INTERVIEW: Cody Johnson of Soft Self Portraits on his new album, the cheesiness of CCR, & monster trucks!

Working under the name Soft Self Portraits, Cody Johnson creates some of the dreamiest of dream pop, hazy and atmospheric, an ephemeral foundation for Johnson’s ghostly voice. His newest record, Hold Me Up To The Light, out soon on auralgamiSOUNDS, is poppy and imminently listenable, a little bit Beach House or Washed Out, but all his own albeit filtered through an undercurrent of melancholia running just underneath the surface. This is what you put on as the soundtrack to your worries, not to wallow in them, but to pick yourself up. You can listen to his music below and check him out tonight with Bodycocktail and PRJCTR at Kaiju. We caught up with him to ask about his musical background, musical collaboration, and his skill at the MMA.

Never Nervous: Tell us your musical resume. Were you in bands before? Is this your first project? Give us your history and secret origin. Extra points if you were bitten by a radioactive something.

Cody Johnson: It’s kind of funny, there’s a big musical gap for me from the early to mid 2000’s until around 2014. If we go all the way back, my first real band was a Metallica cover band in high school. Since moving to Louisville in 2015, I’ve been a part of some really cool acts like The Trouts, and The Winter of Twenty Six.

“My first real band was a Metallica cover band in high school.”

Soft Self Portraits materialized when I was bored with playing guitar and wanted to try something new. I had an old 80’s Yamaha DX27 with some wacky and cool synth sounds, and used an online drum machine template to make a few recordings before actually buying a drum machine. I was primarily recording to tape then, so it was fun hearing the trails of radio programs and mixes that were originally on the tape before I recorded over them.

NN: What’s the make up of the project? To my knowledge it’s solo. Is that still accurate or do you have collaborators?

CJ: It’s a solo project, with influence from a lot of different people in my life. I sort of workshop these songs with my band mates in The Winter of Twenty Six, my coworkers at Gralehaus, and sometimes my family. For a few tracks on the album, I had contributions from Nate Spicer and Lauren Conkin on vocals. Both of them are longtime friends and musical collaborators over the years.

NN: What are the stresses of performing solo? What do you look for when putting on a good show? How do you hope to be received?

CJ: One of the biggest stresses of performing solo is becoming comfortable being the focal point of the show. It took me a long time to be able to look up from the keyboard and survey the audience. I feel like I borrowed a page from Mark Kramer, where he often times only stares down the end of his guitar rather than looking into the audience during performances.

Another stress is timing. I run a few different loop pedals and drum machines live, so I pre-record harmonies to sing over, and synth parts to align the drum beat to. I have cues to go off of, but it can be tricky to manage all of the musical automation that goes into it.

As far as putting on a good show, I try not to go into it expecting anything. I’ve toured a few times, and played for semi-crowded rooms, and in one case in Toronto, I played for a bartender and a sound engineer.

For me, it’s all about the supporting acts. I try to surround myself with genuine and talented people. I find myself lucky to be enveloped in a music scene that has no shortage of that.

“I try to surround myself with genuine and talented people. I find myself lucky to be enveloped in a music scene that has no shortage of that.”

I hope that people come away from a Soft Self Portraits show feeling calm, or reflective. One of my favorite moments was at the end of my first tour in 2016, I played a set at Northside Yacht Club in Cincinnati, and during the set someone was singing along to every word of a song. I almost stopped playing out of sheer curiosity to ask “how in the hell do you know all the words? Even I forget the words on stage occasionally!”

NN: Your grandma asks you what your music sounds like. What do you tell her?

CJ: It’s funny you ask about my grandmother, because she listens to my music quite a bit. I’ve been playing her my songs for a few years now, and her reaction almost every time is “are you playing all of the instruments?” and “really, well who is singing?”

NN: How do you write? What comes first in the process and how do you build out from there?

CJ: When it comes to writing there really isn’t a formula. Since starting the project, I’ve scrapped and re-recorded songs maybe 4 or 5 times. Each time, a new element/layer is added. It’s kind of like the songs are always evolving, so if you saw me play in the fall, my songs might have the same roots, but would sound very different and progressed if you compared them to now.

NN: What went into the writing for Hold Me Up To The Light? Is there any one theme that stands out or is it a collection of thoughts?

CJ: When putting together “Hold Me Up To The Light” it was a lot of sifting through collected songs from the past few years as a starting point and then writing new material based on that. I don’t really have a theme in my mind, but the title alludes to being genuine, true, and able to withstand the test of time. I’ve written quite a few songs, and sometime you come up with shitty, shallow pop songs, or overly-cheesy, almost redundant garbage, but I feel confident in these songs, like I could look back in five or ten years and still appreciate them.

NN: Have you ever written anything that has an objective meaning or do you keep it open for interpretation?

CJ: I don’t feel like a lot of the songs have an objective meaning, but I do have a habit about writing about feelings/experience. Cher Von asked me once “do you only write songs about love???” and it sort of clicked, like “oh yeah, I guess a lot of these are loosely based around that!”

NN: Relative to that, what kind of things motivate you to write lyrically? What factors shape your music?

CJ: It’s hard to pinpoint certain motivators when writing, but when I sit down and listen to incredible bands like Beach House or Wye Oak, I think “Jesus, this is amazing, how can I write something similar?” Or I’ll pick out a certain progression, melody, or sound, and try to do my own version of that. Generally it results in a lot of reverb and harmonies.

NN: Are there any bands that you admire, but don’t like their spiritual predecessor? For example, maybe you like Interpol, but can’t roll with Joy Division.

CJ: I’m going to take the opposite route and pick out a band that I don’t like that’s inspired by someone that I love. Let’s highlight CCR for a second. I can’t get into them musically because I find their delivery waaaaay too hokey/cheesy, but so absolutely love the music that inspired Fogerty to write. He’s a Motown/soul junkie, and so am I at heart. I could sit down and listen to The Poni-Tails and The Ronettes for hours on end, but hearing the way CCR translated that into “southern butt rock” just irks me.

NN: If you had a monster truck would you drive it to work?

CJ: If I had a monster truck, I think I’d probably convert into a giant camper or pretend I was Jim Carey in Ace Ventura.

NN: How would you rank your skill as an MMA fighter?

“I’d be a really poor MMA Fighter.”

CJ: I’d be a really poor MMA Fighter, I’d probably make really awful puns until my opponents gave up, or just hugged them into submission and let them know everything was going to be alright.

NN: What non-musical things have your attention lately? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth mentioning lately?

CJ: Lately, some of my favorite things have included Matthew McDole’s art exhibit “Del Rio’s Regal Motel”, making kombucha, and taking Instagram videos of local flora and hashtagging it “#eveningvibes.” Also, perpetually re-watching The Office on Netflix.

NN: What are your top three desert island albums and why?

CJ: My favorite albums list always evolving, but currently I’d have to go with: