After a tumultuous year in 2019, the recording of an acoustic album at Abbey Road studios (Session in London, live from Abbey Roadreleased later in 2020), releasing her debut golden days, and getting engaged in early 2020 – the pandemic hit and the momentum stalled. Haley Johnsen finally found herself in the middle of an existential crisis in 2021. Trying to untangle the creativity cascade, the Oregon-based artist chained herself to a vintage metal trailer, dubbed The Sou’wester Lodge, in Seaview, Washington, and wrote what would become the title track and foundation for his new album goner.
“It was about the novelization of nostalgia, the yearning for what was once our youth and also the fear of death,” Johnsen shares with American songwriter about “Goner” and the basis of the new album. “It’s about my own inner struggle, trying to stay present and at peace with who I am now, where I am now, and realizing that my child self is still very much alive within me. It’s a reminder that I don’t need to be afraid or unsure of where I am in my life.
goner cascades over loss and grief and mends one’s soul in nostalgic drops of time, all carried by cutting-edge ’80s synth-pop and brushstrokes of thoughtful ballads from the opening title track, ruminating on youth days and missed opportunities from the previous year—Today I again mourned my youth / Engulfed in the deep end / Engulfed in the deep end … Falling apart without fighting it / All my fears and I could have been / Further than they ever were. The album moves forward on the vibes of “Common Ground” and the more upbeat pop of “Renegade.”
‘Renegade’ is about fully stepping into who you are and what you’re meant to do in this life, which I think is one of the most rebellious and rebellious things we can do,” Johnsen tells about the anthemic song. “I needed to write this song to remind myself that even though I still sometimes struggle with my self-esteem and self-confidence, I’m still brave enough to keep pushing forward and follow my dreams.”
In spurts of insecurities and longings for the better parts of life, goner wades through mental heights of clarity, breaking from the confinement of the country ballad “Emily” to the drum-filled “Focus,” with whispers of what sound like retro Casio looping effects. Memoranda of letting go fuel ‘Higher’ and ‘Timeless’ and the transition through the easier listening of ‘Falling Anyway’ and ‘Make it Heaven’ and the closer acoustic pin ‘Stopped Making Sense’.
Johnsen talked about the making of goner and why she understood that songs don’t always have to be autobiographical.
American songwriter: when did goner start assembling for you after golden days?
Haley Johnson: Many songs for goner were written just before and during the pandemic. I wrote a handful – ‘Wrong Way’, ‘Renegade’, ‘Falling Anyway’ – while on tour as bassist for Big Wild in the fall of 2019, [and] 2020 left an optimal time for introspection, so many songs were written at home and on a solo retreat I took to a vintage trailer park on the coast called The Sou’wester Lodge (” Goner”, “My Brother”).
AS: Some of the songs from 2019 were made for you. Why did they still resonate with you for goner?
HJ: The songs all seem a bit old to me now. I started going out of style over the summer of 2020 and finally entered the studio in January 2021. Come to think of it, “Emily” was the first song I wrote from that collection in summer 2019. This song has such a timeless message that a lot of people can relate to, I was so excited to finally have it properly recorded even though it was a year and a half old.
AS: goner was born out of a particularly thoughtful time for you. What is for you the common thread of these 12 songs?
HJ: 2019 was one of the most epic and exciting years of my career. I was constantly on the road and climbing this huge peak. At the same time, I was exhausted and struggling quite badly with my anxiety. It’s crazy how much your nervous system affects your mental health. I was both on top of the world and at the same time fighting my own inner critic who was telling me I wasn’t good enough to live my dream. I kept writing songs that reminded me that I deserved it and worked hard for it. Fast forward to February 2020: I emerged from my second solo tour across Europe freshly engaged, only for life to come to a screeching halt. During the pandemic, it was so hard not to just want to check in and numb yourself to get through the days. I continued to write songs of longing for presence and peace, even at an unfamiliar and scary time. A desperation of joy and gratitude for who I was and where I was. Through this, I also wanted to write songs to inspire others to carry on in the midst of uncertainty.
AS: Why was it goner the best as a title?
HJ: The choice of the title was not something easy. I think I went back and forth on a few titles for about six months until I finally couldn’t wait any longer. In my belly it was always goner. The song “Goner” was the first song I wrote and the first single I released that kind of set the soundscape for the rest of the album. But thematically, the word ‘gone’ represents the idea of not giving up on yourself. It’s about consciously making the choice to do the work of letting go of what no longer serves you. Let go of what keeps you from being at peace. I can’t say what it is for everyone, but for me it’s about trying to be more present and finding joy with who and where I am right now. It is a statement of self-love and self-acceptance. It is an encouragement not to get lost too long in the misfortunes of human experience.
AS: Musically, sonically, was there anything you wanted to approach differently on this album?
HJ: Once I recorded “Goner” with Cameron Spies (who has played with Oregon bands Radiation City and Night Heron), I knew the direction was going to be playful, nostalgic and eclectic. The studio I used in Portland called Trash Treasury had a plethora of vintage gear and synths, so a lot of those 70s and 80s derivative sounds ended up on the album. Golden Days was much more of a singer-songwriter with full, classic band arrangements. I wanted goner just being a little more off the beaten track than what I’m used to for my music.
AS: Sometimes songs change meaning over the years, and even in a very short time. Were there any older songs or goner tracks that have changed considerably from the time you wrote them until today?
HJ: My song “Weekend” [off Golden Days] was actually written about people in my life who may or may not have been bad influences to me at one time or another. I’m the type of person who finds it hard to say no at a good time, but as I got older I learned to respect my limits and make better decisions for myself. But when I perform “Weekend” now, to me, it’s a fun, upbeat song to remind my audience that we’re here to have a good time, even if it’s a Monday night. It allows people to engage with each other, smile and dance.
“Higher” is a song that came out on the album in a different and much cooler way than I ever imagined. Originally it was a demo on an acoustic guitar with a bass line underneath. What it became was a lush soundscape that blends electronic and organic instrumentation. It’s one of my favorite productions on the album.
AS: How do you think you’ve evolved as a songwriter since through the blue or even When you light up the sky (2015) ?
HJ: I was such a fresh songwriter when I wrote these albums. I think the hardest part of songwriting is being able to use specific imagery or metaphors that paint a clear picture of what the song is about, allowing people to really relate to the song. I find that my old songs are good but lack a bit of clarity and precision. I always want my songs to have a deeper message, but I used to write using colorful language to say the same thing over and over, rather than letting the song be an evolving story. A lot of my songs are very autobiographical, but I tried to branch out and write more songs for or about other people. As for my songwriting method, it usually always starts with a vocal melody idea, followed by the chord progression, followed by the placement of the lyrics. I rarely write songs that start with a guitar riff or have the chords written before the melody.
AS: Now that goner came out, what kind of stories/songs do you turn to now?
HJ: A lot of what I find coming out of me now are road-inspired songs and vulnerable classic Haley songs. To be honest, though, most of the new stuff I write doesn’t have lyrics yet, but it’s almost entirely made up in my brain. I’m starting to hear what the next era of Haley will look like. Now I just need to take the time to do the work and finish it.
Photo: Mandie Model / Patrick Ermlich PR