Jenny Olivia Johnson’s compositional breakthrough came after about a decade of trying to find her voice. Her background provided a welter of inspirations. As a high school student she’d played drums in rock bands and loved ’80s pop songs; as an undergraduate at Barnard College she’d had her head turned around by the 20th-century avant-garde. She’d tried to make sense of these competing influences, writing orchestral songs with what she called, in a recent interview, “these really pop-inflected lines, but there was a lot of atonal noise happening in the background.”
Her eureka moment came courtesy of the postminimalist styles that were cooking in New York in the early 2000s, which showed her that it was possible to write “serious music” that wasn’t shackled to the conventions of the past. One day she dispensed with the supposedly requisite pencil and staff paper, borrowed a little Casio keyboard, went into a studio at New York University, where she was a grad student, and started jamming. Suddenly, everything started to tumble together.
The result was “Dollar Beers (Redondo Beach ’96),” a song for amplified soprano, delay pedal, and chamber ensemble. Over a gently pulsating harmonic pattern floats a fragile, shadowy vocal line; the words, which Johnson based on a Young Adult novel, build ominously to a climax whose dark outcome is alluded to, but never stated clearly.
Finally, Johnson had hit on something that “felt really natural to me. I felt like, I am in a context now where this genre is not gonna be laughed off the stage,” she said by phone from her Somerville apartment. Just the opposite: Those who heard the first performance at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival in 2006 responded strongly. “For me, that was a cornerstone moment.”
“Dollar Beers” is the lead track on “Don’t Look Back,” an album of Johnson’s music issued Friday on the Innova label. The cover, which she designed, shows a green cassette: Johnson is synesthetic, and “Dollar Beers” always conveyed the color green to her. Fittingly, the album feels like a mixtape, simultaneously a record of how Johnson achieved her own style and a series of song-stories that share an elusive yet unmistakable core of tragedy.
“I wanted to make a mix for everybody — like, this is where I’ve been,” Johnson said. “ ‘Dollar Beers’ had to be the first track, because that’s where the idea for all these songs emerged. What does it mean to write songs as a serious composer — whatever that means?”
Much of the rest of the music on “Don’t Look Back” — the songs “Pilot,” “Starling,” and “Cutter,” plus excerpts from an opera-in-progress called “The After Time” – was written in Boston, after Johnson joined the faculty of Wellesley College in 2009. She remembers walking along the North End waterfront every night, listening to Logic Pro files of her works in progress.
The resulting music holds multiple dualities in a distinct kind of balance: pop versus classical singing styles, electric and acoustic instrumentation. It also represents an interplay between her composing life and her academic work, which involves exploring connections between music and traumatic experience. She became fascinated with the topic after picking up Judith Herman’s landmark book, “Trauma and Recovery,” which led to her doctoral dissertation on the subject at NYU.
Traumatic narratives, Johnson explained, “tend to be atemporal, and also evacuated of a lot of detail — they come in brilliant flashes of emotion that is not able to be corroborated in a highly detailed sense. So the pieces on this album, which are all about different types of traumas, my approach is to write very spare, evocative lyrics” — meant to make the listening experience as open-ended as possible.
The pieces also relate back to Johnson’s own life, though in ways that are indirect, oblique, or even imaginary. In her liner notes she calls “Dollar Beers” a “story about many days in my own life that almost went horribly, irrevocably wrong. It’s both fiction and memory, exploring various outcomes, emotions, and temporalities within the seemingly simplistic framework of a pop ballad.” The seeming paradox is one more way in which Johnson’s music holds different valences in a fragile equilibrium.
“People can remember things that didn’t happen, but in a way they did, because they had some extreme emotional resonance with what is retained and the trace of what can’t necessarily be corroborated,” Johnson said. “So a lot of these stories are either meditations on me [or] things that didn’t really happen to me, but that kind of blur a boundary between a story I read that resonated with me, and things in my life that almost went in that direction but didn’t quite, but I still feel impacted by them.
“One reason that in the liner notes I don’t talk so much about the pieces is that I believe strongly in empowering the listener to have their own response,” she continued. "If they want to know more about the origin story and my intention as an artist, they can go find it. But I don’t want to force that on anybody. The titles already shape the piece so much. They live in the listener; they have to.”