By Zoe Mintz
Immediately upon listening to Paper Compass, I thought of my friend Andre, the first person with whom I connected deeply about music. We first met virtually - on Ultimate-Guitar.com - while I was casually entertaining the idea of teaching myself to play guitar but mostly I vehemently desired to join an artistic community that could accommodate my real-life shyness. And it was in a surprising space, the Ultimate Guitar discussion forum about literature, where I found dyadic nourishment in Andre, the easy-laughing bohème of my teenage dreams, who became one of my dear friends during that time.
Clayton Johnson of Paper Compass - like Andre - has the kind of unpracticed but easygoing, natural vocal ability that, paired with Elliott-Smith-inspired vocal layering and delicate reverb, emphasizes its own vulnerability without pageantry. Despite the years separating them, when I hear Paper Compass recordings, I can’t help remembering the beautiful lo-fi, natural quality of Andre’s songs (the ones I’m referencing were recorded over 10 years ago) and how they reflected the intimate, bedroom-recording nature of their conception. That special quality of intimacy in Johnson’s music, combined with his masterful fingerpicking, vocal layering, and his whispery, confessional voice, takes the music to a distinct, familiar world.
It’s a world where you can be absolutely secure in your vulnerability. Paper Compass songs activate feelings of tranquility in me because the combination of atmospheric, echoey instrumentation and his temperate voice quite viscerally conjures the sensation of drifting off into a happy dream, floating on a lullaby.
Lulled so effectively after listening to a few other Paper Compass songs like these, I was a little surprised to read that, in the bio Johnson provided us, Twin Peaks is stated as a heavy influence. As a David Lynch obsessive myself, I immediately thought, “I am THE best person to write about Paper Compass!!!” Then came the puzzlement: I thought back to the softly nostalgic “Carolina,” the deeply melancholy “Goodbye to a World,” and the gently rollicking “Slow Down.” Gorgeous songs, though they seemed to have Lynchian influence only insofar as they might be songs that Twin Peaks character James Hurley would sing if he were a better songwriter (and didn’t use such an obnoxious falsetto). For reference:
Simple, but bizarrely moving, right? I actually really like James Hurley’s “Just You,” and associate it with the beautiful, innocent romanticism that David Lynch spends a lot of time narratively corrupting. After spending some time reminiscing about the show, the more I listened to Paper Compass, the easier it became to see how someone who loved David Lynch and Twin Peaks could start a project like Paper Compass.
Johnson’s revisited themes of lost innocence and the depth of instrumentation accompanying his wistful lyrics bring to mind a sepia-soaked vignette of Donna Hayward and Laura Palmer slow-mo dancing around a picnic blanket. It’s his later EPs like 2018’s Canvas that most showcase a Lynchian synthesis (sometimes with literal synthesizers) of Americana-infused nostalgia and character-driven stories set in a dreamy, weird world.
But stylistically, Paper Compass is a multi-faceted project. Early EPs and albums are more acoustic and play with beautiful, mostly unadulterated sounds. These are the kind of songs that will be at home on both my “Crying Time” and “Strolling Hopefully Through a Meadow” playlists. Songs like “Rain” on the 2016 release Shooting Stars are best accompanied with a mug of tea at dusk:
To me, for one song to apply to multiple moods is to gain my utmost esteem. I admire artists who try to explore their seemingly contradictory impulses, artists who pivot in new directions with each song, each project they take on. I love artists who painstakingly explore the minutiae of a single concept too - and all of the artists in between - but the art I spend the most time with tends to have in common makers who try to embody all of their different selves, people trying to communicate, the best they can, the way each of their personas relate to the world. The selves Clayton Johnson conveys via Paper Compass are at once tender, challenging, melancholy, romantic, cynical, angry, just like all of us, and he allows us to see those parts of our identities with sentimentality.
As an extraordinarily sentimental person, listening to Paper Compass has been a journey in remembering how my relationship to music began, inspiring me to take stock of where I’ve traveled, musically and interpersonally, since then. For so long, the destination I sought more than any other was a family of creatives. When my path led to Underwater Sunshine, I’d finally found that musical family that I sought when I met Andre. Now my musical paths branch out in multiple directions, one brightly lit by the beacon that is Clayton Johnson. I can’t wait to see where Paper Compass takes me next.