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Josiah Johnson on His Debut Solo Album “Every Feeling On a Loop”

Finding a New Rhythm

Sep 04, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Prior to his first solo album, Every Feeling On a Loop, Josiah Johnson’s last recording with the band he founded was The Head and The Heart’s 2016 Signs of Light album. Johnson was the driving force behind successful releases like the group’s 2011 gold certified self-titled album. In spite of the band’s success, Johnson found himself battling addiction and on the outside looking in for the past five years. Though there was an effort to rejoin the popular and ever more pop leaning band, ultimately Johnson decided to take his deeply personal songs forward in his own way.

After so long away, it was both somewhat surprising and a welcome relief to see Johnson’s name on the upcoming release radar. The new album, being released on ANTI-, has traces of his indie folk roots and Johnson’s voice is unmistakeable. But Every Feeling On a Loop goes in many different directions with a broader palette of instrumentation while also hinting at a newfound streak of experimentation. As with so many artists, hopes of a tour on the heels of the album release are currently on hold. Under the Radar caught up with Johnson by phone at his Oakland home to hear about his time out of the spotlight, the new album, and life during quarantine.

Mark Moody (Under the Radar): I’ve listened to The Head and the Heart back from the beginning. I know the band’s debut album is about 10 years old at this point, and you’ve been away from recording for almost five years. Would you have ever envisioned this path for yourself to get to today?

Josiah Johnson: I didn’t envision the first part with the band, so I guess I’m pretty comfortable saying that I also didn’t envision this. I operate on a little more immediate vision than thinking about how things will go in five years, which has its strengths and drawbacks. So I could not have envisioned this. It felt important for me to acknowledge that I might not make it back to music as a career and might have to do something different when I left the band.

Okay. And that’s where I was going to go next in terms of when you left, did you ever expect to be able to make music again professionally and were there times that didn’t feel attainable to you?

Definitely. I encountered a kind of tidal wave when I left because I was in a hole there for a little bit with drugs and wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on in my brain. But when I caught up with myself, what I found was I had this kind of feeling of being an imposter a little bit with music. Like who am I to have this kind of success and I just hit a pretty intense period of self-doubt and unworthiness.

So some of that took place before you left the band?

Yeah. I didn’t know how to deal with that and I kind of numbed out to that.

And so was it a linear process at some point or when did you feel like, “Yeah, I’m going to come back and do this and I’m going to record again?”

I think it was only when I wrote the songs that are on this record. I wrote a good three quarters of them before I knew that I would do anything with them. I was writing them more to process what was going on with myself but yeah, I didn’t know whether or not there would ever be something that I would play somewhere besides my bedroom. And then I had friends that every time they would come through the Bay Area they’d say, “Oh, do you want to open with us or come to the show?” And it just kind of got me out of that little hole that I had exiled myself to. And then you start playing songs and there’s that feeling of being a songwriter and not knowing whether people will connect with what you’re doing. Which is weird to have done it before and to still have that same feeling a second time. And then people get into it and there’s the ability to take on the identity of, “Oh, no. I am a songwriter and I can call myself a songwriter.”

So moving on to Every Feeling On a Loop, there seems to be a lot that was informed by recovery when you sing about “do the work” and “nothing was a mistake,” but then there’s also a clip with your grandmother and now you’re talking about your friends coming through town. It seems like a combination of recovery work and support from friends and family are the primary inspirations.

Yeah. And I think also there’s a lot of garden variety writer’s block or creative self-doubt [at play]. Sometimes I tend to think that my problems are either more massive than anyone else’s or unique to me. And then I find that actually they’re pretty reasonable sized and other people have gone through the same thing. I think that a lot of that can also just be, oh, I was blocked and I had to do some self-examination and I had to be persistent to get through. To figure out what was going to be next.

So going back a little bit, when I put on the album for the first time and heard the first 10 or 15 seconds, I had this rush. As a fan of The Head and the Heart I couldn’t necessarily tell you who was doing what part of a song, but I just had the same feeling as hearing those very early recordings. But then the arrangements are much more complex with the horns and strings. Can you talk about how that came about?

Yeah. That’s been one of the kind of wonderful, powerful things about this process. One of the beautiful things about being in a band is you kind of learn to have new relationships with your same roles. Ultimately, Tyler’s going to be the drummer, Chris is going to be the bass player, Ken is going to be the piano player. And how are people growing? And there’s a lot of subtlety and a lot of growth that happens in that, but getting to work with a whole different range of people and in different instrumentation was something that I’ve talked to with people for years. [So it’s great to] finally get to arrange with a trumpet player and add the dynamic of layering strings.

So, did you have that kind of vision going into it or did that develop as you went?

It developed. I have a song “bedroom style” for a long time and there was definitely a long period of just playing with kind of whoever was around me and whoever was inspiring me. But then, I was in New York to play a show and had a little bit of a budget and reached out to a friend about playing guitar with me. And he was like, “Are you trying to put together a whole band? Because I know a lot of people here.” And I just got a dream band in a way that I hadn’t gotten to do in a while. Cello is my favorite instrument to be accompanied by. And I’ve always been curious about what it would be like to play with a trumpet player. All through The Head and the Heart years we would come up with trumpet mouthparts and then hopefully that melody would go somewhere else.

Right. So you get to do it all at once here.

Yeah. And then it was just really cool what happened within the band with specific people. The trumpet player, Dan [Brantigan], and the cello player, Emily [Hope Price], I mean, the band is just amazing in general, but those two played off of each other really well. You’d hear one of them play a melody, and then the other one echo and transmute it, and then weave back around, and they’d be having this conversation with each other. When we recorded, what ended up happening that worked the best, was I just kind of sat in the room with both of them going through the song. They both just played live with each other. And there were no parts per se, but I would just go like, “Okay at that part, I love when you do this.” And if you could respond in this way and they just kind of did this intuitive dance.

You and your songs are along for the ride.

Yeah. I mean definitely, all of it is there to like, serve and uplift. I had some ideas about to accent this thing or that thing, but it was like the chemistry of the two of them and deciding to not write parts, but let it happen in the flow. That was like one of the magic things about recording this album.

So yeah, for me, my favorite song right now, it changes, but I think also maybe one of the most effective uses of the horns and strings was on “I Wish I Had.” The beginning of the song is kind of regretful and tentative. The horns sound like they don’t even really know where to go and then it just builds to this big celebration at the end and you sing “nothing was a mistake.” It just seems like it goes from regret to acceptance over the course of the song and the instruments were right there with it.

Yeah. I like that you caught that. That song was written across a long period of time. The first lines were written when I was in rehab, and I was starting to sense that a lot was going to change, and I was going to lose a lot. And then the bridge, that “nothing was a mistake” was written like two years later. And it was after a lot of reflection and a lot of growth, and a lot of starting to see that some of the things that hurt the most, actually, are either the most useful to me or the most useful to other people. Not because I’ve been through this thing, and I can say, “Oh, I’ve also been there.” Or the wisdom that I gained from that. And then you kind of start to see how to work with what you’ve got, instead of worrying that you should have had something else.

So maybe if we can talk about “Woman in a Man’s Life” for a minute. I listened to that in early June before it came out as a single. I was thinking about other songs that were written from a different gender point of view. The one I thought of was Elvis Costello’s “Sleep of the Just” where he’s writing from a woman’s point of view. But now reading that you have identified as queer publicly, this obviously means something different to you beyond a writing device.

Yeah. It’s not from another point of view, which you figured out. And there’s a lot of layers to where that can go, but the simplest one for me is there’s this idea of being socialized by whatever gender you were born with. Where if you’re a boy, you get given sports toys. And if you’re a girl, you keep getting dolls and you learn those sorts of things. There are definitely some things that we come into this world with who we are, but a lot of things we learn and that get nurtured into us. And I think part of my healing process has been getting in touch with the part of me that has traits that are more feminine culturally, that are more nurturing. Like being okay crying, or being in the middle of something hard and sharing about it instead of feeling like, “I need to keep it all together.” I have learned a lot from women in my life and learned how to live from the part of myself that is feminine even as someone who identifies as a man.

Right. So that was freeing to be able to do that?

Yeah. I grew up pretty conservative. And it’s wild to think about because 13-year-old me absorbed a lot of cultural stuff—free use of queer slurs like sissy and fag and all that. That’s just part of the air that I breathed growing up. And so you just learn to shame parts of yourself. And so I have been learning to annex that back and be a multifaceted person.

The song on the album that sounds sonically the most out of place is “Waiting On You.” It’s kind of got this Radiohead thing going on with the vocals and the synth beat. So how did that slot in there?

Yeah. I have not been asked about this song yet. I love it. [Laughs] So I made that song in Garage Band. I think before I made any of the other songs on the album. I sang the vocals sitting on the floor of my bedroom singing into a $20 snowball microphone. It was a cheapo USB very simple to use kind of thing. And it was just all of the pain feelings you know. And I did write that one actually from someone else’s perspective. I think that was the first time that I realized it was part of my addiction. I’d kind of disappear and go get high and not be responsive to the people in my life because I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. That song is about me realizing the effect that was having on other people. But all of that instrumentation and that loop, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it painful but there’s something just a little throbbing about it.

Yeah, it’s a little discordant compared with the rest of the album. So that was interesting.

It’s just those feelings. And you said Radiohead and it was one of those things where I would have that recording and I kind of wrote it totally not to do anything with it. But I would come back to it so regularly and I was making this record and I was like what’s the point of being a solo artist if you can’t bring yourself to the project? And you realize, “Oh, I’m allowed to be creative in whatever direction and it doesn’t always have to make sense.” I really am glad that song’s on there and it was a really freeing feeling thing to make.

Yeah. Cool. You can do what you want, right? So that’s good. Maybe one more song. I wrote the review a while back so I was wondering about some things before the press kit was even written. So on “Hey Kid,” I know that has the title of the album in there. I wanted to ask about that phrase. But then I almost got from the song maybe you were writing this to your younger self, but that could be totally off base. It just seems like there’s this distance from where you are to something earlier.

Yeah. I think you’re right. I think that was mostly for myself. It was written pretty intuitively so I didn’t set out to write it that way necessarily, but I do think that was to myself. And that phrase “every feeling on a loop”—was a friend of mine made an embroidery for me that is titled “Every Feeling on a Loop” and I keep it close to me. That’s how it ended up in that song and that’s how it ended up being the title of the record.

So obviously you’re not going to be out touring anytime soon, but do you have plans further down the road?

So painful. It’s obviously a strange position to be in. It comes in waves. We had such great plans and got such cool opening slots in the fall around when the album was coming out. My experience has always been that you make an album, you tour on the album, then you go away and figure out something new to do. And then make another album and then tour on that album. And it happens in a cyclical way and it’s weird, but I’ve been trying to start writing songs. I’m promoting this album and trying to also make a next thing and also learning how the people that make the music that I love handle things. What are they doing? And studying it and trying to kind of go in my mind to my music heroes’ School of Music. Which is not something that I’ve gotten to do because I’ve been in that [cycle] myself. And so that’s on my best day what I’ve been trying to do. Then on my worst day I’m just like, “How do I use the internet to promote things? I’m so much more used to going and playing shows!”

Well, I guess you were able to tour a little bit before things shut down.

I’m so glad that we got to. Yeah, it was really great—the last tour that we did in February had a band that I’d be happy to do an album with and tour around everywhere.

So you were playing a lot of these songs back then?

Yeah, yeah.

Man, it just seems like such a long time, seven months from then to when the album gets released. But that’s good you got to do that. So you mentioned good days and bad days during this. And I know we’ve all had them. Talking about being stuck in a loop and this definitely feels like that. So what has this time been like for you? I know you were able to work on recovery a lot before this happened, but I mean do you have advice for people that are trying to deal with that right now? It’s just such a challenging time.

I think the clearest example came from my partner who just finished her PhD a couple of months ago. In March she was trying to write her dissertation and also apply for jobs and just all of these things. And it’s really an intense period and then a global pandemic hits. I remember her coming out of a department meeting and someone had said, “Well, with all of this free time that you have at home, hopefully, you’re learning new skills and all of this stuff.” And someone else in her group was like, “With all this free time? You mean in the middle of a global pandemic, when we’re not able to go into the office?” This is a crisis period and if you’re able to get anything at all done that is being successful. That you’re not losing your mind, that you’re still alive is being successful. And I miss the days when my brain was more flexible. I mean, as you get older, it takes longer to learn new skills. It really does. But yeah, I keep in mind that I have honed tools on how to live as a human for 35 years. And I can’t use most of them.

Yeah. I understand what you’re saying. I mean, none of this is normal. Yeah, we laugh about it in our family. The first couple of weeks, we’re doing jigsaw puzzles and playing board games and riding bikes. And then after a month, you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is just crushing.” So I don’t know. Hopefully, this isn’t the new normal.

Yeah. I wish I had better advice, but I’m mainly focusing on caring for myself. I’m focusing on caring for the people around me. I’m getting to learn new things. I’m thankful that the Black Lives Matter moment is happening when I have time to engage with it. I wouldn’t have if I was on tour, so I’m thankful I feel like I’m able to learn a lot.

That’s interesting you said that because I’ve had a chance to interview a couple of artists during this time and I’ve closed with people in terms of is there anything positive that can come out of this time? Some of the things that are going on with racial equality and there’s been positive Supreme Court rulings around gender rights and D.A.C.A.

Yeah. That was a good week [in regards to the rulings].

So we just touched on some things but what do you think positive can come out of all this time?

While we have this space and time I feel a positive that’s coming out of this is I wasn’t raised with civics skills. I wasn’t raised with a practice of civic engagement because the system works pretty well for me. So I’m getting a chance to engage with action groups or just calling my senator and leaving a message or writing a letter. Just basic stuff that’s weird drops in the bucket but when you do it in groups of people—there’s this group called Showing Up For Racial Justice that’s largely made up of white people just being willing to show up in kind of basic ways and do civic things that are both mundane but effective in large numbers. I had not developed that skill before now and I feel like that’s a really huge positive. So I am thankful for that.

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