A week before the pandemic forced sweeping lockdowns in the states, singer-songwriter Carissa Johnson moved to Los Angeles to reset. Little did she know her life would be completely upended. “I was out of my world and not feeling the same inspiration,” she admits. Deflated and lost, Johnson spent her days driving aimlessly around the glistening cityscape, once brimming with hope and promise, and found herself unexpectedly inspired to write.
Several songs for her new record, Blue Hour (officially out Friday, November 12 but premiering today via Audiofemme), were born out of these early days of uncertainty and panic, including the galactic banger “Polaroids.” A month later, Johnson decided to repack her bags and head back out East, settling in the Boston scene. “I needed a break from the band and to figure things out,” she reflects on her time fronting Carissa Johnson & the Cure-Alls. “We had just been all over the country, and the three of us dispersed and moved to different places, so we’d fly home to Boston for our shows. I never felt like we had the proper time to really practice.”
Once in Boston, the ensuing 12 months, spent in deep self-reflection, gave birth to a 10-song manifesto that Johnson calls her “scrapbook of 2020.” While writing when she could, she took a day job with Fishman Transducers, building guitars and learning how to construct guitar pickups. “It took up a lot of my time, and I ended up being pretty tired after the end of the day,” she says.
But she kept pushing forward. “I only really needed a couple friends and a couple experiences to form the whole album,” she adds. She proceeded to pour all her “loneliness and confusion and frustration” into the work, and it shows. Blue Hour rocks hard, splintered electric guitars creating a star-like pattern in “The Sound” and a decorative thump mesmerizing the listener with “Tourist,” but it’s also quite brooding and emotionally confrontational.
In “Time, Only Time,” Johnson sings, “I took a loan out on myself/And now I’ve grown deep in debt,” and while it’s partly metaphorical, it feels more literal to Johnson in terms of the investment she made for the record. “I don’t know why, but today, that lyric has been going through my head. It never does. Honestly, it’s one of my most vulnerable lyrics that I’ve been scared for people to hear,” she says with a self-effacing laugh. “It’s one of those things where you don’t want people to know you’re driving yourself into debt. I didn’t actually take out a loan, but I really feel like I did. I’m spending the most money I’ve ever spent on anything in my life on this album. It feels like I put a down payment on a house.”
The message to “do it all, do it right now, just anything you want” operates against an effervescent, somewhat sticky, arrangement. And it is one creed Johnson grasps firmly in her hands. “Just go after it all and invest, even if you don’t have it, because it’s going to come back if you believe in it,” she says. “I really believe that, and I really am behind all of these songs. I think it’s a new level for me. I’m ready to get to that next level. It’s either all in or nothing.”
Among other sterling moments, “Middle of Nowhere” proves she really is ready for the big leagues. Originally found on her 2019 record, A Hundred Restless Thoughts, Johnson revisits the folk tune and chisels it into reverberating, static-synth track. “I used to call it my campfire song,” she says. “My friend Lukas [Kattar] played guitar on that one, and for the solos, specifically, he had like a 100 to 200-note solo in there. He’s a great guitarist, but that’s not what we were going to do.”
Instead, Johnson, alongside producer Benny Grotto (Ben Folds, The Magnetic Fields), chopped it down to 10 measures. “It ended up being like a Jefferson Airplane kind of thing,” she remarks. “Originally, it was a sad song. I felt that vibe come across on the acoustic guitar. When I did it with the full band, it added so much depth to it, and we actually swapped a couple of the chords. It gave it a whole different vibe that doesn’t capture the same feeling. I think it’s almost more hopeful.”
Musically, Blue Hour is a testament to Johnson’s fearlessness to go big. She’s already gone home, so she has nothing else left to lose. “Merry Go Round,” a breakup-turned-self-love anthem, sends electrifying sparks directly into the Milky Way, whereas “The Sound” creeps along the dirt like a black widow spider, a sinister force that’s near unstoppable. Once the percussion swoops in, it’s almost like the throbbing heartbeat from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
As with the entire record, the demo process for this song began in GarageBand, working as though she were building a song with her unplugged electric guitar. “I just started plugging it into my computer and recording it and then adding a drum track and then adding synth lines. I wasn’t even using a real keyboard, and I didn’t actually know what I was doing,” she says.
It sounded cool, though. Yet in the song’s early form, it was “actually the weakest [song]. It wasn’t hitting the way I wanted it to.” To get some feedback, she sent the bare bones over to her guitarist and frequent collaborator Steph Curran, who “added some really cool synth lines in the background that really drove it. I really wanted it to be spooky and have kind of a ‘game over’ noise in the beginning and at the end.”
Drummer Ryan Manning then took a turn to layer on that bottle-rocket-emitting drum kit and percussion. “He’s the hardest hitter, and that’s what that song really needed — to have that momentum behind it,” she says. “It’s my favorite song on the album.”
Blue Hour is far more than a career game changer for Carissa Johnson. It’s a life preserver tossed out into raging waters during one of the most trying times of her life. While navigating a new kind of isolation, she learned to cherish the people in her life far more than she had previously. She also dove into self-help books and started “learning about energy and physics. I’m pretty obsessed with manifestation and quantum physics,” she says. “I had to refocus. I was really feeling scattered and doing so much at once.”
Now, she’s blossomed into a vibrant, passionate human being and further learned “to do the things that really matter,” understanding “my space is worth protecting. I’m worthy of all these things. I was feeling down on myself and not feeling like I was where I wanted to be, from not being able to actually progress in the same ways that I knew.”
With Blue Hour‘s release, she barrels forward with renewed energy. “There have been a lot of moments where I’ve gotten kicked down and had to face a lot of things,” she says. “I’m gonna come out of this and make something better from it. That’s the reason I write and play music, and to hopefully help other people who are going through the same thing. I think that’s where this album was really born from — just wanting to continue doing that and create something great from all the difficulties of the last year.”