Artist Interview: Johanna Samuels

Posted: by The Editor

Los Angeles singer and songwriter Johanna Samuels has returned with her illuminating new album Bystander, which dropped June 23 on Jealous Butcher. Produced by Bonny Light Horseman’s Josh Kaufman, the record takes an honest look at the interpersonal churnings in Samuels’ world with the same discernment and empathy that so beautifully underpinned 2021’s Excelsior! but this time, the wounds are a little newer, maybe even a bit raw, and Samuels’ musicality leans towards more experimentation.

You wrote a lot of this record between 2020 and 2021. How does it feel to be living in that world again as you prepare to release these really personal songs? 

It’s like a time capsule, but a lot of the deeper sentiments still apply. A lot of the songs were me trying to figure out what I wanted for myself, in terms of the life I wanted to live. The creation of the songs served their purpose, and I am in such a different place now than when I wrote the songs. The recording of the record was a totally healing experience. It’s all kind of an incremental journey in becoming whole.

Did you learn anything new about your creative process making this record? 

I definitely think the more I do it, the less pressure I put on the music. I’ve learned to stop getting attached to certain outcomes and reception when it comes to the release, and I’ve started to value the process of making a record so much more. The creative process for this record was very unique because it was quarantine, and I had worked retail for years up until the pandemic. So with unemployment I was getting paid more than I’ve ever made, and I got to focus on my writing completely in a super serious way. I was processing a lot emotionally, and I was in a state of incubation with the rest of the world. It changed things completely.

How does that inform your process now? 

I think the commitment to the craft, treating it like a 9-5 job. I have to write every day in order for me to keep my writing muscle engaged and so I’m moving in a forward motion, otherwise I’m bored.

Tell me about the media, books, records, that informed the record

I was in such survival mode, I know I watched a lot of movies. I was reading a lot of books about social justice and racism at the time, processing interpersonal behavior and also checking myself and the way I move through the world. I was thinking a lot about privilege and the inability to sit with discomfort. I remember re-watching one of my favorite movies, Paris, Texas, and it inspired a lot of thought about memory and the divides between people. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but a lot of the film is centered around division, and being divided by screens. A lot of the preliminary recordings for the record were done virtually with friends of mine who lived in New York, there really wasn’t anyone I wasn’t communicating through screens with.

I was also super blown away by Fetch the Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple. That record really inspired me in terms of being completely unfiltered in calling out things I identified as unacceptable in social behavior and the systemic structures of the music industry, but also throughout society. I was relating it to what was going on socially with Black Lives Matter and the concept of not being able to hold discomfort.

I was also really, really trying to pick apart Elliott Smith’s music, as I kind of always am. I’m on this eternal dive into trying to understand his musicality. In terms of my own, it’s incomparable the way that he approached every instrument that he played, but trying to work out structurally what was happening with his music was really helpful for me in terms of finding new ways to push myself in terms of my own melodies.

Do you write more on piano or guitar? 

I feel like this record is a mix of both. Piano is my first instrument, so I feel a lot more fluid on piano. I’m less inhibited there. At the same time, there was this sense of egolessness in my creative process during quarantine. There was nothing holding me back in a lot of ways. I decided that I was going to play more guitar than I normally would, or say whatever I wanted to say, because no one might ever hear it. I started to enjoy the limitations that the guitar set for me. I have a little less skill in terms of playing the guitar, it can be complicated for me when it comes to the structure–but because of that, the way I started to write brought me to different places than piano did.

You’re so vulnerable on this record, is there a way that you cultivate that in your writing? On the song “Any Good” there’s a pretty piercing moment: “Remember when we tried to write a song together? You made a face at the words I chose. I was trying to write simpler. And you said, ‘Yeah, well there’s a difference between what’s simple and what isn’t any good. How are you thinking about that distinction these days? 

I was processing a lot of trauma as I was writing this record, I didn’t really have a choice in terms of how cracked open I was. I was kind of a raw nerve, and the songs were the only way for me to process my emotions. The quarantine made the process more conducive to that kind of voice, letting myself be more wide open, because I could really be in it and have a dark night of the soul kind of experience because I wasn’t going out, I wasn’t going to shows. My world was a bit burnt down. I really just leaned into letting myself feel what was coming up.

That particular memory–I had been in a relationship with someone that I had felt really musically inspired by. After a while, the things that I had felt confident about, in terms of my own songwriting, I started to question it all because I was being put down so much in really subtle ways. The “writing simpler” part, I was trying this new idea of not leaning so much on chord changes and using more empty space, using less words and seeing what came out of me in terms of being able to express something in a simpler way. Now when I say that, it makes a lot of sense to me, but at the time I just said it out loud and the person I was with genuinely said what I said in the song. I remember just being like, “oh, I’m not good at what I’m doing.” As time went on, I realized I know exactly what I’m doing and I don’t need anyone to tell me if I’m any good. I actually haven’t really thought about the personal nature of these songs, because they’re so distanced from me and I’m so much less afraid of what people think of me. The songs stand on their own, and they can be about anything people need them to be. I’ve shared the song some, and a lot of people have shared similar experiences and that’s been very heartening, because it’s something that made me feel very alone at the time.

It’s like the transmutation is complete, you had the experience, made the song, and now it’s out in the world and can take on any shape a listener needs it to be–all because you had this creative experience with that moment. 

And it had its experience with me, it’s weird, it kind of just had me. That’s how I feel all these songs really came about, they were like waves in the ocean that picked me up and dropped me off somewhere new, and that’s awesome–because they were an escape for me, and they landed me at an entirely new vantage point.

Bystander is out now.

Emma Bowers | @emmaebowers

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