Whatever it was that Sam Johnston needed to release on his upcoming debut, spilled out on Cannonball. Written during the pandemic, with some songs originating earlier, the Nashville-based artist, began chronicling his own coming of age story, a song-by-song document of all the growing pains of heartbreak and jealousy and trying to craft an authentic career far from the outside noise on his first single “Congratulations.”
A glimpse into what will come on Cannonball, “Congratulations,” says Johnston showcases him at his absolute best and worst, breaking through his jealousy and a collection of inner realizations. “It’s really about an unrequited viewpoint of other artists that social media can sometimes do,” he tells American Songwriter. “As the song progresses, it really forces me into the looking glass to look inwards.”
Recounting an ex-love who transformed herself for the more superficial after moving to Los Angeles, while coming to terms with his own career, Johnston faces more destructive vulnerabilities and pain—I know that smile you wear is an obligation… that’s the way of you LA dreams / And you’ll get there by any means / You wanna set yourself apart, so congratulations… I’m hoping that you don’t take these observations / As anything else but my own goddamn frustrations.
“As you listen to this single you’ll notice that there’s a lot of hurt being thrown around,” says Johnston. “This is due to the inner struggles of what I was going through. To me, ‘Congratulations’ relishes in the idea that hurt people hurt people.”
Written over a longer period of time, “Congratulations” has a longer history with Johnston, who started the song with a single verse in the fall of 2019, then shared the first words with friend and musician Joel Guptil, who helped with the second verse.
“The last two verses came to me at different times over the course of nearly a year while I was working on arranging the tune,” shares Johnston. “It’s funny to look back at it now because there was so much perspective that I had to gain about what the song meant. It originally felt just like a lash out because frankly, I wanted to. But the longer I sat with it, I realized the true meaning of the song: jealousy and heartbreak.”
Produced by Drew Long (Judah & the Lion, Kris Allen) and mastered by Adam Grover (All American Rejects), Cannonball moves away from Johnston’s bluesier roots found on the 2018 EP Longing into something he dubs “Americana with Nikes.” Working with Long helped Johnston peel away and find the music he needed to make now, even embracing more experimentation with sound, adding Josh Blaylock’s “crazy synth,” something Johnston never imagined hearing on his album.
“I feel like before working with him [Long], I was hiding so many aspects of myself in my music,” shares Johnston. “Getting to understand his Rolodex of sounds and techniques made everything snap into place. Josh took one pass on a song… and suddenly the whole album made sense. It felt like this melting pot of every genre of music I listen to, and from there, things slowly fell into place.”
For the Texas-born artist, “Congratulations” also encompasses the mixed emotions and fumbles he made when first relocating to Nashville, ones that seem less catastrophic in retrospect. “I love where this song sits because it’s where you see a little inkling of that turning point,” says Johnston. “It starts out frustrated and angry, being jealous of someone else’s success, but slowly unfolds into a somber tone where the fire dies a bit, and the truth reveals itself of where those emotions are really coming from.”
He adds, “This song is nearly smack dab in the middle of the album. After ‘Congratulations,’ the album becomes a lot more introspective and focuses on the big boy stuff that’s really worth addressing.”
Looking back now, Johnston jokes that the song almost feels like a temper tantrum, a moment where all the frustration, heartache, and jealousies came to a head with regrets, then required a proper release. “I know these aren’t the kindest lyrics I’ve written because a lot of them came from an immature place,” he says. “I think the beauty of the song is that frankly sometimes we are immature, sometimes we’re not our kindest, and learning from those mistakes is what makes us who we are. I guess I just wanted to shed some light on that feeling.”
Set to play SXSW 2022, Johnston is exploring several publishing deals, and is ready to return to the studio and continue what he started. For now, Cannonball is the first of many musical chapters for Johnston. “I’m excited to continue along this sonic and lyrical journey I’ve been on for the past two years,” says Johnston, who started working on the album while graduating college.
“To me, there are a lot of mental and emotional obstacles you have to get through to really become who you are at the core,” adds Johnston. “Frankly I was just writing while I was going through the obstacles.”
Photos: Courtesy of Innovo Management