"DEADLINES AND CREATIVE BLOCKS DON’T PLAY WELL TOGETHER, SO ESTABLISHING TOOLS TO HELP YOU THROUGH THE TOUGH DAYS IS VITAL."
- Cody Matthew Johnson
In this exclusive interview, we delve into the fascinating journey of the award-winning composer and producer who has left an indelible mark on the world of music, Cody Matthew Johnson. We discuss his diverse projects across video games, films, and TV shows, his creative process, career challenges and highlights, and collaborations. We also delve into his growth as a composer, his inspirations, and his experiences as the founder of the game audio powerhouse, Emperia Sound and Music. This conversation offers a unique perspective into the dynamic world of music and business.
What was your initial experience like when you decided to pursue a career in music, and how did your feelings towards the industry evolve over time?
When I first gave a music career a shot, I decided if it didn’t work out I could go back to school and re-enroll into biology, pre-med, or whatever other career I was hoping would work out if music didn’t hit. At that time, when I first moved to LA and attended Musicians Institute, I was a singer / songwriter, playing in bands, and producing for my band and other artists. Music was my life-giving passion, but I didn’t love how it was manifesting – I was a lot less passionate about the vertical of the industry I was working in. I loved writing music but found the medium not as engaging as I had hoped.
Could you describe your journey from a student to an award-winning composer?
When questions like this come up, I think of the World of Warcraft achievement, “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”; truly it’s been a very long, unexpected, and pleasantly surprising creative journey, but not without its challenges!
I was briefly introduced to the idea of writing music for visual media when Musicians Institute opened a new program specifically dedicated to exactly that. I gave it a try and thanks to some awesome mentors I fell in love with the medium and decided to charge in head first.
After college I embraced the same aggressively passionate approach, but with a high degree of intentional pragmatism – working for composers and studios, but emphasizing problem solution, systems, creative efficiency, and making myself indispensable to the team, all of which were skills easily translated when I started Emperia Sound and Music once I broke into the games industry.
In that time, what key moments shaped your career?
Key moments were intrinsically tied to my mentors, specifically Adam Fligsten, who embraced a very “no B.S.” approach to mentorship and pushed me towards excellence day-in-and-day-out. I found film, TV, and game scoring to be this amalgamation of my many different skills from my musical background: orchestra, pop, rock, electronic music production, engineering, and of course creative musical composition and songwriting.
You've worked on a diverse range of projects, from video games to films to TV shows. How do you approach composing for different mediums? Do you have a different creative process for each?
I believe very strongly in the holistic approach to storytelling in visual media. Each piece of a medium, whether its cinematography, programming, game design, narrative, and even interactive sound systems, are all equitably important when considering the collective power those elements have when they flawlessly dance together. I have found that becoming voraciously curious about the medium you’re working is in key for me to immerse myself and find the absolute best musical approach for the project.
As you dive into more tech heavy mediums, like gaming and experiential design, there is a lot more in play that you need to take into consideration like game theory, immersive technology, audio systems, etc. and you build on the creative foundation and iterate your ideas to work flawlessly in the content to uplift the “lean in'' experience. I wholeheartedly believe that “good music” is not enough – that’s the easy-ish part! Embrace what is novel and unique about your medium and use it as a lens for your creativity.
"I’ve found that as you expand your toolbelt you’ll have combinations of ideas that always “work” for specific scenes or emotions."
Your work on the "Trek To Yomi" soundtrack was highly acclaimed. Can you share some insights into the creative process behind it?
Composing score for Trek to Yomi, was prefaced by nearly 18 months of after-hours research into 1940-1950s Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa (legendary Japanese film director known for Roshomon, Seven Samurai), the Edo period, Japanese Music systems, Japanese instruments, and specifically how these instruments and musical systems were reflected during the Edo period. The “pop” music industry, as well as classic music industry, is heavily influenced by Euro-centric music theory, but cultures around the world developed their own highly unique instruments and music systems long before our Euro-centric music theory was established.
Once the story proceeds into Yomi, or “underworld/life after death/world of the dead”, I could start to embrace a bit more of my sound design and music production background by recording edo period instruments with ultrasonic microphones, ambisonic microphones, experimenting with the doppler effect and reverb chambers.. all sorts of mayhem applied through the lens of traditional edo period instruments, e.g. Shakuhachi, Taiko, Shinobue, Ryuteki, Hichiricki, Sho, Biwa, and many more.
What were some of the challenges and highlights?
Many, many, many challenges.. but so rewarding! It wasn’t enough to do Japanese-lite music, or simply layer Japanese instruments over an orchestra as is commonplace in many film, TV, and game scores with a specific time or period as a setting – we wanted to be as authentic as possible in the context of the fictional story set in an objectively nonfictional environment.
As an artist, how do you handle creative blocks? Do you have any strategies or routines that help you stay inspired and productive?
We all come up with our individual ways of addressing issues like creative blocks or writer’s block. I’ve found that as you expand your toolbelt you’ll have combinations of ideas that always “work” for specific scenes or emotions. It’s OK to use those tools, even if they are trite, tired, or you’ve used them before, to get started. Deadlines and creative blocks don’t play well together, so establishing tools to help you through the tough days is vital.
I personally have a pretty strict schedule – up early, blocking system for tasks and creative work, embracing a strategic combination of Parkinson’s Law (e.i. a task will fill the time it’s given) and doubling down on Pareto’s Principle (e.i. the 80/20 rule -- 20% of your efforts result in 80% of your successes; doubled down to a 64/4) – that keeps me on track. But sometimes I have to simply block out 4 – 10 hours of time to bash my head against my keyboard (creatively speaking) and just “work through it”, allowing myself freedom to take breaks, explore other ideas, cook, clean the house. My best ideas come when I’m not even writing music, but I still consider that work.
Also… go touch grass sometimes.
How has your work evolved over the years?
Time is more precious, and ideas are less precious. I used to hold on to any idea that came out of my fingers and force it to work in context of the scene or brief… as if I would never have another good idea again. Everyone has good ideas – the muse flows for everyone. Creativity is not quite as novel as we make it seem… at least not at a surface level. It’s rather commoditized. But going deeper into the creative rabbit hole, so to speak, and embracing a more holistic and semiotic approach to creativity will help you stand out amongst the insanely talented peers around you.
"Composing and producing is an artform that extends far beyond your DAW, it requires intangible skills like communication and empathy"
Are there any specific ways you've grown or changed as a composer and producer?
Perception of time has narrowed as my career has progressed, and I find it harder and harder to prioritize non-creative time, which is so very vital to having a thriving creative career. Constantly in search of balance, but alas the pendulum is always in motion: never quite finding equilibrium except for a single moment, though when taken as an average as the pendulum swings back and forth over time you may find balance. I think about this a lot, it’s one of my highest priorities and goals to have an averaged balance in my life.
What's the most unusual or unexpected source of inspiration you've had for a piece of music?
Early in my career, long before I got deep and nerdy into sound design, I heard the laundry exhaust at my brother’s house and it was the first time that a non-musical source of sound had identifiably unique and definitive pitch, envelope, and harmonics, etc. It was like opening Pandora's box of sonic possibilities.. I started hearing musical potential everywhere and thus my journey into the depths of musical sound design began.
If you could collaborate with any artist, living or deceased, who would it be and why?
Might be a cliché, but I would love an opportunity to collaborate with my very recently deceased uncle, J. Eric Johnson. He was a fantastic and accomplished piano player and a creative mind unlike any other I’ve met in my career thus far. Everyone speaks through their craft differently, having so much to offer the world and to their peers to learn – it’s these types of collaborative contributions and learning opportunities that make music better. I feel his time to continue to make music better, share the gift of music, and share his creativity with the world was cut short – I would love to be able to share it with the world once again.
What advice would you give to aspiring composers and producers who are just starting out in their careers?
Be voraciously curious. Slow down. It’s not enough to be good at your craft, you need to be great at your craft and as a person. Composing and producing is an artform that extends far beyond your DAW, it requires intangible skills like communication and empathy, and if you don’t train and practice those skills you’ll only hold yourself back. It might sound silly to say you have to “train” empathy or communication, but isolation in a music studio will not warrant results as you might imagine. Something, something, balance, something, something.
From the "Devil Awakens" Devil May Cry Concert with the Video Game Orchestra at PAX East 2019 and Brighton Music Hall in Boston, MA. With Video Game Orchestra leader Shota Nakama and the rest of the VGO band.
Finally, when you're not composing or producing, what do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
I like the art of tattooing a lot! As an art form, I’m really interested in not only the artist expression of tattoos themselves and the opportunity to shape your body in your own image, self-representation, etc. but I find the physiology of tattooing and the actual application of tattoos wildly interesting. I’ve always want to try to start tattooing or do an apprenticeship... I need to do that.
I also play a lot of games – I love games. Always have! I’m very lucky to not feel burnt out at the end of the day, after working on games week after week, to still feel excited to play. The act of playing, whether its games or applying the mindset of play to whatever it is you love, is so important.
I also like to touch grass and find ways of playing while touching grass. It’s a joke but also very serious!
Cody Matthew Johnson is a proud Kiesel Guitars Artist and exclusively plays Kiesel Guitars.