Johnny Delaware reflects on his new heartland rock album, Zia, and the motivation behind songwriting | Provided

“Something comes out of the guitar that is arbitrary, but that’s the best thing about creativity, pulling something out of the ether,” said rock musician Johnny Delaware. “You’re kind of like a sorcerer or sorceress — a magician. Like an alchemist, you can’t predict what can happen.”

After departing from psych-folk group Susto in 2016, Delaware started Charleston-based project The Artisanals, releasing its self-titled LP in 2018. Now the group has followed up with a new album, Zia, a tribute to the light-bending, desolate deserts of New Mexico and songwriting forays with vocalist/guitarist Clay Houle, who spearheads the musical direction with Delaware. Also heard on Zia are bassist Eric Mixon, drummer Nick Recio and keyboardist Ian Klin. The album was recorded in the winter of 2019 in Chase Park Transduction studios in Athens, Georgia.

“It was basically an album made off of trying to manifest what you want in life,” Delaware said. “I can’t remember what a lot of the album was supposed to be about beyond that. I write a lot of songs on my own, but it seems when I write songs with Clay, things come out in a special way. He’s very intuitive with music.”

To Delaware, The Artisanals are a West-Coast-sounding band. He’s always been inspired by artists who came up out of San Francisco and Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon in the ’60s and ’70s. He also loves classic songwriters like Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. “Zia is stripped down. It has more acoustic elements with less production.” 

Besides Cheap Trick and Big Star rock ’n’ roll, Delaware has been listening to a lot of reggaeton and Mexican pop music, which may sound obscure if not for the fact that he moved to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico, a year ago. 

“I experienced another pandemic. Where I lived is impoverished. People are worried about feeding their families. They don’t want to fight about who’s taking a vaccine and who’s not. They’re worried about how their kids are going to eat tomorrow,” he said. 

He lives in an indigenous part of Mexico populated by artisans who weave and craft rugs. 

“It’s heartbreaking — you see them trying to sell stuff and there’s bruises on their cheeks because they’re being beaten at home. Then on social media I see people up in their high rises ordering UberEats telling everyone to mask up. Meanwhile, I’m in a whole other paradigm. In the perspective of everything in the world and on a musical level, I don’t get involved in politics.” 

The pandemic gave Delaware the revelation that there’s more to life than what your craft is. 

“I took a break from writing during COVID. I wanted a break. I wanted to step back. I got a little too involved with it,” he said. “With social media, it doesn’t help your mental state — you see people’s highlight reels and there’s a part of you subconsciously that gets jealous because you want success for your art too.”

When Delaware took space away from writing music, he says he more clearly saw the tension between the practical and divine aspects of making songs.

“You should do it because it comes from a higher place,” Delaware said. “‘Oh I’m a musician, I should probably write a song.’ That’s such a shitty role to have. How is good art going to come from that? It just woke me up.” 

With drums shattering and guitar licks sorrowfully stretched, the lyrics in The Artisanals’ new song, “Way Up,” leave you feeling wistful just like Zia itself: “Don’t wanna manifest pain. It’s already heavy and hard to move … I’m going way up. And I’m never going down.”