introduction by tom johnson
Born in NYC before moving to LA, Johanna Samuels has spent the best part of a decade honing her craft, carefully peeling away the layers until she arrived at her brilliant new EP Have A Good One; a stark, absorbing, and visceral new collection that offers her strongest and most absorbing work to-date.
Finding a way to balance bright pop melodies with a drifting sense of melancholy that can’t be placed, Samuels made the most of a bad year, writing the EP as a reaction to her longterm relationship falling apart. “So much of the record is about loss of love – really the loss of myself,” she explains. “I really lost a grasp on who I was and it truly broke me. Exploring the idea of identity in relationship was important to me. The songs also come out of me figuring out how to exist within a new-found strength instead of grasping for love or the idea of it.”
The resulting work feels immediately wholesome, rich tapestries of sound, full of varying instrumentation, that act as a city-lit backdrop for Samuel’s evocative voice that manages to be both playful and peculiar, often in the same hushed breath.
Ahead of the EP’s full release tomorrow, via the Basin Rock label (Julie Byrne, Nadia Reid), we’re very pleased to stream the entire collection here today, alongside an interview with Johanna. Check it all out below right now, and grab a copy of the EP via a beautiful 10″ vinyl right here.
Can you tell us a little a bit about your background, where you grew up and your own personal history and the journey that led to where you are now. Did you grow up in a household surrounded by music?
I was born in New York City where I lived with my family til I was about 5. My parents moved us to Los Angeles for work and I went through the public school system there where they have an amazing music program. I started singing in choir in the 6th grade and had an incredible teacher named Jeffe Huls. I became extremely involved in singing in a cappella groups that focused on older pieces and Gregorian chants. I stayed in choir through the end of high school. Both my parents loved music.
Growing up I was really in love with with film and the idea of returning to New York City. I applied early and got into NYU film program when I was 17 and moved to NYC. During my second year there I flashed the realization of the medium of song. I had always figured out Beatles songs on the piano by ear – but never felt I had the inner voice to sing my own. Movies and songs are just two different ways to tell a story. I realized that for me songs felt so much more immediate and everything clicked. I started writing obsessively and playing out solo.
You’ve been writing songs for over 10 years now, how has your songwriting changed over that time?
I loved to use tons of chords (and still do), but over the course of the past 5 years I found the power of playing with my band in LA and how much can be achieved musically with using less. I think now because I’ve been doing it so long I’ve circled back around to now try to find a balance between the simplifying my changes and celebrating more chord changes. Lyrically I also try to write with less fear and strive more to show instead of telling. I love songs that make you feel something viscerally.
Can you tell us a bit about the writing process for the songs on this EP? Were there any particular people, places, or things that inspired or had any influence on the record as a whole?
These songs were written over the course of a very transitional and painful year. I parted ways with my partner of 7 years and moved into my first apartment alone. I foolishly eclipsed the relationship with someone who idealized me and really broke my heart. So much of the record is about loss of love – really the loss of myself. I really lost a grasp on who I was and it truly broke me – so exploring the idea of identity in relationship was important to me. The songs also come out of me figuring out how to exist within new-found strength within myself instead of grasping for love or the idea of it.
Where did you record the new EP?
I recorded the EP in two different studios. The first was in Sean O’Brien’s recording space called the Notch in Glassell Park in Los Angeles. It’s where we recorded my last EP together “Home & Dry: Told a Lie” so I felt very comfortable there. The second place we recorded is our bass player’s father’s studio Knob World in Echo Park. We often would rehearse in there and Sean has since moved The Notch into the B Room there. As the year progressed for me and my emotional life became more and more difficult these two studios became safe havens for me… especially because so much healing took place for me by recording this record.
There seems to be two sides to your songwriting – the ‘pop’ songs that are melodic and catchy and then a dark subtler side. What attracts you to the two different shades?
I think I’ve always just truly been moved by the two song models in different ways. I’ve always been drawn to pop music that makes you feel. I think the Beatles were the best at it. Brian Wilson too. I love when there is candy coating on honest lyrics so I often strive to do that. I also just love songs that are straight up vulnerable and sometimes the chords and atmosphere is bare to make space for a message. I think the two are the yin and yang of songwriting!
Who do you consider your most prominent musical influences?
As a kid, my dad turned me onto Bob Dylan – I was named after his song Visions of Johanna – as well as Neil Young, Tom Petty, Van Morrison etc. My mom turned me onto Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro and standards. Everyone agreed on the Beatles – and they have probably been the longest and largest standing influence in my musical life.
Elliott Smith probably comes in second. I will forever be infatuated with his digestion of wonderful music. He changed my ears in terms of what a chord change can achieve and how vulnerable and celebratory a lyric can be at the same time.
For years I used to go see Jon Brion weekly at Largo at The Coronet in West Hollywood. He inspires me deeply as a producer and a musician – he was another person who showed me that celebrating pop music can be done tastefully and juicily.
What’s next for you?
I just recorded a new LP with Sam Evian in upstate NY. I’m really happy with how the songs are turning out. We’re going to be preparing to put that record out and getting some tours booked to take both these new song bundles out into the world.
Johanna will play the new Future Yard Festival in Birkenhead on August 23rd – 24th, with more dates TBC