Young Americana: Leah Grams Johnson

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Leah Grams Johnson has a tendency to travel off the beaten path. When she moved from Boston to Nashville, she found herself living and working on a large plot of land as a horse trainer in Nolensville. Her desire to create in unorthodox locations led Leah to apply for, and be awarded the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Artist Residency in Taos, New Mexico, which she will attend this coming summer. While appreciating the way songwriting is valued in Nashville, Leah also uses nature and her travels as a primary source of comfort and inspiration for her songwriting. She chatted with us about how working with horses helps externalize her writing process.

"It’s very much the other half of me. It balances out, I think, creativity really well. If I’m at the house writing for a few hours and I get stuck - writing is so much of being in your mental space and in the zone - and if I get stuck or if I’ve just reached my time limit for the day, it’s amazing to just go outside and work with big animals. One thing I love about horses is that they’re a direct reflection of what you’re thinking and feeling. So in the songwriting process, you’re dealing with what you’re thinking and feeling a whole lot, trying to turn that into something and put it to music. It’s just a really cathartic experience to be able to go out and be in nature but also to be working with large animals who continue that working through emotions and feelings and thoughts." - Leah Grams Johnson

 

Where were you before Nashville?

I lived in Boston for three years before I moved to Nashville. I was going to school there and so I decided Nashville would be my kind of graduate school for music, basically, because I think it’s one of the places with the highest caliber of musicianship and has such a deep history of American roots music and history that doesn't exist in other places so I came here to learn.

Can you explain where we filmed this video?

We are in Nolensville, TN, which is this great little one street town, about 17 or 18 miles East of town. I work as a horse trainer, among other things, so I live in this beautiful house and play with these horses and miniature donkeys. So this is where we are right now, we’re in the barn.

Have you ridden horses all your life?

I started riding when I was nine, but I’ve loved horses all my life. It’s very much the other half of me. It balances out, I think, creativity really well. If I’m at the house writing for a few hours and I get stuck - writing is so much of being in your mental space and in the zone - and if I get stuck or if I’ve just reached my time limit for the day, it’s amazing to just go outside and work with big animals. One thing I love about horses is that they’re a direct reflection of what you’re thinking and feeling. So in the songwriting process, you’re dealing with what you’re thinking and feeling a whole lot, trying to turn that into something and put it to music. It’s just a really cathartic experience to be able to go out and be in nature but also to be working with large animals who continue that working through emotions and feelings and thoughts.

You have a few EPs and singles out. What is your plan going forward with releasing stuff? Do you think a full length record is in your future?

So at the moment, I was on the West Coast and in Colorado a lot this summer touring and I have a couple singles out. I don’t have a full album out yet but that’s to come. Right now, until the Spring, I’m really just grounding down and writing a lot. I’m trying to do shows - a couple every month or so, around the southeast, then locally in Nashville. I hope to start recording maybe at the tail end of this winter. But next summer, I will be living in Taos, New Mexico. I got an artist residency from the Helene Wurlitzer foundation, so I’d really like to write a whole project while I’m there. I get to live in this little adobe casita, on something like 20 acres, all in walking distance to the town of Taos, which is a really incredible artist community, but also really rich culturally and historically. It has the Pueblo Native Americans and the Hispanic people, and the hippie artsy people that moved there in the early 70s. I actually haven’t been there, but I’m so excited to go there and soak all that up and write songs. Until then, the month before, I’ll probably tour in Colorado a lot as I make my way down, but otherwise I’ll be in Nashville a lot writing and hopefully recording. I haven’t done the full album yet...I want to but I don’t have the body of work that I feel like...maybe I’m too hard on myself, but I haven’t quite gotten the collections of songs I want yet.

At the residency, are there other artists there?

Yeah, there are artists of all kinds and there are three different sessions. You apply and they pick 12 different artists and so we each have our own Adobe casita and we all share a community library and common area. I think I’m the only songwriter in my session. There are playwrights and sculptors…

How did you find out about it?

Google. I love the Southwest. That’s my other home. I love it so much. I’ve spent a lot of time in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada, camping and exploring out there in the canyons, but I’ve never been to Northern New Mexico for some reason and about a year and a half ago, it kinda just clicked that I needed to go there. I got kinda obsessed with it and I think through just research of what was in the area, I stumbled on that residency and decided to apply. I did not think I would get it for the life of me, but I figured if you don’t ask, the answer’s automatically no, so you might as well try. So I got lucky.

Are you going to come back here afterwards?

That’s my plan. In my perfect world, down the line, I’d be able to spend half the here in Northern New Mexico or in the four corners region, and the rest of the year I’d love to be in Nashville. This is my community and the way songwriting is valued here is very unique and that’s not something I want to lose touch with.