Equal parts ode to nature as it is a revelry of adventure, Sonntag’s In Paths Too Dark For Seeing has the feeling of an American pastoral on a grand scale. Orchestrated by Wisconsin filmmaker/songwriter Zach Johnston with the accompaniment of some of Baraboo, WI’s finest musicians, In Paths… conveys the mixed feelings of joy and terror that await anyone wishing to pursue the wonders of the unknown. A passion project since he was 21, the now 25-year-old Johnston has realized his vision, transforming an appreciation for the beauty of nature into a sonic landscape of native flutes, Andean charango and heartfelt lyrics.
Recently JoeGuerilla talked to Johnston about the inspiration behind the album, as well as the many paths traveled in its creation.
JoeGuerilla: In Paths Too Dark For Seeing has a very cinematic quality to it. I don’t mean this as a negative, but musically, it reminds me of the soundtrack to a Disney movie in many ways. What was the inspiration behind the sound?
Zach Johnston: It definitely has to do with Disney films in a way. It’s not something I consciously tried to do; the songs actually became a lot bigger and more cinematic as we went on and began sounding more and more like the score of a Disney film. More than I thought they would, but it makes sense because of how much I flip-flop between music and film. I feel like whenever I’m making film, I use music as the inspiration, and whenever I make music, I feel as if I’m making it visually.
So I wrote these songs, and they were sort of a fantasy/escape for me. At the time, I was watching a lot of Ken Burns documentaries about American History and the west in particular. I’d just moved to California and was trying to find some connection with the landscape there, because growing up in Wisconsin, things like that were very important to me. So the documentaries were inspiring. But I’d say film probably inspired In Paths… more than music. I can’t honestly say if there were any fictional films in particular that inspired the album. It was mostly documentaries and just the idea of “The West” in particular.
How long did the album take for you to record?
I started it in 2009 in Wisconsin. It probably only took eight months to record the songs and get them to a decent place, and then for the next three years it was a lot of dabbling. They guy who mixed the album was Davey Roberts, who plays in the band Phox. At the time Phox hadn’t been put together yet, so all of those guys are the main players on my stuff.
Where did you record?
All of it was done in bedrooms. It was probably recorded in four of five different bedrooms, because we moved a lot. A lot of the flutes were done a couple blocks from the Madison capitol in a little apartment. I don’t really know where it was, but it was kind of by a park near the water. A lot of the rest of it was done in Verona in an apartment sort of by the Epic Software building. A small part was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee. Now that I think about it, I’d say most of it was done in Verona, basically in a bedroom closet. We recorded everything in that little closet.
You’d never guess with how “full” it sounds
Davey Roberts is the reason it sounds incredible. He filled it out and made it giant. He engineered everything and was the producer. I mean, he made it sparkle. I feel really lucky because he does all the Phox stuff too, and he’s just got such an ear and is such an amazing talent. All around, he’s one of the best bedroom producers I’ve ever seen. [Laughs]
It seems like there’s a bit of a ‘Baraboo Renaissance’ happening right now. I know you’ve all been playing for awhile, but it seems like a lot more people are starting to notice.
Yeah it’s strange. You’ve got Phox, Jimmie [Linville] with Daniel and the Lion and John Paul Roney in Boom Forest. We all come from Baraboo and have all dabbled and done and lot of different projects. It’s an interesting time because Phox is starting to get a lot of attention, my album is coming out, and Daniel and the Lion have been touring pretty consistently for years now.
We’re all going to go on a two-week tour together through the Midwest later this summer. There will be one giant show at The High Noon Saloon on September 5th where we are all going to play together. I think we’re all going to have our own set during that big show, but I think the rest of the tour is designed as a “family band” tour, where we all play together and sort of play it by ear.
Well you all did a good job on the album. If there’s one compliment I can give you, it’s that it almost made me cry.
I’m glad! [Laughs] That means a lot to me. I have such a weird relationship with the album now. I’m 25, but I wrote a lot of songs when I was 21, and since then I’ve gone through a million cycles of feeling distant from the songs or feeling over them. But now I feel like it’s come full circle, and I can look at everything differently. I was worried because the first two tracks are sort of scary and abrasive in a way, but then it goes on to the lighter tunes. So hopefully if people aren’t into the beginning they’ll stick around a few tracks to hear the later stuff.
What was the inspiration for the title track “In Paths Too Dark For Seeing”?
That’s the first song I wrote for the whole album. It became the name of the album not because I thought it was a single, but more because I thought the lyrics expressed what the album was about. When I wrote the album, it was at a time in my life when I was scared and questioning my life choices. I was facing the decision to play my life safe or really go for my biggest dreams. So “In Paths…” is kind of the song that just said everything I wanted to about going out and having adventures despite your fears. That’s kind of what the whole album is about. Going out and making something beautiful, and just going for it. Like for me, I’d never sung before I made this album, and singing alone was such a brutal thing for me. I had so many doubts about it while recording. So “In Paths…” has that terror in it, but the end brings it full circle, with the idea of an inner child telling you to do what will make you the most happy.
If there is a top contender for the single, I think that’d probably go to “I Know What Ails You”.
That was a song was partially inspired by the bards of early America. There’s this one gentleman in particular named Henry Thomas who really inspired the folk feelings of the album. He was a blind folk singer in the 1920’s from Texas. He played songs that had a real joyous tone but were about sad things that he was overcoming. I wrote “I Know What Ails You” when I was living in Wisconsin and right about to move to California. It was kind of a message to my girlfriend at the time telling her that someday I was coming home.
So I had the first verse in there about leaving, but it took me another year to write the last verse of the song where I talk about going somewhere else. I didn’t know how to finish the song because I didn’t really know what I wanted it to say, and then I realized that the song was about loving the different courses your life might take. Because I work for myself, I’ve moved around a lot in the last four years. I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve lived in Michigan, Wisconsin, Nashville. I spent a little time in Ecuador, which is where I got inspiration for some of the flutes on the album. And now I’m in California. So I really was living as a vagabond, and the end of the song ended up being about just loving your life in whatever direction it takes you, loving the uncertainty of it and being okay with constantly moving on to new places.
The other song I found particularly moving was “Garden of Night”. That’s about the time while listening to the album that the tears started welling and I had to leave the computer behind and go hang random pictures in the house. I was a little hungover at the time, but still…
Now that you mention it, there is a specific film that I can cite that I remember watching while writing the album. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. You know the little, white, forest spirit creatures in that film? The ones that click their heads? There’s a little click in that song that represents those guys. [Laughs] I think that song just highlights my very weird, spiritual connection with nature. It’s basically a love song to nature and to night. It’s an ode to Nature. The lyrics don’t go anywhere very specific, but that’s one of the quickest songs I wrote where it just kind of came out. Opposed to the track “Oh, Certainly” which took tons of evolving.
The “spiritual connection” with nature you speak of seems to be a pervading theme of the album’s lyrics and artwork. Could you talk about your own spirituality?
I’ve never been able to look at a forest or a tree and not think it was pretty, even if it was rotted or dark and scary. I don’t have a real conventional spirituality that fits into any major religion, so there’s no design to my beliefs. It’s just something I sort of arrived at.
It’s strange stepping back and seeing all these songs now and being able to say to myself, “Oh, that’s who I am.” I just wanted to keep it as natural as possible. And I guess to me, if I’m to look at the theme running throughout all my work, it mostly deals with people’s relationships with nature as a whole, and how the beauty of it is never wavering in its truth and inspiration to me. It’s just a well that has never run dry for me.
For a long time, I wrote because I wasn’t in nature. I was in places like Los Angeles, and I missed the purity and spontaneity of just driving down a random dirt road and listening to music while talking to a friend or whatever. So a lot of the album is a longing for nature that I didn’t have at the time. I don’t think I realized how much a part of me it was until I left. Things like being able to just go to Devil’s Lake in Baraboo and being able to see the complete majesty of it.