Off the grid
A national folk artist finds his home on the road
By Kate Hayden
There was no sticky beer on the floor, grime on the walls, PA system malfunction-type stresses on Thursday night for musician Will Johnson to deal with. The venue was a little bigger than a typical living room-tour space: Fugitive Lens Photography Studio on Main Street, hosted by friend and artist Karl Haglund.
Johnson may as well have been playing for extended family members. That’s the way he prefers with his living room tours –– they feel like meeting a friend or two for drinks around the kitchen table. Typically, he’s in a stranger’s living room for the first time, playing music and talking life.
“There’s an appeal to the vibe, it requires a little bit of trust on everybody’s behalf,” Johnson said. “It’s not your traditional public space. Neutral turf on a private space…They’re kinda tailor-made for the hardcore music fan. You don’t just drop in, you kinda have to know about it. Something about that is rewarding and appealing. “
Johnson’s Midwest Living Room Tour schedule might turn a few heads: tucked in between Sioux Falls, S.D. and Minneapolis stops, Charles City joins Omaha, Milwaukee, Chicago and Louisville, K.Y. on the show list. It’s not the first time, either –– this is Johnson’s third Charles City show, hosted by Haglund.
‘BASICALLY PEN PALS’
Haglund had already been a fan of Johnson’s former band Centro-matic when he first emailed Johnson. Both painters, they each remember the introduction story a bit differently.
“He had this old water tank, custom guitar,” Haglund, who is known for his guitar portrait series, said. “The wood was taken off an old stave from a railroad, it was a cool guitar with a cool story.”
“He reached out to me in spring 2012 and inquired about commissioning for a painting of his father, who played baseball in Sweden for a time and pitched the first no-hitter in Swedish history,” Johnson, who focuses on figures in baseball history, recalled. “Karl was kind enough to give me the legit newspaper clippings.”
In short time, they say, they built up a friendship as pen pals, and Johnson did his first Charles City show in 2013 at the Charles City Arts Center. Johnson returned again in 2014, and stayed in regular contact with Haglund over time. Haglund finished his portrait of Johnson’s guitar, the first in his instrument series, and ended up giving Johnson the portrait.
“We both make art, have similar taste in music, are fathers, we share a similar sense of humor,” Johnson said. “I’m really grateful for this friendship.”
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Logistically, setting up shows in a music fan’s space makes it easier on the musicians, said Bob Andrews, Johnson’s manager at Undertow Music Collective.
“It’s a lot less time involved for each artist. (With) venues, you show up at 4 p.m. You have to wait for the other band to meet, then you’re hanging out at a bar for six hours,” Andrews said.
And, as any musician will say, venue shows go late. By the time equipment is loaded up and artists are paid, it’s early into the next morning. Living room shows, which are typically unplugged, have less baggage.
“Will shows up 15 minutes before the show with a guitar. He’s out the door by 10 p.m.,” Andrews said. “The goal was to get home before The Daily Show starts.”
There’s the occasional hiccup: a show in Toronto was rehomed after the initial host’s landlord found out and cancelled, Andrews said. And during Thursday’s show, Johnson recalled a fragile folding chair collapsing in under one poor soul during the quietest song on the set.
“You learn a lot on these tours…there’s no way you can play through that,” Johnson joked. “Touring is pretty psychedelic sometimes.”
Andrews started organizing home tours with artists David Bazan and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. After settling on city stops, Andrews sends out mass emails looking for local fans willing to host.
“Once you figure out how much more rewarding it was, the switch (from venues) was pretty quick,” he said. “We just get random fans submitting their houses.”
“There’s a certain physical release in a venue and full band show,” Johnson said. “This way of touring, it’s obviously more solitary, but it’s more of a spiritual trek for me. It’s an opportunity to write and observe the natural world around me on these solo tours. There are things that I like about both.”
Settled into a stranger’s couch or a friend’s photography studio, Johnson can play a show wherever he likes these days. So why return to Charles City?
“It’s always a good visit. I always look forward to coming back,” Johnson said.