‘It’s All About the Message’: Cody Johnson Finds the Right Vocal Shade for ‘The Painter’

The first time Cody Johnson heard “The Painter,” it took him home emotionally.

After the first line, “She talks about the future like she’s flipping through a magazine,” it seemed familiar.
“I’m like, ‘Well, there’s Brandi,’” he says, referring to his wife.

After each of the remaining five lines in the opening verse, he had the same thought: “There’s Brandi.” And when the chorus hit – “I don’t remember/ Life before she came into the picture” – he was pretty much gone.

“Tears started welling up in my eyes,” he recalls.

It was no question after that moment that Johnson would record “The Painter.” But what particularly makes the song work is that his sentiment about his wife is not entirely unique. The words also apply to the marriage of Red Street Country singer/songwriter Ryan Larkins, who conceived the basic idea – that a woman brought meaning and color to a man’s life – with his wife, Chauntay, in mind.

“I was getting to go and do what I love every day, and I was just talking about how I wouldn’t be here without her,” he says of the original co-writing session. “I just had a few words, like ‘masterpiece,’ ‘colors,’ ‘canvas,’ and I kind of had this thing: ‘She made a masterpiece/ Yeah, she’s the painter.’”

Larkins introduced the concept during a writing appointment with Kat Higgins (“Knowing You”) and Benjy Davis (“Made For You”) in the front room at Nashville’s THiS Music on June 26, 2019, the month before the company’s co-founder, Rusty Gaston, left to head Sony Music Publishing Nashville.

“It was basically like, ‘This is my wife and our life, she’s the painter, she’s the color, she’s making everything come to life,’” Higgins notes. “We were just smiling. It was such a fun song to write because we all love the character.”

Davis started in with a rolling guitar figure and casually dropped the poetic opening line about “flipping through a magazine,” though the rest of “The Painter” wasn’t quite so effortless. They wanted to sell the painting theme in the lyrics but were very specific about not overdoing it. The second line suggested a non-painting artist, and the end of verse two intentionally avoided rhyming. They moved around between stanzas, placing images where they seemed appropriate. The enthusiasm increased when the chorus honored her patience: “With every wall I built, she saw a canvas.”

“I don’t remember who said that, or remember when it was said, but that’s when we knew we were on the right path,” Davis recalls.

In the third verse, the woman gives her approval to her man’s blue periods, a sort of recognition that rough patches offer value of their own. The writers talked a bit about writing a bridge for “The Painter” – they might have even tried one or two versions of a bridge – but ultimately dropped that plan and inserted a four-bar space for a solo.

“When we left that day, we knew we had something special,” Larkins notes. “And so we kind of talked about it a little bit through text. And we’re like, ‘You know, we probably need to revisit this because it just doesn’t quite land.’ So we got back together and worked on it.”

They had determined that “masterpiece” was a little over the top, so when they reassembled a few weeks later, that line became the primary focus of the day. “’My life’s a masterpiece and she’s the painter,’ we felt like that was a little too grand,” Davis says. “We had to kind of strip that away and be like, ‘No, it’s not a masterpiece. I see it this way, and she sees it that way.’”

Within a couple hours, they changed it to “My world was black and white, but she’s the painter.”

Higgins oversaw the demo, with a resonator guitar delivering the rolling effect while a kick drum kept the pace moving by hitting every beat once the first chorus came in. Larkins sang it like he meant it, and Higgins provided a vocal countermelody in the chorus. The version that Johnson would hear was almost master-quality, and his interest affirmed the writers’ diligence. “The fact that he wanted to cut this,” Higgins says, pausing. “It’s sort of like a knighting to get chosen by Cody.”

Johnson recorded “The Painter” with producer Trent Willmon (Granger Smith, Zane Williams) at Starstruck, where Johnson had the best chance of connecting with the studio band.

“There’s this magical spot where the singer is in the little vocal booth,” Willmon says. “In the corner, and through the glass, you can see both the entire band and the control booth. There’s not a lot of tracking rooms like that, where the singer can see everything that’s going on. The musicians get so much inspiration from Cody and this just brutal energy that he sends out, and he can see them, they can see him, and they just thrive off of him.”

Tim Gallaway took on the key resonator part, and Jerry Roe handled the drums, starting the kick at the very beginning to emphasize the pace a little more, with shaker creating additional motion in several sections. They recorded it at 98 beats per minute, the same deceptively brisk tempo as the demo. Later, Willmon brought fiddler Jenee Fleenor in to overdub additional parts, some of them inspired by the vocal backgrounds Higgins had sung on the demo. Fleenor also built the solo section, developing an elegant string quartet one instrument at a time.

“That part blows me away,” Larkins says. “It moves me almost to tears, like as much as the chorus or the very first verse. It’s such a huge part of that song now.” Willmon worked with Fleenor in-person on that section. The decision to cut it that way, instead of just emailing her the files, was one of his favorite parts of the process.

“If I sent [the tracks] to her it would be like giving up tickets on the 50 yard line to the Super Bowl,” he says. “It is about as creatively musical as it can get watching her do her magic.”

The mix of strings, resonator and Travis Toy’s steel guitar imbued the “The Painter” with a whole pallet of sound, supporting the storyline in an appropriate fashion. “We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” Johnson says. “But all those different nuances, it paints a beautiful picture and it has all those different colors in it.”

Johnson’s relaxed, emotional vocals – delivered with Brandi in mind – were captured on a newly purchased $10,000 Brauner microphone, with Johnson changing “my world was black and white” to “my life was black and white.”

“The Painter” became a unanimous choice for the first single from a forthcoming album. Warner Music Nashville released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Aug. 10. It debuted at No. 12 on the multi-metric Hot Country Songs chart dated Aug. 26 and started at No. 33 on Country Airplay. It’s at No. 40 on the Sept. 9 Airplay chart.

“I don’t sing ‘The Painter’ any harder than I’m talking right now,” he says. “That is rare for a Cody Johnson song. But it’s not, ‘Hey, look at me. Look how good I can sing.’ It’s all about the message.”

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