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Interview: John Carter Cash And Justin Johnson Talk The Cash Collective

The Cash Collective is a new project fronted by five-time Grammy-winning producer/songwriter/musician John Carter Cash, featuring a number of other fantastic musicians. One of which includes Nashville-based Roots Blues and Americana guitarist and producer Justin Johnson. We caught up with them to discuss the band’s debut release, “Hey Crow!”

Brooke: Hey guys, and thanks for speaking with us. We appreciate you taking the time to talk.

John: Yeah, definitely. It’s good to chat with you guys.

Brooke: What have you guys been up to lately?

John: Oh, you know, just hanging out in airports where everybody touches everything and rubbing and all the machinery and stuff like that! Out on party boats, deep-sea fishing, you know?

(laughing) No, we’re just hanging out at home! Working a little bit in the studio. Justin is in complete isolation pretty much. And then myself and my wife, and our little girl and then my assistant, (one of my engineers) work in the cabin.

I’m been doing some recording, just with like one guitar and then I’ll send it out to different musicians, to add different stuff to it. Doing some work in the studio, and I’m taking it easy, but they’ll just try to stay true to creativity.

Brooke: Can you tell us a little bit about “Hey Crow!” and how the project came together, as well as what was the recording process like?

Hey Crow Album CoverJohn: A lot of stuff started with a concept or with an idea or I’d have the beginnings of something and then I would come to Justin. One thing that’s been great about working with Justin is it’s not like we try to make the chords work for the song, or go “oh I don’t know, I gotta make the cords work for the song.”

Justin follows the lead creatively and takes it to the place that it seems to me like that’s where the song really was meant to go. I mean, that’s how I began a few different songs that we wrote and that we wrote together.

We record one of the things that we wrote and maybe something else that I have existing or that I’ve written with other co-writers. It was, just really amazing, and I love working with Justin with all the different sounds and textures and tones of the instrumentation that he gets together.

We did a lot of the recording at the Cash Cabin Studio, and then some in other studios in Nashville. But working with musicians that are playing these classic instruments, I mean the tones are it’s actually coming from the instruments that made those classic rock records that we love.

Coming through the same kind of microphone, or be used to record those same time period microphones, same preamps and everything. We would record it digitally and then mixed back down to tape. There’s a way that we do things at the cabin typically. And that’s how we did this record.

Working with the musicians that I believe are diverse, we get along, it’s a good energy. Then also in the creative process, working with my daughter who wrote most of the lyrics for two of the songs that Justin and I finished with her. It was just a matter of what was right and what felt right really. No rules.

Brooke: You mentioned that this album started out mainly with acoustic folk foundations. What was the spark that led the project to a more rock-oriented direction?

John: I wonder to Justin, I mean, just working with you?

Justin: I think like you said, it was almost like stream of consciousness. The definitive the way that our first writing sessions went and it was like, you always have to start with one idea and at least, then start throwing some paint on the canvas.

But the more we got into these sessions, the more it started evolving into some of the heavier music that we like. Some of the heavier side of seventies kind of a rock and roll sound, and the psychedelic side started coming out on some of it and piecing songs together; and realizing these songs got a folk element, acoustic, or traditional kind of Americana sound.

But the more we started fleshing out the rest of the songs we decided, why shouldn’t it go here to a more powerful place?

One of the things that I enjoyed most about working with John on this album is that he’s not afraid to go to those places, and we’re not afraid to go to those places together and let the song develop itself, instead of trying to make it something right out of the gates and forcing it into a box.

To me, that’s how it all sort of progressed is just from us listening to the song and then listening to each other.

Brooke: The album definitely has a distinctive sound, which combines elements of hard rock and even electronica, as well as old school precaution samples. Such as Pink Floyd, especially on the song, “Rise Up”. Was it challenging to layer all of those elements while keeping a folk foundation?

John: Listen to Trampled Under Foot by led Zepplin. Listen to The Whos albums, listen to Emerson Lake and Palmer. The diversity is there for one thing, but as far as folk, the roots of the folk. There’s a lot of that in the writing. It’s a variety. I can’t help but be Southern, even though this is a rock album that is not like Southern rock, but it’s gonna have a Southern twang to it.

I grew up on Bob Dylan and folk artists like that. I also grew up listening to hard rock. I’ve listened to Pink Floyd. There is so much diversity in Pink Floyd, and folk influence there. I mean, even if you listened to Queen with a song like 39. There’s so much folk there. That’s a lot of where I come from. I mean, it comes out in different songs, maybe some more than others.

Elton John was one of my major influences. If you listen to the song ‘The Seven’, there’s a lot of influence from Elton John there. With the electronica, some of that stuff also happened by happenstance. The executive producer had the idea for those old-style loops. They’re actually real instruments that are looped, it’s a nonelectronic, beat machine or anything.

It’s organic in its own way, but tries to stay true to what the song was about and what does this song mean? Where’s it coming from, and how wide can we make this path? Just as wide as it would be required.

Brooke: The production of the album is outstanding with a full multi-dimensional sound. What was the most intimidating song to record, and did it come out as you envisioned?

John: I don’t know what, Justin, “Packaging Committee”?

Justin: Oh yeah. I guess! In a way that was a lot easier than I thought it would be. Because that was originally three different song fragments that you brought to the songwriting session.

There was some I’ve made me think of when we first started working on it, some of the Radio Head songs that I like from one of my favorite Radiohead albums which was OK Computer. I think a few of those songs I read a long time ago, was they were kind of put together in fragments and it’s amazing how unrelated the different sections of some of these songs are, like “Packaging Committee.”

If you listen to three sections of the song separately, you might think it’s three separate songs, but when you listen to it from start to finish, the glue that holds those sections together is so strong and it feels so right. And you kind of anticipate those changes and it ends up making the song more exciting because of it.

You anticipate those kinds of knee jerk changes, and the whole song is kind of like you’re being hauled off to the insane asylum. It works with that undertone also.

John: With a long dragging ending by the time you get there. A lot of subliminal messages! Through the Fire and the Flames” was a lot of fun to put together. I brought the song to Justin and I’m like, what could we do with this?

Justin prompt the group too and it’s his arrangement of the song. It’s more like Kansas. Maybe a little harder rock than that and in some places, but it became Epic. That was a lot of fun. When you listened to the heavy metal version of it, you think, “Hey, this is the song”. However, Justin saw something else there and saw the possibility of it being more melodic and, the lyrics standing out.

The structuring we did with the tempo changes and all that, that was a lot of fun. That was pretty challenging.

Brooke: I love how you guys are to talk about this and are so into the project. It’s awesome.

John: Oh yeah. It’s not a work of fiction of experimentation. It’s a work of our hearts.


John: Justin did his first album here at the cabin, and he asked me to produce it and I’m like, “there’s no need to produce you”. (laughing)

Justin: That’s what’s so fun about this. This being the first one of your albums that I’ve co-produced, and, you’ve co-produced several of mine Working together and these different contacts is really built up a rapport between John and I. The last thing you want when you’re going into any creative partnership or any partnership, is that someone’s either going to be looking for conflict or purposely trying to avoid conflict.

You want someone who’s got their own opinion and someone that brings something to the table, but also to where you’re never afraid to share your ideas or be embarrassed to share your ideas. I think that that is one of the main strengths. Same thing with Chuck Turner who is another co-producer and engineer. The rapport that we all had together in the studio and with the musicians and the collective, it just made it so easy to enjoy the recordings and the writing and the producing and mix after mix.

Sometimes you want to bang your head against the wall in any recording project by the thousands time you’ve listened to the same track, trying to tweak it and make it as perfect as possible.

John: Yeah. The banjo on “Rise Up” is actually John McEuen, who was in The Nitty Gritty Dirt band for years and years. There’s definitely folk influence with an Appalachian music style.

Then the banjo was a hard rock banjo though. He did really well. There’s so much there, but it came together so easily and with such sprit because of comradery and excitement over music. It was like, Hey, wait, we could go this direction or this could go this direction, or this could do this and not feeling like we had restrictions.

Jeff: I’m a huge power metal fan, and when I was reading the tracklisting, I got really excited when I saw that “Through the Fire and the Flames was listed. I know John, your father would do covers of songs and just almost completely reinvent them. What made you guys decide to cover a Dragon Force song?

John: (laughing) Guitar Hero! I’m just joking. My kid played it for me. My, daughter Annabel. (And I didn’t hear it on Guitar Hero) but when I heard it, of course, I’m caught up in the energy of metal and I love metal. But I heard the melody. I actually recorded a version of one time of the Blue Oyster Cults Godzilla. I did it more like Tori Amos with a piano and string. It was just a piano and a guitar. Because I heard a different melody there, I heard a different way to perceive the melody.

So Justin and I got to talking about it, I immediately felt that movement of that core progression. It definitely has like a Deep Purple torch. Kind of a feel to it, and Kansas. It was a chord progression that would be under that melody.

Bringing it to Justin, talking about “Hey, where could we go with this”? It became this tempo change and energy changes and whatnot. It went where it felt like it wanted to go. I mean, that’s really the strength of a song and the lyrics. The melody is what attracted me to it and made me see that there was a different potential there.

Jeff: Did you have any idea how you were going to approach double solos?

Justin: (laughing) I think from the arrangement standpoint, that song more than most songs is thought of like a proving ground for how fast you can play and how accurate you can play. As well as how loud and powerfully you can perform. Like John said too, when we talked about that song, sometimes the athleticism of that kind of music, played at those speeds, can almost overshadow some of the qualities of the songwriting and the song that would stand out in other arrangements.

We wanted to both pay homage to the, like John said the melody, the lyrics, but also make sure we still hit a lot of those beautiful guitar riffs and, and athletic riffs, but maybe not in the style or speed that they originally recorded it in. Because of course, they did such a great job recording that original version that you kind of don’t want to go there. That story’s already been told, but you still want to hit those touchstones in the arrangement, no matter how different you might make it.

Jeff: The song “Kick The Man Down” is a particular favorite of mine – It goes from a darker, haunting wall of fuzzy guitars, to having one of the most uplifting hooks on the album. The dark/catchy contrast is something that appears a lot on this album. Was it a conscious decision or did the songs just naturally evolve to be this way?

John: Take the man down is something that I wrote with a dagger almost 10 years ago. I performed that live so many years and really recorded it once or twice, but never released it. Never had a version that I was happy with and, and working with this band, I’m like, we can do it.
Let’s do Take the Man Down.

The arrangement is pretty much spot-on as it was when I wrote it with the Daeger brothers. Those guys, George and Dave are wonderful guys. Dave Daeger plays guitar with me on most of the things that I do, and with my wife Anna. He’s a great all around great musician.

And he and Justin also on “Through the Fire and the Flames”, they doubled all those acoustic guitar parts. He’s great to work with, great to write with and just as much as the energy of that song and where it came from and where it went, I owe George and Dave.

Brooke: I was reading your notes in the album liner, and I felt that your personal perspectives fashioned together in a cohesive collection and it feels purposeful, but yet each of you seem to kind of carve a different path to get there. Justin, your notes seemed very ethereal, organic with a kind of mystical nature.

Whereas JC your notes felt very bold and harsh, but with the loving intention, how did each of you perceive the other’s observations and revelations when presented with each other’s notes?

John: I study the golden ratio and then I’ve studied the cabal some, and then with also 12 years of Christian school, I’m a Christian but I adhere to lots of different things about Pagan understandings and nature and whatnot. Justin and I see eye to eye on many things on a spiritual level.

Just the way we live our life. I think Justin and I both know that I’ve been writing those liner notes and we do not walk a separate path, but we do all walk the same path. It’s about being open-minded and it’s about, it’s about justice.

It’s about the collective. It’s about bringing together the best of what is good.

Justin: Absolutely. And I think too that one of the things that I loved about doing the liner notes together and separately together in the same way as that it’s really easy a lot of the times to talk to John artistically in any context because I think that we both really embraced surrealism and the fact that you don’t actually have to say something literally in order to trust that you’re conveying the message to whoever’s listening or whoever’s reading and we can.

It’s easy to collaborate a lot of times both lyrically and musically, because we again, don’t have to be literal. We tend to, we can say things and express things in abstracts, and a lot of times get the message across even better than if we were trying to be their role. And I think the liner notes are a good way of representing that quality, both on the album and in written form for the reader.

John: Yeah. And if you listened to the chantings and the reactives and the background vocals at the end of the second half, I should say, is the “Packaging Committee”. I mean, there was a lot of that in there,.

Joni Mitchell singing, Miles Davis guitar solos on her jazz records. It’s completely different, but just the fact that it goes exactly where it feels, and it comes out exactly as it’s true, and in that way it’s a lie.

Brooke: With the protests that are currently going on, there’s a quote from your father that’s been making the rounds on social media a lot recently about choosing love over hate. Your mother and father’s principles can be seen in your songwriting, specifically the lyrics to “Rise Up”. What can you tell us about that song and the message that it sends?

John: To me, it’s about, it’s about one people. It’s about unity it’s about rising up through all things through struggle through in the face of hardship. It’s about coming together. It’s about forgiving. In some ways it ties into the world today when I read the lyrics now, and I think about what’s happened is coronavirus.

There were probably a few times before that when I worked my hands until my fingers bled. Since the coronavirus came around, I worked the farm. I worked in the soil. My father always stood for one people. He did things for the anti-defamation league.

I also Stanford for unity and one people. My wife is a Cuban American, Bill Miller, is a Native American artist that’s on the album as well who is one of my very best friends in the world. Red Earth Red Sky is a song I wrote with him, and of course, he sings part of it.

So it’s about, it’s about rising up together. It’s about us all coming together.

cash cabin studio
The Cash Cabin Studio in Hendersonville, TN

Brooke: With the current pandemic situation, you just mentioned everything that’s been happening in America is making it quite challenging for artists to release new music and tour behind it. What are your plans concerning the promotion for the release?

John: I don’t know, Justin and I neither want to tour really anyway. I think we do a pretty good job of isolating.

Justin: I think that one of the nice things that you can do so much is like what we’re doing right now online. You can perform online, you can connect with an audience.

John: I mean, I’ll continue doing performances on social media, Justin is always doing his things on social media. Right now that’s where people are watching. That’s where people are listening. And of course Spotify and whatnot, but we’ll continue on the path that we’re on, and continue making music.

The have been a Cash Collective to me is not just about rock and roll. It’s not just about this album. It’s about having a different way of using creativity. I mean the next Cash Collective album may be all bluegrass. We’ll see.

Brooke: Have you thought about doing more streams from the Cash Cabin studio?

I have yeah. There’s actually another album is worth of material that we recorded that just didn’t fall in this, this hard rock vein. A lot of it is stuff Justin and I wrote, and then some that we arranged together. Some of it was almost like it’s got some new Orleans horns on it. It goes all over the place.

Jeff: Thanks again for speaking with us! Is there anything else that you’d like to say to our readers?

John: Thank you! It’s exciting to see this album coming out, and moving on forward with good music. And thank you guys for carrying the flag. Thanks!

Brooke: Thank you. We appreciate it.

| Buy The New Album, “Hey Crow!” | The Cash Collective Facebook | The Cash Collective Instagram |

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