Chuck Johnson’s Ode to What’s Been Lost in California’s Fires
Guitarist Chuck Johnson had already gone to bed in a German hostel when his partner, multi-instrumentalist Marielle Jakobsons, called from California with news that couldn’t wait for him to return from the tour: she had finally found her rural wonderland.
For years Jakobsons and Johnson had dreamed of moving into the woods with other Bay Area artists to start a modern community – a sunny place for gardening, a welcoming studio for recording, a small grove for performing. “The epitome of a California dream,” Jakobsons recently said on the phone and laughed.
The location they found in November 2018 was perfect: a hundred miles north of Oakland, across San Francisco Bay, with a quaint A-frame and an avocado-colored cottage. But before they could close, they discovered a daunting threat: the nearby forests were so vulnerable to the metastatic California wildfires that they were unable to insure the property. In 2020, just a year after they let go of the dream, the fire nearly jumped over the property line.
“It’s still hard to process how much was lost this past season of fire, but it gave us clarity that we weren’t ready to risk it all,” said Johnson of the small East Oakland house that Jakobsons bought in 2012 had this big life change. This is a loss that we were worried about. “
That bittersweet feeling of knowing paradise long enough to lose it permeates “The Cinder Grove,” Johnson’s second album for pedal steel guitar, released last week. His five exciting pieces are not only about the increasing natural disasters, but also about the rising costs that the musicians claim to be displacing from Oakland. “The Cinder Grove,” an eulogy for landscapes yet to be destroyed, and its lush tones hold on to hope for what comes next.
“Despite the destruction, we all know that these areas are resilient. Something will grow back there, even if it’s not what was there before, ”Johnson said hesitantly, as if tiptoeing across the gap between naive and nihilistic. “Look at the whole chaparral on the California coast – it’s about surviving this kind of fire cycle.”
Johnson often uses such Californian imagery to extol the state’s bucolic rivers or the mysterious Mojave. Some tracks on “The Cinder Grove”, such as “The Laurel” and “Serotiny”, use botanical metaphors familiar to a budding naturalist. But he was actually a late arrival in the state, heading west when he was 39 to attend the advertised electronic music program at Mills College.
For two decades he was an imaginative pillar of North Carolina’s rich indie rock ecosystem. In the 90s he made excited instrumental rock with his band Spatula, at a moment when it was barely fashionable. He later switched from the brittle acoustic abstraction to distorted folk exoticism to research into modular synthesizers. Johnson was a troubled music lover looking for the sound that would fit his story.
Mills and California gave him time to find it. A year into school, Johnson moved into a space known as the Totally Intense Fractal Mindgaze Hut, a huge brick warehouse divided into tiny apartments, performance areas, and art studios. It caught fire in 2015 and killed two people. Johnson lived there for years in a 100 square meter hut, his bed crammed into a so-called storage compartment. After working on music 14 hours a day in Mills, he returned home to find others to rehearse or record.
“Everyone was working on the same thing or was tied to the same space,” recalled Johnson, 52. “It was what I wanted from school, to immerse myself in things that I had been interested in for so long.”
Johnson spent his days thinking about electronic music, but played acoustic guitar at night, a lifelong love since his step-grandfather picked country songs at family gatherings. Then, in 2011, Cynthia Hill – a documentary filmmaker Johnson had worked with in North Carolina – asked him to contribute to a new television show about a chef who had left New York state and returned to work in her post-industrial field Restaurant to open hometown. “A Chef’s Life” won an Emmy and a Peabody for five seasons on PBS; Johnson scored every episode.
The show gave Johnson a steady post-graduate paycheck and gave him the opportunity to work more directly on music than he did at Mills. More importantly, he thought about the best way to make a story through sound. He shot scenes from his southern childhood, like small farms or big pig picks. He was able to put himself back there and hopefully take the audience with him.
“Sometimes it’s enough to just communicate a mood, all an instrumental piece has to do,” said Johnson. “But it can also convey this complex series of associations and images. It can be melancholy and uplifting at the same time, the holy grail. “
He began applying this sensitivity to a number of solo acoustic guitar albums and “Balsams”, his breakthrough in 2017 for pedal steel. Johnson’s sense of instrumental storytelling is now so nuanced that for “The Cinder Grove,” he used measurements of his lost warehouse and a burnt redwood forest to create and borrow software that reflected their natural reverberations. You hear his acoustic memories of rooms that he remembers.
“Fingerpicking and pedal steel are so closely related to very specific music-making traditions,” said composer Sarah Davachi, who met Johnson after moving to California from Canada to visit Mills. “But Chuck is undoing a bit of it so you don’t know what to feel. His music is not about pedal steel, but about a tool for creating an environment. “
Davachi plays the piano on “Constellation”, the heart of “The Cinder Grove”. While staying at Davachi’s Los Angeles home, Johnson fell in love with her Mason & Hamlin, a 135-year-old curios who is always upset. During “Constellation” it appears surprisingly four minutes after the somber anthem. Elsewhere, Jacobsons anchors a Bay Area string ensemble and adds drama to Johnson’s austere tone.
Johnson played every note on “Balsams” like it was a homemade panacea for anyone in earshot. But the shared moments on “The Cinder Grove” suggest he’s trying to hold on to what he loves about California that hasn’t gone away – the artistic network he’s nurtured. His friends may no longer live together in a warehouse or plan their Redwoods-affiliated collective, but he sees promise in finding new ways to build relationships, even through requiems for what’s already gone.
“The reason I’m still here is because of the community I found, including people who appreciate the beauty outside of town,” Johnson said. “And since I became more interested in the collaborative way of life, this seemed like the natural way to expand my sound.”