SUN STUDIES, Thursday, Jan. 10, 9 p.m., $10, The Cave, Chapel Hill, www.caverntavern.com
Reid Johnson keeps starting solo projects and ending up with full-fledged bands.
The indie-pop outfit Schooner, his best-known and longest-standing band, started out solo. Another act, Hospital Smokers, was initially intended to be a solo endeavor. Attempts to strike out on his own have led to shows as Clinton Johnson or simply under his given name, but none of these have stuck. Yet last year he settled on the name Sun Studies, and he intends for it to remain a solo project—he promises. He knows, as he jokes, that he’s generated quite the string of band names.
“I told Kym [Register] the other day—I was asking them what they wanted to be called for [the January 10 Cave show]—and I was like, ‘You should be called Loamlands (solo),’” says Johnson, as if wishing he’d just made the same direct, easy-to-remember choice himself. Yet he feels good about the name and aesthetic of Sun Studies and feels it can last.
Aside from Sun Studies and Schooner (and a dozen short-lived ensembles), Johnson is a core member and co-founder of local record label and collective PotLuck Foundation. Between his own bands and PotLuck releases, he stays heavily involved in local music (meaning his short-lived project names are likely better remembered than he admits). This year alone, PotLuck is releasing a North Elementary record, as well as ones by Schooner and, yes, Sun Studies, likely by mid-year.
We caught up with Johnson about keeping this solo project solo, changing his singing style, and checking his own privilege.
INDY: How are you going to keep Sun Studies from coalescing into a band?
REID JOHNSON: I’m just going to have to be focused on it, I guess. That’s a difficult thing to answer. It would be nice to feature more than just me once in a while at shows especially, but that’s a good question I’ll figure out when I get to it, I guess.
The way that I look at it is, Schooner, at this point, the entity is a band, whereas Sun Studies has not become that. If I don’t consistently present it that way, then I don’t think that will be an issue.
There’s a crooner vocal style on the Sun Studies recordings. Is there something about that vocal style that connects with you?
I grew up with nineties underground kind of music vibes, and I was taught not to sing, basically. I’ve kind of had to overcome that. I’ve always been able to sing with a capital S, I guess, and I’ve always been self-conscious about it. On this one, I’m just kind of going with it and am just trying to feature songs that don’t necessarily need instrumentation to be a complete entity as well. I’m trying to really focus on beefing up my songwriting as well.
Can you tell me about the music you’re working on with Bombadil’s James Phillips?
I’ve just been hanging out with him at his house and doing some recording. I like James; he’s just an easygoing guy, and we’ve been working well together. With these songs, I’ve been going in and basically playing the song live and then adding a little percussion. We’ve really been just re-amping an acoustic guitar through stuff. That’s how you get the effects.
In terms of songwriting, what are some themes you’re addressing now?
I’m engaged in politics and am socially aware in my daily life, but writing a political song or a statement song is difficult for me, so I end up coming at it from a humanist way of [considering] how we cope with the difficulties we have. It’ll be reflections on political and social issues and a lot of finger-pointing at myself as a white liberal man, so a lot of stuff at people like me, at my demographic.
The three songs that we’ve got, one of them is about that element of political turmoil. One of them is specifically about mental health, and one of them is about aging in the context of being excited and new about things. I’ve got a lot of other ones that get a little more political, but not too [explicitly] unless you’re delving into them. I’m not going to do the obvious political stuff. I can’t, and sometimes I don’t feel like it’s my place, and that I’d be trying to steal the thunder.
Are you speaking to knowing when it’s not your place to speak, but when it’s your place to be quiet and listen?
Yeah. That’s what I mean. My place is to use my privilege to speak to the privileged, basically. That’s what I feel like. As a white cis male, it’s my place to talk to people in a fashion that they might listen, because other people don’t have the luxury or the psychic capacity to be able to do that because they’re dealing with oppression from people like me.