Outside, a collection of melodic songs by Johnny Zachman, is a study in solitude and a love letter to a few dozen people at the same time. In this shift back to solo work, Zachman focused on stripping away chaos, metaphor, and collaboration in order to find space within each track.
Johnny and I are connected on Google Hangouts. He’s in his apartment in Austin where he lives alone. I’m in my apartment in Kansas City where a striped grey cat is crying for attention in the background of our conversation. It’s the end of a long work day, and on either end of the call, we’re illuminated by the soft light of the same setting sun, 740 miles apart.
With enthusiasm, Johnny tells me about the album that he wrote in the last year and recorded this spring in his apartment.
“I want it to be the musical equivalent of a lake.”
Meaning, evoking transcendent thought and a longing for the infinite. In writing this album, Zachman set a series of guidelines for himself as a means of achieving this goal. Within each song is a scene, a story, and a soundscape. Without using metaphor or other poetic language, Zachman delivers frank depictions of intimate relationships alongside intricately composed guitar parts that imitate feelings and environments.
At their cores, these songs are about the web of people that surround Zachman, from his close friends, to co-workers, to his next-door neighbor. Zachman admits that he falls in love with a lot of people; not necessarily in a romantic way, but through casual conversations and long-term friendships.
We talk for a while about the inspirations for the album; how Zachman found a moment of clarity while hiking in Washington last October. A picture from this hike now serves as the album art for Outside. Then, he gives me a very brief virtual tour of his modest living space, showing off the room where he wrote and recorded every song on this album. There’s a simple guitar rig and a couple of microphones, and not much else to see. Working this way was an important part of Zachman’s creative process on this project.
Photo credit: Sam Ritchie
“I might not be the best songwriter, the best guitar player, the best graphic designer, the best lyricist, but the rule for this album was that I’m going to do everything for this album,” he tells me. “This album is a very specific thing, and when one is trying to make art that’s very specific and not conventional, the more people you have working on it tends to dilute that. Things tend to run toward normalcy a little more.”
As much as Outside is an ode to the people in Zachman’s life, it’s also a labor of loneliness. Having previously played with a full band, Zachman focused heavily on relying on only his own set of skills and vision for creating this project. In his compositions, Zachman utilizes looping melodies that build the same dynamism you might experience with a larger band but balanced with the intimate feeling of just one person playing the songs. While this kind of artistic independence can be freeing, Zachman explores the other side of isolation in the track “Vanishing.”
“I was thinking about this idea that we’re all literally vanishing, we’re all dying, we’re all barely here, and some of us are just luckier than others.” He tells me the story of his neighbor, who has limited mobility. She fell in her apartment, and unable to move, she stayed there for four days before being rescued. She’s doing well now, he notes.
We commiserate on the paradox of craving space while simultaneously needing fulfilment from human interaction and discuss audience interpretation. There’s no right way to listen to his music, Zachman says, no rules to interpretation. It’s beautiful that the same song can mean something different to each person that listens to it, and how that meaning can evolve over time.
An hour has passed, and the sunlight in our respective apartments is becoming fainter. There’s so much about Zachman’s writing and recording process and the mentality to led to the creation of these songs, but our conversation is coming to a close. It’s hard to say goodbye after hearing him talk about this project that he’s so passionate about. When we hang up, I turn on Outside again, and I listen for the stories within the spaces.
Outside is available for streaming and preorder.