Lontalius’ new single ‘Make My Dreams Come True’ is out today. To commemorate its arrival, Matthew McAuley spoke to Eddie Johnston about music, life, and the transient nature of fandom.
The last time The Spinoff spoke to multidisciplinary Wellington musician Eddie Johnston, just a few weeks off exactly a year ago, he was an artist in a period of relative flux. Having relocated his life and practice to a Los Angeles apartment following the 2016 release of I’ll Forget 17, the debut album from his guitar pop project Lontalius, he’d found himself reexamining what he wanted from his musical career.
“My dream for coming [to LA] was… to write pop music”, he told Henry Oliver. “But when I got here I realised that wasn’t my vibe.” And while that interview coincided with the release of his first new music in two years, the double single ‘I Wanted Him / That Includes You’, it also came shortly after his release from Partisan Records, the New York label which had released his first record and were slated to release his second.
The double-single was followed by ‘Optimistic’ in October, with early 2019 also seeing the release of b-side and Soundcloud loose-cut compilation Surrender, but throughout Johnston remained relatively tight-lipped about future plans and upcoming releases. Today marks the release of ‘Make My Dreams Come True’, now officially the second single from his upcoming second album, and almost certainly the high-water mark of his musical career to date.
It’s a song which deserves to be heard by the widest audience possible; a genuinely radio-ready guitar pop ballad whose structure borrows more from Kraftwerk than it does Coldplay, for its first two-and-a-half-minutes an expertly constructed exercise in progression by repetition and gentle, almost imperceptible addition – like The 1975’s ‘Give Yourself a Try’, if they’d been paying homage to U2 instead of Joy Division – before a stadium-sized climax which features an impassioned piano contribution from Kanye West affiliate Mr. Hudson.
Now based back in New Zealand, Johnston is again living in the town in which he was raised and from whose early-2010s DIY scene he built a craft and a following. He’d be forgiven for harbouring a degree of bitterness at his situation, but speaking a few days before the release of this latest work, Eddie sounds convincingly content with where how things have turned out.
The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
So this is the second single from the next record, was it always the plan that ‘I Wanted Him / That Includes You’ wouldn’t be on there?
Actually ‘Optimistic’ was the first song I finished, probably a couple of months before ‘I Wanted Him’ came out, but as those songs came together, it just started to make sense as a way to release music for the first time in three years. Just as like a re-introductory thing. I love both those songs, but for the album I was going for a more concise thing, I didn’t want it to feel bloated.
What happened with Partisan? Was it just a breakdown in the relationship?
There was kind of a breakdown in the relationship, but there wasn’t like, any real drama or anything. It just kind of fell apart on both sides. I wasn’t really happy with how things were going, and then they weren’t either — I mean it’s like a transitional period for all music at the moment right? Music’s getting released differently and people are making it differently.
They’re an indie label and their more traditional releases are indie bands that would go in and record for two weeks and everything’s finished, and then they’re touring. And I kind of had none of that. I was working on the album for two years, I’m not delivering, it was all just a bit weird.
I think the funny thing is that, like, around that time I was like, “Oh I don’t want to be working on the album, I just want to be releasing songs” but then eventually it all came together.
So in that period, did you have versions of things that you were taking to them that they weren’t into, or was it just that you weren’t yet making the album then because you didn’t know what it was going to be?
Yeah, I think it just wasn’t coming together. There was a lot of music, and a lot of different versions of songs, and they were actually super helpful. Most of the original songs and stuff from the original sessions with [producer and songwriter] Om’mas Keith were super ambient; just long, no real drums anywhere, the songwriting was pretty loose.
And Tim at the label was very sweet in just telling me that the way I was talking about what I wanted out of music and the way the music was sounding weren’t matching, you know?
Because I wanted to play great shows and have energy on stage, and play with a band, but then I’m making these eight-minute long ambient things; it just wasn’t working.
But at the same time, as you say, the ways that the music industry is shifting are feeding into performance norms, right? Like the Lontalius shows you’ve played recently with the band have been quite traditional, straight-up indie band shows.
But then you have someone like a Frank Ocean, as a very obvious example – he’s someone who can and does make songs in a more traditional format at times, but the way he performs those songs can be quite fluid.
I think with the Frank Ocean thing – because obviously he’s a big influence on me – and also, like, everyone my age – a big thing I thought about while making this album was, like, he’s incredible and you know, Blond and Endless are amazing, but he’s able to do that because he’s already put in the hours; he’s already released the perfect pop songs, you know? I felt like I hadn’t put in my work yet, to be able to do that super indulgent album.
And so the work that you did with Om’mas and those sessions, does that still form a part of this record?
I mean it’s definitely not as pronounced as it used to be, but it is definitely the sonic base of the album. Most of the songs came from sketches and stuff that I did with him, and I can feel his influence on it.
And so with ‘Make My Dreams Come True’, you’ve got Mr Hudson on there, and it was co-written by Roy Blair?
Well, me and Roy made the original instrumental one night.
Was that just the kind of situation you found yourself in in LA? Was Roy just someone that you knew?
I knew Roy from around, and he was doing a lot of stuff with Kevin Abstract at the time, so we were mutuals through that. We just started hanging out and working on each other’s music quite a lot. With ‘Make My Dreams’, I remember we made it and, I think because we were talking a lot about pop music and wanting to be better at pop music, we spent hours trying to fit it to the structure of ‘Complicated’ by Avril Lavigne.
And for whatever reason, that just totally killed the song, and I didn’t think about it for months, until I found it again later and decided it could be a good song.
For me it’s almost like ‘Give Yourself a Try’, like it’s got that same structure – the big repetitive central riff that everything else builds around – but the actual sound is so different.
Was there anything like that which influenced how you put it together, or were you just trying to make something as simple as possible?
I guess because I was in LA, I was like, “Oh, this is a catchy thing, this sketch of this song, I could put in a big chorus and take it to my publisher, and get whatever pop star to sing this.” And, you know, I really tried, but the core and the truth of the song just wasn’t there, you know?
So the chorus of the song now isn’t really a chorus, there’s no big melody or whatever, it’s just a nice little thing.
I like that aspect of it, that it does feel the whole time like it’s building to a big anthemic chorus that doesn’t happen – I like how that tension doesn’t release how you’d expect it to.
That’s something that I’ve done before in different ways, so I think maybe if the song was, like, bigger, I’d be like “Oh, this isn’t a Lontalius song; this doesn’t work.”
But to me it never felt like it wasn’t.
I think when most people begin a project, they have an idea of what they want that project to be. But you’ve been making music as Lontalius basically forever – like, since well before your adult life. Has it been difficult having to refocus the work while it’s something that people are already invested in?
I’ll Forget 17 is a record that you made when you were a teenager, and now you’ve had this kind of seismic change to your life; is it hard to navigate the way that you articulate that, while also considering that there are people that already have strong feelings associated with your music?
I think I’m quite fortunate in terms of the audience, that I never got quite big enough that it became, like, a viral thing or whatever, I’m kind of in the sweet spot of having an audience that I hope actually cares about me, but they’re not expecting more of the same.
That’s an interesting thing about the way that fame can work these days, right? Like it can still be quite toxic, but for a certain type of artist – artists like Brockhampton, or Roy Blair, or Clairo – there’s a level of personal investment from fans where they’re really invested in their favourite artists’ work, and they’re really supportive, but they don’t want to impose on them.
I’ve kind of described I’ll Forget 17 as a kind of ‘coming-of-age’ record, but I think, because of how personal the lyrics are and everything, that record is so connected with my own personal life as well. And I think that’s the same with Roy, and Brockhampton and all of that. If people are a fan of you, they want to be on that journey with you growing up; trying new things. It’s not necessarily about one specific album or one specific song, you kind of buy into the whole thing.
It’s like a Brockhampton fan – they see themselves in Brockhampton, you know?
I also wanted to ask about Surrender. Because obviously that’s a collection of loosies, but it’s also the first ‘official’ release of ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’, which is still probably one of your better known songs. Was that release something you’d always wanted to do, or was it something you were avoiding doing?
It was kind of a long process. I think I’ve gone through phases of being like, “Oh I want this on Spotify, people need to have it in their libraries,” and then I’ve also had times where I’ve been like “I never want it out there, it’s not representative of me as an artist.”
But I think the timing worked out, and the way that people use streaming services shifted. Like I put it on Soundcloud in, like 2014 and that was fine by itself then, but now people don’t really use Soundcloud in the same way.
I think now felt like the right time because I’m confident in my new music, and the album is coming out this year, so if I put this out now I have nowhere else to go but up, personally. If everyone hates the album that’s a real shame, but it never felt like – I knew ‘Sleep Thru Ur Alarms’ was going to be popular because people already like it, but I need to be sure that I can make music that I’m proud of, and just keep going forward from it.
Has being in Wellington changed things for you? Like do you feel like the album had a different shape in your mind before you moved back?
I think moving back just gave me some clarity about what I want to be doing. Because LA is just so intense, there’s so much opportunity and so many ideas, you’re going to see bands and everything, meeting different people. It just feels like there’s so many different paths you can take.
I knew what songs I wanted [for the album] and what songs I’ll save for later. And especially playing the shows with a band here last year, then doing a short tour of Europe by myself, and then doing Laneway as well with the band, it felt like Lontalius really came together as a project over those few months, over the summer. I don’t feel like moving anywhere, but I want to be travelling and spending time in places making music. It’s been beneficial for my mental health to be here. So that helps.