Chuck Johnson's work as a composer and musician—whether scoring a film, playing in a post-rock band, or carefully crafting an experimental record—has been marked by the desire to explore a host of instruments and genres and an eagerness to investigate new musical possibilities. Once a part of Chapel Hill's fertile indie rock scene in the early nineties, Johnson has spent recent years turning outheady fingerpicked guitar efforts. But before returning to his old stomping grounds, Johnson refreshed us on the latest iteration of his musical evolution: Balsams, an ethereal album composed almost entirely on the pedal steel guitar. The pedal steel is strongly associated with country music, yet on Balsams, Johnson employs it in a radical fashion, crafting heavenly, nigh-psychedelic soundscapes.
INDY: The pedal steel guitar is an instrument with a specific sound, which almost unavoidably evokes the spirit of country music. How does the history of the pedal steel and its highly specific sound impact your writing?
Chuck Johnson: [On Balsams] I kind of consciously steered away from playing parts that make you think of windy country ballads or something like that. I love country music; I grew up on it, and I think it comes through on a lot of music I've done. But the interesting thing about the pedal steel is that it was invented to play that music. It's related to lap steel and other kinds of steel guitar, and it kind of evolved over time. But the whole idea of having this machinery—a string instrument that lets you bend notes in a certain way—was completely developed to play country music, and to meet the needs of steel players in that genre. Doing anything too far outside that is kind of a stretch for the instrument. But it is a really flexible instrument because you can customize it and tune it in all these different ways. I marvel at it.
I don't do anything terribly dissonant or use extended techniques or try to make weird sounds with it. I do basically play it using the techniques that you would use to play country music. But what I like about it is just the sustain and the sound of it, and the expressive potential of being able to push and pull the notes in combination with each other. That's what drew me to it in the first place and that's what I try to get from it when I play it.
One of the most striking things about Balsams is how vast it sounds—the word "cinematic" comes easily to mind. To what extent does film music influence your songwriting?
That's actually more or less what I do for a living—I compose for film and TV. I've been doing it for about fifteen years and within the last few years it's really picked up. This year, I'm doing it full time. It's a great job. I'm certainly lucky to be able to do that.
Have you always been attracted to cinematic music, and is that what initially brought you to work on films? Or were you a musician first and foremost, who discovered that his music would work well with films?
At that time [circa 2002] I had been playing in bands, and I'd mostly done instrumental rock music, and that was before I was putting out solo guitar records. But I was primarily interested in making music that was instrumental, and because of that I think a lot of people told me, "Oh, your music would work well as soundtrack music," which I think is sometimes something people say when they don't know how else to describe instrumental music. But in that time I thought, Yeah, I think that could be a fun, interesting thing to do.
It wasn't until an opportunity came my way back then, through a filmmaker in North Carolina who I still work a lot with, named Cynthia Hill, working on her first feature-length documentary, that I realized, Oh, this is something that I could actually be good at. It just felt like work that I was meant to be doing. Once I had a little taste of it I realized, This is what I'd really like to do all the time if I could.
What drew you in the first place to instrumental music over more structured pop or rock music, or music driven by vocals?
Well, I didn't really like to sing. And I don't think about words. Writing words is a talent and a skill that I admire, that I don't have. I've never considered myself a lyric writer, and I've always been drawn to music that can tell a story without words as well. When I was young I was listening to a lot of music that was rock music, in the "indie" universe, but had long song structures and was maybe reaching for something a little bit beyond what rock music was, like Slint's Spiderland.
While words can complement or guide music in interesting ways, they can also limit our immediate experience of sound. Are you drawn to a more abstract and immediate way of experiencing music?
I think when we hear language—a language that we understand—a different part of our brain turns on. There's a composer in New York named David First and he had a really great way of describing this: Music that has lyrics takes on a quality of "aboutness"—it then becomes about whatever the lyricist is saying. And music that's instrumental has a different quality, which is "isness"—it's not about anything, it just is, so it doesn't go through this layer of interpretation. You don't necessarily hear a song without lyrics and think, Oh, this must be about this. You can project all kinds of things onto it. You can just be in the sound of a moment if you're not trying to process someone's language.