Interview: Johanna Samuels

by Phil Scarisbrick

Following part one of our interview with Johanna Samuels, which features in Zine 9, we return to the healing beauty of Excelsior! – steeped in the healing beauty of companionship, it is an album that questions self-identity, and the value of the relationships we forge 

When listening to Excelsior!, it’s very difficult not to feel like you’re in the midst of it – rather than a spectator of its unravelling beauty. The production – helmed by Sam Evian – allows this feeling of inclusion, but it is also the earnestness of Samuels’ delivery that draws you into the eye of the storm. The relationship between artist and producer to create such a sonic aesthetic can only come from the magic infused by kindred spirits. ‘It did feel as though Sam and I spoke a similar musical language in terms of sound. I’d been a fan of his production since I heard his record, Premium. For example, the first time we played a show together, we didn’t know each other well and he wasn’t able to make soundcheck. He asked if I could tell the sound guy to put a some slap-back on his vocals and I asked, “How much – Instant Karma vocals?” and he was like, “Perfect.” I’d always wanted to make a record with him just for that reason.’

Like the aforementioned John Lennon song, the record was recorded live. ‘In terms of the “being there in the room” feeling, we really did record it that way. We played as a band all at once, which added a really fun adrenaline feeling like, “better play it nice, Jo!”’

The catalyst for its creation was inspired by both experience and self-examination. ‘I think I was feeling very alone during that time. I wasn’t a very good friend to myself; I was feeling very unsafe in my relationships and I was trying desperately to figure out how to take care of myself,’ Samuels explains. ‘I was forced to reflect on my values, so I could try to put pieces into place to live a safe and happy life. I found that the people surrounding me influenced my heart the most. I felt whole when I was with people who made me feel understood, and I felt that I could support them in the same way.’

All Is Fine is a case in point of how the record evolved. ‘It’s funny – there are a few songs on this record where I didn’t know who I was writing about until after it was recorded. I think I predicted my future unknowingly when I wrote the song. I do think the feeling is hopefully relatable. Since the song’s meaning has kind of revealed itself to me, I’ve been on the listening end of my girlfriends who find themselves involved with a similar type of person and emotional bind. There comes a point when you really need to cut your losses and just get a person like that out of your life because there’s nothing you can say that can be greeted with openness or productive healing.’

Several of the tracks namecheck people – including closer Cathy. Inspired by a ‘dear friend who lost her battle to depression in the spring before we recorded’ – it was a cathartic exercise. ‘I miss her, daily, in a way that’s very hard to describe. The lyric’s about her being “free”. An attempt to reference how burdened she was, while she was here. She worked very hard to liberate herself from pain, for a very long time, and it was just too hard. That’s for nobody to judge but her. When I felt her energy around me in the wake of her absence, it made me feel on the one hand comforted because I missed her so much, but also heartbroken,’ explains Samuels, ‘I wanted her to know she didn’t need to allot her energy to any of this anymore, that she was allowed all that peace she was seeking, and that she could leave pain behind and go wherever it was she was needing to go.’

Another namecheck is Julie, which has an almost lullabilic melody over which Samuels overtly imparts the affection she has for her mother, despite it not always being plain sailing. ‘I wrote that song for my mom when I was 19; it was definitely emotional to record just because family stuff runs deep. I actually had to do more vocal takes on it actually because Sam noticed I sounded a little inhibited, like I was, “…in trouble” when I was singing. I love my mom so much, and we’ve come so far. It’s tender to listen to it now, as is much of the record. I’m mostly so glad my friend Courtney (Marie Andrews) sang harmonies on it. Only she could have treated that song with the unique love it called for.’ There are lines where we hear her singing about ‘recording myself crying’ and that Julie is ‘breaking’ her, but, despite it all, the love is still there. It is one of many threads on Excelsior! that conveys complex feelings that you can’t help but empathise with.

As well as her core band, the record also features vocals by an array of incredible womxn, including Hannah Cohen, Lomelda’s Hannah Read, A.O. Gerber, Louise Florence and Olivia Kaplan. ‘I’ve always been super attached to recording my own harmonies. It’s my favourite part of recording, but, because of where I was at, and how I was longing to feel like I belonged anywhere, I knew I wanted to ask musicians that I admired to act as some emotional glue in the tracks, so that it wasn’t just a Jo-sounding record.’

It is hard to listen to this album and not be drawn in by it. Samuels’ words elicit the complex, and at times juxtaposing emotions and feelings that we all have in our relationships. Be it friends, family, lovers or lost souls, each one touches us in a way that affects our very beings. The sound palette is like a comfy couch in the middle of a room, as you are surrounded by the band and the array of voices. But it is Samuels’ incredible vocal that really makes you feel at home, and helps you value the beauty of the human connections we make. 

The final words we hear on the record – ‘You are free’ – clearly reference the message Samuels wanted to send to her friend, Cathy, but also provide the perfect full stop. For Excelsior! is an album that celebrates companionship, and its transformative qualities. 

Excelsior! is out on 14th May through Basin Rock/Mama Bird Recording Co.

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