As a result, she has been able to overcome her shyness to produce her own music and engage with some of the biggest names in electronic music. “I outgrew COMPUTER MAGIC. I outgrew the shy bedroom pop girl a long time ago” when she announced DANZ CM and her first album under that name ‘The Absurdity Of Human Existence’.
As well as releasing a fistful of albums and EPs since 2012’s ‘Scientific Experience’ which made its release debut in Japan, she also started the ‘Synth History’ online platform which to date has interviewed Gary Numan, Vince Clarke, Rick Wakeman, Dave Smith, Suzanne Ciani, Pete Townsend and James Murphy amongst others, while a well-researched podcast on the career of Wendy Carlos attracted much acclaim.
Why did electronic music become your choice of artistic expression as opposed to say indie rock, punk, R ‘n’ B, folk or country which many American kids can and do get into?
I started out with electronic music because that’s what I had. I didn’t even know I could make music before I downloaded Ableton one day and tried. Prior to that, I had been obsessed with listening to music. I had my own music blog when I was super young. I’d listen to music all day long, even throughout class. I could always hear music in my head even when I wasn’t listening to it – I’d fantasize about whole songs through – like a radio station in my brain.
Eventually, I just decided to try, and found out the ability of hearing music in my head translated to making music by ear. I still have never memorized notes or chords – but I could transpose a song just by listening to it. If I had picked up a guitar first, maybe I’d have started with rock.
It’s definitely somewhat of a concept album. I went through some difficult emotional realizations when I was writing it. I was dating someone who was really narcissistic.. it really messed me up. For some reason it felt like a last straw. I realized throughout my whole life, I was, for some reason, susceptible to people like that – like a target. A realization which finally broke me. Is everyone in the world out to get everyone else? Do people really only care about themselves? Is it me? Why do I feel guilty?
I always saw the world through rose colored glasses – that people generally have good intentions, but suddenly that view shifted… I saw flaws everywhere and also in me. But not in a bad way, in a very accepting way. That’s how the world is, after all. Everyone comes from a different place with a different upbringing with a different mind and yeah – bad things happen to good people all the time. And I think that was a big step in growing up. Despite the emotionality, I think it was something I needed to go through artistically and as a person.
How would you break down ‘The Absurdity of Human Existence’?
I kind of see the album in different stages, albeit the tracklisting is loose. The beginning of a relationship gone south (‘Not Gonna Stand By’), realizing what’s going on, feeling bad about it and helpless (‘Domino’, ‘Idea of You’) – Trying not to let your low self-esteem get the best of you (‘My Other Self’) – Finally breaking (‘Breaking Point’, ‘Low’) – Picking yourself up, knowing that you’re capable (‘I Don’t Need a Hero’, ‘Something More’) – Falling in love again (‘Don’t Stop’) – And the last song is important (‘Human Existence’) because it encapsulates it all. Existence is absurd, emotions in themselves are as well, but as far as we know, you only live once so you might as well make the best of it.
I should point out that the idea of Absurdism really saved me when I hit my lowest during this period, which is when I wrote ‘Breaking Point’. That’s when I titled the album. Oftentimes as human beings with reactive emotions, we feel depressed when we’re not in control of our situation. Letting go and realizing that – the universe can be random and accepting it – helped immensely.
Was the pandemic crisis another trigger in your artistic psyche?
To be honest – I wrote, produced and recorded this entire album before the pandemic! Everything including the title was written and recorded beforehand. The only thing the pandemic did was delay the release. It did give me time to find a good mastering engineer – Joe LaPorta. He really did a great job.
You have already stated the reasons on your own social media as to why you decided to stop being COMPUTER MAGIC, but has the name change affected profile momentum or was it a smooth transition like when Gary Numan was no longer TUBEWAY ARMY even though he was TUBEWAY ARMY?
Looking back, I wish I had the money to hire PR. It would have been nice to get the world out via online publications in addition to my social media channels. I put out everything myself on my own label, Channel 9 Records. In turn, my PR budget runs parallel to what I can personally afford.
I don’t have a $20k budget for hiring PR being given to me by a label as an advance, or by my parents. I need to have that money saved up and ready before the release is set if I want to get written up in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, etc. A reputable PR company costs upwards of $5-10k a month – that’s not even counting billboards and wild postings – posters you see on the streets of NYC and other major cities. But there is also the cost of pressing vinyls – which is important to me, mastering – which is important to me, and videos. It’s a lot of money and it all adds up if you want to release something properly.
I needed to figure out what I couldn’t live without – and that was the substance. The music, the tangible vinyls, the videos to coincide with the songs. People will eventually find out about the album. Maybe I’ll be dead and it’ll be in forty years, but I know it’s good and I put my all into it. Whatever happens afterwards is a bonus.
The name change has really just been word of mouth. One thing I didn’t take into consideration was all of CM’s Spotify followers. I had twenty thousand that weren’t notified of the release, and I had to start from scratch. But the name change needed to happen. It just felt right for me.
The difference between your pop-oriented debut ‘Davos’ album and the melancholic innocence of songs like ‘Lonely Like We Are’ from the ‘Obscure But Visible’ EP , to the darkness of the ‘Danz’ album are quite marked, so things already were heading in a new direction in your mind?
Yeah – I think so, but not on purpose, just subconsciously. I think the main factors that influence my work are the unfolding of my life, external inspirations and the increase in knowledge concerning music production. If you’re making art, it’s unhealthy to be stagnant and always have the same output.
On ‘Danz’, the widescreen other worldliness of ‘Nebraskaland’ seemed to spark your interest in the expansive spaces that are captured in the photos and videos for ‘The Absurdity of Human Existence’?
I wrote ‘Nebraskaland’ on tour! When I play live, I hire a session drummer, the amazing Ignacio Rivas Bixio. We were driving and I think my friend Mo was tour managing. We were out in the middle of nowhere – all in our own zones in the tour van. I think Ignacio was playing ‘DOOM’ on his laptop, Mo was listening to the ‘Serial’ podcast and I was on my headphones working in Ableton. I saw a truck that said ‘Nebraskaland’ and it just stuck with me. The song is about the endless open road – one of my favorites. It goes with ‘Absurdity’ for sure.
‘Idea of You’ set the scene as your first DANZ CM single release, what was its genesis?
‘Idea of You’ is basically about falling in love with someone for all the wrong reasons, a complete facade. You want to feel “the feeling” of falling in love, so you ignore all the red flags when you should really be running in the opposite direction. It’s about feeling fooled, whilst simultaneously feeling stuck because in your heart you want it to work out. In the video we wanted to capture that. My boyfriend – Matthew James Reilly – is a director. During quarantine we couldn’t get a big crew, so we just flew to the middle of Death Valley the two of us and made the video. I think it really does the song justice. To me, the house represents the relationship that I’m slowly realizing isn’t real.
The almost title track ‘Human Existence’ is gorgeous, one of the best of 2021 so far, it’s like OMD been fronted by CHROMATICS, had there been any particular influences in its arrangement?
I just wanted to make something uplifting to portray the way I was feeling. To me, the song means acceptance of circumstance. I didn’t aim for any particular sound, it just came to be honest. I used the Prophet 6 – which is mostly analog except for the effects. I wanted epic pad sounds.
‘Breaking Point’ taps into that chilling arpeggio template that some would say is very ‘Stranger Things’, how did that come together?
Like I mentioned earlier – I really hit a low. It was after the departure of the toxic relationship. I was really questioning myself and who I was. I started taking a benzo type of drug, which I would not recommend to anybody dealing with depression. When that wore off, I went through the worst withdrawals. I was hallucinating when I would leave my apartment. I didn’t feel like I was a real person, like my existence was futile. I felt like everything was meaningless. Pretty dark stuff. And that is when I wrote ‘Breaking Point’.
Never in my life did I capture my emotions as vividly as in that song. So much so that it’s hard for me to listen to it even now without tearing up. Eventually, I started reading about Nihilism, Existentialism and Absurdism. The last one stuck with me, and I think saved me from that dark hole, which is what the album is named after.
I love THE CURE – particularly ‘Friday, I’m in Love’ and ‘Pictures of You’. I’m going to be honest – ‘Fascination Street’ is not a song I’m too familiar with. So if there is a familiar style there, it intrinsically comes from their other music.
There’s the surprise of the fragile disco feel of ‘Not Gonna Stand By’ and you rocking out a bit on ‘Something More, two songs with quite opposing feels?
So – ‘Not Gonna Stand By’ was the most challenging song to record off the record. I wanted to use all live, acoustic instruments, to stay true to 1970s disco. I initially composed everything in Ableton with software synths. Then I had my friends come over to re-record everything with the real thing. My friend Danny Meyer played sax, Emily Holden played violin – which I layered to sound like an orchestra, Owen Biddle played bass and I went into a studio to record Ignacio on drums. It really was a fantastic experience and gratifying to make. I never brought a bunch of people together to make a song like that before. Danny did some awesome improvisation on the sax parts. I mean – they were all amazing.
‘Something More’, I wanted to be like a 1970s old school rock anthem, mixed with a Devo vibe. I suck at guitar, but somehow made it work. I wanted very angular guitar parts. Luckily, since I play by ear, it’s easy to find singular notes on the guitar – but harder to play chords. There are a lot of singular guitar riffs, layered with other singular guitar riffs to make chords.
In terms of production for this album, what is your home studio set-up and what was the process for fine tuning it?
I write and record everything in my apartment. For mixing, I sent ‘Absurdity’ off to Claudius Mittendorfer in London. Then for mastering it went over to Joe LaPorta in New York. Writing, recording and producing are like second nature to me at this point. They all kind of coincide.
Making the record was a lot of hard work. I’d literally drive myself crazy working on songs up until I couldn’t stay awake anymore. It also took an emotional toll as you can imagine, getting all that stuff out. l was happy when it was complete.
The sound of your music, even on your earlier material like ‘Fuzz’ and ‘All Day’, is quite accomplished while maintaining a gritty edge. Is there any advice you would give to aspiring musicians recording on a limited budget, especially when recording vocals and drums?
Stay true to yourself. You are essentially what makes your music unique! There is no other you in the world. As for vocals, don’t be afraid to ask for privacy when recording. I almost never record vocals in front of anyone else because I’m self-conscious. For drums – get experimental. I always mix electronic with acoustic, which is why I tour with a drummer and record live drums on a lot of my tracks.
I was interning there for a bit, dusting off synths. I didn’t record anything there except stuff for a potential upcoming podcast episode on ARP and some Minimoog. But that place is great, and Jay who owns it is an awesome dude and musician.
What are your own favourite synths? Is there a particular synth you covet?
Prophet 6, Moog Minitaur and Omnichord; they are my go-tos and have been for the past few years. I would like to someday own a CS-80!
You’ve immersed yourself in ‘Synth History’ with your online interview and podcast platform, what have been the most rewarding aspects of putting this together for you?
I think just meeting other people who want to nerd out about synths. I’m really happy I started it, it seems to bring a lot of people joy.
Who else would you’d like to interview or feature for ‘Synth History’?
Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke, Paul McCartney.
You run your own Channel 9 label, how do you see the future of music distribution and consumption?
Do you miss performing live or do you see DANZ CM being only a music and video entity?
I can’t wait to perform live as DANZ CM FKA COMPUTER MAGIC!
What’s next for you?
I have no idea. But I hope something fun.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Danz Johnson
Additional thanks to Hal at Albedo PR
The COMPUTER MAGIC back catalogue is available at https://computermagic.bandcamp.com/
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
13th May 2021