotions. “Oxygen Damage Due to Lack of Brain” is the longest song found on this album. Clocking in at almost nine minutes, the song operates on several different levels as collides with itself in different segments. It starts off a little more upbeat before it is in jazz territory, featuring once again tenor saxophone from Kelly Hoppe, violin from Stu Kennedy and moving instrumentation and vocals from Johnny West. The song has a haunting nostalgic quality, while the lyrics also look forward through past disappointments and desires. “Freedom As A Child (Five Cellos)” is a song made up of a combination of ominous sounding cello parts played by Karen McClellan with West’s heartfelt vocals that reflect an uncorrupt innocence.  This song also seems to continue the lyrical thread of "Lullaby For An Unborn Child" from disc one.  “These Psychic Pants Are Slimming” shows a noisier shoegaze influence before moving into a more classical guitar and piano section. “Just Another Face In The Clouds” finds itself in ambient hip-hop territory, “Your Dishrag Soul” gambles for some kind of clarity in a world of unease, “Second Dialogue” ties in with the track “First Dialogue” on disc one of Year of the Sleepwalk. This one features guest vocals from LeLe Danger, harmonica from Kelly Hoppe and banjo. “I Don’t Want To Get Over Getting Over You” waltzes with a Randy Newman aesthetic with its stripped down acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano, “A Star Is Stillborn” lends itself to shoegaze and jazz, “Firecrackers” bursts with arpeggiated guitar, piano and vivid lyrical images. The song also features guest lead vocals from Ron Leary and guest tenor sax from Ted Hogan.  “Your Music In Commercials After You Die” features an upbeat almost alternative rock sounding dynamic with satirical lyrics.

“Neon Roulette” glows with banjo, folk, bluegrass and flute (played by Lianne Harway), while “Milk That Expires On Your Birthday” is another one of the noisy/experimental interludes found throughout the musical make up of Year of the Sleepwalk that creates a mood and atmosphere. “Feral” brings down the mood and pace with its visceral lyrical images, guest vocals from Kaitlyn Kelly and flugelhorn from Anthony Giglio, “Saskatoon Preacher” is a moody ambient piece while “Sweet Hot Hell” swelters with distorted blues and harmonica sounds. “Wherever the Lord May Be” is a country song that casts the dusty gospel of a shadow on a gun fighter in the Old West who finds his end. This song is another character driven song and features guest vocals from Jim Meloche and Dave Dubois. “The Possibilities Are Quite Possibly Possible” juxtaposes a Tom Waits-like howl against more ambient sounds that only feature the words “Somehow,” while “Stillness of Us” is the second last song on disc two on Year of the Sleepwalk. With its haunting instrumentation and contemplation it leads the listener into the last track on the album “We Were Wolves”. This track only features dramatic piano that suggests a Bill Evans influence as its looming title conveys a complexity and spirit that is all its own.

The music that makes up Year of the Sleepwalk is the result of years of work from Johnny West. It is a sprawling, genre bending, uncompromising album featuring many musical guests that also stems from a great deal of inner frustration. The complexities of emotions conveyed here often have more than one idea going through them at once. Many of the musical arrangements follow their own path, defying and sometimes adhering to songwriting conventions. With Year of the Sleepwalk, Johnny West emphasizes a multitude of feelings and thoughts with a striking clarity that doesn’t simply go through the motions.

Watch a short live performance of Johnny West in his home studio in this link:

Continue reading for an interview that Johnny West did with Revolution Rock:

RR:  Year of The Sleepwalk was surrounded by an alternating cast of musicians and albums that you also produced, recorded, and played on. Do you feel any of the albums created in the time leading up to this album (after your last solo album 2011’s Gift for a Spider) are in the same musical universe, and if so, why? (The O-L West, Tire Swing Co., Zarasutra, and Ron Leary come to mind when thinking of this.)

JW:  That’s a really thought-provoking question. Recording other artists has always been a bit of a strange adventure for me. I recorded a handful of glorified demos for some friends back in high school, and I thought that was about as far as it was ever going to go. Past a certain point, I didn’t think my sensibilities were going to align with anyone else’s. Turns out I was wrong about that, and over the last five or six years there’s been a surprising amount of work producing albums for other people. In some ways it hasn’t changed a whole lot from the way it worked in high school. A friend or someone who knows me through a friend will want to record some of their songs, they’ll hear something I’ve done, something in it will resonate with them, and the next thing I know we’re making an album together. It isn’t something I’ve advertised or tried to turn into anything as conventional as a job. It’s just a thing that happens sometimes.

The people who come here to record tend to either want me to capture them doing what they do in its purest form, or they want me to contribute my own ideas and serve as a one-person band of session musicians. It’s usually a little more interesting for me when the artist wants me to dig in and get my hands dirty. I have to find a way of making an emotional investment in someone else’s music without putting so much of myself in there that it starts to sound like my album instead of theirs.

There’s probably something in every album I’ve recorded for someone else that connects it to my own work in some way. There are some things that are unavoidable, or else I’m just too set in my ways to avoid them. I’ve developed a very specific, unadorned way of recording drums, and that sound has carried over into everything I’ve recorded since about 2008. When I got my hands on a lap steel for the first time in 2014, it became a regular fixture not just in my own music, but in most of the things I was recording for other people as well. I try to approach each album as a blank slate, though. The goal is always to build around the artist’s voice and whatever their creative vision is in a way that’s sympathetic to them, and to give them an honest and organic document of their artistry. I always feel like adding vocal harmonies to someone else’s song is emblematic of that challenge, because I’m often altering the tone of my voice in subtle ways to better support the voice of the writer.

The O-L West album Afterthoughts would be the strongest example of something that lives in the same universe as my own work. With Steven’s own Tire Swing Co. project, the songs are very much his children. I try to give them nice clothes to wear, but I’m reluctant to tell them how to live their lives. Afterthoughts was a different situation, with the two of us sharing writing and parenting duties. It was also the first album I recorded with the Yamaha VSS-30, which is a sampling mini-keyboard from the 1980s that’s sort of a cousin to the Casio SK-1. As much fun as the SK-1 is (and there’s a bit of that one on the album too), the VSS-30 is a much more powerful sound-sculpting instrument. It’s become an indispensable tool for me, allowing me to create and manipulate my own samples without computer software. Afterthoughts was a bit of a testing ground where I started to experiment with building some of the lo-fi ambient textures that have become a significant part of the music I’m making now.

With Zara, we’ve recorded three albums of her songs together, and the only thing I’ve played on any of them is a piano part on one song on her first album (Uncertain Assertions). She prefers to keep things raw and unembellished. If I’ve taken something away from those albums, it’s a reminder of how powerful a simple, stark recording can be, where all you hear is one person in a room playing and singing their songs. Ron’s album Musicians Make Great Construction Workers lives at the other end of the spectrum. I played a lot of different instruments on that one and took on more of an arranging role. I found myself avoiding reverb almost completely, using a bit of slap-back echo on Ron’s voice when I wanted a little extra ambience. It was more instinct than anything, but that’s become a go-to vocal-sweetening device in my own music.

As far as Year of the Sleepwalk is concerned, the clearest antecedent is the Papa Ghostface album What We Lost in the Flood. That was an important album for me in a developmental sense, and also on an emotional level, laying the groundwork for a lot of what happened on Sleepwalk. There’s always been an anarchic undercurrent running through my solo work. That got toned down a bit on a few of the more collaborative albums I made after Gift for a Spider like Afterthoughts and the Papa Ghostface album Stew. I’m proud of those albums, and I wouldn’t change anything about them, but when you’re working with another writer there’s almost always some amount of compromise involved. I’m usually the one who has to do the bending, and I’ve found the juice isn’t always worth the pulp. I couldn’t have put a song like “Later Than Soon” on Stew, for example. The other half of that musical duo wouldn’t have allowed it. He would have told me, “You can’t throw a seventy-second doo-wop song on an album just because you feel like it.”

The thing is, I’ve never bought into the idea that something isn’t artistically valid just because it doesn’t abide by the so-called rules of what an album or a song is supposed to be. The whole concept of criticizing a piece of art because it’s “self-indulgent” has always struck me as being hilarious, and more than a little reductive. The act of making art that holds some personal meaning for the artist is inherently self-indulgent. If creative people didn’t indulge themselves, we wouldn’t have much art of any worth in any medium. We’d just have a bunch of soulless hunks of nothing designed to generate money and please a faceless audience.

Still, some of that got in my head for a while. When you’ve been friends with someone since high school and you’ve shared a musical bond for half as long as you’ve been alive, you tend to value that person’s opinion more than most. When they start denigrating your work and your ideas, it’s difficult not to take that to heart. I started thinking maybe he was right, and maybe I shouldn’t be taking such a freewheeling approach to making music. Both the friendship and the creative partnership dissolved during the recording of What We Lost in the Flood, and it essentially became a solo album with a few scattered guests. After I reinstated the songs I wasn’t allowed to include when it was a two-person operation, the album started to feel a lot more colourful and interesting. I think it was important to reaffirm, if only to myself, that what I should be doing is what I’ve always done, making music that’s an extension of who I am without worrying about what anyone else might make of it.

RR:   There are a lot of themes and musical styles that are found on the songs on Year of the Sleepwalk. Did you have a set mood/theme you were going for on this album, and did you originally plan on it to be a double album?

JW:  Years ago, when your co-host Adam Peltier was hosting a great show on CJAM called Fear of Music, he wrote something on his blog that’s stuck with me. I think he was writing about my album An Absence of Sway in early 2009. I’m paraphrasing a little, but the gist of what he said was that I reinvented myself whenever I made a new album — not by making a clean break with my previous work, but by incorporating elements of that work into a larger musical tapestry, working in a cumulative way. At the time I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him. Now I think he might have understood more about my creative process than I did back then.

It feels like almost every album I’ve made has grown more diverse and more ambitious than the one that came before in one way or another. Whatever sound I’ve developed, it seems to keep gathering new textural elements. I haven’t really gone out of my way to make albums that keep fanning out in all these different directions. I’ve just always found it uninteresting to stay rooted to one place for too long.

Conventional wisdom says you’re supposed to write some songs, and then you figure out which ones are going to form the skeleton of your album, you record a bunch of demos, you work out the arrangements, and you go into the studio with a pretty clear idea of what you’re aiming to accomplish. I’ve learned I can’t work that way. If I knew what the final shape of an album was going to be before I started recording it, I don’t think I would be very interested in working on it. I write some songs, I record the ones that feel strongest to me, and I go on writing and recording until the shape of the album reveals itself. Things keep shifting and evolving every step of the way, and I’m often not quite sure what the album is going to be until it’s almost finished.

Another thing I’ve learned: whenever I start work on an album thinking I have a pretty clear idea of what I want to do, what I end up with never really resembles the album I thought I was going to make. The plan with Year of the Sleepwalk was to get out of my own head, and in some ways out of my own music. I wanted to form a large band and encourage the other musicians to bring their own ideas to the table. It became clear pretty early on that I was never going to be able to make that happen. I tried to write with other people, but no one who expressed an interest in writing with me ever followed through. The only way I was able to involve other artists in the album was by writing the songs on my own and creating supporting roles for other people to fill, treating them like actors in a film. The change in approach turned everything I thought I was working toward on its head. It also forced me to write songs and try things I’m not sure I would have attempted otherwise.

At one stage, I was optimistic enough to believe I could get the album finished inside of a year, and I was confident I could fit everything on a single CD. I wrote so many songs over the six-year period it took to finish the thing, and there were so many strong performances from other singers and musicians, I had to accept that there was no way to say everything I wanted to say in eighty minutes or less. There’s also the unintentional little quirk that every ten years I make a double album that feels like a drawing-together of all the different things I’ve touched on in the preceding decade. I kind of like the idea of keeping that theme going. So maybe it was always fated to be a large, sprawling thing.

RR:  There are a lot of different musical guests that run throughout Year of the Sleepwalk. Kelly Hoppe adds harmonica and different instruments to several tracks. There are also contributions from Ron Leary and Nancy Drew, to name a few. Did you have them in mind for particular tracks?

JW:  In a lot of cases I had specific people in mind to fill different roles, and I was lucky enough to get some of them in the studio for a little while. Kelly, Ron, and Nancy are all performing on songs that were written with them in mind. Nancy was especially fun to work with. She’s got one of the most uniquely versatile voices I’ve ever heard. But what was fascinating to me was what happened when things didn’t work out with the person who was my first choice for a song, and I had to find someone else to take their place. A song that was written for one singer would end up being sung by someone else, or I would have to sing it myself, and the emotional landscape of the song would shift.

A few examples:

I wrote a song called “Buying Time at the End of the World” for a specific person to sing. Things didn’t work out there, so I asked Zara to sing it instead. We didn’t know each other at the time. It was just a shot in the dark. The singer the song was written for sounds so much like Feist it’s a little uncanny. Zara has a very different thing going on with her voice. It’s darker, rounder, and very much its own thing. As soon as I heard her singing the words and vocal melodies I’d written, it rewired the whole song and I couldn’t imagine anyone else in her place.

There’s a song called “Lullaby for Unborn Child” that was written for Kelly Grace to sing. She didn’t express any interest in it, so I asked Jen Knight to sing it instead. Kelly wound up singing a very different song that was meant for yet another singer who bailed on me. Again, those two voices profoundly changed those songs. Kelly has one of the quietest voices I’ve ever recorded. Jen has one of the loudest. She dialled the volume back quite a bit, but she brought a much more commanding quality to a song Kelly would have sung in a very different, more vulnerable way. In the end, the songs always seemed to find the people they needed one way or another, even if they weren’t always the obvious choices.

RR:  There are a lot of different visual components to the lyric booklet of the album. It adds something different to the overall album package for this album. What do you feel this adds to the overall album?

JW:  My hope is that it adds another layer to the listening experience. When I was growing up, one of my favourite things to do whenever I got a new album was to put on headphones, climb into bed, and listen late at night while exploring whatever liner notes the music came with. I’ve always loved holding an album in my hands and losing myself in all its sonic and visual mysteries.

Online distribution has allowed independent artists to share and promote their work in ways that weren’t possible before the Internet came along, or at least were difficult to pull off without the hulking machinery of a record label behind them. As important an advance as it is, I think one of the trade-offs is losing that tactile multimedia experience. There’s also been a shift over the last several years to a more singles-based way of thinking, with less consideration given to the full-length album as a meaningful artistic statement. A lot of artists don’t seem to put much thought into packaging anymore even if they do release their albums in a physical format. You’re lucky if you get a lyric sheet. For me, the absence of all those little touches adds up to a less immersive listening experience.

The visual presentation of my music has grown a lot more important to me over the years, and I enjoy making albums that resist being digitized. I know that puts a pretty hard ceiling on the amount of people who are going to hear and have an interest in the music I make, but being able to hand someone a physical album I put together myself feels a lot more significant than sending them a link to some digital files on a website. I’m glad those tools exist for the artists who want to share their work in that way. It just isn’t an approach that’s satisfying to me.

I wanted to do something a little more elaborate with the packaging for this album. I’ve tried breaking up lyric booklets with images a few times before, but here I wanted to involve as many Windsor-based visual artists as I could and create a lyric booklet that both complimented the music and worked as a standalone piece of art. Some of the pieces of visual art are illustrations I asked artists to create in response to specific songs (Greg Maxwell’s mind-blowing art for “Losing Light” is one of those), and some were inspired by the music in a more general sense, but it was important that every piece of art be catalyzed by the music in some way. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that so many different artists were generous enough to share their art with me and allow it to be a part of something like this.

RR:  How would you compare and contrast the music on Year of the Sleepwalk to your last solo album 2011’s Gift for a Spider?

JW:  Gift for a Spider is a breakup album, with all the mixed emotions that tend to surface when you’re working in that direction. Almost all of those songs came from a pretty unpleasant and personal place, and they were all delivered from my perspective. It was also an album without any guests, aside from one song that featured my dad screaming like a lunatic at my request. Year of the Sleepwalk is a much more “open” album. As cathartic and effective as it can be to use art as a form of therapy (and I think it’s the main thing that’s kept me sane this long), these days I find it’s a lot more enjoyable and stimulating to write songs about characters that are fictional creations, or to abandon the specific you/me/us way of writing in favour of using words to create images and impressions that aren’t always tethered to a linear idea of what a song is supposed to be. Sleepwalk is also a more eclectic album…maybe the most eclectic thing I’ve done. There’s a lot going on there sonically, emotionally, and stylistically.

There’s one way in which the two albums have become unexpected kindred spirits, though. When Gift for a Spider was finished, I couldn’t listen to it. It was too close to the bone. It took me some time before I was able to experience those songs without feeling like I was picking at a scab. Year of the Sleepwalk has become another album I can’t listen to, but for different reasons. Where Gift for a Spider is the sound of someone sifting through the wreckage of a relationship after it’s ended, Sleepwalk is the soundtrack to a disaster in the process of happening. I’m proud of the album, but I’ve never had to swim through such a thick river of rejection and indifference in order to achieve an artistic goal, and I had some pretty horrible experiences with some of the people I worked with (or tried to work with). So far, it’s been difficult to untangle the bad memories and hurt feelings from the music. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to appreciate whatever’s good or bad about the album on its own terms. For now, I find it’s best to pretend it doesn’t exist.

I know it’s a strange way to feel about something you’ve poured so much of yourself into. But that’s where I’m at with it right now. I’m glad I made the album (I think), but I’m not in a hurry to do anything like it again.

RR:  You recently put out a documentary Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) about the music you created for Year of the Sleepwalk and throughout your career. How important do you feel it is to also document a video element of the recording process, and how long did it take you to put together this documentary?

JW:  One of the great regrets of my life is that I didn’t think much about filming anything until I was in my twenties. I’ve always been diligent about recording music. It took me longer than it should have to recognize how valuable it is to have a meaningful visual record to compliment all those audio recordings. I would give all the hair on my head to have footage of myself making music when I was a kid. There is (or was) quite a bit of video footage of me acting in grade school plays and performing in high school arts shows, but by the time having access to it became important to me, most of that footage either no longer existed or it was collecting dust in the attic of the person who filmed it, buried under a bunch of old sweaters, never to be seen again.

Year of the Sleepwalk (and Other Stories) is an outgrowth of the video progress reports I started making for my blog in 2010. The idea there was to teach myself about video editing while keeping track of all the different things I was working on. After spending years convincing myself I shouldn’t do any serious filming until I had something resembling professional equipment, I shook off that way of thinking and just started working with whatever was at hand. I came to really enjoy putting those videos together. I kept it up for the better part of two years before running out of steam. I kept telling myself one of these days I was going to put together a longer, more action-packed video progress report to make up for lost time. When I started working on Year of the Sleepwalk, the album felt like an ideal candidate for this sort of thing, so I made a point of filming whenever I had someone else in the studio with me.

I thought I was putting together something like an extended EPK. It was all supposed to build up to a celebratory album release show at Mackenzie Hall last summer. My hope was to make my little DIY documentary about the process of creating the album, and then have someone else shoot and edit a separate film documenting the live show. Then the show fell apart, and that was the end of that. By the time everything shut down at the beginning of this year, I had a ridiculous amount of raw footage I’d shot over a period of almost two decades, along with a pile of archival footage I managed to dig up, including some music-related high school footage it took me almost twenty years to track down. And I had no idea what to do with any of it. Circumstances outside of my control had wiped out what I thought my big climactic ending was going to be, so the film I thought I was going to make couldn’t exist anymore.

I started editing in ten or fifteen-minute segments, one piece at a time, just to see if I could give some sort of arc or coherent shape to the raw material. I thought it might help if I broke it down into individual chapters. The deeper I got into it, the more I started to see it as an opportunity to place the album in the wider context of my whole musical life up to this point. Oddly enough, the editing side of things wasn’t too difficult once I got in a good rhythm. I had an assembly I felt good about after a few weeks of concentrated work. But because of the archaic nature of my video editing software and having to break everything into chunks, I had to find a way to stitch those chunks together after the fact without re-encoding the video, and I ran into all kinds of technical problems. It took me a few months to sort it all out. Note to aspiring amateur filmmakers: if anyone ever offers you their copy of Sony Vegas Movie Studio Platinum 9.0, run away (but only after setting the program on fire).

The end result of all that work isn’t a slick professional film by any stretch of the imagination, but it was rewarding and surprisingly cathartic to put it all together. While it isn’t the life-affirming piece I thought it was going to be when I started filming, I think it does a pretty good job of summing up who I am as a person and an artist. Hopefully it offers some worthwhile insight into what I do and why I do it the way I do.

RR:   When writing a song how do you approach it? Is the process always different? Do you come up with words or music first?

JW:  It’s always different from one song to the next. Sometimes the music comes first and the words take a while to show up. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes both the words and the music arrive at the same time. Some songs are written in one sitting, while others take more time and come together a piece at a time. Some are abandoned or never quite finished, and many are written but never recorded. Some songs come from dreams. As a rule, words are a little more elusive than music for me. That wasn’t always the case, but now I find the lyrics sometimes want to incubate for a while. Maybe it’s a side effect of placing more importance on the words than I used to.

Some of the most interesting songs for me are the ones that change shape over time. Lyrics get transplanted into a different musical setting, or the words get thrown out altogether and the music opens up in a whole new way once it’s free to define itself through sound alone. I’ve learned the best thing I can do is let the songs go where they want to go, even if they decide to evolve in directions that sometimes seem a little strange to me.

RR:  What’s next for you musically? Is there anything that you’re currently working on?

JW:  There’s an out-takes collection or two in the pipeline, but at the moment most of my attention is being eaten up by two very different albums. One of them is something brand new that seems to be leaning in a pretty piano-heavy direction. The other one is something called The Angle of Best Distance that I’ve been working on in fits and starts since about 2004. It’s an effort to draw together all the disparate threads of everywhere I’ve been over the last half of my life. When I started working on it, I never imagined it would take this long to finish. It’s changed shape more times than I’ve been able to keep track of and has kind of taken on a life of its own. There’s something appealing about the idea of working on a life-long album that always remains a work-in-progress and isn’t something anyone ever gets to hear, but I feel like I need to find a way to wrap it up in the next year or so for my own peace of mind. I’m not sure which one of those two non-compilation albums will hit the finish line first. All I know is it’s been a lot of fun to bounce back and forth between working on songs that were written ten years ago and songs that were written ten minutes ago. It’s kind of like having a conversation with several previous versions of yourself.

As far as the work producing other artists goes, that had already come to a standstill before COVID-19 turned everything upside down for everyone. In a way, I’m a little relieved. As much as I enjoyed making those albums, they took a lot of time and energy away from my music, and that’s one of the reasons there was such a long gap between solo releases. I don’t expect to get back to pumping out several full-length albums a year like I used to…I think I’ve slowed down quite a bit in my old age. Making an album is a more considered process for me now. But it feels good to be able to make my own work the focus again. I always feel healthiest when I’m working on something that’s mine alone.

(Thanks to you and Adam for doing this, and for supporting the noises I’ve been making all these years.)

More information about Johnny West's music can be found at

Show # 855 Playlist (Originally Aired On November 14th, 2020)(Johnny West Year of the Sleepwalk):

1.  Johnny West - Calcium Oxalate (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
2.  Johnny West - Later Than Soon (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
3.  Johnny West - Losing Light (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
4.  Johnny West - Your Music In Commercials After You Die (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
5.  Papa Ghostface - The Devil Wants His Car Back (Stew - 2015)
6.  Johnny West - Revenge Is Sweet (An Absence of Sway - 2009)
7.  Johnny West - Creepy Crawly Things (The Chicken Angel Woman With A Triangle - 2008)
8.  Johnny West - Jesus Don't Know My Name (Love Songs For Nihilists - 2009)
9.  Johnny West - Lugubrious Baby (Pavement Hugging Daddies EP - 2004)
10. Zarasutra - When You Go Home (Uncertain Assertions - 2014)
11. Teenage Geese - The Honey Song (Cat & Cormorant - 2016)
12. Ron Leary - Long Point '89 (Musicians Make Great Construction Workers - 2020)
13. Tire Swing Co. - You Held Me By The Ocean (Inamorata - 2014)
14. The O-L West - West Coast Blues (Afterthoughts - 2016)
15. Papa Ghostface - Rook (What We Lost In The Flood - 2018)
16. Johnny West - Husk (Out-takes, Misfits, and Other Things 1999-2007)
17. Johnny West - Cinder (If I Had A Quarter… - 2009)
18. Johnny West - Lovely and Dirty (My Hellhound Crooked Heart - 2010)
19. Johnny West - First Dialogue  (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
20. Johnny West - These Psychic Pants Are Slimming  (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
21. Johnny West - Gold Smoke  (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
22. Johnny West - Sweet Hot Hell  (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
23. Johnny West - We Were Wolves  (Year of the Sleepwalk - 2020)
24. Johnny West - Generic Love Song To Play At Your Wedding (Creative Nightmares - 2009)
25. Johnny West - To Frail Is To Begin To Be Fee (Medium-Fi Music for Mentally Unstable Young Lovers - 2011)
26. Johnny West - If At First You Don't Suceed, Redefine Success (My Hellhound Crooked Heart - 2010)
27. Johnny West - Murder Dressed As Mercy (My Hellhound Crooked Heart - 2010)

To hear this program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and click the November 14 file to download/stream the episode.

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