The long read: Johanna Samuels

As soon as LA songwriter, Johanna Samuels and I exit the side-door of Todmorden’s Golden Lion pub, she whispers “one second” before pulling her phone out and recording the black Labrador flayed out in front of us with accompanying ‘awwwws’. “I miss my dog so much”, she laments – June, her three-year-old terrier mix, has her own Instagram account though you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking June was the subject of Samuels’ Instagram account, so much does June appear on her grid. Five dogs stand between us and the free bench, but we make it.

It’s a giddy bank holiday weekend, pints of lager are supped at every bench but ours (ever the professionals, eh?), men lounge with their bellies out and a palpable freedom hangs in the air. We find ourselves in this part of West Yorkshire as Johanna has just played the Golden Lion alongside musical and romantic partner, Harrison Whitford – a great solo artist who’s perhaps better known for playing in Phoebe Bridgers’ band. Todmorden is the home of Samuels’ UK record label, Basin Rock, and Golden Lion, its community hub – it’s located perilously on the edge of a roundabout, the road sagging where the pub stands.

A natural warmth emanated from Samuels during the performance, shy laughs and genuine thanks greeting the close of each song. That same warmth and consideration for the people around her – me in this instance – is obvious from when we sit down; “Am I rambling?” she asks, “Sorry” she says when a bee circles above us as if she’d summoned it.   

Samuels is halfway through the UK tour of EP, ‘Have A Good One’. Anchored by beautiful piano melodies, its transportive epistles symbolise the passing of time, the healing of wounds, the light at the end of the tunnel. It was an EP snatched from the jaws of defeat. When Samuels began recording it, she had just come out of a seven-year-relationship before rebounding to someone who was “lost himself.” Two songs into the recording of the EP, Samuels’ rebound relationship ended – she entered a rehabilitation unit. “I wasn’t eating, I lost 30 pounds and I didn’t have that to lose – I was really not well. He then dumped me on the phone and my ears rang out;  I was like, ‘OK, I’ll let you go’, and just hung up the phone and let this huge sigh out, then I was like, ‘OK I can get help now’. I went to a trauma rehabilitation facility in New Mexico for my eating and depressive disorder. After I came back from rehab, I was like ‘I’m ready! Let’s record the other four songs for this record’. It was like, this is what’s going to heal you and give you any sense of self. I just made music my life and I became fulfilled; I should have done that before the fuckboy, but hey [laughs]”.

The breakthrough EP that resulted, eventually put out by Basin Rock, was the first we’d heard from Samuels. Yet she had already released full-length, ‘Double Bind’ back in 2012 and a follow-up EP, ‘Home & Dry: Told a Lie’ in 2016.

Samuels’ story really starts though in LA with her Grandma’s piano.  “My Grandma was a concert pianist. We had her piano when we were growing up and my mum still has it in her home. I’d press play on a CD, run across the room and try and figure the song out on the piano. I’ve written a ton of songs on it; that’s the piano I’m playing on the cover of the EP. I hope we never ever have to get rid of it, it has so much character and warmth to it.” 

She eventually moved to New York, not, however, with a musical career in mind but instead with an aspiration to make movies. “I was obsessed with getting into New York University. I lived there for like ten years but although my desire to connect with film never moved away, I became more attached to songwriting as a storytelling medium because I felt like all of a sudden that I could write songs about my own heart and not just cover white dudes songs. When I first learnt what a screenplay was, I was like ‘oh this applies everywhere’, and I was like, ‘oh I could write verses and no-one can tell me I don’t have enough money to write a song’. I became obsessed with it and started playing out in New York”.

The big apple proved a tough but essential breeding ground for Samuels. The competition, the constant fight for people’s attention amidst so much distraction were unique challenges that formed the musician sat beside me. “I learned a lot, it’s super tough. I wouldn’t trade it for anything though because I think it’s really important. The fact I’ve dragged my keyboard through blizzarding snow and slipped and broken my butt or whatever. It makes you tougher in a way that gives you a much better attitude, one that I didn’t know in LA – you really take for granted the fact that it’s always sunny, it’s always easy, you always have a car. In New York I learnt a version of myself. I grew up there.” 

Samuel has since moved back to LA, where she works in a shop to fund her burgeoning music career. It’s a reality that doesn’t sit easy; that seven years on from that debut full-length, she’s just scraping by, a career in music still outside her grasp. Though thankful for it, this moment of female singer-songwriters dominating the alternative scene has made the reality even harsher. “It’s a loaded topic for me. When I was in my early 20s, Sharon Van Etten, she was one of the main people that inspired me to have my own voice as a musician. I was in Brooklyn at the time and she was really coming up in that scene. All of a sudden there was this moment, y’know she put out ‘Epic’ then she linked up with The National and then ‘Tramp’ came out, and all of a sudden she was this amazing musician and everyone was like, ‘have you heard of Sharon Van Etten? She came up overnight’. I feel like I wanted that so much in my life, and the older I’ve gotten I’ve realised those people don’t often come up overnight. I’ve had a lot of envy for people who have come up, I put my first full-length out in 2012 and I’ve spent so much time tormenting myself about the fact I want to be somewhere that I’m not”.

The befriending of now romantic and musical partner, Harrison Whitford, marked a moment were Samuel was able to lay this burden down. “Harry was a big person in my life to teach that, he’s played so many big gigs, his family are all musicians, but he’s just as excited to play this room here as he is to play some insane stadium. That’s because he loves playing guitar, it’s taken a while but it’s starting to rub off on me, that once I just let go, that’s when people like Basin Rock come into my life, when I’m not thirsty. What really matters is whether I feel connected to a community, understood by the people who love me and that the people who do love my music love it for the reasons I made it. You can be around very famous people and it’s really just the inner pack that matters”.

Samuel’s next full-length, produced by Saddle Creek’s Sam Evian, is complete, indeed she got the finished mixes on the morning of our interview. She’s proud of it. Maybe its arrival will spell the last time she works the till. “I really hope music can one day become my full-time job. Then I’ll just need to work out how to bring my dog on tour.”

Have a good one is out now on Basin Rock

Tour dates (Johanna is supporting at these shows. Get down early!)

28th Aug – London, The Waiting Room **
31st Aug – Manchester, The Castle **
1st Sept – Glasgow, Poetry Club **

*w/ Sam Evian & Hannah Cohen
**w/ Harrison Whitford

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