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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Carl Johns: The next new thing
The restless songwriter moves on after changing Madison music
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Johns advanced by leaps and bounds during his time here.
Johns advanced by leaps and bounds during his time here.
Credit:Sharon Vanorny

The plan was to move to Madison for one year.

It was the fall of 1997. Carl Johns and Tenaya Darlington had gotten married in July and moved from Bloomington, Ind., into an apartment on Madison's near east side. Darlington had been offered a one-year appointment teaching poetry at Beloit College.

"She commuted," recalls Johns, who met Darlington at Indiana University, where they were both English students. "I came up just planning on odd jobs."

Darlington says she remembers arriving home from work nearly every day that fall to find Carl playing guitar and writing songs. It would be months (May 15, 1998, at Mother Fool's, to be precise) before he worked up the confidence to begin performing as Noahjohn on a local stage.

"He was very nervous about playing out," says Darlington. "At Mother Fool's, I remember he played the whole show with his eyes raised toward the ceiling. He was too scared to look out at the audience."

The one-year plan never came to pass. Instead, Johns, 31, will say goodbye to Madison next week after a nine-year run in which he arguably emerged as our most high-profile link to the national indie-rock circuit.

He is moving to Philadelphia next month to establish himself as a full-time working musician and to be near a fertile East Coast gig circuit. He plans to recast his nationally recognized indie band, Charlemagne, as a trio with new members once he gets there. He'll be resuming a same-city friendship with Darlington, who moved to Philadelphia to teach college last year following the couple's amicable divorce.

Johns' friends say his move is consistent with his musical ethic, which is always embracing change.

"I think the best thing he does for himself and for fans of good music is not to be afraid to move onto something new, even after having success with a particular type of music," says MaeRae's Lisa Hinzman, who was Johns' bandmate in Noahjohn.

"He's like that in his nonmusical life as well," she adds, "looking to the next new thing and taking chances."

The early years

"I wanted to be a baker when I first moved here," says Johns. "Then I was attracted to the notion of completing an MFA in poetry. Then I started to get more interested in indie music and culture. Pretty soon I wanted to get into every part of the game ' the record labels, zines, promoting."

Johns' trail of musical accomplishments suggests that he met each of those goals.

But it all started with a CD that generated a buzz in 1999.

Local music fans might recall the first time they heard Tadpoles. For me, it was a Friday afternoon, through a radio tuned to Ted Offensive's long-defunct "Songs of Safety and Manners" show on WORT. How could you not take notice of an in-studio guest who had actually brought along an accordion? I wrote down his name, Noahjohn.

I listened to Tadpoles soon after it came out. The title track was so instantly disarming ' three minutes of a gentle accordion being played with recital-like precision. The music ushered you into a dream, where the steadfast baritone sang flatly and innocently about his soothing yet intolerant hometown:

I was walking down, in my hometown, with my old man
Fields stretching out on either side of us, green blankets
Then a truck drove by and somebody yelled "Hey faggots, get off the road!"
It's good to be back home.

The cover of Tadpoles pictured Johns riding a bike down a residential alley in a cowboy hat. He sported a neatly groomed handlebar moustache that was his signature for most of his Madison years.

The photo conjured a "smart country boy in the hip city" persona that made Johns' dual interest in roots music and indie rock seem perfectly logical.

Pop Explosion

The same year Tadpoles was released, Johns started a local record label called Speakeasy. The label was the genesis of a musical collective that has surrounded him ever since. That collective continues today as Wisconsin Pop Explosion, an association that plans and promotes local pop shows.

If Tadpoles was a restless country dream, Noahjohn's 2001 follow-up album, Had a Burning, provided an immediate indie-rock counterweight. The opening track, "Ima Clam," featured polished electric guitar production and a steady drumbeat, all within a pop-song structure that Johns quickly mastered.

Johns began promoting shows under the business name Killdeer. Most Killdeer events were at the Tornado Club's Corral Room. Some involved high-profile bands like Okkervil River.

He published a zine called Wild Chirp, soliciting contributions from Badger Herald arts writer Alex Fulton, Lisa Hinzman (then playing with the Quickies) and B-Side Records' Steve Manley.

Johns' songwriting flourished. He credits that in part to his creative relationship with Darlington after they bought a house together in the neighborhood behind the Crystal Corner Bar.

"We totally had this thing where we would eat dinner, and after, she would write and I would write songs," says Johns. "It was almost a mild competition. A lot of my ideas came from her."

Darlington wrote poetry and fiction. She became a staff writer for Isthmus following her employment at Beloit College.

Johns' songwriting productivity spawned six albums in nine years. Critical praise arrived from some of the most influential outlets of the music media ' Mojo, Pitchfork, Pop Matters and Paste.

Lisa Hinzman says that Johns brought credibility to the Madison music scene during his years here. "From my perspective, there have been few bands who've done that over the past decade. Killdozer really started it. Rainer Maria did it as well. Garbage and especially Smart Studios after the Nirvana connection was a biggie. Carl is the most current leg of that."

Playing with Angels

The albums inspired dozens of local gigs and fueled Johns' increasing interest in national and international touring. In 2004, he toured the U.K. with Philadelphia-based songwriter (and Sufjan Stevens pal) Denison Witmer.

Initially, Noahjohn was Carl performing solo. Tadpoles was created from ad-hoc collaborations with musical friends. By its second album, Noahjohn was a five-piece band that included Peter Kaesbesrg, Stephen Burke, Eena Ballard and Hinzman.

Noahjohn began giving way to Charlemagne in 2003 after Ballard moved to New York and Hinzman had a baby. Charlemagne signed with the California-based indie label SideCho in 2005.

The limitations of the Madison scene can be an obstacle for nationally ambitious artists. Unlike Brooklyn, Nashville, Austin and Seattle, Madison lacks a crowded stable of full-time professional musicians available for months of touring.

Johns has coped resourcefully. There's a reason for the unusual level of national success he's achieved. It is his rare capacity to play live with a revolving pool of musicians while maintaining identity and consistency.

With its ever-changing lineup, Johns has affectionately nicknamed his band "Charlemagne and His Angels." The angels were his rotating cast of players.

For the next phase, though, Johns says he would like to have a solid band.

"I'm looking for a trio when I get to Philadelphia. It fits the format for the next album, which is going to be a little bit sparser ' rock 'n' roll psychedelic stuff that's folky."

Madison Memories

When Carl Johns describes how Madison has influenced his music, he talks about the paths between his house on the near east side, his office job at UW-Madison and the downtown music venues in-between.

"I always enjoyed the neighborhood," he says. "Twenty minutes on my bike to get to work; 10 minutes to get to any bar I wanted to go to.

"My path of travel cultivated my communication with most of the people I ended up collaborating with," he adds. "You'd see people, and they'd want to tell you what they're working on."

He talks, too, about how friends have shaped his music. "The friends who were playing with me really had a big effect on what I wanted to play," he says.

But there's also the matter of how Johns has influenced Madison, as well as the course of his friends' lives.

One of those friends is Alex Fulton, the Charlemagne drummer whose nickname is A12. (Johns is more nickname happy than George W. Bush. Someday ask him about his van, Goldie.) She remembers meeting Johns in 1998 at a Tenney Park show, where he asked her to contribute to Wild Chirp.

"Carl knows a lot of people," she says. "He's very open to meeting all types of new people, and he's good at maintaining relationships with them. I've met a lot of people through Carl that I probably would never have crossed paths with."

One person she might never have met is Curtis Whatley, Charlemagne keyboardist and guitarist, who is now her husband.

At June's Marquette Waterfront Festival, one of Charlemagne's angels was the 8-year-old son of B-Side Records co-owner Steve Manley. Already a guitar player, this future scene prospect can someday say Carl Johns gave him his first Madison gig.

"My son absolutely loved playing guitar and percussion with Charlemagne," says Manley. "And my wife and I were as proud and thankful as we could be."

Darlington sees a connection between Johns' ongoing successes and the qualities she saw in him when they first met.

"Carl was a legend in our English department because he'd dropped out of the pre-med track to become a poet," she says. "His parents were so disgusted by this that they refused to pay his tuition, so Carl paid for the rest of his schooling himself.

"That's so Carl. He believes so fiercely in things and works so tirelessly. He enjoys life more than anyone I know. Loves to make music. Loves to travel. Loves to throw parties. He's built for show business."

Carl Johns' farewell party (on the night of his birthday) is Wednesday, Aug. 23, 9 p.m., at the High Noon Saloon. He'll be performing with the Super Eights and Charlemagne.

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