After touring in support of his acclaimed, self-released 2019 debut album, Songs From the Valley, John Vincent III was ready for a bit of a break. So when the COVID-19 pandemic struck shortly thereafter, he and his girlfriend packed up their Ford Transit van and just drove … for eight months. Nearly three years later, the 27-year-old Los Angeles/Houston-based singer/songwriter has distilled that once-in-a-lifetime experience into his beautiful and evocative sophomore full-length, Songs for the Canyon.
Co-produced by Vincent with Tom Elmhirst (Adele, David Bowie), and featuring additional production from Tony Berg and Ryan Hadlock, Songs for the Canyon is a massive leap forward from a proudly DIY artist who has already built a diehard fan base on the strength of his heartfelt, stripped-down, folk-tinged sound.
During the van sojourn, Vincent tried his best to tune out the world around him, but he couldn’t help bringing a guitar along just in case. “I found myself trying to write songs for the love of writing songs again, and not thinking about structure or intricate chords,” he says. “I wanted to get back to just picking up a guitar and singing over it. That’s what I loved doing when I first started making music. I’d just write about what we were doing, where we were at, traveling, and living in a van.”
As beautiful as this impromptu living arrangement was at times, it was also challenging to share a home-on-wheels with another human as well as a new puppy. “It was a cool contrast of beautiful and painful,” Vincent admits. “Once we started working our way back to L.A., I got really inspired by the ‘60s Laurel Canyon scene and Carole King piano ballads. Eventually, I re-entered the mindset of pushing myself and focusing on the song structures. It started by pushing that away, and then it came back probably even more intense than it was beforehand.”
At that point, Vincent felt ready and open “to working with anybody and learning from them. I got to work with some really smart producers and I learned a lot from the process. I was just soaking it up the whole time.” That also meant not throwing in the towel when certain songs just weren’t working or required three or four different versions before revealing their true identities.
Opener and first single “Highway Woman” is a perfect example. Vincent recorded it once by himself and another time with a producer, but it finally clicked during a session with Elmhirst at the famed Electric Lady studio in New York’s West Village. “I was at a place at that point where I had recorded six songs with one producer and three songs with another, but was left with only three that fit the album,” he recalls. “I was kind of self-producing to get back on track. By the time I went to Tom, we were really trying to scramble to get it to sound cohesive again. He was really kind and patient. We recorded all three of the ballad-esque piano songs on the same rickety piano, and you can even hear the keys hitting the felt inside of it.”
Indeed, the album version of “Highway Woman” is all Vincent (on piano, acoustic guitar, and Rhodes keyboard), and its simple message of love makes for a welcome but unlikely reintroduction his music. “It seemed enticing to put something out that might be a little shocking or unpredictable,” he says. “Especially after being away for so long, it excited me to show I’ve been trying new things during my time away. It’s a really good representation of the album as a whole.”
From there, Songs for the Canyon finds Vincent singing wistfully about places he’s never been (the Nick Drake-esque “Lincoln, NB”), harmonizing on record for the first time with his girlfriend (“I Lit a Fire,” the country-tinged “Bluebird,” complete with a smattering of applause from unknown persons) and airing his deepest thoughts with little more than his own acoustic guitar and stomping feet as a safety net (“On and On,” which was at first a much faster folk-rock song). Another key track, “Dandelion,” channels vintage sunny California songcraft even though it was started in Houston, tweaked in Los Angeles, and ultimately completed in New York.
Vincent says the album’s title was inspired by the concept of “a small area with so many great artists settling down in it or coming out of there. With Laurel Canyon, look at the diversity: from Carole King to Joni Mitchell to Frank Zappa and the Doors. I think what inspired me the most is probably the vocal melodies, the lyricism, and the calmness of it. It’s rock’n’roll, but it’s folk. It’s everything I love.”
As he prepares to introduce this new body of work, Vincent is still processing what his time away from music has meant, but he’s proud that Songs for the Canyon is a warts-and-all chronicle of that moment. He says, “There were times I felt like I was on top of the world, and others when I was crying about how the album just wasn’t coming together, and I think you can feel that in the recordings.”
“To the people who have supported my career, even during my time away, I want them to know that this album was therapeutic – it was just me trying to figure out what the hell I was going through,” he continues. “Maybe I still don’t even have the answers, but I tried my best to create something that was as honest as possible and hopefully worth the wait.”