Dallas-based Americana singer Sarah Johnson is an example of the truth behind the old saw that it's never too late to follow one's dream. At 32 years old, she's set to release her debut EP, Volcano, next month and is more sure of herself than she's ever been.
Over the course of her life, Johnson has played churches, basements and small venues in Dallas. She even once converted a truck bed into a stage at a National Park in North Dakota. Now, fully focused on herself and the music, she is ready to be part of Dallas’ post-pandemic musical renaissance.
Volcano will be preceded by the EP’s title track, “Volcano,” set for release Aug. 14. Lyrically, “Volcano” is about Johnson’s dive into music. The single contains autobiographical elements, with lyrics like, "Just a kid on her daddy’s old six-string," referring to her father’s old Yamaha guitar that he gave her so she could learn how to play.
“[It’s about] so many years of hard work, cross-training, and dreaming all 'erupting' into the music scene,” Johnson says of “Volcano.” “[Producer] Beau [Bedford] really helped me craft the story. I brought a rough version to him, which was actually about something completely different, and he challenged me to tell a bigger, more important story.”
Johnson spent her 20s learning and growing as a songwriter. She also launched a business with her mother called King’s Daughters, selling inspirational art, books, and stationery. As an entrepreneur, she values her business skills, which she says are essential for thriving in the music industry.
As a child, Johnson wrote songs about “everything from crossing the street to setting the table.” Her mom says Johnson wrote her first song when she 2 years old. Johnson is a skilled guitarist and plays piano “by ear.”
“Music and songwriting [are] ingrained in me,” Johnson says. “I really started working on my songwriting after college, mostly writing faith-based songs. And then, like most songwriters, I experienced the ups and downs of a not-so-great relationship which propelled me into writing more personal, raw songs.
"It was very gratifying turning struggles into something beautiful.”
Johnson has written over 70 songs. She decided to use her songwriting skills two years ago and work toward making an EP. While on a trip to Montana, she wrote “Red Bandana,” a cut from Volcano that will be released Sept. 4. This is the first song she wrote for the album, inspired by the small connections she forged during that summer.
“My grandmother lives there, and it’s my favorite spot on earth,” Johnson says of Montana. “I actually got on Bumble that trip and met some great local guys. When I got home I thought, ‘That would be such a great song — city girl goes to Montana and meets a mountain man.’
The first word Johnson thought of that rhymes with Montana was "bandana," Johnson says. "And this whole rodeo story appeared in my head. ... I remember doing a voice memo in the car and it all flowed out.”
When she began writing and recording Volcano, Johnson interviewed “about a dozen” producers from Dallas and Nashville. But when she heard music recorded in the Modern Electric Sound Recorders studio, she knew immediately that she wanted to work with Bedford.
Johnson sees Bedford as both a collaborator and mentor who understood her vision and added his touch to her songs.
“I really can’t say enough good things about working with Beau,” Johnson says. “He’s the best of everything in one producer. He genuinely cares about the artist and how to bring their songs to life. And he makes them sound better than you could have ever imagined.”
Johnson had finished recording the EP in February and was set to release it in March. Once COVID-19 struck, she decided to put the release on hold and wait to release when she could tour.
For now, every Tuesday Johnson goes live on Instagram for a show she calls "Tuesday Tunes," where she performs songs of her own and invites other local artists to join her. She is also brainstorming intimate concerts, front-porch shows and socially distant performance ideas.
“I can either see this as a setback or an opportunity to persevere and be even more creative,” Johnson says of the pandemic. “I choose the latter.”
Upon the Sept. 18 release of Volcano, Johnson hopes to inspire people to create art and bring their ideas to life, regardless of their situation. She says she does not regret releasing her debut EP at this point in her life, as she believes the songs will be relevant for years to come.
“I have peace that this is the perfect time,” Johnson says. “At 32, I know who I am. I’m secure in who I am. I’m not searching for identity, so to me, this is a beautiful new chapter and not something that will give me worth or value as a person. I am glad I’m bringing that perspective to entering into the music industry, which can be quite brutal.”
For those who feel they are not where they want to be in their careers and think it's too late to realize their goals, Johnson offers simple advice: just start.
“Two years ago, I started with a weekly YouTube video, posting original songs that I recorded with an iPhone,” Johnson says. “I held myself accountable to finish songs and post regularly. Those videos are what opened the door to where I am now. ... I wasn’t perfectionistic, I just took the next step every week.
"Don’t be afraid to try something that doesn’t work. I packed my bags and headed to Nashville, only to find I really wanted to be in Dallas.”